Tobold's Blog
Monday, December 01, 2014
Being played

I once played a game
Or should I say
It once played me
(with apologies to The Beatles)

This weekend I played Bioshock Infinite from start to finish. Only that I am not so sure that "play" is the right verb for this game. It felt more like "follow". If a game is a series of interesting decisions, Bioshock Infinite isn't a game. There aren't any decisions to take, everything is strictly linear. And when you get asked to make a decision (bird brooch or cage brooch?) it turns out to not affect anything but visuals. Even the first Bioshock had more relevant decisions.

This being a shooter one would assume that there are at least the usual decisions to take that generic shooters have: What weapons to carry, how to manage health and ammo, how to overcome enemies. But even there Bioshock Infinite manages to make your decisions not matter: You can't carry more than two weapons, and the weapon you need will be conveniently placed at the start of the encounter where you need it. No need to lug a sniper rifle around, a sniper rifle will be provided to you at any location where using a sniper rifle makes sense, and so on. You don't need to manage health and ammo, because your companion will create them out of thin air whenever you risk running low. And overcoming the enemies is just a matter of time, because if you beat half of them and die, you'll be revived, but the dead enemies stay dead, making it just a matter of time until you win.

Now I am not a literary critic. Personally I don't like the multiverse narrative device, because it is something of a cop out. But I did like the alternative history 1912 setting, and found Columbia a more interesting place than Rapture. Nevertheless in the end I felt I had watched a 2-hour movie being stretched out to 20 hours, with my participation being only perfunctory. Bioshock Infinite *is* it's story, the player isn't really relevant to the proceedings. Needless to say that I don't feel like starting over to try some other weapons or vigours.

I can see the interest of such a "game" for somebody playing a shooter for the very first time and needing all that hand-holding. But I wished this was done with some sort of optional switch, "hand-holding mode on", giving the more experienced players more weapons to carry around and more freedom to do things on his own. Overall Bioshock Infinite left me rather unsatisfied. It is neither an efficient way to tell a story, nor a satisfying gameplay experience. Good that I didn't pay full price for this.

Everything you said is 100% true for World of Warcraft leveling. But there is a deeper meaning: in order for decisions to matter, there must be a difference of outcomes. If these outcomes are equal, then we talk about vanity (bird cage vs whatever). If these outcomes are unequal, we are talking about win vs lose. You especially mentioned how bad it is that the enemies won't get revived, so you can't possibly lose.

The bottom line is that to make decisions meaningful, we must allow players to win and lose. Therefore the game can't be easy and accessible, which means everyone wins and nobody loses.

I think you are realizing that you can't have it both ways. You either get "casuals" who just can't win because they are unable/unwilling to make the right decision (equip strength plate, not spirit cloth), or you get a non-game where you are just carried on rails in a pre-set story.
Not true, Gevlon. Sometimes decisions don't need a clear winner/loser if you're talking story-based decisions. Mass Effect I think illustrates that well enough. Save the Geth, or Save the Quarians (or find a way to save both, if you're so inclined), or maybe save nobody. The player neither won, nor lost, for traditional definitions of win or lose. Their story just played out differently.
It's past time we stopped calling every digital entertainment a "game". I'm not gamer. I don't even like games all that much. The aspects you are questioning the lack of here- meaningful decision making, challenge - and the parts Gevlon refers too - the real possibility of failure - may or may not be essential to "games" but they have next to nothing to do with digitized, three-dimensionally represented audo-visual entertainment.

Over the last few weeks I've been increasingly irritated by the Living Story in GW2. It's not that great a story o begin with but I'm invested enough in what's happened so far to want to see how it turns out. I am not, however, sufficiently invested to jump through a series of pointless combat "hoops" to get there.

There is a complete logical disconnect between telling a story and playing a game. Imagine buying a CD by your favorite band and discovering that in order to hear each track you had to solve a riddle. Or going to the movies and finding out that to get from each scene to the next you had to hit a series of buttons on the arm of the seat in the exact pattern of a flashing array of lights above the screen.

In time the different strands of what we currently call "gaming" will separate, allowing each to mature and grow independently. Can't happen soon enough for me.

For a shooter, one expects easy and hard modes - it's fine if for most people the easy mode just allows them to enjoy the story without having to think about tactics. A game without choices OR tactics seems like it should come with a warning.

As for Bhagpuss, I see the point, but it's not clear that there is much separation. If anything, aren't they getting merged? From Tobold's description, Bioshock:Infinite is essentially a 'gamified' movie, in which you use game elements to compel viewers who might otherwise lose interest.
I don't play many FPS's anymore, and I never played them vs. other people except at LAN parties. I have to say that I hated the mechanic of only carrying 2 weapons when it became popular with Halo, and I still do when playing solo. For PvP purposes it is a good idea as it balances players out a good bit, because even the best player has to make do with the two weapons he's got instead of always having the perfect weapon.
A very nice summary of what's "wrong" with Bioshock Infinite. I haven't been able to finish the game, and a big part of the reason was that the initial experience of entering the flying city, exploring its streets and discovering the corruption and racism at its heart was so interesting that when the shooting started I was rudely reminded that this was not in fact "that kind of game" but the other kind, the one where all the filler bits are just strings to tether one fight to the next. Their opening setup was so fascinating that the actual game couldn't match.

That said I did get a good 10 or so hours in before people assume I dismissed it entirely....but I don't know, for some reason Bioshock Infinite just didn't give me the same sense of investment in either story or mechanics that the original Bioshock did. I'll still finish it someday, but it's a hard game to play when the story/gameplay disparity is so strong.

On the other hand, I don't know why "game" needs to be defined as you have. The first dictionary definition I get on Google is: "a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck." There's no disputing that Bioshock Infinite fits that bill perfectly, and it's one I've lost at so far because I don't have the strength to persevere through it's fairly tedious primary game mechanic (combat) to get to the cool story bits and the rail-riding moments which are too few, alas.
@Bhagpuss the problem you demonstrate is that many games ask us to go through hoops to get "rewards" in the form of story moments, but those games fail when the play elements are regarded as tedious or annoying.

If the game's story is so good that by contrast the play elements become tedious walls to the "good part" I'd say the issue there is the game devs have made some critical errors in design or judgement.

That're analogy of a music CD that requires a puzzle be completed before unlocking a song takes me immediately to Assassin's Creed IV where you occasionally get to unlock a new pirate song during play....
Where I think that Gevlon makes a mistake is in his definition of a game as a competitive undertaking, either against others or against the game itself. Others might define games as an interactive artform in which the primary purpose is not to compete but to find enjoyment and entertainment.

But perhaps Gevlon is correct in assuming that games should be about competition, and we should recognize many modern games, such as Bioshock Infinite as a separate artistic medium rather than continue to call them games. Is there a place for "interactive fiction" without competition? Does the interactive nature of narrative games provide for a greater catharsis than traditional literature?
@Nicholas I actually felt that 'the filler' of Bioshock Infinite WAS the game play. Essentially the reverse of what you said, where the fights were the filler between the story.

I very much enjoyed my time with the game, though it only took me around 8 hours to complete. As a shooter, it was utterly average, but after the intro, I wasn't even there for the shooting, I just wanted to see where the story went.
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