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Friday, 9 January 2015

BioShock Infinite - Gameplay vs Story

So I almost finished writing this ages ago, specifically one day before this video came out:

And it says everything I wanted to say, only in cool video form, so uhmm, go watch that... But I figured I wrote enough I might as well put it up anyway.

With the Easter long weekend came another opportunity to play a game start to finish in a short period! The game of choice on this occasion was BioShock Infinite (Sinfinite as it shall now be known).

If I were to choose one game to compare Sinfinite to overall, it wouldn't be Bioshock or even System Shock 2, but Spec Ops: The Line.  This might seem an odd comparison, but the main thing that stood out for me about both games isn't the plot, the characters, the twists or even the game play, but it is how the game play in both cases seemed to just get in the way of everything else.

I stumbled around with this concept in writing my review of Spec Ops but could only put my finger on the fact that the game wasn't that fun; which seemed to distract both from the story (I was bored waiting for the next plot event to happen) and the overall message of the game (i.e. "You shouldn't be having so much fun killing people," well I wasn't...)

Now that another game (that I have played) has come and done the same thing, I've started to see what is actually going on here.

A couple of people have discussed this to some degree already.  Chris Plante from Polygon wrote a piece titled "Opinion: Violence limits BioShock Infinite's audience — my wife included".  While I don't agree with his premise - that violence specifically is the problem - his point that all the violent game play seems to be utterly out of place in the context of the game is entirely correct.

Similarly this video from Youtuber MrBtongue, which came out before Shinfinite, also talks about violence in games, but gets a bit closer to the point.  Or at least to my point.


Be warned; ahead there will be Sinfinite spoilers.  So many spoilers.  Terrible, game destroying spoilers.  If you read ahead your life as you know it will be spoiled beyond recognition, you will develop a shock of grey hair and a haunted look that will stay with you until the end of time.

SPOILERS AHEAD - You might die.

Sinfinite is a decent game, the endless 10 out of 10 reviews may have indicated that to you already. I can only assume such good reviews came from people who haven't played System Shock 2 or simply "Want to Believe" that gaming has actually developed in a meaningful way over the last 10 to 15 years.

To start with the good, Sinfinite looks amazing. The art, level design, characters, theme, everything is outstanding. It's a world you want to explore and learn more about. The opening scene gets you right into the curious mindset of wanting to know what the hell is going on, why are you there, what is this place?

Finally you get up to the scene where you choose who to throw the baseball at and you are spotted as the "false shepherd." Then you kill people for 14 hours. Then there is an awesome ending that messes with your head! The end.

And herein lies the problem. Sinfinite is ostensibly a game trying to tell a really cool story in an awesome and immersive world. For some reason though it also wants to be a mindless shooter with endless hordes of enemies spawning out of nowhere and slowing your progress through the story.



Because I am not small, fluffy kitten, I don't have a problem with violence in media.  Movies and games where people get dismembered, eaten, burnt; dismembered, burnt and then eaten, and then the person who ate them gets dismembered, eaten, burnt, flayed, puréed, with bacon and peanut butter sauce... Wait, what was I saying?

Okay. I don't really have a problem with violence in my entertainment. If you think your four year old daughter might have trouble sleeping after watching Kill Bill, I'd advise not letting her watch it.  I'm wise that way. But violence is and always has been a fact of life and while in some movies (the so called "torture porn" genre, like Saw, The Human Centipede and so on) it is plainly just there to be sick, in a lot of movies it is either funny (Commando!) or poignant (Pan's Labyrinth - that movie still haunts me), or just generally awesome (The Matrix).

But you'll note I'm naming movies here and not games. This is a bad sign.

Games have developed in many ways over the years, but in some ways they appear to have been utterly stagnant since the late 90s, around the time of Half Life and System Shock 2. First of all, and entirely unrelated to this discussion, why does Half Life still have the best enemy AI of any first person shooter before or since?  Just sayin'.

But looking at games as an artistic medium, what has been going on over the last 10-15 years? Well what is a game, or specifically what is a computer game? To wrap all games into a single category is senseless. It would be like comparing Dances With Wolves to a porno filmed by a pair of 40 year old crack addicts.  There are different classes of movies, as there are different classes of games (and books too!)

The first kind of computer game is just a game, plain and simple. There is no story (or no story of relevance) there is simply some kind of challenge for you to partake in. Games like pong, SimCity, Civilization and so on are obviously in this category (though you can argue in the latter games you make your own story). In fact the number of games that fall into this category are quite large, yes Mario, Doom, Quake and so on have some kind of plot, but the purpose of those games is a fun challenge, the plot is a bonus.

There is also a different kind of game though. The story driven game. These have been around a long time, Zork, Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment.  The gameplay is still core to the experience, if you don't like Dungeons and Dragon's gameplay you can't enjoy the story of BG2.  But a large part of the motivation to play isn't just the challenge, but the story.  In fact in Torment the challenge largely is the story, in that you can play through the entire game without any combat, just conversation.

The problem comes in though, where over the last 10-15 years there has been very little development on the integration of these two points, gameplay and story. Computer games are an artistic medium.  They can incorporate the video of a movie, the writing of a book and allow you to interact with them. In theory they are the ultimate story telling device. So why aren't they?

Half Life and System Shock 2 are games that really leaped ahead in this area.  Half Life was predominantly a fun shooter, but anyone who has played it will say that the story really drew them into the game and made it far more fun. The story was an important part of the game and it was told through the gameplay. The story never distracted you from playing the game and playing the game never seemed to get in the way of progressing in the story, playing the game was progressing the story and playing the game was fun.

System Shock 2 leaned a bit more the other way, the story was key to the entire experience. As a shooter the game was actually rather poor, but the style of game play complemented the story and environment so well that rather than thinking "damn this is slow and clunky next to Half Life" your thoughts are "OH MY GOD I'M ABOUT TO RUN OUT OF AMMO AND DIE!!!"  It was an outstanding combination and a more engrossing game than any of the Shocks since.

But then what? Where is the advancement since then?  COD4 had a few nice set pieces but I can't say I remember any of the story. And since then? What?

Well there are two answers to that question.
Shinfinite and The Walking Dead.

The two games show two different directions games are (or at least could be) going in.

The Walking Dead is a game I absolutely love, in fact I consider it one of the best games I've ever played... Only it isn't really a game. In fact it has taken the story driven game to the final level, where the interaction with the game is not about giving you a challenge, a game, but more about involving you emotionally in the story.  It is an amazing cross between the experience of watching a movie and playing a game, that gets you just involved enough in what is going on to experience the story far more intensely, without pausing the story while you try to figure out some puzzle for half an hour.

So The Walking Dead basically shows what is possible with interactive media, but stops trying to be an actual game and instead just aims to tell a story in the most engrossing way possible.

I'd love to see more games (or whatever you might call them) like this. Yes I know point and click adventures have been around forever, but anyone who has played TWD and others will know the difference. However I'd also like to see great games with awesome stories in the future too.

Shinfinite is sadly not an example of this. It takes some really cool characters, a really cool plot and ending, an amazing world, and then dumps it on a generic, boring FPS that drags the story out over 10-14 hours. Just like Spec Ops. And no where near on par with System Shock 2 or Half Life as a whole.

I don't understand the 10/10 reviews Shinfinite has been getting and I can only assume they are from people who love the story and world so much they had to rate it high or who have simply never played Shock 2.

And here we abruptly end...

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