Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Depression Quest

I've been posting a lot lately about games which use interactivity to do something a bit different, be it to challenge our conceptions of conventional logic in Antichamber or to recombine our divergent senses in Proteus. One thing which is useful about Steam's Greenlight service is that even the voting arena gives airtime to already-released games just looking for some more exposure and through it I've managed to find some interesting experiences which I might discuss in another post. One which caught my eye yesterday is Depression Quest, an interactive fiction made using the Twine engine to help spread awareness about the symptoms of depression and give non-sufferers an insight into its effect on the lives of depressed people.
The premise and gameplay are both very simple. You assume the role of a twenty-something individual with an average relationship, an average family and social life and a mind-numbingly average job. There is one key discrepancy from all this normal life, however: the player character has depression. Three status updates at the bottom of the screen let you keep track of your level of depression and whether you are seeing a therapist and taking medication, which are more accessible as a result of context-specific events in the story. Gameplay revolves purely around making choices. The catch, however, is that many of the game's choices are visible, but unavailable, struck-through, inactive, to represent the difficulties faced by a sufferer. Choices like shaking off your mood and similar unhelpful pieces of advice are inaccessible, emphasising the fact that an attitude towards the condition exists which is irrelevant because it incorrectly presupposes a level of direct agency on the part of sufferers over their condition; people with depression cannot simply "cheer up" or stop being depressed.
The choices you make to progress the story affect your level of depression. The more depressed you become, the less choices are available beyond ones which are the most non-confrontational and avoidant, which involve doing and feeling less and less, and which involve spiralling into self-loathing and despair. By contrast, making what choices are available results in gradually opening up to people and finding professional help which greatly improves your psychological health. The game's numerous scenarios reflect both earlier choices and your state of mind across a number of constants as well as several optional ones.
The game's emphasis is that depression is most difficult when suffered alone; that it is a real problem, and that it does greatly impact the lives of its sufferers. It is not simply a bad mood, sadness or frustration, but a persistent and debilitating disorder. It is possible in game to end up heartbroken, friendless, alone and completely unable to communicate your feelings. That being said there are opportunities to improve friendships by helping others as well as yourself, find simple companionship through getting a pet (a few raised eyebrows from me at this point, not an animal person), seek therapy and medication to better understand and work through difficulties, discover the value of a positive relationship with siblings and turn a mediocre romantic life into an uplifting one. Failure is derived from solitude, isolation and apathy. Success derives largely from being as honest as possible. It's not just a matter of picking the highest choice on the list, though. The game has the occasional clever moment where it is the expression of issues through nonverbal means, and the willingness to appear vulnerable in front of others, which improves the player character's lot, particularly one crucial moment. There are a number of variables which occur throughout the game to influence things and it does emphasise how dealing with depression must be a long-term activity with no simple, easy or singular solution. The writing is straightforward, the language is realistic and the narrative pulls no punches and I think it balances its fictitious content with its genuine concerns to provide an insightful exploration of depression. This is supported by a basic but mood-setting soundtrack. The game is not customisable and it is not a simulator; it is a flexible narrative designed to encourage understanding through particular examples.
The game has experienced some difficulty on Steam Greenlight, mostly revolving around the issue of whether it's a game and whether the subject matter is being treated appropriately. Depression Quest is already available and it is free, although an optional donation to the charity iFred is just a click away. Its status as a "game" is, to my mind, not important. It is interactive fiction. It may not be a full-blown game in the conventional sense but there are the challenges of making difficult choices and a number of different endings - five, apparently (I've seen three). The idea that games should be "fun" and therefore depression is not a suitable topic is not worth considering as a rebuttal in my opinion. Games do not need to be "fun" any more than a confronting film or novel does, and to suggest that they do is in my view a sign of gross emotional immaturity.
I am not a depression sufferer myself, nor any kind of psychologist, but I have for many years given consideration to the idea that the luxuries, opportunities and comforts of the West do not by definition mean that its inhabitants have freed themselves of all forms of suffering, and that there are other, internal frontiers which still challenge us. I recognise the claim that mental health issues like depression are not recognised as serious and debilitating illnesses by much of "ordinary" society and I think that interactive media like this is an essential means of encouraging psychologically normative people to understand and empathise with the experiences of people suffering from depression. Awareness is vital for any issue and this is in my view one very effective means of spreading awareness. It permits an insight and level of involvement which might not otherwise be available. I admit that there were times when some of the unavailable choices seemed maddeningly sensible and obviously desirable to me, and that the player character's life was in many ways quite desirable - but his psychological state was not, and I was forced to recognise that choices I would have seized upon in the same situation were simply not accessible for a sufferer of depression.
Depression Quest is not an experience for everyone. I daresay that for all its aspirations of awareness many will find it impenetrable and frustrating - which to some extent is the point. It is not a fun or amusing experience, although the achievement of some of the better results at the end can be rewarding to read. Similarly I do not know if depression sufferers would find it useful or healthy to play. It is primarily aimed at non-sufferers who wish to understand. In that capacity I think it is a very interesting and throught-provoking experience and I would recommend it to anyone who seeks to perhaps better understand this misunderstood condition and indeed anyone willing to set aside an hour or so to have a rather unique interactive and narrative experience.
It can be played at

Friday, April 5, 2013

BioShock Infinite

Please note that this review is really long, because BioShock Infinite is a complex game that I actually find interesting and worth talking about, so I've divided it into convenient sub-headings. Also this review is full of spoilers and assumes that the reader has played, finished and understood the game. If you want a non-spoiler review: I think it's good and you might like it.

The citizens of Columbia: immune to altitude sickness
and uninhabitable cold.
If you've played System Shock 2, which I have, even if only for a few minutes because I had no idea what was going on due to non-functional cutscenes, the visuals have aged really badly and it's extremely hard, or BioShock, you'll know that Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games have a bit of a thing for story driven action in imaginative environments. This is certainly true of the latest instalment in this tradition, BioShock Infinite. It's hard to know where to start talking about BioShock Infinite, because for me at least it was one of those haunting experiences that has lingered with me for a long time and extended its parasitic tentacles into my thoughts. The game is not perfect by any means; the story isn't paced as well as it could be, the combat is a bit rough around the edges, the visuals, while extremely impressive in some ways take some very obvious short cuts in others, and overall the whole experience is possibly a little too short considering its protracted development time and the potential of some of its elements for greater expansion. This doesn't mean that BioShock Infinite is bad, either, but I feel like it suffers somewhat from being overhyped and overexposed during development and falls a little short of the absolutely medium-revolutionising experience it quite possibly could be. I'm not sure it entirely lives up to its potential. That being said, it has an extremely atmospheric setting, for the most part is very well written, it looks good, the story is intriguing, the combat is interesting and several major characters are depicted very well with the support of some top notch voice acting.
One of the most mature things you can do if you
disagree with someone is represent them as the Devil.
The premise of the game is deceptively simple. You play as private investigator, former Pinkerton and general man with a troubled past Booker DeWitt, who has been tasked by forces unknown to travel to the flying city of Columbia to collect a girl named Elizabeth who is sealed in a tower. The action involves BioShock's now traditional combination of gun-and-power based gameplay, with the Plasmids of past BioShocks now known as Vigors. From the start, however, the most notable divergence from previous Shock games is the fact that you are playing as a voiced protagonist who has an identity and personality more or less entirely independent of the player, and you are not merely an apparent victim of circumstance: you are on a mission. The game opens with a now-familiar sight: a lighthouse rising from a stormy ocean, although now instead of a crashing plane leading you beneath the waves it's a rowed boat directing you into the sky. In addition, while combat is very important to the game, this is not the game to play if you're interested primarily in instant, pulse-pounding action. Indeed the first hour or so of the game can be spent before you even acquire a weapon to use, and at several points the game toes the line delicately between first person shooter and interactive story with shooting at several points not only optional but occasionally impossible. It very much establishes itself as a story-focused experience, especially to allow you to interact with Elizabeth eventually but at first to simply experience the arrival in Columbia.
Action! Mystery! Lying on the ground!
The first part of the game is excellently presented to hook you into this new environment, and I can't help but feel that Booker's panicked ascent via rocket to the spectacular city in the clouds followed by his assumption into the cathedral-like Welcome Centre is probably more impressive even than the first arrival in Rapture in BioShock, and not simply as a result of improved graphics. When we arrive in Rapture, of course, we almost immediately know something is wrong; from the outside the city looks somewhat lifeless, and upon entry we're instantly presented with a murderous Splicer. In Columbia, by contrast, our realisation of the city's dystopian heart is a gradual process. At first the city seems whimsical and quaint with its welcoming robed worshippers and grandiose religious imagery, full of light and hymnal music. It's unsettling, but only becomes somewhat sinister upon Booker's accidental near-drowning in the baptism he's forced to undergo, although elements of this are played for humour rather than horror. This is compounded with the vaguely absurd scene of the citizens venerating images of Washington, Franklin and Jefferson in a manner reminiscent of Catholic saints as Booker mocks them under his breath. It's particularly impressive in its use of awe-inspiring visuals to embellish a satirised depiction of American patriotism and its corresponding evangelical Christian beliefs, which are here combined into a one-nation-under-God “manifest destination” with no separation of Church and State; the “Prophet”, Zachary Comstock, is both the religious Father and the President of Columbia. The airy vistas of the city with its boater-wearing gentlemen, hot dog stands, shoe-shiners and airships all evoke an image of American Exceptionalism as Utopia in a way which contrasts overtly to the dingy, storm-swept surface and the distant lights of Portland visible from the lighthouse below. The first signs of unwholesomeness, however, derive not from mutterings about dissident 'Vox Populi' but rather posters warning inhabitants to beware of a demoniac “False Shepherd” who has come to abduct “the Lamb” of Columbia. It reinforces the notion that any dream of Utopia relies on some form of oppression, in this case fear and the belief that the authorities and state are the only defence against some sinister external force. This is supported with the propagandist entertainments which function as Vigor and gun tutorials, with prizes to be won for defeating the Vox, and culminating in Booker's arrival at a 'Raffle' which is actually raffling the opportunity to hurl baseballs at an interracial couple. No matter what you choose to do you are caught and uncovered as the “False Shepherd”; appropriately enough it's at this point that the combat starts. I've never myself been able to throw the ball at the couple, and the sense of outrage you are encouraged to feel is deliberately frustrated; even if Booker finds the event distasteful you have no opportunity to grandstand to the civilians about Columbia's appalling racial prejudice. Your identity is discovered, you retrieve your first weapon, the Skyhook, in the brutal murder of a police officer (one of whom admittedly was about to tear your face off with an industrial tool based on rather circumstantial evidence) and off you go.
There is no way kids wouldn't throw up here.
Combat in BioShock Infinite is a complex experience rather different to the cramped, in-your-face brawls of the original BioShock. Due to the airy environments many battlefields have multiple layers or are surrounded by hooks and skylines which allow rapid travel around areas. Unlike BioShock's pipe-and-pistol wielding basic Splicers, many opponents in Infinite are soldiers with long-ranged weapons, and often I found myself utterly bewildered as to where I was being shot from, because it can often be hard to distinguish where enemies are in the huge rooms which serve as many of the game's main combat areas. The AI for enemies is inconsistent; sometimes they will be frustratingly clever, quietly flanking you and attacking you from the side or rear. They take cover when under fire and to reload, and space themselves out so as to not be in vulnerable clusters. At times, however, they get stuck in the complicated areas, standing passively behind terrain features without ever attempting to attack, or standing around doing nothing besides hurling abuse at you. At one point a guard and a couple of his accomplices in Finkton started attacking me because I crossed his line of aggression in a different room which was separated from him by a wall. He couldn't actually see me, but this action caused him to attack me anyway, and there are occasional issues like this. It's less of a problem in later battles but is noticeable for whatever reason in several earlier ones, many of which feature multiple building interiors, rooftops and stationary flying vehicles as a single area. I'm not a huge fan of the Unreal engine and Infinite's combat maintains what is in my view some of its most consistent faults, mostly that guns feel like they have limited impact when shooting enemies, who tend to just keep on coming, and that movement occasionally feels a little imprecise. The game has a dizzying array of weapons as well; there is a somewhat extravagant arrangement of pistol, heavy pistol, machine gun, heavy machine gun, rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun, grenade launcher and rocket launcher, and of these the machine gun, rifle, shotgun and grenade launcher all have “Founder” and “Vox” varieties with different properites, all of which amounts to thirteen possible weapons. Some of them, especially the Vox weapons, feel a little superfluous, however, with most of them only appearing about halfway through the game. Unlike BioShock, weapon upgrades can be purchased without restriction at vending machines throughout Columbia to improve range, damage and accuracy, reduce recoil and so on as long as you have enough money to pay for them, although they lack a lot of the quirky boosts and amusing visual improvements which occurred in BioShock's upgrade system.
You should make a Discworld reference because
you're so well-read.
Another major difference which many will find frustrating is that in addition to the Skyhook which has its own melee hotkey Booker can only carry two weapons at a time and most guns have relatively limited magazines, which means that in large firefights, especially against foes with lots of hitpoints, it becomes very easy to run out of ammo and have to scour a battlefield for a new weapon, often one you don't have upgraded or aren't very familiar with using. BioShock Infinite's toughest moments are when the game denies you a combat comfort zone for whatever reason, due to number or type or placement of enemies, and you have to improvise in order to keep control of the action. This is where Vigors are important because they drastically effect how battles play out. If you're like me and tend to panic when the stakes are high you'll struggle to do the right thing in combat – I often accidentally swapped my gun instead of looting a body, or used a Vigor instead of switching to iron sight aiming, and it's worth using the smaller fights to practice for the larger ones. My personal favourite Vigors in the end were Shock Jockey and Murder of Crows, both of which stun your enemies and make them take more damage. Other useful items include Charge and Undertow, which have different ways of helping you to close the distance with the enemy. It's worth experimenting with Vigors, which can be used in combination and to create traps, so that you can find a method which suits one's individual style.
Booker also receives a rechargeable shield in the game, which feels like a concession to mainstream modern game design, and serves little purpose beyond taking a few extra hits and encouraging you to take cover and placing a distracting graphic on the screen to show damage; it's worth noting that Health can be upgraded much more quickly. Scattered throughout Columbia, mostly in secret areas, are Infusions, consumables which you can choose to use to improve your Health, Shield or Salts, which are used to power Vigors. I'm not sure if there are enough Infusions in the game to fully upgrade everything, but there are definitely enough to fully upgrade at least two items – Health and Salts are definitely the two to go for first. I can't say everything about the combat, however, without mentioning Elizabeth.
It's forbidden to look at this and not imagine unsettling
carnival music playing.
Compared to BioShock, Infinite has even less of an inventory, and the only swappable items besides weapons are Gear which operate in four specific categories of which one per slot can be equipped at a time for a variety of effects – shocking enemies, improving reload times and so forth. Their placement in the game is partially randomised and they serve mostly as a wild card factor more than being reliable elements of gameplay. Similarly, there are no collectable first aid kits or EVE hypos like in BioShock; you can only consume recovery items directly from the environment. As long as she's present, however, Elizabeth will regularly keep you supplied in combat with health packs, salts and ammunition, so usually it's not too great a concern. Elizabeth can also open tears in reality, in one of the game's stronger blendings of storytelling and gameplay, allowing for battlefields to be modified: you can produce spare weapons and health kits, automated turrets to fight for you, cover, distractions, traps and hazards from parallel universes to help to turn the tide of battle in your favour. They can't be relied upon – mass enemies will quickly overwhelm summoned turrets, for instance, but they can definitely tip the balance in frantic circumstances. Having a full box of health kits to run back to, for instance, can certainly make things more manageable. Alternately, you can bring into being a hovering gun turret before anyone's aware of you, and pop out of cover to take out your opponents while they're distracted.
"Booker, it says here that you suck."
Things aren't all in your favour, however. The armies of Columbia can dispatch a variety of Heavy Hitter opponents at you to keep you from becoming too sure of yourself: incendiary-lobbing Firemen, teleporting sword-wielding Crows, relentless Motorized Patriots and brutal Handymen. Each of them is immune to certain Vigors and has a weakness of some kind, and their presence does serve to shake up combat a bit, although perhaps not as much as it could, since fights tend to fall into the category of dealing with the ordinary grunts before taking on the Heavy Hitters. Motorized Patriots feel a little overused compared to the others. The most frustrating enemies in the game have to be the armoured rocket and grenade launching soldiers who are able to sustain enormous amounts of punishment. Handymen can be difficult to escape from but only appear sparingly, although the game's technique of simply resurrecting you nearby with a small money deduction and health restoration for enemies whenever you die makes the whole situation feel a little arbitrary at times. This can often mean that there isn't quite enough punishment for being lazy as there possibly should be if you're willing to just slog your way through fights with little variation in Vigors and weapons at the cost of risking a few relatively painless deaths. The Skylines, similarly, are not used enough to have the major impact on gameplay that they could, and given that enemies can get stuck or be difficult to find even when they can definitely see you occasionally it does feel too cover based, relying on sprinting around from wall to wall to scramble for weapons and let your shield recover, which is often a deterrent to using Skylines or the more unusual items Elizabeth can produce through tears. This feels like the kind of thing that could have been playtested to perfection but as it is the elements don't quite combine into the most satisfying experience. It can be fun, but there's often a healthy amount of frustration mixed in.
The other side of things is exploration. Between battles you'll scavenge environments for food to replenish lost health and Salts, hidden money and secret gear and Infusions. Sometimes I must admit this feels a bit excessive, because if you have an obsessive streak like me you'll end up scouring every room, pouring over enemy corpses and through shelves, desks, barrels and bins for every last cake, bullet and coin. It encourages you to take in Columbia's environs but does become rather repetitive and frankly comes across as slightly surreal after a while.

Giving children oranges you don't own that were sitting
right there anyway; what a charitable gal.
Graphics and Sound
Another area in which BioShock Infinite both hits some marks and misses others is in the matter of presentation. Visually, Columbia is well-designed and looks very unique and spectacular; most of the time the image of a huge sky city is well-realised, although I must admit that occasionally the areas feel a little limited and don't perhaps have the full sense of enormity that they necessarily might. The backgrounds do represent an image of areas of the city we never see but for what they're meant to entail a number of areas do feel rather small and linear. It's not an open world game, so linearity is not necessary, but the illusion of space, possibly achievable through more streets and back alleys, multiple entry points and accessible buildings might have helped liven things up a tad. That being said, it does feel more like a city than Rapture ever really does at any time besides exterior shots. The distant images of Columbia visible from a distance often look rather papery and two-dimensional, and in one peculiar moment a backdrop representing a large section of the city with about a hundred buildings in the distance appeared to bob up and down rapidly in one big piece like it was picture being dangled on a string. That's not always the case, but the backgrounds on the open city do occasionally look rather cheap and fake. The artwork all looks believable and fits in place, especially the posters and propaganda, which are appropriately reminiscent of political cartoons and advertisements of the period. What I did think diminished some of this, however, was the re-use of art assets. The same half-dozen or so portraits and painted scenes are repeated endlessly throughout Columbia. I'm sure some excuse could be made to associate this with the city's circumstances, but when I see the same picture of a ship in a stormy sea on the wall of Comstock's cabin on his airship as I did on the wall of an anonymous building somewhere it does spoil the illusion a little. Building signs are repeated in different environments, so the same shops appear to exist both in Soldiers' Field and the upmarket shopping district in Emporia, for instance, and often seem to be placed in some cases arbitrarily without much thought as to the content of the buildings they indicate. I also found myself absolutely sick to death of seeing the same, identical image of Lady Comstock everywhere. I realise she's meant to be a martyr figure of near-religious devotion whose visage is embedded in Columbia's culture but there is no variety whatsoever; it's always the same painting modelled after one of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and occurs absolutely everywhere virtually indiscriminately. A similarly lazy occurrence can be found in the Friends of the Negro building, which features two identical paintings of Abraham Lincoln in different rooms, which is a bizarre contrast to the Order of the Raven house which has two unique paintings of Lincoln portraying him as a warmongering demon. Similarly in the Emporia cemetery numerous headstones on the tombs are identical down to the names. For a game which is so interested in visuals and uncovered details to tell its story and flesh out its setting it's a shame that its artwork is also so obviously padded in places.
Accidentally become a Socialist god.
This trait is further compounded, sadly, in the game's use of NPC models. Those enemies whose faces are visible tend to look somewhat distinct where relevant, and the soldiers are appropriately uniform. Similarly important characters like Comstock, Fitzroy and Fink all have unique models. In contrast to the original BioShock, however, Infinite supports a large number of neutral NPCs to enhance the city's sense of reality in the non-combat sections. Yet most of them look identical. Apart from a few changes of hat and facial hair, it's not uncommon to see three of the same men standing around having a conversation. Women barely get even that, with virtually all of them having the same smooth-cheeked, large-eyed expression. There are other NPC faces and models in the game, such as in the Welcome Centre, but they don't get mixed in enough at other times and it similarly limits the immersion. Another issue is with textures. I played the game on Ultra settings and still had issues with numerous high resolution textures 'popping in' only on close inspection, and looking vague and muddy at all other distances, even when still relatively near. I can't help but wonder with some of these graphical limitations if the game shows signs of being restricted due to the need to be functional on the passing generation of increasingly tired consoles. It's a shame, because it holds back something which could have been visually staggering into a product which is often impressive but inconsistent.
Stealing food from other universes; that's fair.
Sound is strong overall. The game doesn't have a huge amount of music, and possibly could have used a few more “danger” themes in combat, but the voice acting is very naturalistic and believable. I had a few scratchy moments, although that might be a problem with my hardware. The auditory sting used to tell you when all enemies in the area have been defeated is useful, although it occasionally becomes a little repetitious. One quirky feature of the game is the use of tears to access different time periods, so that it is possible to hear renditions of much more recent popular music, particularly from the late Seventies to the early Nineties, done in the styles of the turn of the century, such as the much-publicised barbershop version of the Beach Boys' “God Only Knows” or the ragtime arrangement of Tears for Fears' “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. One audio-only narrative is the obnoxious radio announcer whose voice can be heard regularly throughout the game, originally spouting off propagandist news about the state of things on the world below and eventually, forgotten about in the midst of the Vox uprising, pathetically lamenting his misfortune before slavishly continuing to play the game's still-present music of the actual time period. There are also a couple of original tracks unique to Columbia rendered in the style of turn of the twentieth century music. The game also uses Voxophones, the equivalent of Audio Logs from BioShock, to permit insight into characters' thoughts while playing, which was well-implemented, although I feel that there could be a few more. Some way into the game the Voxophones become heavily plot-focused and there aren't quite as many “flavour” items as there could be. They also mostly tend to involve the same handful of characters – I personally think there were just too many from Rosalind Lutece, or at least that the concentration of them should have been broken up with Voxophones from other characters. There are also more than a few instances in which Voxophones occur at crucial points so you'll start listening to them only for them to fade out when Booker and Elizabeth have a conversation, requiring you to play them again afterwards. It does feel at times as if various story elements get in the way of each other.

Thank you.
To move onto story, BioShock Infinite maintains its precursor's commendable focus to a strong narrative and solid characterisation, with Elizabeth and Booker in particular being well-realised characters. Both characters go through some serious and well-established development, with Elizabeth rapidly progressing from a cheerful, sheltered innocent to a melancholy and weary adult, and Booker from apathy and self-interest to genuine determination and concern. That being said, the finale in which parallel universes and time travel are used to prevent any of the game's events having ever come to pass potentially fail to give a particularly satisfying resolution for better or worse regarding either of these crucial characters, with only a brief post credits scene suggesting that maybe in some way they've finally improved their lot. I feel that the Luteces, the game's main supporting duo, were well developed in the same way. It's interesting that Robert, who is from Booker's universe, is more concerned with reuniting Elizabeth with Booker, her real father, while Rosalind, from Comstock's universe, needs more convincing. What's also curious is that Robert and Rosalind are the same “person” (as it were) but of different sex in the two different universes, which seems odd given that they seem too old to have been conceived after the baptism where the two universes diverged, which leads me to think that Robert possibly isn't from Booker's universe at all. I feel like their role in events could have been better explained – personally I think they were far more at fault for everything than the young Booker who became Comstock. In that regard no major character really gets much resolution besides maybe Comstock, who is killed in a confrontation prior to being erased from existence, or possibly actually Lady Comstock, who is surprisingly well developed considering she's a rather tertiary character and spends most of the game dead.
"Booker! Giant floating instructions at twelve o'clock!"
The way in which we are teased about Lady Comstock's past, particularly that she was a merciless heartbreaker and deeply manipulative, and was taken in by Comstock's forgiveness and his fervour, paints a subtle picture, especially the way in which she can be observed to have threatened Comstock's authority through her own belief: that she ultimately took his religion more seriously than he did himself, lost faith in him and had to be murdered to hide the truth of Elizabeth's origin. The melodramatic memorial to her in the Hall of Heroes I found to be one of the most disturbing parts of the game, but she's a character whose mystery is slowly unravelled over time, something not done with the other characters. Too much of the same delicacy is applied to the presentation of major personalities like Comstock himself who in my opinion isn't sufficiently developed and has too much revealed in a single plot dump right at the end. There is a suggestion of some self-hatred arising as part of Booker's apparent Native American ancestry, but there really isn't that much detail. I realise his biography is meant to be shrouded in mystery, but is that important after the foundation of Columbia? Similarly information about Daisy Fitzroy, who is name dropped all over the place, is severely limited and I believe consigned largely to spin-off material. I feel that a longer, better paced game could have explored all of these characters in more depth. Booker never tells Elizabeth anything about her real mother besides the manner of her demise, for instance, in what I think is a missed opportunity in the game. That being said, Elizabeth is well-implemented as a gameplay element even out of combat, providing you with free money and opening locked doors assuming you have enough lockpicks. She also has numerous remarks and conversations with Booker, although I feel as if there could have been more and the way they interacted throughout the game in combat and so on could have changed more overtly. There were a few too many times when Elizabeth would bitterly lament the truths of her childhood, only to seconds later pleasantly inform me that she'd found some money to send my way. Nonetheless she's still an effective and welcome addition to the game, so that you really feel like you're operating in a partnership as the game progresses, even if to avoid any kind of “escort mission” element she's invulnerable and enemies completely ignore her despite her being the most powerful and valuable person in Columbia.
Use the multiverse to check yourself out.
The plot follows a structure of roughly five acts: Booker's arrival up to his rescue of Elizabeth from Monument Island, the escape from Soldiers' Field culminating in the confrontation with Cornelius Slate at the Hall of Heroes, the journey through Finkton as Elizabeth's powers are explored and the Vox uprising occurs, the battle across Emporia as the truth is discovered about Elizabeth's parentage prior to her recapture and Booker's transportation to the future, and finally the return to rescue her, confront Comstock on his airship and discover the truth behind it all. As I've already stated, and will again, the first chapter is probably the best in terms of sheer novelty and atmosphere even if the gameplay is limited at the time, and an extension of this kind of gameplay including Elizabeth would, I think, have improved the game. Segments like the Comstock Center where you can ride skylines, enter various buildings and battle enemies in one continuous map make Columbia seem real in ways that other parts of the game don't. The Soldiers' Field section is interesting and unsettling with its propaganda for children but at times the creepiness can seem a bit laboured for the sake of satire, and the fact that your encounter with Slate revolves solely around retrieving a Vigor seems like a pretty arbitrary plot device; you basically need to get an in-game upgrade to advance the story, and finding it is too big a focus for this otherwise character- and idea-driven narrative. It's worth noting that Vigors aren't really explained in the game, besides a Voxopone suggesting that Fink used a tear to steal the idea from Rapture. In BioShock the Plasmids, genetic engineering and ADAM were all part of the story as well as the game, but here they're just sort of there like it's not BioShock unless you're shooting coloured lights out of your hands. The Finkton section feels like a bit of a digression where Booker and Elizabeth are happy to abandon their own universe for alternate ones without the slightest compunction and in which Fitzroy and Fink's interlocking agendas feel rather meaningless and bland. Similarly, the way Fitzroy turns on you, despite intending to emphasise the fallibility of all extremists, just seems like a cheap way for the game to force you to fight the Vox as well as Comstock's troops. The Emporia section is largely a return to form, especially through the partially-ruined upmarket shopping district which really evokes the fragility of “civilisation” compared to destructive forces, although an apocalyptic thunderstorm to go with the civil war seems to arise out of nowhere purely to layer on the mood. I think the game could have used more scenes like the one scenario where evacuating pampered civilians genuinely struggle to choose between letting more people escape or holding onto their excessive valuables. The three-part battle with Lady Comstock, the closest thing the game ever has to a real boss battle, is challenging and can be frustrating, but compared to other parts of the game exploring the city after the society has crumbled feels too much like trying to evoke the same atmosphere as BioShock, and there is a little too much backtracking.
"What? You can't deny it looks like one."
I similarly feel that the Comstock House section in which Booker is transported to a future where Elizabeth has become Comstock's successor and is waging war upon the surface was a little too digressive consdering its length and the overall length of the game, as well as the fact that it wasn't the most subtle character study with Columbia becoming even more Dystopian. The game's final section is quite a satisfying conclusion in terms of action, but until the very end little is done to progress the story. The final battle can be incredibly confusing, feels a little hollow given that it's against the Vox who never really feel like the true villains of the story, and while it puts your skills to the test, and certainly did for me on Hard mode, it also shows the limits of the engine as you are forced to fend off waves of enemies. On my Hard playthrough I felt like I finished it after numerous failures largely through luck. The finale is barely interactive, and mostly serves to bombard you with plot revelations. I've heard the complaint that BioShock's twist being revealed three quarters of the way through the game is anticlimactic, but I think it's important that the game also takes time to work through its revelations, while in this it's through jumping scenes and limited dialogue. I don't believe everything needs to be explained step by step – Booker and Elizabeth are already not nearly subtle enough in the way they condemn Fitzroy as identical to Comstock in her extremism in the middle of the game – but when the writing in this section struggles to convey some of the game's more complex metaphysical ideas it lapses into quasi-poetical and metaphorical stylings which are not generally the greatest strength of video game writers, and to a significant extent serve to obfuscate some of the game's revelations and ideas rather than elucidate them.
And to think that all the janitors are practically slaves...
I'm willing to accept that Booker and Comstock are alternate universe versions of the same person. Indeed one of the most potentially confronting things about a multiverse is that in one reality we might very well be someone whom we despise. What I do take issue with, however, is how this is presented. The impression we get from Booker's refusal of the baptism is that his cynicism and guilt made him unable to go through with the ceremony because he was unable to see it as any more than a placebo for the conscience. It is implied, however, that in the alternate sequence of events he accepted baptism and was “born again” as the ultra-nationalist, racist, Christian fundamentalist Comstock. What we don't see is how this was the tipping point, except that Comstock's consequent obsession with forgiveness seemed to give him an excellent psychological defence with which to rationalise both his past crimes and those which he would later commit. There's no real explanation for how he managed, however, to abandon his depressive personality and become the charismatic zealot he later is. During the game Comstock biographer Ed Gaines laments in a Voxophone recording that he is unable to unearth any information about Comstock's past prior to his baptism besides propaganda of the like displayed at the Hall of Heroes. This implies that the events of Comstock's life afterwards are a matter of public record, but virtually everything we learn occurs after Columbia is founded, and we don't even really hear that much to progress his narrative once he started ruling things in the sky.
A simple diagram of the game's plot.
We know that Comstock allegedly had an angelic vision, and later lobbied Congress for the construction of a flying city to impress the world, and that it was built through the research of Rosalind Lutece. Yet the game never explains how Comstock managed to wield such power and influence with the government when, as both the timeline in the Hall of Heroes and Booker's own personal information reveals, he was only a nineteen-year-old soldier in 1893 when Columbia was launched. Similarly, although we know that Comstock has been prematurely aged by his exposure to the tears, as well as having developed cancer and sterility, no justification is given for how Comstock rationalises to Columbia his looking like he's in his late sixties at best when it's publicly displayed that he was born in 1874 and is only thirty-eight years old. We really needed, I feel, more exploration of the events of Comstock's life following his baptism but prior to the foundation of Columbia, because his transformation from a jaded young killer into an extremely influential religious leader and statesman comes across as an unjustified leap purely for the sake of having the twist that the player character and the main villain are different versions of the same person.
Comstock keeps cool and hydrated while napping.
This is perhaps my biggest issue with the game's twist: it relies far too much on hand-waved plot elements which rely on an entirely arbitrary set of rules which are foreshadowed but not explained until the last minute in order to make the twist more shocking. Booker conveniently doesn't realise he's in a parallel universe because apparently trans-dimensional travel causes amnesia and you invent false memories to justify your presence. Similarly, upon travelling to the third universe in the game, Booker suddenly has two memories: the one he had, and the one of that universe's “original” Booker (himself a dimension-traveller). However, entering the Columbia world in the first place doesn't cause Booker's memories to merge with Comstock's. Is it because they're both alive at that point? That's the only explanation I can see. Similarly it's not clear whether the second and third universes during the Finkton section of the game are travelled to or merged with the prior one. Why isn't Comstock in the third universe surprised to find Elizabeth there when in that universe she was safely locked up in Comstock House, necessitating Booker working with the Vox and being martyred to their cause? Indeed where is that universe's Elizabeth? Or if they went back to the first universe, why is the Vox uprising happening and how is Elizabeth in Comstock's clutches? Why is Songbird's eye cracked in the third universe where he never had to chase Booker into the bay? Again, are these universes entered or merged? Why couldn't the Luteces just go back and drown Booker any old time; why did Elizabeth have to do it? Surely Elizabeth drowning Booker would mean that she would never be born, hence being unable to drown him. Is it Booker's consciousness which returns to a prior point in time? How come the tears are sometimes just parallel universes yet sometimes they also feature time travel?
New pants for fanboys needed.
My point with all these questions is to suggest that while I think the game's plot is interesting and admirably ambitious, I also think that it needlessly overcomplicates itself for the sake of a shocking twist. The conclusion is also rather conflicted, because it appears that Booker is being drowned before he can make a choice – which is to say, before he can choose to either be baptised or to walk away. The fact that some Booker seemingly survives, however, appears to turn that idea on its head, so it may well be that some of the language used towards the end of the game is a little misleading, intentionally or otherwise, for the sake of a shocking moment of protagonist demise; I suppose we really just have to accept that for the final pre-credits scene Booker has “quantum leaped” into the Comstock-reality, after choosing to be baptised but before it actually happens. It still makes Elizabeth's presence seem paradoxical, but I think the game just hand waves some of these niceties. It could have been a little more unambiguous, because it feels like it is vague due to sloppy language and presentation rather than a deliberate intent to leave interpretation up to the player, and it doesn't really conform to the strictest application of logic due to having certain rules of its own. Overall my greatest objection to the twist ending is still that it relies on Booker being amnesiac and constructing false memories upon his arrival in the Comstock universe which I think is a cheap way of delaying the plot's revelations. I think the story could have been paced a little better without the deluge of information which is provided in the closing minutes of the game and might have strengthened its ideas without subsuming others.

Ships are definitely not going to crash here.
Except maybe into all the lighthouses.
Nonetheless I appreciate the game's sentiment regarding the idea of choice within games themselves: that for all the propounding of “choice” in modern game design it really only means two or more linear experiences for the price of one; just as you can choose one course of action, you're just as free to choose the other; both are equally existentially valid, which might mean that neither really have any value at all, certainly not in isolation. The game is indeed fixated on the idea that our choices don't matter. Whether Booker picks heads or tails, the coin always lands on heads. Whether you throw the ball at Fink or the interracial couple or just wait, you get caught. Choosing the bird or the cage pendant for Elizabeth has no bearing on the game. You can put Slate out of his misery, or leave him be only for him to turn up as a vegetable in the dungeons of Finkton. Choosing to either nag or threaten the ticket seller in Soldiers' Field still ends in a gunfight. And Booker can accept Baptism and become the mad, megalomaniac Comstock who oppresses, murders and tortures, or he can walk away, remain Booker DeWitt, and become a gambling mercenary who was willing to give away his own child for the sake of money. It's certainly more ambiguous than BioShock's suggestion that gameplay requires us to abandon our own agency. In that, our only choice is how we treat the Little Sisters, which determines the end of the game. In BioShock Infinite, by contrast, despite a variety of choices nothing you do changes anything. As such I am inclined to consider that both games approach choice from different directions: BioShock illuminates our contentment with not choosing; BioShock Infinite reveals the meaninglessness of choice. It argues that what we perceive as choice is just a number of linearities separated by an intangible membrane. Just because you save a Little Sister, it could just as easily have been harvsted; indeed it was harvested, is being harvested, will be, because the programming for it is right there – you personally are simply not experiencing it at this point in time. If video game environments are in their interactivity a microcosm of the universe as a whole then really all of their possibilities are largely irrelevant. Just as we are willing to give up choice to follow a game's instructions for the sake of our own entertainment, so too are the choices we are given within a game largely illusory in terms of the freedoms they provide.
Appreciate yourself from every angle.
In the same way that BioShock Infinite questions the meaningfulness of choice, in games or elsewhere, it also serves as a critique of the First Person Shooter genre in general. We're repeatedly offered the suggestion that Booker is a man with a bloodstained past. In the Hall of Heroes he darkly hints that he participated in the massacre at Wounded Knee because he enjoyed it, and that as a Pinkerton he was an effective enforcer against industrial action for a similar reason and because he was ruthless. Indeed we know from background material that he's a disgraced Pinkerton, which makes his past seem even more deadly. Elizabeth calls him a monster after the first shootout she witnesses, and Booker makes no objection; indeed like the player it is not Booker who becomes more peaceable but in fact Elizabeth who becomes more and more desensitised to violence. All the outrage we are expected to feel at the horrific prejudice and religious ignorance of the citizens of Columbia is contrasted to our willingness to slaughter unknown numbers of policemen, soldiers and even civilians in an effort to get the job done. Booker spends most of the game totally apathetic about anything another than his task; when Elizabeth asks him why there are segregated bathrooms he responds that there “just are” and offers a noncommital “sure” to Elizabeth's musings about the Vox Populi actually helping the oppressed of Columbia. He even encourages Elizabeth to simply abandon Columbia rather than bothering to deal with Comstock, considering him to not be their problem to solve. And in playing BioShock Infinite we are Booker DeWitt. He reflects the genre's own apathy towards the source of its entertainment: that we are more than prepared to simulate killing to progress a narrative, and that we may even consider it a pleasurable experience. It is a “kill or be killed” situation, of course, but we are still presented through the limitation of our choices with violence as the only means of achieving our ends. This culminates with Elizabeth's complete loss of innocence after she kills Daisy Fitzroy in an effort to protect a child; as Booker says “you just learn to live with it.” This of course culminates in the confrontation with Comstock aboard the Hand of the Prophet airship. The input is described as “Intervene” when Comstock is harassing Elizabeth, but beyond any player control Booker finally loses his temper and angrily, horrifically murders Comstock, smashing his head against the font before drowning him in its waters. This is, in the end, Infinite's most incisive comment about First Person Shooter games; that in the end “intervention” and “murder” become the same thing – that the only way in which we are capable of meaningfully interacting with this world is through violence. Perhaps this statement is most effectively realised in Slate's frustrated rantings at the Hall of Heroes, accusing everybody of being “tin men” who don't understand war. In the end most players are “tin soldiers” - playing at violence of the most final kind without thought as to its consequences. This all comes to a head when you navigate the propagandist Wounded Knee and Boxer Rebellion exhibits in the Hall of Heroes, where Slate forces you to massacre his own men amid the twisted, misrepresented history of two atrocities turned into meaningless caricature, a damning portrait of how violent conflict is usually presented in games. Here Booker has no choice but to gun down Slate's forces who wish to die soldiers' deaths rather than face an ignoble end at the hands of the authorities. Booker repudiates Slate, reminding him that he has nothing personal against these men; that is what it comes down to in the end. Violent entertainment becomes totally depersonalised, divorced from the truth of its own horror and glamorised, romanticised as being of a nobler nature despite how arbitrary it renders life and existence.
Beta footage of the "prayer" mini game.
This commentary on gameplay itself is I think what makes BioShock Infinite more fitting as a sequel to BioShock than BioShock 2. Infinite is made by Irrational Games of course, the creators of the original, while 2 was not, which is sort of like someone writing a sequel to someone else's novel: what genuine authenticity does it have? Beyond that, however, 2 makes no attempt to deconstruct gameplay, being focused much more on political and ethical issues, which were only the dressing for BioShock and similarly are only part of the setting here. Indeed I can't help but feel that BioShock 2's developers didn't really grasp the most unique feature of BioShock – that it was striving to reflect upon gameplay experience, not just to explore philosophical ideas. BioShock Infinite remedies this, however, with its problematisation of choice. That being said, I would have liked a little more exploration on the part of BioShock Infinite of its political themes because I thought they were interesting yet somewhat underdeveloped. The critique of extremism is extended from BioShock with the Founders and the Vox Populi of Infinite being just as bad as each other, but the lack of middle ground and the fact that the atrocities of both sides are rammed home with no subtlety whatsoever makes the ideas seem a little shallow. The problem is that with all its concern over plot twists, parallel universes and the lives of Booker and Elizabeth, the narrative of Columbia itself feels more or less unfinished at the end of the game. I realise, of course, that this is largely the point: that the conflicts of Columbia dwindle into insignificance compared to the game's metaphysical revelations, that there were so many Columbias that it didn't matter what happened in this or that version of its history, and that the infinite parallelism of Columbia and Rapture reinforces the notion that fools will dream of Utopia no matter what. If anything the game seems to argue that even without places like Columbia there will still be places like Rapture, and even if Rapture's false economy comes across as somehow preferable than the zealotry and racism of Columbia we are warned of the persistence of extremism in all of its forms as a recurring feature of history which derives from the foibles of human nature. Rapture, however, destroyed itself: it's already in ruins when Jack arrives (making its continued even semi-functional operation in BioShock 2 almost totally implausible, incidentally). Columbia, by contrast, is wiped from existence. While Booker muses that it might be for the best if it didn't recover from the Vox-Founder war, we never actually see this implosion culminate. By this point, of course, we're not even in the original Columbia from the beginning of the game, so the game's argument largely still seems to be that “it doesn't matter.” What happens in one Columbia or another or another still isn't important, which is why the plot is ultimately interested in ensuring that Comstock never existed so that Columbia didn't either. It reinforces the game's claims about the arbitrary nature of choice, of course, but at the same time I can't help but feel like it's almost a shame that such an atmospheric and well-characterised setting ultimately only serves as dressing for an entirely different train of thought altogether, and as interesting as a many-worlds multiverse can be its not the most dramatically effective way of providing narrative resolution.

The only parenthood simulator where you have to
abandon your child.
This probably culminates in what I feel is the biggest issue with BioShock Infinite: the game is simply too short. I've played the game twice, the first time on Normal and the second on Hard. There's also an unlockable “1999 Mode” with added caveats and difficulty because apparently games were really hard in 1999. I haven't played it myself because I know I would get my arse handed to me on a silver platter, I died enough even on Normal, but it does add a limited element of replay value. My first playthrough took about thirteen hours with a medium-to-high level of stuffing around, and while that is realistically a healthy length where shooters are concerned I feel like the game could have been longer; a second playthrough will mostly be to get a better grip on the story and perceive all of the foreshadowing for what it is. The game has a handful of optional objectives for extra Gear and Infusions, and they mostly just involve finding a key or codebook and then backtracking to an area you've probably already explored. This adds a little extra content to the game, but it almost feels like procrastination when it interrupts the game's rippling pace. As I've said above, the ending is extremely intense while other parts of the game seem practically languid by comparison. Maybe that's just an issue with pacing, but I would have relished an opportunity to really plumb the depths of Columbia in more detail as well as exploring Booker and Elizabeth's psyches and other characters' stories. Songbird, for instance, only appears in a handful of instances and the nature of his relationship with Elizabeth along with the threat he posed was never, in my opinion, fully realised. One idea which was proposed in the lead-up to the game was a mechanic where you had to either flee from or fight off Songbird and the way you treated him would affect your relationship with Elizabeth. In the final product with its focus on the meaningless of choice, however, this concept is abandoned. Similarly the Boys of Silence were relegated to a single brief section of the game's fourth act. I feel as if the game suffered from overexposure during development where many fanciful ideas were proposed which never manifested in the finished product. Perhaps this was intentional on the part of the developers to make the conclusion more confronting, but I feel that despite the game's repeated delays there was a missed opportunity to produce something truly groundbreaking. There are certainly elements which are more than laudable in the game in terms of its storytelling and visuals, the realisation of its setting and particularly the characterisation of Elizabeth and her implementation into gameplay, but at the same time other elements of the game feel underdeveloped. The gameplay is fun but not as unique and polished as it could be, the presentation while lavish occasionally takes perplexing shortcuts and the narrative's pacing is very inconsistent. All of these things I feel could have been remedied with a longer game that took more time to explore its ideas while simultaneously introducing and refining gameplay elements with a greater variety.
The setting of the next game: BioShack.
It would have been interesting, for instance, to explore more of the depths of Columbia: I would have liked to have seen more about the lifestyle of its inhabitants. I would similarly have enjoyed perhaps a little time spent beneath Columbia amid the workings which keep the city afloat with the quantum particles and other contrivances, and how that was maintained. It would similarly have been interesting to have explored more of the particulars of Columbia's history which seem to have been relegated largely to spin-off material. I realise that the Hall of Heroes is meant to be a simplistic display design to impress Columbia's children – that too adds to Slate's insanity – but it might have been interesting to have seen more than Wounded Knee, the Boxer Rebellion and the murder of Lady Comstock as far as interesting events in Columbia's history went. Similarly it might have been intriguing to examine more closely the attitude of the city towards the Founding Fathers and its relationship with the United States proper. Indeed for my own part I found perhaps the most fascinating section of the game to be the first act from the lighthouse to Monument Island, because I feel as if there were concepts present in that sequence which were not necessarily capitalised upon elsewhere in the game. I realise that Columbia's apocalyptic downfall is presented primarily to reflect the ongoing crises of the game's main characters, but I feel like we could have seen more of the actual living conditions of Columbia's inhabitants, such as occurs in the first act and all too briefly in Shantytown in the third, so that there seemed to be less of the 'theme park attraction' segments, such as Soldiers' Field and Emporia. Indeed Shantytown was a missed opportunity, because we don't really get to see enough of the living conditions of the working class in Columbia – a few squalid environments and that's it. I'll be curious as to what Downloadable Content is eventually released for the game and whether that alters its depth.
The real reason Social Services were invented.
The other question I might raise is regarding the game's genre. I can't help but feel like games with stories as interesting as that of BioShock Infinite could be served by something a bit beyond the First Person Shooter, even if it has a number of combat features which distinguish it from more conventional gun games. While its exploration of violence does a good job of questioning its role in our video game entertainment, I can't help but feel like there could be other elements, without necessarily lapsing into RPG territory. FPS has its origins in the enjoyable combination of risk-taking and feeling powerful within the safe bounds of a simulated scenario, and there's a reason why the classics of the genre are games such as DOOM and before that Wolfenstein 3D: story is beyond secondary to gameplay. They're about blowing up bad guys with big guns. Goldeneye 64 mixed things up with stealth and espionage elements in a way that was true to its own narrative. In a game like BioShock Infinite, however, the combat and non-combat elements of the game don't always reflect each other very well, and it's notable that there are at least two decently-sized gameplay sections where, as mentioned, you can't or don't have to fight, and so don't do anything but walk around listening to conversations and looking at things. I can't help but feel like a game with these ambitions could use some puzzle or dialogue based aspects as well. I just think that when seemingly trying to push the envelope Irrational shouldn't have just tried to shake up conventional gun combat, which the game doesn't fully accomplish anyway; it might be worth branching out into other gameplay areas. Even BioShock had the hacking minigame.
Disappoint your daughter in as many realities as possible.
To put an end to this indulgence, I want to say that BioShock Infinite is still a very good game, and that I've made a point of exploring its weaknesses here largely because I think that's a healthy exercise for any creative work. Nonetheless the combat is fun, the story is very engrossing and the setting is well-realised; it's a fitting successor to the first BioShock and in my opinion improves on it in certain ways while still being a distinct and unique game on its own. It is extremely absorbing and almost haunting; it lingers in the consciousness. I personally have found myself dwelling upon its story, themes and images for days. I think maybe with the fulfilment of some of its ideas, regarding both gameplay and storytelling, to a more involved level, and possibly a PC focus to avoid making concessions to outdated consoles it could have been absolutely revolutionary and unequivocally set a new standard, and in that regard I'm not quite sure that it fully lives up to all of its potential, but it does set itself among the great story-based action games of the modern generation, and I definitely think that if more big-budget extravaganza titles of recent years and similar resources aimed for the same heights our current video game culture would be a much richer environment.