Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Bioshock Infinite: Story Analysis

Okay, I finished Bioshock Infinite. It was a lot shorter than I expected, which was good. It was the right length.

Here I'm going to talk in some detail about Infinite's story, full analysis mode. If you haven't played Infinite all the way through, I recommend you stop reading. To say there are spoilers would be an understatement.



Okay, let's dive into the story and what went right and what went wrong.

The story is very Vonnegut. People talk about how it bears a resemblance to Beauty and the Beast, but actually the story is much more reminiscent of Slaughterhouse 5.

That is to say that the story is full of magic and fairy tale bullshit, but that's just a coping device for the main character. More forgivingly, it's an analogy: I'm not saying that the game takes place entirely in the main character's head, but I am saying that, like many good stories, the events and setting of the story exist to highlight the core conflict of the main character.

This makes it sound like a bit of a masterpiece, but unfortunately the story is riddled with problems, both in terms of structure and in terms of execution.

Let's start with the structural problems.

The story was flabby. Really, really flabby.

The story's theme seems to be "escaping from your cage", with the female lead having a literal cage while the male lead has the cage of his past. It should be clear within just a few short levels that the female lead's literal cage is a reflection of the male lead's figurative cage, which is one of the things that spoiled the ending for me.

However, the theme veers to the side, crashes into a barn, and explodes. The end of the game has nothing to do with escaping cages, and is instead about assassinating you before you can put anyone in a cage.

Now, from a technical perspective it holds together well enough. Everything is logical inside the game world. But it doesn't support the theme as established. Instead of dealing with the idea of the cage, the writers just flip the chessboard over and walk away. Solving the character arc with magic is a big cop-out.

However, here's my thought. I think that the theme was really intended to be "parting with your daughter".

This holds true really well, because now the story is about the feeling of flinging her out into the world into the hands of a strange man versus keeping her locked in a tower all her life.

That would have been a great story. The ending would have worked well with only minor dialog changes: the daughter taking your ability to decide her future away from you and choosing it for herself. That would have been a fucking masterpiece and I literally get chills just thinking about how good it could have been.

However, that is not the theme. The theme is clearly established as being about escaping cages. You can't have two themes, and the first theme wins. You can have a twist ending, but it has to be a twist within the theme, not just randomly shooting off into the weeds.

Either way, there are several other flabby elements to the story. For example, the male lead's history has two pieces: war 'hero' and father. But these two elements compete rather than get along.

The "war" history justifies the character's ability to kill everyone with guns, but that's not something that needs to be explained. It clearly establishes the character's wish to be free of his cage... and it eventually "pays off" in that it explains why he became Comstock. But here's the thing: becoming Comstock only matters if the theme is "parting with your daughter", and the backstory only matters if the theme is "escaping from your cage". So the backstory collapses, supporting neither theme well enough to be worth it.

The "daughter" history would be really good if the theme was "parting with your daughter", but that's the theme the story should have had, not the theme it did. It was "revealed" quite late in the story, long after the theme was established. So this backstory could have stood on its own, but instead it was left too long in the shadow of the wasteful "war" history that consumed half of all the game's plot points.

Furthermore, the floating city should have been a very tight analog for the character's internal struggles... and it wasn't. No matter which theme you prefer, the city's theme was "racism is bad and cults are crazy". Those themes could have also made excellent games... but you have to pick one theme.The Vox Populi's actions don't reflect either of the story's themes, so they are simply wasted words.

Lastly, the ending with all the lighthouses was pretentious twaddle. If the theme had been "roads untravelled", it would have been fine, if a bit on the nose. It does vaguely fit into the "escape your cage" theme, except that the theme has clearly been talking about the metaphysical cage of your past and your family. The escapism of infinite doors leading to infinite possibilities just comes off as sounding like shallow desperation, a betrayal of the idea that there are consequences.

I can imagine different dialog which could have done a better job, but even so it seems like a poor fit for either theme. I can think of better fits.

Now... those were the structural errors. Let's talk about the execution errors. I'll be brief; this is already too long.

The problem with execution lay primarily in two places. The first is the secondary NPCs. None of them felt real. Perhaps that was on purpose, since the city exists solely as a thematic backdrop for the characters' troubles. But I feel they were just poorly executed. They were shallow, had bad dialog, and often took inexplicable actions that only would have made sense if there was a different theme.

But what really pisses me off about them is that they could have fit the theme so well. So well. Talk about escaping cages? The old general chooses to die in his cage. The freedom fighters choose to smash their cage. It could have been excellent. But the connections were never really established, it all just felt wonky and poorly written.

The other problem is with the main character.

An unlikeable main character is a mainstay of short stories. But a video game can't afford it, especially a first-person game where the player feels so much more in tune with the hero. He was just too unlikeable, and I was forced to take responsibility for actions he took, which felt annoying and unfair.

This is not a problem with the fundamental story - it's just an execution faff that left me cold.

Anyway, them's my thoughts.


Anonymous said...

you should play again...i don't think you got it. there are much deeper themes going on here and you are completely missing them. youre analysis is disjointed and confusing

Craig Perko said...

Sure, kid. Sure.

Anonymous said...

Are you trying to come off as an elitist prick?

Craig Perko said...

You want to critique, step up and show me how it's done. Otherwise it's just a whiny kid feeling hurt because he thinks the best AAA game of the year was insulted.

The essay's certainly not written as clearly as it could be, but you (or the other anonymous coward who can't back up their voice with a face) don't bring anything to the game, just a whine.

Perhaps you're hurt because I didn't describe the themes of racism, how he tried to highlight racism using a very racist society, but then dropped the ball when he made their revolution rely on a white murderer and a pale little princess, and then dropped it further when he betrayed the character of the leader just to show how much he prizes the status quo.

Is that the stuff you thought I missed? Because I considered it off-topic.

Perhaps you think the shit I missed is the mechanics of the magic bullshit they stuffed into the game, the idea of dimensional travel, even dimensional creation. That stuff's old and tired and is only interesting in service of the story. Which it wasn't.

Or... did you think I missed something else?

Maybe you thought I missed how he brought up the concept of a cult but then completely let it fade when it started to become clear it was a specific brand of Christianity and he didn't want to alienate any of his timid little player base with a statement about something so close to home, because they would react just like Mr. Anonymous did?

No? Something else?

Please be specific about which things I missed, and be sure you don't mistake "staying on topic" for "missed".

Anonymous said...

Dude... I hate to say this. Though there should't be only one interpretation of this game, yours seems way too off course...

Craig Perko said...

Are you trying to come off as an elitist prick?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to be of better conversation that the whiny teenage boy here, so here it goes.

I really don't like to skim the Internet to find other's interpretations of a medium's "meaning" because for the life of me I just couldn't figure it out myself, and I hated to have to do it for BioShock Infinite.
I had some ideas though, but your smart article made me realize I was fighting a losing battle: the game is clearly inconsistent in his thematic structure, I too felt the ending really unfocused, incoherent and aiming for shallow beauties instead of truly being meaningful.

Even more so, I felt it was more than a disappointment, but a complete failure in the ludonarrative approach to resonate to any theme it could pretend to have. The dissonance between real, genuine human moments -that the game really has in some brief moments of brillance sometimes- and being an unlikable mass murdering super powered beast is one thing, but the gameplay wasn't even good or enjoyable for my tastes. The only mechanic left is to shoot at things in an industry that's become very good at making games doing just and only that, and way better.

I liked some parts of it, I might even say I loved aspects of it, but those last days thinking about what's for me to take of it have really been bitter.

To me, the theme the game tries to have is one of "escaping one's illusive and incomplete perception of reality". It ties to your "escaping one's cage", I could say. But it's completely shifted by the end of the game, which more resemble a more naive "atoning for your sins" and doesn't offer any insight on how to deal with said problem other than killing yourself. Which, hum, won't do.

It's particularly infuriating because it could have been so fantastic if more focused and done correctly.
I can perfectly see how Booker's two potential futures could have represented both different and both incomplete look on reality, aka Booker's past, one stricken with guilt and one liberated from guilt, both destructive (which, as you say, doesn't resolve the issue of how it doesn't seem "fair" as a player to be entitled with an irredeemable jerk), but also how BioShock could have made out of this core struggle a more explicit one with the factions of Colombia, presenting an actual, not stupidly simple social commentary about, say, America's blooded history with those who worship an idealized version of its past, and those who are rendered catatonic by it (...which admittedly doesn't work in this case, no current political party seem to be guilt-stricken about America's history, true. I haven't truly worked out a coherent version myself, but it shouldn't have been my responsibility)

That's two fascinating and well connected layers of thematic brillance that we'll never get to see because of a shock&twist!-ending and... that's a shame, really.

When I think of Columbia, when I think about BioShock Infinite that could have been, the only thing we've left is wasted potential.

Craig Perko said...

You pretty well hit on most of the things I was trying to talk about: it was thematically muddy and inconsistent.

I don't have any doubt that it'll be the game of the year on many people's list, and it is a memorable game.

But to me, it was just good enough to show that it could have been incredible.