Cthulhu reigns over Columbia
Cthulhu reigns over Columbia

Here are my companion notes to this week’s Counterweight podcast on Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013). All my notes and thoughts that may or may not have made it in the podcast. Big spoilers here.   

Before You Rip A Face Off

The opening section of the game had so many problems that it was clear this was going to be a rough ride. I was expecting to be more positive about the game than Eric. Boy, was I surprised.

  • Encouraging pack rat behaviour before the scene is even set. Adrian Chmielarz has already complained that during the opening lighthouse scene, players are distracted by shiny coins. This is completely unnecessary.
  • Picking up items generates this ridiculous, deafening casino jackpot noise. It’s jarring and doesn’t make any sense in the context of Infinite.
  • A simple puzzle needs to be solved to open the lighthouse, but even that is stolen from the player. Just hit F to proceed. This hints that testing led to the deliberate destruction of complexity or difficulty.
  • “I guess they want me to sit in their fancy chair.” Oh. My. God. Like there’s anywhere else to go.
  • The opening is far too much of a Bioshock retread. It’s deliberate, of course. You start with the lighthouse, get taken by craft to crazy city with splendid views and have to read lots of extremist propaganda on your way back to a place of player agency. Bioshock was meant to be modern take on System Shock 2 (Irrational Games, 1999). Then what’s the point of Bioshock Infinite? It was intended to be clever but it comes off like Irrational Games can only make one game, this one, forever and ever. Amen.
  • I can’t interact with anyone, people are scripts waiting to be triggered. The dialogue dispensers of other games are better that a robot with one line. It’s like Irrational had no experience filling a world with actual people, so they just created another dead world.
  • Hotdog stand selling hot dogs for $2. There’s a guy by the stand. There’s a hot dog. I have some dollars. I pick up the hot dog… and nothing happens? I’m not stealing or spending money? Freebie for the newly baptised? What?


  • The newspaper headline reads “Columbia Celebrates.” But why is Columbia celebrating? This is terrible environmental storytelling. What I want to do is pick up a newspaper, but I can’t. I can’t even interact with the boy selling the newspaper. It’s poorly-designed graffiti.
  • Turns out there’s an “honor system” in force. Irrational deal with their “living world” by destroying the repercussions of dealing with people. It’s okay to steal because there’s an honor system! Except later, there are special “steal” scenarios built into some levels.
  • When I escaped the baptism and entered Columbia proper, I found I could jump onto a nearby floating island. It looked perfectly safe: but before I hit the roof on the building the screen went bright white and BZZT. That’s BZZT for wrong answer. The game smacked me back onto the yellow brick road, the only road. Anyone round here played The Stanley Parable?
  • Kinetoscopes. When I watched these films my immediate reaction was: “What the…? What is this game doing?” The films were ludicrous; virtually all of them told me nothing more than the film’s title. The moronic propaganda didn’t help set the scene – it just came across as moronic.
  • Don’t pick ball 77. Right, I wonder what’s going to happen then. Please, developers, dial back on prophecies and that sort of shit. It just exposes the writer too much.
  • The section before the shooting begins was incredibly long. I had so little ability to interact with the world that I tired of it. Even Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) wasn’t on rails like this. These are the wrong lessons to take away from the Half-Life tram sequence and the notgames trend.

Post-Face Rip

  • And now it’s time for the latest in a series on Worldbuilding Consistency: “firemen” who throw fireballs around a world made of wood.
  • Firework barrels. There must have been a few marathon runs around the Irrational parking lot after finally justifying the presence of exploding barrels. It’s a bit late, it would be nice if they’d brought some actual new ideas to the table rather than new narrative crutches.
  • After being possessed, human enemies commit suicide. This just seems kind of grotesque. Add this to skinning people alive with a murder of crows, and the game is intent on butchery through magic. The tone is all over the place.
  • One word. Trash.
  • Why create challenge only to take it away? The game works so hard to make sure the player doesn’t suffer. Irrational designed the need for stuff like ammunition and food – yet they are so ubiquitous that scarcity is never a concern. When you die, Elizabeth just brings you back to life. It also seems weird that Elizabeth is never, ever in danger, because no one likes an escort mission, I guess.
  • The more upgrades and powers the game confers to you, the more it feels like a run-of-the-mill shooter and the less like some artistic statement. I mean, did this Serious Game about racism and multiple realities really need a waistcoat that converts corpses to magical salts? Protagonist Booker DeWitt doesn’t relish killing people, yet Infinite goes out of its way to shower the player with the tools of murder. (I had a similar issue with Dishonored.)
  • There’s little compulsion to explore. The story is thin, so who cares about the voxaphones? The game is not difficult, so who really needs infusions and gear?
  • The Sky-Line is a roller coaster that threads through the Columbia Disneyland. Hang on for the ride kids, because this roller coaster is going to teach you about oppression.
  • The singing scene in Shantytown. It sounds too perfect and looks like a scene from a musical. This is in spite of what Levine hoped for, according to the “making of” vignette at the end of the game.
  • Everyone has their favourite broken Elizabeth moments. Mine is when she’s standing over a bloody corpse, looks down and says, “Booker, there’s a lockpick over here!” The original squeamish version of Elizabeth apparently dies about seven minutes after she appears in the game.
  • Why did Elizabeth need to have Songbird “protecting” her when she never escaped from her Monument Island “home”?
  • I guess there’s an interesting attempt to screw with the male gaze. This is your daughter, dude. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING THROUGHOUT THE GAME DIRTY DIRTY
  • The whole multiple realities thing is a goddamned mess.
  • The whole multiple realities thing is a goddarned mess.
  • When the credits began their long ascent, my only reaction was shock. Shock at the amount of Infinite analysis that has been committed to the internet. I haven’t been so annoyed by a game in years. All that money. All that attention. And to get it this wrong? Columbia is truly the realm of the ridiculous. The game is broken.

From Other Lighthouses

Level-headed analysis from Thomas Grip:

  • “Building from its pedigree, the game is of course loaded with audio-logs. The System Shock games handled this quite nicely and tried to fit them into the fiction. It has since been abused in many games, and I have to say Bioshock Infinite is one of the worst examples I have seen.”
  • “When the game is so dismissive with most of its story elements, it is hard to give anything a deeper consideration. This directly counteracts the intended deep themes of the game.”
  • “Because of the game’s insecure nature I am forced to constantly doublethink. I need to neglect certain elements, forget what I have heard/seen and toggle my view of the world. When in smaller bursts, one can often see past this. For instance, it is possible to feel part of a play even though you know it is just actors on a stage. But when the conflicting elements are so interconnected and frequent it just gets harder and harder to ignore. In the end, the only way for me to go on was not lose myself in the fiction at all.”
  • “It feels like an attempt to tell a serious story through a theme park ride.”

The total opposite viewpoint from Kieron Gillen:

  • “It’s a fascinating game. The more you give to it, in terms of your thought and attention, the more it gives back. I’ve rarely been more happy simply watching and thinking in a game. I’m more amazed I felt I explored so much of it, and still missed so many of the audio diaries. And as I haven’t mentioned it in this cheery download, I also liked shooting dudes a lot.”

Michael Abbott suggests it’s the jump the shark moment, but I think this is post-shark:

  • “I have a feeling that Bioshock Infinite will finally be seen as the apotheosis of the FPS genre, a culminating achievement that signals both a peak and an end.”

Robert Yang also lost it:

  • “BioShock Infinite is a profound failure in storytelling and a landmark moment in the Use Key Genre. And the environment art is pretty gosh darn lovely.”

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11 thoughts on “Counterweight Companion: Bioshock Infinite

  1. I never secured any way to actually experience Infinite (I did get a PS3, but c’mon really infinite why would i even), and my interest in seeing it for myself has waned. More and more, I’m just feeling like I lucked out by missing it.

    Everyone’s criticisms continue to make me more curious about BioShock 2, honestly.

  2. Bioshock 2 is the best Bioshock in my opinion, and Minerva’s Den is great too (comes free with BS2 on Steam I believe).

  3. I’d agree that Bioshock 2 was the better of the bunch, but only when the original Bioshock is stripped of novelty.

  4. “One word. Trash.”

    I like to think you’re summarising the whole of Bioshock Infinite here, not solely referring to the ludicrous omnipresence of trash cans with useful goods in them.

    I am very glad I played System Shock 2 in the same year that I played Bioshock Infinite. Seeing where Irrational came from and how far they’ve fallen side by side served to highlight in my mind all the things I think the narrative FPS genre has lost sight of:

    • Worldbuilding that underpins the level, enemy, and narrative design.
    • Nonlinear level design (on a small scale) without falling into the homogoneity of a sandbox.
    • Multiple systems for player interaction that are complementary and yet still viable*.

    (*Although SS2 fails in a few places at making certain play/combat styles viable, it does allow them to be complementary. Infinite’s various weapons and vigours are essentially interchangeable.)

    I don’t think SS2 will ever be one of my favourite games, but there’s no question it’s a much greater artistic achievement on almost every front than Infinite—the sole exception being visual art, and that’s really just due to the technical advancements in the intervening time. Michael Abbott is quite wrong to claim that Infinite is an apotheosis—it’s no peak, it’s a sheer cliff that we’ve fallen off.

  5. @Gregg:
    Unfortunately, it only comes with the Protector Trials DLC on Steam. That said, I heard the PS3 version is quite alright, and secondhand copies are very, very cheap, which would assuage the cost of Minerva’s Den.

    One of my friends noted that a lot of people disliked 2 because Rapture didn’t have the same appeal on return trips, but were suddenly excited again when the Infinite DLC rolled around. This is hardly noted enough.

  6. I’ll be back soon! Just expending all of my time on this Twine game which is more wordy than I expected.

  7. I loved BioShock 1 but never tried Bx2: I felt that revisiting Rapture in a game from another team would only water down the experience. My opinion of Irrational was pretty unshakeable, so when they announced they were doing a BioShock spiritual sequel-not-in-Rapture-oh-look-there’s-American-patriotic-themes I was hooked. I was convinced they’d deliver, and deliver fantastically.

    I’ve read lots of reviews, and… well, I think I’m glad I didn’t play it. I expected a game which brutally analysed American history and the role that entitlement and patriotism has played in U.S. policy and culture. It sounds like the result was a game which makes only superficial (and offensive) moral judgements but hey, you have magic trousers and hundreds of guns so why would anyone complain.

  8. “I felt that revisiting Rapture in a game from another team would only water down the experience.”

    What you did there, I see it.

  9. @BeamSplashX: I never planned to play Bioshock Infinite. Prior to release, I’d assumed it would be “okay” but the bad taste left in my mouth by Bioshock – I’d just had enough of it by the end – meant I had no interest in picking it up. Then there were all the reviews. And I still thought it was probably just “okay”, just another knee-jerk over-reaction. Eric cajoled me into it. He thought it would make an interesting Counterweight.

    It’s possible my disinterest in playing the game coloured the experience. It never won me over. I never really felt like I wanted to see more of the game. It was always work.

    Gregg is a big supporter of Bioshock 2 but I still can’t work up enough interest to go back into Rapture.

    @Andy: Indeed I had intended that phrase to be taken to both ways. I’d heard about the trashcan thing before but it’s literally incredible when you experience it yourself.

    Mrs. HM and I both played System Shock 2 at some point in the early 2000s and loved it dearly. But I never wanted to play it again because the game was hard work. Finishing each deck was a real achievement – especially as I have my an built-in pack-rat mentality – but I never wanted to do it again. I do like that it was so difficult, in the same way STALKER was. STALKER is another game that I feel unable to return to because of its expanse and difficulty. (But god, I loved STALKER so much.) (This is a digression, isn’t it? Oops.)

    As I noted above, I really can’t see Infinite as a peak of anything, except possibly hubris or studio fear (remove all the interesting frictional elements) It gets so many things wrong which are established practice in AAA. Just look at Dishonored’s worldbuilding, for example.

    @James: You know I can remember back to those very earlier concept images of Bioshock and thinking YES A NEW SYSTEM SHOCK YESSSS. And look how far we’ve come.

  10. Not very far!

    @Beamsplash: That’s a very astute observation about the whole Infinite Rapture DLC thing.

    “I really can’t see Infinite as a peak of anything, except possibly hubris or studio fear”

    Well put.

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