Reality Check - BioShock Infinite and the Uncanny Demo

Would you kindly ignore the man behind the curtain?


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Irrational's BioShock Infinite E3 2011 demo was enthralling, exhilarating, and any other word you can pluck from the cavalcade of adjectives that convey astonishment at how a city in the sky and its residents sprang to life and instantly captivated audience members sitting slack-jawed in the 2K Games booth. It was a memorable moment in a show peppered with memorable moments, but it was also a vastly surreal one whose conclusion prompted an unexpected question: What did I just see? Surprisingly, it wasn't the content that ignited some lingering doubt, but rather the method used to display it.

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Exit stage left.

The brief tour through Columbia revealed social upheaval, a blooming relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, and a semi-mechanical monstrosity whose affable name stood in strong contrast to its shrill, and suitably disturbing, cry. And to quote every movie review from Rolling Stone, Infinite proudly brandished its shooter chops with an "action-packed roller-coaster ride" shoot-out amid the city's unique form of transportation. But what was ostensibly a normal demo gave way to something different. Each successive whiz-bang set piece tightened a thread that, if stretched beyond its well-rehearsed limits, would cause the entire illusion to come crashing down.

This wasn't a game demo. It was a movie with in-game actors who performed some approximation of the gaming experience. There were intense firefights; there were charming exchanges of dialogue; and there were even button prompts--all suggestive characteristics of an interactive medium, and yet this was distinctly not. There was no specific moment when this revelation occurred. If anything, it was a combination of things--an almost contrary use of deliberation in firefight scenes, in which shots were aimed, fired, and dodged with mechanical efficiency, versus character development scenes where Booker's perspective was carefully orchestrated to enhance the dialogue and its dramatic impact while it simultaneously attempted to make it look improvised.

This was all wonderful for showcasing the game's malleability, an expectation created by the original BioShock and the way it transcended traditional shooter conventions while retaining the genre's better qualities. In that sense, the demo was a complete success, but for any person sitting in that audience, there was no clear indication of how this same set of events pans out under normal circumstances. In fact, it raised countless questions: How scripted was the interaction between Elizabeth and Booker? Does she always say the same things? How is it possible to navigate the skylines with no sense of danger? What happens if Songbird sees Booker earlier? Is Elizabeth ever really in danger? What happens when a player does something that wasn't just laid out with such exacting means?

These were but a few questions that sprang to mind, and while answers are forthcoming as Irrational and 2K loosen their protective grip, teaser trailers usually generate these kinds of questions--not playable demos. Still, some might be wondering why this was even an issue when games like Modern Warfare rely heavily on similarly scripted demos.

The answer is twofold. First, scripting is a dirty word. It conjures images of enemy soldiers that run to their designated spots in the environment regardless of what's happening around them. Scripting is suggestive of an experience where the player has no real impact on what goes on in the world. Over the past few years, the Modern Warfare series has familiarized and popularized this experience.But there's no such expectation (or more specifically, anticipation) for a similarly structured BioShock game and that's the second part of this equation. The original touted freedom on varying levels, and while some choices admittedly didn't have as much of an impact on the gameplay as originally advertised, the illusion of freedom was still significant and important in differentiating it in a market clogged with first-person shooters.

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What happens if we look away?

The E3 2011 BioShock Infinite demo projected no such illusion. It was a tightly controlled and highly entertaining spectacle that inadvertently conveyed the prospect of a BioShock that falls outside the purview of its forebears. At any rate, all of this will probably change as the months go by and we see more of the game. Once Irrational releases a video of the demo, be sure to check it out. It won't produce quite the same disconnect, since it will be a movie at that point, but it will give greater context to the aforementioned rambling from a fan.

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