BioShock Infinite has an optional difficulty mode named 1999. It’s meant to be a throwback to the design and pacing of old school shooters: less health, less ammo and less forgiving enemies. For those accustomed to modern gaming’s conventions it is a difficult, but rewarding challenge. For those who played the original wave of first-person shooters in the 90’s it is a welcome reminder of how things used to be. And for those really looking closely, it gives away the major flaw of BioShock Infinite: the entire game is still partying with outdated game design like it’s 1999.
The BioShock series prides itself on intelligent and sophisticated narrative, and for the most part that pride is well deserved. BioShock Infinite is a heck of a head trip, but one well worth taking. The narrative mixes fantastical and science fiction elements with a very down-to-earth representation of the relationship between its two main protagonists: Booker and Elizabeth. Their rapport feels natural and effortless, but the same can’t be said of the gameplay that accompanies them, or its presentation.
This is perhaps most noticeable in the way the game forcefully separates its story from its mechanics. Each is ghettoized, and the player is led through by the hand, stopping when and where the designer wants them to. At several points throughout the game Booker and Elizabeth enter an elevator to progress to their next objective. All combat or exploration stop as the player is forced to wait in the elevator while it does its thing. This becomes the prime opportunity for Elizabeth to speak up free from the distractions of otherwise constant peril. What the two talk of is plot significance and scripted in such a way that the conversation ends by the time the elevator stops. It’s an obvious ploy, a sidestep away from the action to deliver the story. The player remains in control during these interactions, but the designer has limited their influence to simply movement. It might as well be a cutscene; it interrupts game flow in the same manner by removing control from the player and spoon-feeding them information and character development.
It’s this unpolished and poorly presented transition that makes me think back to 1999. Irrational Games released their first major success in the form of System Shock 2 that year. It had what would become the hallmarks of an Irrational game: great setting and atmosphere, the aforementioned intelligent story and audio diaries. System Shock 2 was designed so that when the game began the player had to choose the class of their character and then progress through the entire game with that choice. The modern convention of class-switching or play style changes had not yet come about. When 1999 Mode was first announced for BioShock Infinite, it was stated via the Irrational website that players would need to choose specializations and “develop them efficiently and effectively throughout the story; any weapon will be useless to you unless you have that specialization.” That class system was unfortunately cut during production. However, the concept of having your character locked into one path from the outset does make its way into the final game.
Cornelius Slate is one of the first boss characters that players face on their journey through Colombia. He holds the supply of Shock Jockey that the player needs to progress. His whole purpose is contrived as a road bump in the player’s path. It’s obvious padding to the story, but for the most part the padding is welcome and compelling in its own right. Slate is a well realized character, and his motivations make him more sympathetic than evil. Upon defeating him, Slate demands that Booker kill him and give him the honorable soldier’s death that he craves. The player is then presented with two prompts; kill or not kill. No matter the choice of action however the game’s story will progress and conclude in the same manner.
Booker’s story and that of Bioshock Infinite is locked in from the start, you see. A consequence of the impressively intricate but unbending narrative style. It makes the choice to kill or not kill ultimately superfluous, robbing the player of any agency or sense of importance. This is not always a bad thing; some the best games are narrative driven experiences (Half-Life, any given JRPG), but they never try give the impression that they are something else. BioShock Infinite does that and it comes across as juvenile, the game experimenting with player choice before deciding that it isn’t worth it and never doing it again. Again, this is something the still maturing games industry was doing in 1999.
These problems are mostly in presentation — the linking of events throughout the game is exceedingly weak — however the mechanics themselves suffer from similarly archaic design. In terms of interaction, the gameplay is fast, fluid and fun; everything a first-person shooter should be. It is the pacing of the gameplay, like the presentation of the narrative, which brings it down. The same five to six enemies repeat over and over in increasingly numerous waves. To break up the monotony, so-called Heavy Hitter mini-bosses are occasionally thrown in. Where this could have been a prime opportunity for some unique gameplay, these brutes are just bullet sponges that becoming more of an annoyance than a welcome shake-up of the experience. Fast, fluid and fun can do little to stop the spreading disinterest caused by repetition and tedium.
The greatest flaw in design from a gameplay perspective actually comes from one of the story’s best and most inspired moments. About half way through the player’s journey in Colombia Elizabeth opens a tear and, along with Booker, goes through to another dimension. The Colombia they emerge in is very different from the one they left. The Vox Populi, an opposition group originally helpful to Booker and Elizabeth, now control much of the city and seek to take the other half. Total war has broken out in the streets and for some reason Booker is now the Vox’s target. The same five to six enemies now attack in waves of repetitious waves, but with a change of color palette. Where they once wore blue, they now wear red. It was done by the original Mortal Kombat in 1992, as well as countless games since, and was considered bad design even in 1999.
There are so many modern design conventions that could have made the game better. Although considered cliché, a regenerating health system could easily have replaced the cumbersome and, quite frankly, awkward system of scavenging food from bins that the final game shipped with. More varied enemy type is not a necessity; if the same enemies were presented to the player in a different manner, more variation in the spawning and location, then the pacing of combat could be bettered to remove the tedium.
Ultimately, it is all these backwards-looking design choices that brought the whole experience down. BioShock Infinite is a good game. It is ambitious and creative. Its narrative is far above that of most shooters and ranks among the best in videogames. But poor choices that could have easily been avoided bring down the entire product. I would like to see a version of the game that embraced modernity in its design as much as it does in its story. Perhaps through a tear we can pull a different BioShock Infinite; one where the narrative and gameplay are in harmony, where proper pacing adds life to the enjoyably solid gameplay. Think of how much better the entire experience would be if you never had to stop everything and wait for the game to let you pass.
Irrational wants to make games that are better than the average. That desire is admirable. On strength of story alone, I believe Infinite is actually well above the average. But, I don’t think it is a great game. There are far too many problems in pacing and presentation, brought about by old fashioned game design, that rob it of excellence. BioShock Infinite is a game still waiting in an elevator in the year 1999.