24 April 2013

Somewhere over the Rainbow...

There's an excellent article by Alec Meer over at RockPaperShotgun detailing how analogues can be drawn between Bioshock: Infinite and The Wizard of Oz and Sky Island novels by L. Frank Baum.

He puts forth a convincing argument that all of the characters are represented in the game and, the world itself is very similar to that of the Sky Island novel in it's segregation and problems. I'll list the characters he outlines here because I actually want to make a few changes:

Dorothy: Booker DeWitt
Toto: Songbird
The Ruby SlippersThe Lutece twins
Glinda the good witch: Elizabeth/Anna
The Wicked Witch of the EastLady Comstock
The Wicked Witch of the WestDaisy Fitzroy
The Wizard: Father Zachary Hale Comstock
The ScarecrowFirst Zealot of the Fraternal Order of the Raven
The Tin ManCornelius Slate
The LionJeremiah Fink
The Munchkins: The upper class populace of Columbia

First off, I think you really need to think of the imagery, introduction and roles of the characters and I think this is where Alec gets it a bit wrong. I think it's safe to say that Glinda is actually the Lutece twins and I come to this conclusion from the representation and entrances of Glinda from the movie version.

They greet you when you enter the world of Infinite, and come and go as they please as does Glinda - all the while providing cryptic assessments and helpful statements without really interfering with the natural course of events too much. They take you to the lighthouse which is the representation of the tornado in all Bioshock games (as alluded to near the end of the game): that force which transports the protagonist to their new fantasy land. However, they don't make you get in the chair or perform the tasks to get there: they only start you on the journey.

They interact similarly with Elizabeth and when meeting her to give her the choker they appear to be repeatedly asking: "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?". Do you lose or retain control?

If you watch the Wizard of Oz scene in total you see that Dorothy says that "I'm not a witch at all! Witches are old and ugly..." (around 1:27 in the clip). In the game you see that one version of Elizabeth, the old version, is the witch. She is evil compared to her younger self, though she wishes to change all that and have her younger, pre-witch self saved from the same fate. Just as Dorothy's adventure in Oz prevents her from running away from home and bringing her to the realisation of how selfish she is...

Old? Check. Ugly? Well, if I'm being unkind...

This, of course, means that Elizabeth is Dorothy and that Booker is Toto. Booker being Toto is one of the central aspects of the theory because he is always following Elizabeth: often when you're running along, Elizabeth will get in front of you and there's no way to catch her. She also leads you around between worlds and she is the reason that he is in this whole adventure in the first place. He is the faithful follower, dutifully going wherever Elizabeth does and endeavouring to protect her - even if, in reality, she is the more powerful of the duo.

You can see the parallels (or perhaps, more accurately, I see the parallels! :) ) in this clip from the film. The Wicked Witch of the West captures Dorothy and wants the slippers. She takes away Toto and Dorothy pleads for his safety. Toto escapes but Dorothy is left to have her magical slippers stripped from her through her death when the hourglass runs out.

This is reflected in the scene where Elizabeth tells Songbird to leave Booker alone and she goes along with him to the place where she will "die", have her powers removed and be reborn as the future destroyer.

Similarly, Dorothy wakes up in bed at the end of the film - as does Anna/Elizabeth after wishing to be home and for the nightmare to be over. She had left home (though in the game, she was given away by Booker) but was now there again. This also means that the slippers are Elizabeth's reality-bending powers and that, once home, they disappear along with the magic that they brought.

The easiest reference is the Songbird who is a "winged monkey" - sent to take Dorothy/Elizabeth to the witch's tower where she will be imprisoned and lose all hope/be killed.

The problem then is that who are the wicked witches?

Surprisingly it might be Fink and Slate. One of the big things about The Wizard of Oz is that the land was ruled by the Wizard and his daughter Witches (if Oz the Great and Powerful is true to the books!). The Wizard was murdered and the family fell apart.

Well, in Infinite, the Wizard is dying due to being "poisoned" accidentally by the Lutece twins. The organisation that helped found the city, Comstock, Lutece, Slate and Fink are falling apart in disagreements and treachery. Slate has renounced his affiliation with Comstock and has rebelled, questioning the validity of his superior. We also find him, finally, "crushed" by his actions and fight, sprawled on the floor in a pose reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the East in the film.

No house though... maybe it floated away?
Unfortunately this is where the theory, and similarities end. Fink is just a coward and is killed by Fitzroy. I also find myself swayed by Alec's analysis of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion imagery in the game. However, his alternatives: Lady Comstock and Fiztroy don't fit for the Witches.

I guess the real answer to all of this is that it's all just a coincidence. There is stereotypical imagery used in this game, imagery that just happens to be similar to that found in The Wizard of Oz... but I doubt there is any real inspiration for one from the other. This is, in my opinion, one of the facets of a strong and interesting story - that parallels, discussion and analysis can be drawn out of the work. It makes the story live on and not just become discarded as some throwaway piece of media consumption.

While Bioshock might be the more coherent game, Infinite shoots higher and may well be remembered more clearly.

20 April 2013

Post thoughts: Bioshock Infinite

I, as perhaps per usual, find myself disagreeing with the vast majority of the world on Bioshock Infinite's quality as a game. It is a good product; a great piece of artistry, don't get me wrong, but I think that it's a poor game.

Beware: thar be spoilers!!


Yo! (Actually, I just put this kid in here because I thought he was cool, like the Fonz!)

Booker is neither here nor there in the game. He's a mumbling, stoic anti-hero whose story and character is told and explored through his cutscene actions and other people's dialogue. I think the decision to not make him a mute was perfect but I think he needed some more exposition to really shine. Since the voice actor does a completely adequate job, there's nothing more to really even nitpick about him. The main emphasis of the game is on other people though:

Elizabeth is a great character. She's the perfect companion to be exploring a strange and confusing world with - primarily because it's the first time she's seeing it as well. This makes a big difference. Even for a game like Prince of Persia 2008 where the character interactions work well to set the tone of the relationship, Elika knows the world - she knows its secrets and inner workings. If Elizabeth had been any less incredulous and surprised by what you encounter together then I think it would have reduced the engagement the player feels with her because her biggest positive trait is that she grows as you do and so there is very little distance emotionally and in knowledge between the player and her.

Comstock is a sort of Dr Eggman/Robotnik. He shows up, occasionally, to remind the player as to who the antagonist is but otherwise isn't really fully explored and, similarly to Booker, is understood through his interactions with other people in their voxmachines and the adulation of the general upper class populace in Columbia.

The other two big characters of note are the Lutece twins... however, these aren't even really fleshed out beyond being inquisitive and wanting to be together which I think is a bit of a shame as their intervention is the hinge upon which the whole premise of the game is founded.

While there are other, smaller character parts (such as Daisy Fitzroy) I never really felt that the game wanted to focus on them in any greater aspect than as a means to get to the next plot point by driving the player forward with either a taunting jibe or a stick lash from behind. So, they basically became unimportant and very two-dimensional.



The world of Bioshock Infnite is amazing - that's not hyperbole, either - it truly is! I thought that Bioshock was a very well-crafted world but Infinite is at the apex of the art as an example of world-building in games. It's a coherent, beautifully realised piece that transcends the sum of its limited parts... and that is why I think the emotional impact of the discrimination is so great. I'd love to see some stats from Steam players to see how many people chose to do which path of each moral choice presented to them like you do with the choices from The Walking Dead Telltale game.

I love the various artistic changes per universe: they are great touches that really allow the world to tell a story without everything being explicitly spelled out to you. Along with the general story elements whereby everything has its time and place and isn't outright alluded to before the designers are ready to engage you on it. An example of this is the finger issue: In polite society we tend not to bring up those things but we'll be observing and thinking "what is up with that?!". In a lot of other games, that sort of thing is brought up post haste and removed of all myth. In Bioshock Infinite a less well-trodden route is taken.

However, the game can lose its impact sometimes because the designers overlooked small things in the dialogue. One such instance is when you first get to the airship and tell Elizabeth the reason you're there for her and she reacts really badly... the only problem with this is that you basically say exactly the same thing in the gondola up to the dock when you tell her that someone will take your debt off your head if you bring them Elizabeth. That really dulled the intensity of the moment for me... but those are minor issues that are akin to non-game-stopping bugs in gameplay.

I think the most egregious problem with the story is with the pace that it wraps up. So many things are addressed and so much information is flung at the player that it's actually quite difficult to digest. I actually have a good analogy here so bear with me.

Recently, I've been watching a lot of 1980s films (a nostalgia trip from my childhood) and they really sucked. I mean, okay, they're not like the rudimentary black and white films of the 1920s and 1930s but they're not as well-structured, scripted or written as the films of today are. What I have found is that a lot of films from the 1980s and early 1990s are a bunch of scenes stitched together with a very, very quick roundup at the end to close off the story. It's actually quite jarring when going back and watching them from the world of today.

I think that's Bioshock Infinite's story in a nutshell: It's so far ahead of its contemporaries but ultimately it's still far away from where it needs to be in terms of quality. It's shocking to have come to this conclusion because all the way through the game I was ready to just out-and-out praise the writing and construction of this game story only to reach the last 45 minutes of gameplay and simultaneously be wowed at the twists (which I didn't see coming) but felt completely let down in the explanation, or at least presentation, of those twists.

To put it this way, I have no idea if I missed out on some sound bite from a voxmachine or an first person cutscene but I only realised that the two central characters were the same person after re-watching the ending on youtube because the actor who played Booker DeWitt mumbled and spat out one of the most important lines in the game (actually, it was the last line spoken). I didn't know that before that point... I'm presuming I missed something there? I've no idea and I don't have the stamina to go back through and play it again in such a short period of time as it was quite a long game for me...

I'm not going to lie, though the story is good, there are some weird, unexplained plot points that I couldn't account for by using the game-world logic but I won't drag them into the discussion.

So many vistas to choose from but I'll just leave this one right here...


I think that the whole collectathon aspect of the game, in regards to the coins and upgrades actually detracts from the story experience and exploration of the world for me. It's a constant thought in my mind if I'm overlooking or actively searching for these things instead of just playing the actual game - and, no, I don't consider collecting items to be gameplay.

This item collection also simultaneously undermines the art direction whilst elevating the gameplay. Without objects being given a highlight through their blinking shininess you'd miss 90% of them... but at the same time this same highlighting mechanic draws your attention from the rest of the game and world and pulls you out of your immersion. Given a choice, the only solution is to remove item collection altogether because I can't think of a better way to have this in the game than its current form. It's a design win and lose.

I also think that the implementation of the "ooh look here (hold F to look)" prompts were poorly implemented as, each and every single time I pressed that button I missed out on the majority of what was happening - if not all of it. The prompt itself was distracting and immersion-breaking but the fact that they continued on with the action while you weren't looking at it and then highlighted that fact that you missed something without giving you the opportunity to go back and watch it from the start was just really annoying. Not knowing you missed something is better than someone going, "OMG, look at that coo- oh, nevermind. You missed it.". This needs to be improved in future games... or removed.

As a contrast, I don't think anyone minds missing out on secrets or easter eggs in games - that's part of the excitement of replaying the game. If I'd missed the guitar scene I wouldn't have been annoyed.... but if I'd got out of the bar and the game had told me I'd missed something I'd want to go back and try it... only in this example the bar is inexplicably closed.

Yes, designers want players to see all the cool stuff they made - but you can't hold the player's hand completely. If you wanted to do that then you should have got into cinematography instead. You need to craft a level and the action to guide a player to see what you want them to see, not make it so that the level design is so busy that the player has a high probability to be looking elsewhere. This is another instance where the collectathon causes game design issues.

Speaking of letting the designers show you what they made without obstruction... maybe they could have made the freaking weapons take up less of the screen and had an option to remove the HUD and gun so I could take nice screenshots!

Death is handled in an interesting and very streamlined manner. It's basically the method used in Prince of Persia (2008). You know: the one that everyone and their dog complained about (including EDGE). However, for some reason this method of not interrupting gameplay by having an in-world reason why you don't just die is nowadays overlooked as it always should have been. I don't remember people berating Prey for basically performing the same mechanic, although a lot more long-winded so I never understood why it was a problem for PoP. I guess people are pretty Irrational... right? ....Get it?! ;)

In fact they pretty much cribbed the spec sheet for dual character gameplay from Prince of Persia (2008) which I will henceforth refer to as Prince of Persia or PoP. Elika and Elizabeth provide the same context, emotional ties and mechanics to the player. They are open-hearted, full of hope and joy while the player character is a grumpy, self-centred stuck in the mud who has a secret past that they don't like to talk about. The only thing that's lacking in Infinite is the optional, player initiated conversations that blossom a nice little friendly relationship between the two characters; something that I feel would have really elevated this game to a higher level.

Ah, well... not every game can be PoP-levels of awesome!

To be fair, I never pulled a coin from out of Elika's ear! So Infinite has that going for it...

One of the big let-downs for me of Infinite is the player controls. The control mechanics feel loose: There is a disconnect between my pressing forward on the controller and actually going forward. There's no delay, I'm not talking about that, but there's no head-bob, no physicality in my movement or interaction with the world; I'm just floating there like a cloud and it's very disconcerting and removes my engagement with the character I am controlling.

This is a bit of an unusual situation for me because I'm usually reducing the head-bob effect in games. I know both Bioshock 1 & 2 had the same movement interface but I guess I expect more realism from my games these days since playing so many more physically-representative games. This disconnect is especially highlighted when I run as it just feels like I'm gliding slightly faster (though there is some bobbing!), making no effort and not ever getting exhausted. Connected to this is the no body thing: I see myself get into the rocket chair thingy at the beginning of the game and I see my legs and arms but when I finally arrive and get out I'm just a disembodied shadow blob on the floor.

These things were fine in Doom's era but not in 2013 when the world of Bioshock Infinite is so realistically managed in virtually every other way!

Another thing is the combat: It's unimaginative... Frankly, it's terrible. It's the worst shooter that I've played in a long time because, once again, there's a huge disconnect from a lack of feedback generated from your actions: You shoot a gun and there's nothing, no reaction - you may as well be firing a light beam from a laser. The enemies don't react to being hit either and it's a big step backwards in immersion and interaction with the game world since playing many games (e.g. Tomb Raider etc) over the last few years.

While the guns sounded good for the most part I found the plasmids (or whatever they're called) underwhelming and their switching and selection is really not that great using PC controls as compared to the selection wheel when using a controller. Setting a second vigor to switch between could be unnecesarily fiddly if you accidentally swapped out the one that wasn't in the foreground - not that I ever saw that they explained that you could switch between two of them like you could your weapons.

The decision to limit the player to only two weapons was a bit strange given all the rest of the old-school gameplay choices in this game. Are we worried about carry weight, or what? I'm not really bothered by the decision as I found all the weapons to be useful except for a couple of the late game additions that appeared to be very situational and, apart from that fact, I didn't have money or the time to put into them to really get the best out of them... so they may as well not have been there at all. It seemed like a bit of a waste in hindsight.

Personally, given all the other old style gameplay nods, I feel that they may as well have allowed you to carry all the weaopons you wanted and it wouldn't have adversely affected the game. You pick up and collect all the ammo for those guns you don't currently have anyway so why not the guns themselves since you appear to have the pockets of Mary Poppins?

One of Mary Poppin's lost loves... a.k.a. the saddest person in Columbia.

In fact I got around 3-4 hours into the game and just stopped because although I loved the world and wanted to find out more of the story I just had no interest in slogging through the gamey parts to get to its conclusion. I left Bioshock Infinite for almost two weeks, languishing on my hard drive for the same reason I never bothered finishing Bioshock 2 and I took twice as long to finish the post-Ryan sequence in Bioshock 1 to the preceding 2/3 of the game - the gameplay is uninteresting and, for the most part, uninspired.

The one saving grace are the sky rails. These really add so much mobility to an otherwise stuffy game. There's not a lot of strategic or tactical depth given from them, though I often see people saying they think that there is, as you can't approach a problem from different angles any more than you could by making the wide "corridor" of a level laterally wider for you to walk upon. As I said, they provide a huge amount of mobility: they are this game's dodge button, a way out of dire situations and a way for you to get from point A to point B much faster than if you ran or sprinted and they prove invaluable whenever you face off against a handyman or a large number of enemies.

Needless to say, I think they were a genius addition to the game and saved the combat from being completely dull and boring. Especially when considering that difficulty isn't based on enemy behaviour but on their ability to take damage and the player's ability to deal it.

I did, however, find that they were a bit finicky sometimes with when they would and wouldn't let you jump to the skylines. Sometimes you could be a mile away and others you had to be almost on top of the nearest line. It never resulted in my death but it panicked me a bit and distracted from what was otherwise a perfect getaway!

Technical aspects:

It's like they didn't have time to finish off the placeholder female faces or something... Just look at the difference in quality of shading and construction/realism between the guy and the ladies!

I don't know what it is about Irrational Games but they somehow have trouble making "people": somehow they always come out plastic-looking and alien. In Bioshock they got around this acknowledged problem (I remember it from an interview with Levine, I think) by not having too many people for you to interact with. At best, outside of the enemies, your allies were only viewed from behind glass - with the notable exception of Andrew Ryan. In this game, the problem is more egregious because there are so many non-combatants to interact and be around. 

Funnily enough, the men were crafted reasonably well and fit with the art style but the women, with the exception of Elizabeth and the leader of the Vox Populi, all look like child-aliens wearing human skin. It's a bit disconcerting - especially when you see a portrait of someone and they have only a passing resemblance to how they look in the game.

There seems to be some small bugs as well in the game: at one point when I was blowing up an airship I had to escape and so jumped down on to a zip line... I had noticed that Elizabeth was looking out the window of the airship but assumed she would follow. She did not. So, I'm there on the ground, able to zap things into existence by calling out to nobody. It was a little bit lonely! 

How was I able to tell she was gone completely? Well, usually when you look at a rift you see a beam of light extend from Elizabeth to the rift which then shows what will be summoned. That didn't happen anymore and instead the object would just appear. She respawned a few minutes later so everything was back to normal quite quickly. Still a bit strange though!

The music and sound production in this game is, for the majority, very, very good. From the little dashes of noise when you make a head shot to the way the most important bit of information is highlighted and the rest of the sound is pushed to the back (e.g. when you're listening to a recording or Elizabeth or another important character starts talking). You usually never miss the important information like you sometimes do in other games. In fact, this was the first game in a long time that I didn't turn subtitles on, though I later wished that I had.

The game is very pretty and it runs really well on my system at first but after a few hours play it starts to bog down when loading the environment into memory. Restarting appears to fix this stuttering issue but be aware that it can happen.


I think the fact that Infinite can get me so emotionally worked up over in-game events is a masterpiece of design and story-telling and will be the legacy of this game rather than the mostly stale gameplay.

Yeeeeaah... Not touching this one with a 10 ft bargepole. Still, very brave to stick this stuff in the game!

I saw that Bill Harris would have preferred this as a point and click adventure game. Personally, I wouldn't, but I would have liked it to be a first person exploration/RPG in the vein of a more linear Elder Scrolls game (I can't think of any examples of this genre off the top of my head so if you know of any post in the comments and help an old man out!).

What would I have done differently?

I would have kept first person. I would have stuck in a body like in Dishonored and made movement more interactive and physical to provide feedback to the player. I would have made it so that Booker was human - so he would run out of breath and, indeed, pant like you find in Far Cry 2/3. I would have kept the combat - you would still have guns, the powers and the skyline melee (and skylines) but encounters would be few and far between.

I would have put in light conversation trees (akin to those found in Skyrim) and had the story still revolve around discovering the mystery of the city and Elizabeth and made combat mainly a consequence of angering the wrong people or choosing the wrong roads to go down - i.e. like it is in the real world, combat would be a reaction to events, instead of just being a consequence of your presence.

I'd have kept the story and pacing of the story mostly the same with the exception of the ending which I would have drawn out a bit more to really hammer home certain points (though without the huge amount of combat the game length would be truncated somewhat as that aspect provides a LOT of padding in this game).

Speaking of Elizabeth, I'd have kept her and kept when and how she was introduced but reduced the curve with with she trusts and engages emotionally with Booker, enlarging her interactions with the player and given her optional conversations that expand and enhance Booker's and Elizabeth's relationships like those in Prince of Persia 2009 in order to compensate for this lower curve of the relationship. As it currently stands in the game I feel that it's too much of a switch from "Oh, hai, intruder!" to complete trust. I know that she is presented as naive and child-like but she's also very savvy and these two qualities do not fit all that well together - especially with regards to not trusting the prophet... If she's naive and child-like in her trust then she's more likely to trust those that have been around her and "been good" to her from the start than some random stranger from "outside".

See? Just like Elika! Magic!

Overall, though. I think that Irrational did well to not spell everything out throughout the game - to leave the players guessing, talking and wanting more closure, but not too much. If I compare the four best game stories I can think of, they all have the same main elements in common: beauty and imagination, intrigue and passion/conflict.

Out of those four two are western games with a western sensibility of storytelling and the other two are eastern games with the respective storytelling style: Bioshock 1 & Infinite; Ico & Shadow of the Colossus.

I think it's telling that the two best regional story-driven games for me come from basically the same studios. No one else is really coming close - and that's a real shame. Before anyone gets uppity, I think The Walking Dead Telltale game is a great character study but it's not that good a story: it's just very simplistic.

However, for me this strength in world-building and storytelling really highlights how much the gameplay takes away from the experience. It's a real shame.

Final summary: Get this game and play it. If you hate the combat, stick it on easy.

6 April 2013

AAA: The definition of... (for the games industry)

There's been a lot of frustration and a lot of anger recently in the games' press regarding recent releases and there have also been many comments regarding this particular subject that have basically forced me to illuminate this particular aspect of the industry.

What is AAA?

That's the question that I'm seeing here (and by "here" I mean "the internet")... but the thing is, for me, it's a straight forward answer - and I DO NOT understand the reasoning behind those that answer differently.

Let me start by positioning my argument:

How do we define success and quality? Seriously, have a look around your life and answer this question honestly. What's the best grade you could get in a subject? A? AA? A+? A*?

An "A" grade is the epitome of achievement. It is the pinnacle of the mountain that any academic climbs.

Let's switch to food and accommodation... AAA or 5 Star is the best you can get in a given market. Now, yes, those demarcations are dependent on the market that they are within, but otherwise they are a coherent sign of what is good and what is bad.

So maybe there are more examples out there but I think that those two are ubiquitous enough to kickstart this article; this opinion piece.

AAA is purely a quality-driven derivative. It is a measure of what the market considers to be good as opposed to bad. Most recently I have seen many people within the industry stating without doubt that AAA is related solely to budget. This is not the case. It never was. In the past, with little to no middleware and only proprietary engines to go on AAA tended to be the most expensive development choice because of it's difficulty. So let me get this out there uncategorically: AAA was historically about being the most expensive product to develop because it took the most expensive tools and team to develop it.

This is no longer true and hasn't been for a long time.

AAA is a measure of quality. That is what the majority of the population will understand by the term given their own experience from education and business. I mean, look at the goddamn ratings agencies for chrissakes... AAA is the epitome of the perfect investment. It's nothing to do with how well invested the country or industry is but is only about the anticipated and known quality that exists therein. AAA isn't an indication of investment already allocated to it. That's how it works...

So what IS AAA?

AAA is the perception that a game released is of the highest quality possible. It does not matter on length, nor visual aspects, nor animation... It matters purely on the completely subjective aspect of whether consumers like it a whole lot or not. Same as it does for every other time AAA is applied to any other industry out there.

That is it.

So please, game makers, stop foisting this ludicrous notion that AAA means a multi-hundred million budget and a huge team regardless of final release quality... because AAA isn't what you define it to be but what your customers define it to be.

Same as a 5 star hotel is not 5 star if none of the customers believe it is... neither is your very expensive, overrated game.