You know that gentle feeling of annoyance that slowly creeps up on you when listening to a stranger talk on the phone? The feeling that grows the longer you listen as the conversation produces unanswered questions?
“Did you hear what Trevor did the other day?”
[Ear deafening silence]
“I know right? It’s crazy!”
What? What did Trevor do that is so crazy? Oh, no matter, you’ve swiftly moved onto another topic which will undoubtedly provide me with yet more unanswered questions. Joy.
This is how BioShock Infinite made me feel. It attempts to juggle so many themes and mysteries that whilst playing I struggled to even remember all the questions that needed answering. This left such a small amount of mental processing power that most of the clues and answers probably parted my hair as they sailed above my head.
Right off the boat you’re left floundering in an unfamiliar world with an unfamiliar objective in an unfamiliar character’s skin. Already you have questions. Who am I? Who were those people in the boat who talked like I wasn’t there? Who’s this dead man in the chair? Why did I just eat 2 cans of beans and an orange found in a dusty old lighthouse?
As the game progresses it throws more overarching themes at you than every eighties action movie combined. I thought the recent film Looper was bad for not managing to sustain a two hour plot with time travel and thus requiring supernatural powers as well, but it’s a children’s book in comparison to Infinite. So in the face of all this confusing dialogue and religious scripture I thought to hell with it, let’s at least try to get to know the characters.
Unfortunately they’re as much of a black hole of answers as Columbia itself. I remember a particular feeling of frustration when Elizabeth asked Booker a question about his past, to which he responded something along the lines of “you don’t want to know”. But yes, yes I do want to know. And I'm the one in charge so I'm going to stand in this spot until you give me an answer… fine let’s at least go enjoy the combat.
The problem with all this is that I needed a reason to keep playing, a hook to keep me interested to make me pave my way forward. At first this sense of “what the hell is going on” is great but by 5 hours in it became wearisome. It made me spend the entire time looking forward to the end because I soon realised it was the only way I was going to get any answers.
What’s more is the deeper the plot gets the more the gameplay doesn’t make sense. At one point when Elizabeth is running away from Booker she creates a tear which she steps through, leaving a wall which must negotiated around. Yet despite this every other door in the game needs lock picking whereas simple interdimensional travel would no doubt be less hassle (you don’t hear that sentence every day). I know she can’t control where she sees the tears and I know more appear when she’s stressed but it makes the game feel staged and less real because of it, as if the phrase “you know I can’t control it” was thrown in just to combat this plot hole. It makes the game feel like a game, which is probably the last thing a plot as dense as this is attempting to achieve.
At times tears are amazingly convenient. Good job there happened be one right next to Lin's dead body and another next to his machines but later on when you come to a gate with a hand scanner there's not a tear in sight. This leads to a Ghostbusters-esque sequence which progresses the plot and allows Elizabeth to get over some mummy issues but the whole thing could have been avoided with one tear. In fact in order to get into the crypt through a gate Elizabeth uses a tear to bring in a lockpickable lock. Why could she just not do the same with the hand scanner?
This essentially sums up my overall problem with Infinite. It's a game that encourages you to question your surroundings, to peak through the apparent idyllic nature of Columbia, to question characters’ motives and actions, to wrap your head around concepts of interdimensional travel, but when you step back and look at it, it doesn't stand up to scrutiny very well.
The game wants you to pursue answers about what's going on but at other times it simply asks you to accept it as fact and to shut up and play along. It feels very much like they took on an ambitious plot which although thought provoking had a bunch of plot holes that they half heartedly attempted to fill in at the end. It's like the game is constantly saying “oh no that part isn’t important, what you want to focus on is this”.
But the end result is unsatisfying. I wouldn’t mind being put into a 10 hour state of confusion if at the end of it all I had an eye-opening moment of clarity where it all suddenly makes sense but that's not what happened. When it all comes to a crashing crescendo I was left with more of a “I think I know what kind of happened, maybe” feeling and found myself trawling through pages and pages of forum threads to get answers the game didn’t give me.
Maybe this sense of confusion was deliberate? An incentive to replay the game in search of answers and extend the single player experience? Or maybe by making it ambiguous there's more traffic online about the game? I don't know but if the game had taken on less and trickled a few more answers down as it progressed I feel it would have been better off for it. Instead I felt like I almost rushed through the majority of the game just to get some form of closure at the conclusion; which ended up leaving me more hollow than satisfied.
I've accepted that I wont fully understand the story, it's like when as a kid you realise you're not actually going to become an astronaut - It wasn’t a specific moment I could put my finger on but it happened nonetheless - but what's worse is that I'm not sure what the overall takeaway message was supposed to be. If I look back to the first BioShock the phrase “A man chooses, A slave obeys” is essentially a small summary of the entire fantastic plot. It reminds me of the great characters and the amazing twist. Looking back to Infinite the only take-away message I get is that interdimensional travel is hard.