Let’s talk about fundamental game design. No matter what you think about the story and its themes, or the presentation and graphics, or the absurdities along the way, games like this can have a core game design that holds it all together. Strong game design is undeniably enjoyable, no matter what else is going on.
The game’s fundamental design seems to be very confused, and as a result so was I. Cash is scattered everywhere, everything you kill drops cash, and everything you want costs cash; you lose cash when you die, but Elizabeth also throws cash at you randomly for no reason; you can find all of the supplies you need without cash if you pay attention, but every thirty seconds you’ll run across vending machines where you can buy anything you want. You can also use your magic to cause cash to spill out of these frequent vending machines. What the hell is this game trying to communicate to players through design? Staying alive, killing everything, stealing everything, possessing all the vending machines, and hanging out with Elizabeth will surely give you plenty of spending power, but where is the pacing or rhythm? I felt like cash was soaking into my pores as I walked, or like a single-cell organism getting more dangerous through osmosis instead of through taking risks or making calculated decisions. There’s no strategy to BioShock Infinite.
At one point, I bit off more than I could chew with combat and Elizabeth offered to throw me health, which refilled my life completely. The game essentially offered me a 1Up. But I still died, and saw Elizabeth take some of my money as she resurrected me. I now had 80% of my life and a little less money than before, but enough to buy health packs from the vending machine that I spawned next to. After I spent that money and got my health back to full, Elizabeth tossed me a coin that gave me even more money than I had just spent. I feel like I need to make a flow chart to show how stupid, redundant, and sloppy that is.
Eventually I figured out the pattern behind it, though. The point was never to teach players balanced strategies or create a sense of satisfaction from learning skills and putting them to the test, but rather to inundate the player’s senses with so many sights and sounds that it would create the illusion that important things were happening all the time!
You see, Irrational Games decided to use casino design tactics to fool players into thinking they’re having “fun”. As a purely audio experience, BioShock Infinite is worse than a pinball table or a slot machine. Just think about the way it sounds to play this game. Rummaging through office desks, garbage cans, corpse pockets, supply cabinets, and everything else will provide an audio smorgasbord. It’s tacky as hell, but very effective. When Elizabeth tosses you a coin, she doesn’t just toss you a coin and be done with it, which would be a strategically significant event that would trigger a proportionate mental response. No, she verbally announces the doggy treat, holds up the shiny object in front of your face, and PINGS! it with a WHOOSH! to your open hand, where it SMACKS! in the palm, which deposits it into your account with a CHING-CHING-CHING! You’re a winner!
The psychology of slot machines are depressing because they’re so goddamn good at what they do. The oversized crank handle that turns with satisfying physicality, the noises and lights as you wait, and of course the clatter of coins in the tray when you win. Game designers have always known about these tricks and made use of them to some extent, but is it any coincidence that every single one of the innumerable vending machines you come in BioShock Infinite are modeled after them? The robots planted on top of them literally call out to you like salesmen, with blinking lights and theatrics. Opening the menu gives you a nice (perhaps subliminally familiar?) cranking sound.
BioShock Infinite presumes that you will hang on its every word, be dazzled by its visuals, swept up in its magnetic rails, and delighted by the sight of a George Washington robot with a Gatling gun. As far as commentary goes, it picked the softest targets and threw the weakest punches. There’s nothing seditious, edgy, contemporary, interesting, important, or profound about the themes of the game. This is the same year Django Unchained was released in theaters. Homages like “Comstock” and “DeWitt” are half-assed, and one has to wonder if Ken Levine knows just how low the standards for game writing is to think this is special. Bury the hints shallow enough and maybe highschool students will looks up their favorite BioShock Infinite names on Wikipedia, only to find that it was directly inspired by historical figures! Game of the Year, anyone?
You may have noticed I have not devoted six whole paragraphs of this review to mocking the Lutece Twins. That’s because I Do Not Devote Six Paragraphs To Mocking The Lutece Twins. You see how that works? Haven’t, amn’t, didn’t. It’s all semantics really. The universe does not like it’s porridge mixed with its peas. Quid quo pro, Brutus.
Finally, I have saved the most condemning criticism for last. You see, I had intended to compare this game to The Stanley Parable and Metal Gear Solid 2 for being an attempt at meta-narrative. This was a mistake on my part. The more I studied the game’s design choices, the more I came to realize BioShock Infinite is the opposite of these games, because it refuses to break the “fourth wall” and expose itself as nothing more than a game. It desperately tries to reinforce the fourth wall from beginning to end, to the point where even Booker DeWitt’s various deaths are explained by some vague trick of metaphysics. The game’s beginning and ending are supposed to be accounted for, too. And by extrapolating its speeches on the multiverse, it retroactively tries to make sense of its predecessors and everything else it might be attempting. This is what ultimately makes it so stuffy, predictable, and hollow. As I said at the beginning, it can’t afford to take anything seriously but itself. So instead of inviting players to rip apart the game by its conspicuous videogame-y “seams” and call into question the nature of interactive narratives, BioShock Infinite tries to solve the idea of videogamey seams altogether. The problem is, it’s too stupid to know how. The “Infinite” in the title refers to the fact that it doesn’t have a beginning or end. No “seams”.
But by fiddling with the concepts of choice and predetermination constantly while not offering “seamless” explanations for the majority of its broken videogame logic, it ends up creating more conspicious seams than ever. It quilts together so many idiotic ideas that it becomes a lumpy spherical blanket of bullshit, and I feel sorry for anyone trapped inside.
BioShock Infinite is the False Prophet, and therefore is not eligible for a rating higher than -3.5. Do not be fooled by its lies. We must keep gaming pure. The bad console port job, broken logic, ugly inconsistent graphics, and conspicuous lack of an Act 1 or 3, do not compare to the sin which is an extremely tacky fundamental game design. You won’t find entertainment in its perfunctory action sequences or button-prompt emotions, but if you try hard enough you could die and be reborn as a stupider version of yourself.