First, a sort of warning: This post DOES NOT contain spoilers, unless you consider me describing my experience with the game for the first hour to be “spoilers”.
There’s a very specific type of game design that I’ve learned to despise in the last few years.
Boy that was a very negative way to start this. Let me try again:
Bioshock Infinite is pretty! The graphics are cool! The setting is cool! There are not that many “cutscenes” in the strictest sense of the word! There are things you can do! … well, not that many things and those things don’t work on most other things and…
Wow, this is going sour faster than I predicted.
Look, there’s no way around it: I, as a game designer, hated my first hour in the world of Bioshock Infinite. I’m normally very hesitant to “hate” something. Sure, I may have quite a few complaints and only focus on the negative, but that’s because I’m a nitpicker by nature. No, this here is special. I’ve stumbled upon one of the few game design philosophies that truly irk me… and I can’t even fathom WHY reviewers don’t call attention to this problem.
Bioshock Infinite starts at a lighthouse. There’s some basic interaction, some items hidden and some interesting bits of environment storytelling. Those few minutes I spent there (yes, minutes, I like to take my time) were very satisfying. Then I got to Columbia and ended up in a place that raises too many questions but can be easily excused by the “rule of cool”. Then I got to the city proper … and things started going south.
Columbia is a place that works as a series of events that are triggered upon your arrival. People start talking when you get close so you never get to a place and listen to just the middle and end of a conversation. Animations start playing when you’re near. Announcers start doing their thing on cue. Events play out only just as you are approaching the place where they’ll happen. Everything has been scripted, this world is 100% reactive and dependent on YOUR presence. Nothing happens if you are not around. This world is effectively dead and artificial. It’s not even a world per se, it’s just a series of events that happen.
The façade is not broken, it just never existed in the first place. Nobody made an attempt at making this a believable world. They just built a series of interesting things and designed the triggers to each of them (mainly, walking within a certain distance) so that the player can experience them all without missing a thing. In fact, this wouldn’t be such a bad thing if used with care. A little bit of wiggle room in the plausibility department would go a long way towards making this world more believable. Alas, that wasn’t the case.
Let me give you an example: If the event was that the floor went kaput and the player character fell into an underground river, then I’d be willing to suspend my disbelief. It’s believable because the trigger makes sense (extra weight = broken floor) and the following event comes as a consequence of the trigger. Now, Bioshock Infinite uses this same mechanism but applies it to idle conversations: Player character walks near a person and then that person starts a conversation with a friend. What kind of sense does that make?
Even then, you could probably chalk that up to coincidence. It’s not earth shatteringly disconcerting for something like that to happen. The problem arises when EVERYTHING is triggered by you walking near it. And I really do mean everything.
Alright, so what? The world is fake and shows it seams but all is not lost. You can get used to it! Haha, oh, that would be true if it weren’t for another little thing that this game fails to address.
The main problem lays with the fact that none of these events are interactive, even when they should be. People talk to you, but you can’t respond … ok. If you jump into a stage while the announcer is talking nobody will react in the slightest way…. that’s odd. If you position yourself to be hit by an effect that is going back and forth between two characters, it will pass right through you…. yeah. You can excuse most things, but when the game fails to react this badly, everything falls apart.
It’s a rollercoaster approach to spectacle. Everything is happening around you, all of these interesting things are making the story move forward… but you, the player experience it all as a ghost. Nothing can be touched. Nothing can be interacted with. Nobody cares where you are looking or where you are positioned. If something is happening then you have no say in the matter, you just watch. You don’t exist, you won’t be recognized even if you walk into a ray of dead-making that is being pointed at an ally of yours.
Other games that utilize this philosophy to better effect (Half-Life 2 …) understand that the action needs to be at a physical distance from the player if he’s not going to have any say on said action. A piece of glass always does the trick, but plain old unreachable areas work just as well.
That … THAT I hate because it tells me that the developers didn’t want to have cutscenes because “cutscenes are bad” but then didn’t know how to appropriately replace them. If something is happening and I have no say in the matter then make it a cutscene for crying out loud. What’s the purpose of me standing around and poking things if I can’t do anything? If nothing is systematized, if there’s no system in sight, if I can’t interact with anything aside from “being there” … why the flying f*ck am I playing this instead of watching a movie? Just grab my camera, turn off my controller and let me know it’s time to watch things happen.
You could probably take the first exploratory section after the lighthouse and the whole first combat encounter, condense it all in a movie and result in a better end product. Why the improvement? Because you’d lose the artificiality of it all and focus the camera where it matters. True, you would lose interactivity of it all, but let me ask you: What interactivity? There are no decisions being made, no systems being modelled. All there is to it is an underdeveloped system of superpowers that don’t do much and a combat system that as far as I can tell gets in the way of the rest of the game.