Electron Dance
28Jan/14Off

Counterweight 10: Bioshock Infinite

cw10-bioshock-infinite-facepalm
In this specially extended episode of Counterweight, Eric Brasure and Joel "HM" Goodwin get their claws into Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013). Danger: spoilers, profanity and genuine anger within.

Contents

02:10 "It's probably the most important game of last year."

03:40 "Columbia Celebrates! Ooh? What about? You can't read the newspaper!"

05:20 "...[a] serious game about prejudice and multiple realities... and they've put a bloody rollercoaster in it!"

07:50 "The game parts of the game aren't any good, the shooting parts aren't any good, the exploration is frankly pointless..."

15:50 "It's The Stanley Parable without the funny."

18:00 "Just referencing [The Boxer Rebellion or the Pinkertons] is not enough, you're not doing anything with them."

19:30 "Bioshock Infinite: The Notgame - and that would be a good game to play."

21:10 "Whatever we say on this podcast here, Bioshock Infinite made a ton of money and was very successful."

27:10 "There's a glibness to it I find offensive."

30:50 "It's basically an episode of Fringe only worse than Fringe."

42:30 "And there's no sense that the story needs to make any sense because after all it's just a videogame, right Joel?"

43:50 "It's just not good enough... it's over-convoluted. It's deliberately trying to confuse the player."

47:50 "The whole game feels like cooking with a 7-year old."

50:10 "We should try to talk about things we liked about it."

53:20 "We were supposed to talk about things we liked, so I think we failed."

Download the podcast MP3 or play it right here in your browser:

References

It might be a little long, but for the Infinite haters, I strongly recommend Joannes Truyens' Bioshock Infinite script:

"We’re now heading into another new universe where a quantum-reanimated gunsmith might have access to his tools so that he can craft a bunch of weapons while bleeding all over them, only so that the Vox will give us back the airship that I just randomly selected from plenty of other available ones. We can’t even be sure I made the same deal with Fitzroy in that universe."

COMPANION NOTES ALSO AVAILABLE: "One word. Trash."

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Comments (31) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Whoa, I figured my script would be featured as one of many in a ‘further reading’ list, so thanks for highlighting it the way you did! I’ll definitely give the podcast a listen when I get home.

  2. I’m about to listen to this and play some Might and Magic II. I think the contrast will destroy my computer. Wish me luck.

  3. I’m back, and Great Job!

    I’m so glad you two played it, because the game really *is* that emblematic of the problems in AAA gaming. This was the game which caused me to pretty much abandon consoles and mainstream gaming and go headfirst into 80s dungeon crawlers because I just couldn’t stand how insulting the game was over, and over again.

    It’s not *bad* when a game is a theme park, and there have been some wonderful theme parks made. I think about games like the 2008 Prince of Persia which weren’t cerebral or dexterity challenges but which just *felt cool*–the game’s a gigantic jungle gym with very flexible, forgiving controls and is all about just swinging and jumping through a pretty environment. There’s a reason I’m shocked there haven’t been very many Disney games of note–when you go to Disneyworld, one of the most notable things is how far they go to decorate the *lines*–even while you’re waiting to get onto the ride, there’s a lot of cool stuff to look at.

    And I really love games that are designed so that exploring the corners of their world is interesting–to a degree, even Dark Souls is a theme park, and it’s absolutely *piled* with cool stuff–and it’s gained a following of dedicated players who have gone through the game three, four times and still find secrets each time. I’m currently working through the Might and Magic series for the first time, and the environments link together in such a satisfying way that the simple act of mapping is a lot of fun, and you can see the early games filled with as much stuff as the time and memory capacity would allow. Hell, whatever you think of Skyrim as a game, I can’t say that turning it on and just wandering through a snowy woods wasn’t satisfying in its way.

    So yeah–I found it fairly insulting that Levine and co didn’t give a shit about that part of our experience. Post Dark Souls, I simply just can’t go to a game with corridor after corridor. In Bioshock, that Rapture is a series of videogame levels rather than a city, I guess I could ignore that, but I just couldn’t deal with the lack of any architectural interest. Early on you find out that Columbia is constructed more or less as a series of floating islands or airships, and that the formation of these islands shifts according to a set schedule. I can picture that alternate universe version of Columbia, one where thought was put into the setting, with a day-night cycle where you actually have to learn to navigate the city that way. Maybe you have a mission in one district, and in order to get there you have to figure out what ways are open at that time, or perhaps an area is inaccessible at certain times of the day. Games have been doing day-night cycle things like that for years, and they could have done something interesting with it–but that would require *thought*, and that’s not what it’s about.

    I think there’s a degree to which the game could have been a series of scenes questioning the appropriateness of violence–that’s what someone with *actual* talent might have done. Because violence in the game is taken through a series of contexts. Is violence against the couple at the park in the beginning acceptable? Is it acceptable against the cops who are trying to protect their city? Is it acceptable against the cops who are racist and violent themselves? Is it acceptable against Comstock’s loyal men? Is it acceptable for the Vox Populi to violently overthrow their oppressors? Is it acceptable for them to continue when they have the upper hand? Is it acceptable for an armed revolution? Is it acceptable for Daisy Fitzroy to murder one child? You know, the game doesn’t *have* to have answers for these questions, because many of them are legitimately unanswerable, and moral philosophy has been dealing with their like for centuries, but I’m okay if Levine wants to throw his hat into the ring. But any of the game’s objections to violence sound like cluck-cluck handwringing. As you say, Elizabeth and Booker’s conversation is supposed to be our own internal dialogue, and even Elizabeth comes around to accept what the player is doing. Bioshock Infinite fucking loves its violence. It’s lovingly animated. It’s grand guignol shit here. It rewards you for being violent. It gives you a cheevo for getting drunk and murdering a bunch of people.

    And yet there’s a real degree to which if Levine hadn’t been so busy trying to out-Bioshock Bioshock–trying to make the Citizen Kane of videogames–it might have succeeded if it had simply been campy and cartoony. Hell: Take out all of that “always a man, always a lighthouse” shit, stop trying to figure out your quantum mechanics, stop being so fucking orgiastic with how bloody the game is, and give us a dumb fun blockbuster: This is a wonderful *pilot*. Elizabeth and Booker escape Comstock and his men and now they’re on the run throughout history in a series of DLC episodes. You know, if they gave themselves the license to be cheesy with it, every couple months there’s a new little adventure where they’re in a different town and they get to solve a problem, not with guns but with their wits, and a holographic projection of the Luteces can give them advice, and–

    Okay, look, I guess what I’m saying is that I hate Bioshock Infinite but I would apparently play the shit out of Telltale’s Quantum Leap game if they made one. And I don’t even like Quantum Leap!

  4. @Richard: As you know, I had difficulties with Metro 2033 last year. And between Metro and this… I’m wondering if I’m done with shooters.

    I love theme park games. I’m with you – there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I absolutely love real theme parks. The attention to detail in a place like Tokyo Disneyland is incredible. It is weird how the queues are often part of the experience – if there are no queues, you’re actually missing out on something.

    Infinite is like a theme park based on a theme park. It’s like that scene in Blazing Saddles when they crash out of the set; I feel like I’m on the verge of discovering the back lot any moment.

    I can even deal with intense linearity and cutscenes. So to take those well-established tools of the trade and, basically, fuck it up, is incredible. I sense the development was not easy. I sense that there was shitloads of ambition which had to be railed back because of uncanny valley problems or focus testing or they just didn’t work. Go check out the original reveal trailers for an eye-popping comparison.

    Aside: I watched the original trailer and did not go apeshit over it. I am fairly trailer immune these days – No Man’s Sky, for example, is a wet dream trailer, but like all trailers, it’s full of incredible promise. I’m sure no one has made such promises before. Trailers can do anything. Games can not. I assumed all that Infinite footage was heavily scripted and unlikely to make it into the final game.

    Columbia still holds so much promise. I wonder if there’s going to be a “Bioshock Infinite 2” made by a different team that everyone says is really great but no one plays it because they’re done with Infinite already.

  5. Hi! Just dropping by to say that “‘Stanley Parable’ without the funny” is the best description of Bioshock Infinite I’ve ever heard and I will be using it from now on.

  6. Right, I didn’t get the chance to listen to this yesterday, so instead: today. Whilst playing the Hearthstone beta. Your podcast is more interesting, but doesn’t involve clicking and numbers. Please could you gameify your audio player plugin?

    I think I began nodding in agreement about fifteen minutes in; from that point on what you were discussing was really in line with my own thoughts. The shallow historical references, in particular – I remember specifically thinking “oh cool!” when the Pinkertons were referred to as an aside. I can’t recall where they first came up but, given that most of my knowledge/impression of the Pinkertons is derived from watching Deadwood and reading about US labor union disputes, I was genuinely excited to see where that might go. Nowhere, as it transpires. Ditto Wounded Knee – apparently just an excuse to drop in more heavy-handed cartoon jingoism and further emphasise Booker as a damaged antihero.

    But it’s the revolution and its aftermath that really got me. You had that aspect of the game’s writing with its back against the wall. The only thing about that aftermath that I liked was that it dodged a more common bullet with weakly historical writing: the ‘tidy revolution’ phenomenon, wherein decent folks overthrow despots and everything gets cleaned up neatly with little blood or violence.

    Earlier on in the ‘cast I would have been less harsh: I disagree that the shooting and exploration aren’t any good. They’re a bit pedestrian; the combat is very easy, and the exploration limited, but the feel of the gunplay was satisfying to me – in a way that can’t be said of lesser FPS titles – and there were a few areas just off the beaten track with a few interesting elements. (I think particularly of the hunter, whose story I enjoyed – right up until the point where it became clear that the white supremacist big game hunter was one of the only characters in the game worthy of redemption.)

    Opinions may differ, and you can of course take what I’m about to say as further reason or evidence that you’re done with the FPS, and that videogames often work to a low set of standards, but in drawing direct comparison with other FPS games of its generation Bioshock Infinite is not awful. That’s praising with faint damns, and like you two I’d expected a lot more from it, but I think it’s reasonable to acknowledge the generic context this commercial product is situated within.

    All that being said, I would’ve preferred the game without the danger/safe musical queues, with characters and objects you could actually interact with, with non-linear exploration (particularly of the type Richard mentioned), with worldbuilding that actually matched the game’s conceits (the Vigors and vending machines selling weapons are very lazily crowbarred in, I agree), and most of all without the writing being driven by, and I think Eric puts it very accurately here, the belief that plot convolution and narrative length are inherently positive qualities.

  7. I agree with pretty much everything that’s been said (and written!) here and remember musing about what Infinite could have been in an email in the same way as Richard has above. I even mentioned day and night cycles and people not being around at certain times of day (and obviously less or no shooty bang bang). I think I referred to Westwood’s Blade Runner as well. The Quantum Leap style DLC angle was something I thought about too at some point, it seemed a perfect fit — great minds Richard! ;-)

    Actually, here’s the email snippet:

    “I say screw all the shooting and turn it into a first person ‘RPG’ or ‘adventure’ game with plenty of character dynamics, discovery, exploration, puzzle solving and rich interactivity with the world. Have some shooting or combat by all means but make it a minor part so it has some value or meaning. Hell, make it like Shen Mue with characters having their own life cycles, days and nights, an open city. I’d like to think that Bioshock Infinite is the game that makes developers go ‘Okay, so shooting people in the face for 20 hours probably isn’t the best fit for a story driven game focused on big concepts, characters and world building. We need to come up with a better vehicle to carry this type of thing.’ We’re at a stage where games can do so much yet most are resigned to a very limited pool of mechanics so they fit snugly into specific genres or at least they fall back on to combat and other tried and true (and safe) staples. Can you imagine Columbia as an open city to explore? Full of characters who are connected with each other and respond to your actions? Imagine visiting homes and different districts, bars and cafes, the music, seeing people coming and going to work. My god. I’m not thinking GTA here, I’m thinking far more intimate than that. Blade Runner did it many many years ago.”

    I never really spoke much about the narrative or the themes of Infinite because between not having a fucking clue what was going on most of the time and not understanding things like the Pinkertons, Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion I just let it all wash over me. I did a lot of reading up after I played it in the hopes of making sense of it all, and while I did come to understand the plot, the whole multiple realities and time travel thing really rubbed me the wrong way. It just seemed to bend the rules too artificially to arrive at a kurraaazy exposition dump of an ending.

    Most of my enjoyment (and gnashing) was about the mechanics. Like Shaun, I found the gunplay and vigor volleying satisfying (on hard you have to experiment a lot more with loadouts and combos to be effective) and given that those things made up most of the experience (looting aside ) I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much besides the visuals, music and compelling what-the-hell-is-going-on-here element. Even so, the mechanics were still a far cry from what previous Bioshocks offered, particularly Bioshock 2. It was just so unfocused and badly considered for numerous reasons I don’t want to regurgitate here.

    I felt pretty good about Infinite shortly after playing it but then I played Minerva’s Den then Dishonored and, wow, these really are so much better; I must have been high or something to be so soft on Infinite. Minerva’s Den reminded me what I loved so much about Bioshock 2, and Dishonored reminded me why I love richer, more open and non-linear environments (and non-linear narrative arcs!) so much, and, y’know, people who talk and stuff, and documents I can read. Those two follow up experiences put everything sharply into focus, they made me come down from Columbia — cloud cuckoo land — with a real thud.

    Anyway, there’s like a billion things I’ve said in emails, forums posts and comments and a billion things I’ve not said about Infinite but looking back now I can say that Bioshock Infinite is to games what Prometheus is to films for me. That is, the original creator of a revered franchise making a kind of sequel-cum-spin-off from it, totally misunderstanding what made it so great in the first place then running it into the ground with unflinchingly misplaced swagger and unbelievable incompetence. They’re both so messy and nonsensical and convoluted and stuffed with unnecessary shit. The other thing they share is that while I enjoyed them both during and shortly after, the more I’ve thought about them the more angry I’ve got over time. Perhaps Lindelof and Levine should hook up and make something called Infinitely Lost that tells the story of two writers with chronic cases of idea-creep and ambition that go insane and disappear up their own buttholes.

  8. Oh, and did you read Tevis Thompson’s Infinite/AAA reviews write-up?

    http://tevisthompson.com/on-videogame-reviews/

    Joannes Truyens’ Bioshock Infinite script looks delicious btw.

  9. Gregg: I would totally play the game you described! I’ve always been interested in games where there’s violence, but it takes up only a small portion of what you’re actually doing. That gives it heft and importance. Like you said, Blade Runner was a great example. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is another – the gunplay comes front and centre about halfway through the game, but I think not having guns for the first hour or two of play made them seem more significant when you do get them.

    Joel – sigh, I know what you mean about FPSs. I played a bit of Metro 2033 and was just…. a bit underwhelmed. I’d heard great things about it but I just wasn’t seeing them. I have a nasty feeling that for the past 5 years I’ve enjoyed only one FPS per year – and that includes playing Half Life 1 many years after it came out. And I find it so annoying that these aren’t even games that fascinated me, they’re just games that I *enjoyed*. I was really engrossed in Far Cry 2, for example, but towards the end it dissolved into such a nonsensical prattling mess that it felt a bit like a literary practical joke.
    :
    What annoys me is that I have so many good memories of a first-person control scheme: the aforementioned DCOTE, System Shocks, Thiefs, even BioShock 1. I’ve played so many games in first person, and enjoyed many of them *so much*, that I’m just flabbergasted at the way that I hardly ever play a decent one now. I just don’t *get it*.

  10. @Tony: Man, it’s taken me a while to write this: thank you! And thanks for stopping by, too. See you up ahead in the Fear of Twine.

    @ShaunCG: I take your point about it not assuming a “tidy revolution” although there’s a sense in which it rejects the notion that a revolution is occurring at all. That it’s just one big bad being replaced by another.

    I think we could easily have a discussion about the merits of shooting. I didn’t enjoy myself at all. But this is on the back of not enjoying Red Faction: Guerrilla and Metro: 2033. On the other hand… I did enjoy Paranautical Activity. I’m finding a lot of FPSes these days to be quite disorienting, that I can’t just spin around and target something in time – always weaving about to the point where I wonder if I’ve got the mouse settings wrong. Or the game is deliberately jostling me – punch, explosion, stab – when I’m trying to aim at stuff.

    I couldn’t for the life of me find any value in exploration. I did all the exploration I could, determined not to miss anything. The back story didn’t do it for me at all, so hunting down all the voxaphones didn’t seem to be worth it.

    I think Infinite struck a nerve for several reasons: (a) I didn’t actually want to play it (b) how can the studio that put together System Shock 2 have come to this? (c) this is held up as an example of high art if you read mainstream games media, and I can’t stomach that. There are worse shooters, I’m sure. But Infinite needs to be knocked off its pedestal.

    @Gregg: I have this writing rule of thumb that if my science fiction story needs a thick wad of exposition to explain itself at the ending then either it’s too complicated or you need to seed a lot more of the explanation during over the rest of the story. Infinite took the biscuit there.

    I think Columbia is ripe for some open world type game, but they’d have to create some sort of persistence of the world. Like Eric was saying, he had no real understanding of where everything was, because it’s all so “here’s a new scene!”.

    I didn’t up the difficulty – I used to do that a lot – because I was wondering what the default experience was like.

    Oh I’m coming back to Tevis Thompson. Later.

    Infinitely Lost, ha ha.

    @James: Yeah, I’m not sure if I’m just getting on in years. Do I simply find the FPS boring, now? Are my eye/hand coordination skills distintegrating? Maybe I should crack open Dead Space 2 or Call of Pripyat.

  11. “(c) this is held up as an example of high art if you read mainstream games media, and I can’t stomach that. […] Infinite needs to be knocked off its pedestal.”

    I don’t know what’s worse: the media holding it aloft, or the media as well as gamers. With GTA IV there was a divide between ‘critics’ and users so the love for it kind of puttered out, but with Binfinite the gap seems to be much narrower and that worries me.

    It’s one thing to be popular, it’s another to be critically acclaimed and held up as high art. The problem is that these accolades draw different types of attention. Something popular isn’t neccessarily good or representative of a medium (though I feel like gaming gets treated differently in this regard). But something critically acclaimed and deemed high art would presumably attract more discerning individuals because its regarded as a peak. The idea that Binfinite will be amongst those peaks is staggering and why I put critics in inverted commas above and why I said “‘critical’ cesspool-cum-quagmire that can indefinitely swallow games whole” in my Early Excess article. If that’s a peak, what does it say about the troughs and anything inbetween?

    I just feel like standards are slipping and lauding games like Binfinite and GTA IV threatens to… I dunno, marginalise the medium and distract away from or bury all sorts of truly great, innovative and interesting stuff. I can’t comment on GTA V, I haven’t played it. I suppose the one great thing about games like Binfinite and GTA IV being praised is that it gives me an idea of who I can and can’t trust.

  12. @HM – I take your point, though plenty of idealistic or ideological revolutions throughout history have led to the reins of power being transferred from one despot to another, or produced a power vacuum which led to widespread chaos and violence, or seen ideological or social power relationships simply reversed. I think Infinite is clearly portraying a revolution – it is just a lazy and cynical portrayal.

    Fair call about the shooting. I got some entertainment out of experimenting with the various weapons, keeping mobile via the skyrails, dancing around in the large handymen fights, and dabbling with different vigors. For the most part Infinite just has you plodding forwards, cover-popping at the basic enemies, but the crow guys (wow, the game’s lore has really stuck with me huh) and other vigor-powered enemies change things up a little, whilst the volume of opponents in the larger areas could demand a lot of movement and improvisation from the player. At its best, Infinite was reminiscent of the great Little Sister defence segments in Bioshock 2.

    As for the exploration, yeah I’d never argue there was much there, but straying slightly away from your quest markers let you encounter the tears with the music coming through – enticing mysteries before the plot, haha, ‘cohered’ – and in the larger areas you could find stuff like a grumbling Vox Pop engineer working in a boiler room, the aftermath of an attempted ambush on the big game hunter, a husband and wife being interviewed by police about DeWitt, etc. I mean, I’m not trying to say there’s much there, but there were crumbs to lend a little texture to the world.

    Completely agree it needs to be taken off its pedestal. Metro Last Light did a far better job of telling a story whilst providing a fun FPS experience (although it too was very easy). Call of Pripyat – which you should definitely play – had a far more interesting world to explore and experience. Hell, even the abysmal Legendary – which I bought for a pound in a sale to laugh at – has greater enemy variety in its first two hours than Infinite manages in its first four.

    Infinite tried to do so much but hamstrung itself in so many ways it was never going to succeed. It does not even deserve to be in a top twenty list for 2013, let alone be considered the culmination of the narrative shooter.

  13. @Gregg – I think there are plenty of complaints about the game in the “game critic” space, just not from mainstream outlets. It’s largely treated with derision around these parts; I knew it was “bad” going into the game. I intended for that knowledge not to colour my judgement. I was going to be contrarian and say “it’s not so bad, okay” but eventually couldn’t.

    I think mainstream AAA is in trouble. It has to keep concentrating on a young demographic because once you have a bit of game experience under your belt, all this stuff looks a bit “same shit, different colour”. I feel this so strongly in the last couple of years. Then again, I write about games, which changes your perspective…

    @ShaunCG – When I start seeing “concept art” for AAA games, I can’t help feeling that that’s all a game is sometimes. Freaky concept art offering a brave new world to explore, with the same old mechanical components. I found Bioshock Infinite overburdened. Weird to say, but it broke my believability filter. With the vigors, and the songbird, and the handymen and the tears and the floating cities, the super-magnetic skyhooks, the robot horses… it’s like where does the magic stop?

    It just doesn’t feel consistent. Thief did. Dishonored did. The original Bioshock did. But Infinite is too much. Someone needed to take an axe to the story and say “look, too much shit here”. Where is an editor when you need one?

    I felt the game was trolling me, manipulating me in obvious ways and didn’t quite give enough of a shit about consistency – so all that searching for little voxaphones and mannequins waiting for their scripted moments just felt hollow. I really do like Disneyland better.

  14. @Shaun: I see your point about revolutions and power vacuums. The French revolution comes to mind, as do the Bolsheviks: in both cases, the people who stepped into the power vacuum were arguably worse than what came before.

    Before I say anything else: I’ve not played Infinite, so my perception of the game is filtered through news outlets and the biases of reviewers. But I have a BIG F*CKING PROBLEM with the way Infinite portrays the revolution. 1) The oppressors are all white, the oppressors largely black or from other minorities. 2) The game is full of propaganda about how “savage” non-white people are. 3) The civil rights movement in the real world, in which black people successfully managed to change public opinion and law and in some way redress the kind of horrific racism seen in Infinite, was peaceful and could not be further from what happens in Infinite.

    The upshot of all the violence in Infinite is that not only does it portray black people as the monstrous savages their oppressors claimed they always were, it also implies that change of any sort is bad and will only lead to further social problems. This is not true at all! Yes, there were plenty of revolutions where the people who came to power were worse than their predecessors – but I think it’s really, really messed up that the one revolution that Infinite uses to talk about this is when black people finally catch a break. Frankly, it’s insulting to all the people involved in the civil rights movement. Infinite claims that we’re all no better than white supremacist republicans, but there have been so many social movements which *were* better, and which *demanded* a more humane approach to politics. It’s frankly insulting to any empathic, politically-minded human being to go down that fatalistic road and not give people the benefit of the doubt *after they’ve already proved that they deserve it*.

    Sorry, I just think this is a really huge ethical blind spot that the game (and a lot of our culture, for that matter) has and wanted to address it. *lowers hackles*

  15. @HM you ever read China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels? Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council? I love those books but they’re full to the brim with invention and new stuff, particularly Perdido, which has a bit of cool shit for cool shit’s sake going on (although, being a massive dork, I could defend most of it).

    I don’t think Infinite’s problem is so much chucking in too much stuff so much as failing to integrate most of it into its setting in a way that rang true. The skyrails didn’t feel like something that anyone actually used outside of improbable combat acrobatics. The Vigors, as you said, were only there because something something plasmids. Etc.

    I would not prefer Disneyland, personally, if only because it is owened by far worse thieves and racists. Maybe Chessington, if I got to skip the queues.

    @James yep that’s pretty much the run-down of issues I had with it too. Although I’d note that with both the French and Russian revolutions you mention, the “power vacuum” was occupied reasonably well by a panoply of revolutionary groups, families and other organisations until one decided to take control for itself. Now that’s still reductionist, but if Infinite had bothered to portray a sequence of events like that I could’ve gone with it. But nope, it’s an instant flip: the old boss is dead, now these guys murder children.

    I think it’s also interesting to note that although the US Civil Rights movement was broadly characterised by mass peaceful protest, and saw a lot of successes as a result, towards the end of his life King was beginning to critique capitalism as the chief source of racism in the US and become open to the idea that more active forms of civil disobedience might be required to institute significant social change.

  16. Yo yo yo I just want to second Bas-Lag <3 Mieville's other stuff is all over the place, but his Bas-Lag stuff is brilliant. There's a major character in my new Twine named Yag Harek in tribute :)

    Mieville himself is a giant dork (and really handsome, I met him at a signing for Embassytown and I nearly swooned), and I think I read that he didn't really enjoy playing D&D but just loved reading the monster manuals, and that's so evident in his stuff. What i loved about Perdido especially is that every chapter had at least one cool little thing in it, a creature or a bit of technology or an observation about the culture that has no purpose other than to just be something cool to look at. Actually that's part of the reason I liked Dishonored a lot–that game's the closest to what I imagine New Crobuzon to look like. I would fucking LOVE to play a game set in New Crobuzon but done properly.

    Have you read any Gene Wolfe? He's another who who creates these marvelously detailed and alien worlds, but his technique is fucking with narration a lot. All of his narrators are compromised or damaged or lying or misinformed in some way, and so his stuff has a very strong conflict between the narrator's impression of what happened and what the *real* story is.

    The Wizard Knight is a clear example (it's not one of his more well-regarded works, but I'm fond of it)–in the first book, the narrator essentially spends a decade among the faeries and can't remember what happened, and so he's traveling through an unfamiliar land with no memory. In between books, basically another decade passes, at the end of which he swears an oath that he's going to keep that time secret. (To a degree, it's a trilogy with the middle volume censored.) And so the second volume is the character tying up loose ends and doing a lot of complex, mysterious shit. Every character throughout the duology lies or has a hidden agenda or does something in secret or avoids an uncomfortable subject, and it's not always clear what exactly has happened behind the scenes. A lot of simply understanding the plot has to do with teasing who's loyal to who at what moment, who's breaking an oath, who's betraying someone, who's acting as a double agent, who's acting as a triple agent.

    I guess that's part of my frustration with game narratives, particularly those like Bioshock Infinite which are ostensibly about parallel worlds and about worldbuilding, is that I've seen excellent writers do this in *linear prose*. I mean, I'm tired of bad movies that are punctuated by rounds of Hogan's Alley. You know, I mean, I *get* why AAA studios are loath to include too many side areas, because that's expensive and this game costs enough and has taken enough time already and you don't want to waste resources on something that someone might not see. There was an Andrew Plotkin piece that I'm too lazy to find where he suggested that one of the advantages of text is that it's cheap–you *can* put all sorts of frills and details into an IF game. We're still figuring out how to do this in Twine, I think (I played one which was explicitly inspired by parser IF where every object that you could "EXAMINE" was rendered as a hyperlink, and it was fascinating and also extremely tedious to play, which is itself interesting), but parser IF has been doing detailed pieces for years. WE do all know how effective Twine and similar tools are for creating branching narratives–I don't know.

    I didn't really have anywhere I was going with this.

  17. I kind of couldn’t stand The Wizard Knight. There was this moment at the beginning when it seemed like it was going to focus on this interesting take on what it’s like to be on the fringes of a fantasy world and then Able chases the fairy queen and gets big and then it’s a bunch of blah blah blah. And what you described about the missing middle trilogy seems like a common trick of his — the exact same thing happens in Book of the New Sun where they reach the gates of the city and Something Very Dramatic Is Happening and then oh, book one’s over, let’s pick up in book two sometime later and never explain what happened. At some point this crosses the line between subtlety and reader abuse.

    Anyway I was rereading Book of the New Sun not too long ago and the writing is amazing but I feel like it pretends to be interrogating the idea of pulp fantasy when it’s just dressing it up in a fancy cloak and an awesome sword. The whole first book is pretty amazing (though even there Dorcas is kind of embarrassing as a character) but somewhere in the second book I just got sick of it (though I didn’t abandon the reread until the fourth). I definitely don’t have the patience to tease out what my Wolfe-head acquaintances say are the incredibly subtle clues that I’m not sure what even. I found this comment which I quote for concord:

    “Sometimes, I can’t figure out why I keep reading Gene Wolfe. I mean, sure, there’s the excellence of his prose and fascinating world-building and all that junk. But his books make me want to scream in frustration. I know the guy is a Master Illusionist, but I can’t decide if his illusion is hiding the deep meaning in his books or if it’s making me think there is some deep meaning I’m missing when there is, in fact, none.”

    Anyway! Lots of the stories are fantastic (I’ve even seen an explanation of Seven American Nights which makes it seems as if the stuff he’s hiding is really there) and so is Peace. Anyone who wants to explain Peace to me can feel free! And start there and don’t let me put you off him. I actually complained about Wolfe before in relation to Thirty Flights of Loving, which I still haven’t figured out.

  18. @Richard I dig his other stuff too – I think Railsea is the only one I’ve yet to read (I’m rationing it!). The best would be Embassytown and the City & the City, I think. King Rat, his first, is the worst, probably followed by Un Lun Dun, which is over long.

    I’m a bit fanboy around Mieville as well – clearly a handsome fucker, he is also a highly skilled writer, highly qualified in politics, has run as a socialist candidate in British politics, and has a love of weird monsters, obscure language and historic/cultural ephemera. Shame he wasn’t around when I was a teen as he’d have been a perfect role model. ;)

    I’ve read the Fifth Head of Cerberus and thought it was interesting, but it didn’t quite knock me off my feet. Stylistically interesting, though, and definitely tricksy with the narration. I’ve got a copy of the Book of the New Sun via a friend which I will read eventually!

    I see what you mean about being frustrated by videogame narratives. (Also, thanks for the intro to Hogan’s Run. I use Mad Dog McGree as my go-to piss-taking reference!) I would certainly love to see more interesting stuff like this going on. I think it is out there, Pathologic springs to mind, and I’m not convinced by what Sisters have told me in The Void. I think my frustration with this stuff is tangentially touched on with my old piece about Skyrim.

    Recent conversations here have provoked me into looking to address my simple satisfaction with fairly basic gameplay. I’m here saying I quite enjoyed the shooty-shoot in Infinite, and it looks like that was just me (okay, and AR’s Potter). Maybe I’m setting the bar too low for myself. So, I’m continuing my playthrough of Dishonored (UI mostly off, of course) as I really want to finish it but I’ve also finally started Dark Souls. Let’s see what effect that has on my expectations.

  19. Ugh I shouldn’t be allowed to write comments.

    1 – those best/worst are of the non-Bas Lag books

    2 – Mieville’s qualifications are in international relations IIRC

    3 – it’s called Mad Dog McCree

    4 – THE Sisters

    5 – the point of my final paragraph is to query that perhaps I am too forgiving of weak games as a whole because I am more satisfied with competent but unexceptional gameplay than others – so I am more happy than many commenters here to overlook the fact that I’m clearly bolted into a rollercoaster. What effect will that have on my final opinions on a game as a whole? Etc.

  20. I quite enjoyed the combat too Shaun, despite its flaws: lazy duplicate and redundant weapons (the pistol, that scoped machine gun), pointless tears, infuriatingly spongy Handymen and Firemen, more open arenas and fewer AI systems to manipulate that diminished your choices, the lack of medkit/hypo stacking so you had to hoover up items while you were running and gunning, the dumb spam firing enemies, the shield/cover/hitscan chaos that Jonathan Blow brought up, a lot of the skyline abilities/perks were almost useless, the skyhook as a melee weapon was useless (unlike the melee weapons in previous Bioshocks, particularly 2), all weapon upgrades and supplies were purchased with dollars which were taken away from you when you died which created a nasty negative feedback loop at times (Bioshock 1 & 2 avoided this with upgrade stations, Adam and cash), no ‘killroom’ and defence situations like in BS1 & 2 with the Big Daddies and Big Sister battles to really make use of your traps and the environment, and I’m sure there are other things too. But I did enjoy it, bizarrely. I enjoyed tossing plasmi– sorry, vigors around, matching weapons up and finding different synergies. I also welcomed the radial menu, something I really wish they’d implemented for mouse and keyboard in BS1 & 2.

  21. Great episode! I kind of wish you guys *would* do more episodes like this, where you cover games you maybe aren’t crazy about, but are relevant to discuss for whatever reasons..

    You two articulated exactly what was wrong with this game in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere… the vast majority of Infinite’s criticism seems to focus on the bland shooting mechanics, while the storytelling gets praised to high heaven.

    I remember when it first came out and just about EVERY podcast and website at the time was heaping relentless praise upon it; i recall listening to one ‘professional games journalist’ assert that Infinite was an “emotionally powerful work of art”, on par with “the best of film and literature” (!!!!!), and then she described watching the endgame sequence repeatedly while sobbing.

    p.s. Dark Souls = best game of the last ten years ;-]

  22. Hey cddb, thanks for dropping the comment before this podcast drops off the comment event horizon (for spam blocking purposes, the threads expire after a while).

    I do wonder from time to time if I/we should spend more time on things I/we dislike but I tend to have a bit of an inferiority complex: I often convince myself the mechanics simply aren’t to my taste rather than being bad in some way. We also did a negative one on Papers, Please; we had lots of problems with it in spite of the almost unanimous critical praise it received.

    On a related note, I came into Infinite once the backlash had already happened in critical circles. There were plenty of sour notes being played on Infinite in my RSS feeds and the like. I was really hoping to buck that prevailing trend in my social media circle and *like* it – I’m too slow to be a trendsetter but there’s always time to be a contrarian. But it was not too be. I just couldn’t do it.

    Joe Martin of Unlimited Hyperbole, who I have a lot of time and respect for, wrote “I cared for Elizabeth and Booker deeply by the end and the final twists blew me away”. But people are different I guess: Joe also gave up on Cart Life after 12 minutes and thought Proteus was underdeveloped. We obviously have different preferences.

    Oh you people and your Dark Souls recommendations =)

  23. Bioshock Infinite can bring a multiple discussion about multiple questions, none it’s a good thing. I could start pointing the final product in comparison with the product they show until the release, to interview to gameplay footage, none corresponds to the game they release.But the responsible it’s not only on Irrational Studios or could say kevin Levine to show off something that do not exist, the big responsible is like always the major game journalism now and always, principally now. It’s not a attitude of faith in what the spoksman of some studio says in a interview or a event or a exclusive. Every time they do the same thing, it’s visible how systematic the game journalism work for self profit with a strait relation with the market and marketing. It’s a win win situation, everybody gets happy.

    Game journalism is responsible of all the hype that a game receive and responsible to maintain or even expand the hype of a released game and very responsible of many kickstarter succefull fund, many of them fake or not as promissed, not to forget how influentional they are with pre sell games. It works like this, a studio leak a information of a new game and the big ones spread the word, big fuss, a hype beggins over the game. They cover every bit of information, information direct given by the same owners of these products.

    However it’s not just a information given, it’s how and if you pass a information that makes a journal so powerfull, being a lie or truth, the game journalists give their opinion of how awesome the game will be, giving big highlight in the game, it’s impossible not know something in the entire week. Months going with big events, lekead screenshots, teaser, exclusive gameplays, trailer’s revelation, exaustive interviews, news after news, previews, positive opinions, positive expectations. How anyone cannot say this dont interfere in the judge of a potential reader in buy that game? You could however claim that a journal need to be feed with a constant flux of information in order to suvirve, you would be right, but I wouldn’t would so far saying “that’s it” and over the subject. About this I have a different discussion but would be long and it’s better continue with our theme.

    Bioshock Infinite.

    What makes Bioshock Infinite curious is how was the reception that the game receive in the game journalism and what was the consequences of this before the realease and after. It’s clear that the game showed in the gameplay and discussed by Kevin Levine it’s a completly different. The final product it’s a straight foward first person shooter, with very poor gameplay mechanics, having a very poor and opportunistic story, bad and tedius graphics and visual, lacking attention to details, stupid AI. If it wasn’t considered a triple AAA game, it could be undistinguished from any independent game in his protoptype version. However the unreleased game, the marketing game, that game was something.

    Just see the E3 gameplay and the Kevin Levine interviews. A dynamic world of a flying city in the skyes, highly detailed graphics, highly detailed game, a living city in chaos, you would have the possibility to see a world falling apart, but still in function, differently of a world that already was gone in the deeps of the ocean. The story was so great, that was designed to be fluid, face to face with the gameplay, every step, every look, every action was a decision make that would change the storytelling permanently. The team doesn’t want static decisions, not even moral decision, no, it have to be ambiguous like life and fun to play, so your actions would cause a interesting change in the story in the mostly deep details, no punish, no lost, just constant wave of possibilits. Beeing a fluid world, it would be almost open, people would be walking around the streets doing their things, and depending of your actions could be your enemies or friends, if enemies, they would chase you through the skys, very smart, interating within the background in ways you never see before. Speaking of never seeing before, they promisse emotions, emotions with gameplay, so they introduce you to Elizabeth, powerfull, a trully partner that the player couldn’t control, finally a strong woman in video games they say. loosing the full power of the player, the player will now have to cooperate, a emotional bond. Not just that, Elizabeth have a unique dynamic gameplay possessing a highly AI that change contextually, every moment it’s unique to Elizabeth. In combat she helps the player using his power to change the tears, they are dynamic, cinematographic, they are constantly changing in the scenario, contextualy changing. wait! We have moore! Forget Big Daddys! Meet the Big Bird, with a highly AI, change the storytelling and consequently the gameplay, changing even the way Elizabeth thinks about you. Dynamic it’s the word! Travelling dynamically around Columbia by the sky-lines, dangerous, the player will have to be cautious when hooked, controling the ultra speed motion while being chase by crazy enemies that jump e fall off. And more and more, much moore!

    Then the game was release and we have that awful unfinished game and more incredible is the reviews and a endlessly serie of articles of how Bioshock Infinite it’s the best game ever. The game even save people’s lives, teach how live like human beings, how to have real emotions. Like a article in kotaku saying that Elizabeth is more human than the person who wrote it. Wich I think is hard or she has a serious problem, we all know why this afirmation is exaggerate, and to start the AI of Elizabeth was so dumb that the only thing she do was pick a coin on the ground in the middle of a gunfight and be stuck on some ramdom wall.

    Like I said, more could be discussed, but I’m tired, and since this post soon will be closed and the forum is close and I dont comment anything for a long time I choose this one , because I see that are things that needed to be said about this Apparently Game who sell and receive not so apparently lots of money.

  24. Hi Pedro, thanks for throwing a comment into the ring!

    In terms of who owns the hype, I think it lies in the centre of a nebulous Venn diagram. The publishers are desperate to get attention for their upcoming titles; game magazines need something interesting to talk about; players want to fall in love with games. I fell out of this merry-go-round a few years ago now and I simply walk away from hype. I just can’t believe it any more. Any site which has written about a game teaser/trailer “well, you have my attention now!” or something like that… it’s just… you know? It’s a VIDEO. There’s no GAME. But it’s not just the site getting hyped, players are apt to do it without much effort. Everyone wants to believe so hard.

    I imagine Bioshock Infinite was meant to be so much more nuanced and complex instead of becoming just the same as every other shooter that has existed. But all of those complex developments just failed and they had to cut back on them. It’s possibly a case of wayyyy too much ambition just hitting the wall of what is possible. It’s all sad, really. Especially as we suspect that Infinite “killed” Irrational Games.

  25. Thanks for reading so far! Sorry for the very long answer!

    It’s more a observation in these years of game journalism, even when the marjority was magazines like EGM or Nintendo Power, is just the way it meant to be it seems, it begans more a shop guide than a serious critical press moviment, not that this would be any better. Obviously the game press do not own entirely the hype, they are build by people who get the hype and wants the hype and spread the hype, however they start in somewhere, if it wasn’t possible to start or be one of the focus of this virus, marketing woudn’t be so influentional, wich my point is precisely that. Its cleary that are people who wants triple A games, there is even the public of a milionere game production and even the public that is turning your attetion to the indie moviment and getting away of the triple A development. My critic is on the marketing role that both game journalism and the game industry plays, it’s not the first time that Kevin Levine say something that doesn’t correspond to the released game or was Kevin Levine the first and only person, they do this all the time by a long a time.

    Because of that I coudn’t say that was just a too ambicious project, I already see that too ambicious project in the past of his games, and see the way the game journalism treat it, like the first Bioshock, its mostly the same thing they said when I first heard about, a environment highly interactive and dynamic, a place build to tell a story through the gameplay, smart enemies that go on living in the world without your presence, unique weapons, etc, etc. The same way was the previews extremaly exagerated, detaling the incredibly world they see and play. The first Bioshock was indeed more interactive and give more immersion than the very Bioshock Infinite and the player use more the background in the combat, even if is mostly in specific cases. Reading my old EGM some time ago I understand how these material create a storyteeling making the game that isn’t the game, the language used make a description of pure fantasy, purely propaganda in the end. In that same EGM I read a interview with Kevin Levine about his Bioshock, not so different when he talk about Bioshock Infinite, he used the same language and made the same promisses. The only thing I see is marketing strategy in a shopping guide magazine. I’m not preaching the end of the game journalism or saying the people should stop to visiting that sites, aparently they have a use to who seek that kind of service, I myself in times to times find me seeking some junk fast information, however they are not immune of a observation or a reflection. If all this marketing stuff works or not, coudn’t say, but it surely it’s not impossible.

    It’s realy a pain when I see some – for example – rock paper shotgun helping – even if they say a little – to fund a Peter Moulyneux kickstater project, even knowing that he is a big mouth who says much and do nothing. Giving highlight every week to some project and saying “hey dont know if its true, but it seems pretty cool!” or after some posts saying “OMG this have to happen!” or “Shut Up And Take My Money” doesn’t take off the responsability. This is very serious, the game journalism is influentional in some way, it affects the judge of others in fuding these projects to say the least. It’s evidently that kickstarter become a bussines itself to make easy money, with a good team of production, it’s possible to do something with more return than any TV’s commercial with no product at all. I dont think Richard Garriott after his cheap trip in the space could be succefull in his kicktarster if wasn’t sites like kotaku to bring him back to life just like Lazarus did. Or even the first big kickstater that reachead more than tree million on a game project, Double Fine Adventures.
    Some days ago I see in rockpapershotgun a post about the decision of steam to take out that HATE game, questioning the criteria of steam to accept games in theirs shelfs, saying in contrast that they (RPS) are just a minor site who dont have any influence in anything, wich we all know its not true. Evidently the criteria of steam is the public opinion, so the internet and so the game journalism who gets crazy when they see the trailer of Hate. I dont doubt its a just reaction to make some visibility in their sites wich parallely developed a persona to get offended.

    Of course, its not a surprise, game journalism are what they are supposed to be and act in the only way they are capable. Just like the traditional journalism. And have a personal goal wich consists in their self interests, not in the interests of a client for example, but seeking to maintain his habitat breathing at all costs, wich obviously makes senses.In terms of effect in reality is not only the effects it does on people but the world it helps to construct around him. We could conclude that everything releated to their world fuction only in their world and they only works in that world to that world. The confusion is that they exists in our world like a necessity, that it must exist and have a natural cause, working in our system to our system naturally. I’m saying this to not be assumed that game journalism acts the way it acts consciently and literaly to make profit selling games, its major intention is differently. My observation is on the GAME wich the game journalism and the game industry plays within the public. Kevin Levine and his Irrational Games and Bioshock Infinite played this game too as they always played in the last seasons. Making a game that isn’t a game, is other game, in other reality, made with the intent to lure ladys and gentlemans to their show and sell their magic products. To do that they must have a public willing to be lured, wich they surely have. I think in the end, problably that was the real point I want to reach here, to state that other game who no ones notice or just dont talk about. Bioshock Infinite represents that subject very well. Next question that could be made is about his opportunistic story, because it is a good example of how the Entertaining – like video games – not only helps but participates – on the same time comes from the same place – in a system to maitain our perspective of reality feeding a broad of our narrow sense and shared ideias principally about violence, justice, society and preconception. The devil is on the details!

    And curiously or ironically Kevin Levine is still being considered a master of the art of storyteeling times after Bioshock Infinite being cononized by the critics. This game apparently made a huge success selling more than 4 million copies, I’m not conviced that the game doesn’t make profit, but I think its not impossible, if for example the spends in the general production was too much and the product wasn’t capable of a return. But only makes sense when we considered that realy existed such ambitious project in the first place. What confound is the same perspective with thinking that something necessarily have to be what you think that have to be, wich in that case is thinking the game was produced to be a piece of arte and not a commercial product or a capitalistic enterprise. Initially my view was that he was succefull with Bioshock Infinite and could sell his firm to a bigger one and release himself from his chains to make something to his own that wouldn’t suck all his vitality. I dont think etheir that he doesn’t know how to administrate a bussines, on the very contrary, he seems very smart. Despiste all that I personally have respect by his work and recognize his story through the video game times. I dont doubt that a Kevin Levine kickstarter would pop out sooner or later!

  26. Hello again Pedro. I can see you wrote a lot of words =)

    I would say, stepping back a bit, that it’s all about symbiosis. Developers make games they think players will buy. Journalists cover games they think players want to know about. Players can only see what PR and journalism feeds through to them. Who is at fault? Journalists and developers are just trying to survive and it’s understandable that they follow any formula that seems to work.

    And no one really wants to pay for game journalism either. Yes, journalism has always been supported by ads but videogame journalism like tech journalism has ended up being funded by the industry it is meant to be watching. This is not to say that there is “corruption” but videogame consumers have no desire to pay for videogame journalism. If they want something different, they vote with their eyeballs… not their wallets. And inevitably that’s going to encourage clickbait, a focus on star titles, big names, and “wow look at this”. Not even #gamergate talks about funding games journalism directly. RPS are trying out a supporters programme but I bet you – and this is speculation – it doesn’t come close to the revenue generated by ads.

    Ken Levine gets a pass because of his work on Thief and System Shock 2. Those were both incredible titles. When you look at Bioshock, we see an ambitious, totally different kind of game environment, but the game itself is merely “okay”. Levine is definitely on a difficult road to becoming Peter Molyneux: fabulous energy and ideas, but lacklustre execution on the ground. But then Molyneux also still gets attention after years and years of collapsed superhype.

    I’m no fan of Kickstarter. It was set up to support modest projects but now it’s become this juggernaut through which millions of dollars routinely change hands. For oversight we have “the crowd” and if you believe it has wisdom, then you probably believe the free market always makes the best decision as well. (Hint: It doesn’t.) So I just do not talk about Kickstarter projects here because I’m not just promoting empty hype, but empty hype with a price tag attached. Obviously some games would not exist without Kickstarter: but what has been the overall “cost” to videogame industry? How many $$$ have been wasted servicing crappy and failed projects that might have been otherwise shot in the head by a risk-averse publisher? Is this loss a worthwhile price for those successful titles which Kickstarter was essential for?

    I think I’m wading a little too much through territory of my book here. =)

    But there are exceptions, of course. Let me go back to Cart Life. Although a few talking heads like myself found it massively interesting, I didn’t think it would achieve any sort of success. Yet it went on to rip through the IGF which was a surprise to me. This is in spite of the problems: author Richard Hofmeier isn’t into self-marketing, the game repels many players and it’s about mundane, ordinary topics with tedious mechanics. It was broken and rough around the edges; it did things to players that your average gamer might not approve of (the developer of Diner Dash called it “drudgery” explaining “drudgery is not fun”).

    The danger is that the industry continues to focus on teens simply because they have no memory yet, they haven’t been through the cycle of hype and recognise regurgitated ideas for what they are. I loved a lot of recycled stuff when I was growing up but I didn’t know that at the time, thinking it all fresh and new. Selling to a generation with no memory is a strategy that serves media industries well. And that’s probably why change is so slow.

  27. I read your last two sentences and thought, “But why does pop music change so fast then?” And then answered myself: It’s because teenagers’ parents’ music is still around for them to rebel against. Anyone tries to come with recycled dad-rock concepts like a U2 knockoff and the kids will recognize it for what it is. I don’t know if there’s a way to transfer this to games.

  28. That’s a good point, Matt. I think we should also consider the speed of recording a pop single/album is not the same as the speed of a game (let’s restrict to AAA). So evolution can happen pretty quickly in front of your average teen in pop music, but it’s fairly slow in games? I’m reaching a bit here, but it’s another angle I thought of.

  29. Yeah, in this way big-budget games seems more like big-budget movies, and big-budget movies are full of remakes and sequels.

  30. Molyneux is the baldest phoenix.

  31. Levine has some way to go, then.


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