Game Worlds And Why Bioshock Infinite Failed
We look at the importance of a videogame's world, and how Bioshock Infinite failed to succeed where its predecessor had.
Published on Jun 27, 2013
The original Bioshock is better than Bioshock Infinite.
Bold claims, perhaps, especially when most of the industry and its mother went all gooey-eyed when Bioshock Infinite was released earlier this year, but it’s true; it just isn’t as good.
When I reviewed Bioshock Infinite earlier this year we had a considerable amount of traffic from outraged fans posting comments of criticism, suggesting I had written “an unjustifiably harsh review for page views”. I gave it 8/10.
But one point I didn’t focus on during the review – something more subjective than any critique deserved – was its approach to its world.
Bioshock Infinite, more than perhaps most other games of recent times, relied quite heavily on its players accepting its world, accepting this mystical, mythical floating island as fact. It wanted you to be a part of a very unique universe.
But game worlds are so easy to get wrong, and – sadly – that’s just what Bioshock Infinite did.
Let me explain.
Videogame worlds are, to me, the single most important part of a game. Well, that is to say in a game where it matters; no one cares about the personal struggles and motivations of a Tetromino, for example, or what mental disorder obliges Crash Bandicoot to bounce on every damn crate he sees.
But a great world can really make a game more convincing, more absorbing and more fulfilling.
Look at the compelling Skyrim, for example. Overturning every stone, grabbing every loose coin and – for those who really fell for the frozen North of Tamriel – reading every book from cover to cover are all parts of the reason it appealed to so many.
Simply put, you were free to absorb as much or as little of the world as you wanted. It was just there if you wanted it.
Castles In The Sky? More Like A Dungeon
Bioshock Infinite wasn’t nearly as free, and that’s not suggesting it ought to be an open world game. No, the criticism comes in the restrictions it places on exploring the world Irrational Games had created.
The opening of the game was stellar – if not admittedly a colourful equivalent of the original Bioshock – and it helped introduce an intriguing atmosphere.
But this façade quickly fell away. It wasn’t long until you were left trawling through (admittedly very attractive) corridors. The limits were well hidden, but you can’t deceive a gamer; we’ll know when something begins to feel restrained.
Many of the series staples reappeared, of course, from audio logs and stat-boosting Infusions, and these rewarded those who looked outside of the immediate boundaries.
Sadly this amounted to little more than entering one derelict storefront after another, searching the obvious places for hidden collectibles and trotting off down the road to the next set of inexplicably aggressive labourers.
Ironically the original Bioshock was set entirely in corridors and yet, somehow, it manages to feel bigger, more important and – weirdly, considering the destruction around you – more alive.
The difference was the reasons it gave you to explore. Swap thickened glass windows for an open air courtyard and the desire to search each nook and cranny doesn’t change; it was just Bioshock Infinite’s reason to do so was all wrong.
Bioshock Infinite traps you within its confines. The far-reaching clear blue sky offers a glimpse of the potential freedom – the surrounding structures resembling the bars of a cage – while its collectable trinkets represent little more than false hope, the promise of a world that could be but isn’t.
In the original Bioshock, however, the reward was almost always a little segmented piece of the world; a tasty slice of story.
Sure these additional collectibles – whether audiologs, weaponry or character boosts – were available to entice players, but the real benefit was that you could learn just a little more about the people that had once lived there – or those that still did.
Glassy Eyes Behind The Smiles
As though it was the binary opposite of the original, Bioshock Infinite filled its world with passive NPCs and characters that rarely interacted with you as you explored the world.
Nonetheless it was at its best as you explored its less combat intensive areas of the game. The likes of Battleship Bay felt like a day by the sea: the sunbathers, the joyful chatter and even the clink of an arcade.
The problem was that all this was just periphery, fancy window-dressing on an otherwise empty world or a diorama of what Irrational Games wanted you to feel. Of what they though you should be experiencing.
Brandish a gun or get into a bit of bother – however accidental – and these glass-eyed shells of people would vanish in an instant, replaced with mechanical sentry bots and irate, gun-wielding guards.
Metro: Last Light was another recent example of this, breaking the key to your immersion. It was brim to the top with things to see, but only tiny tidbits of an intriguing world that was just not being capitalised on.
NPCs might stare at you as you approach – perhaps even comment on their hardships – but that’s it. At best you had the option to interact, at worst there’d be the mother of all staring contests until you finally gave up.
All games are an illusion, of course. Getting your players on board is a set of carefully structured tricks, even in the very best game worlds. Fallout 3 – praised by so many – mastered such deception.
The world – more barren than any other – was nonetheless littered with tiny stories, glimpses into life before the nuclear war and after. Its illusions aren’t forced on you like with Metro: Last Light however, they much more subtle.
You’ll discover it, and that makes it feel all the more real.
Metro: Last Light even rips control from its players to highlight points of interest. Cut-scenes played out in first-person are still cut-scenes, and there are better – less direct – ways of getting us to pay attention.
The real focus of any game world shouldn’t be distractions, but discoveries. Developers are too caught up in trying to make sure you’re having a ruddy great time that they’ve forgotten that gamers are inquisitive by nature.
We will find your hidden nugget of lore, so stop it with the noise.
The Devil’s In The Detail
So what makes a great game world? How can the likes of Bioshock Infinite fail where others – its own predecessor, even – have succeeded?
The answer is detail. Look through the superficial glamour of Metro: Last Light’s Terminals – the settlements of a post-apocalyptic Moscow – and you’ll find very little in the way of detail.
There are few stories to tell or find, and even fewer emotional attachments to make. We’d rather not acknowledge that offensive strip tease, but it’s perhaps the best example of Metro: Last Light’s misguided attempts at crafting a set of gripping events and characters.
Mass Effect is perhaps the greatest showcase of a detailed game world. Not only has great effort gone into building a universe that gamers care about – just look at the outrage over the ending for proof of that – but there are reams and reams of additional text to rifle through.
That’s the beauty of Mass Effect. It explains exactly what it needs to, but gives you the bonus detail should you want to truly immerse yourself in its world.
Other games rely much less on Codices to draw you in. Red Dead Redemption, for example, might not seem like a detailed world, but the truth is the complete opposite.
It’s in the lone tumbleweed bouncing across the dusty plains, the coyote hunting down its rabbit prey or the anonymous horse riders heading to wherever it is they need to go.
Detail isn’t cramming in things to look at, it’s paying attention to our world and replicating that as best as possible in a videogame.
And that’s how the original Bioshock succeeds. Its Splicers are Adam-addled lunatics looking for any fix they can. They attack you because they need to, and it’s you or them.
Bioshock Infinite’s enemies are almost exactly the same in actions, but with human visages their barbarianism feels jarring. Why are so many seemingly well-natured citizens of Columbia so keen to violently and brutally disfigure Booker?
Rapture’s Splicers are monsters, but Columbia’s enemies are unfounded in their animalism. It’s awkward, frankly.
A Good Game World Makes A Good Game
Perfect your game world and you’ll have your gamers hooked. There may be flaws, but as long as the gamers buying your game want to return then they can easily overlook most issues.
It might not seem like it with the vitriolic attitude of the internet bringing everyone down, but gamers are a surprisingly forgiving bunch.
Assassin’s Creed 3, for example, put little effort into its actual world. There’s no desire to explore Boston or New York or the Frontier, a result of a hectic journey that fails to provide a necessary focus.
Assassin’s Creed 2 meanwhile proves that – even within a series – the quality of a world can differ between games.
Ezio is instantly a more likable character, introduced to the AC world a little smarter than Connor’s forgettable nonsense. Ezio explores his locales one at a time, and ancient Italy is considerably richer in life and detail than anything Assassin’s Creed 3 can provide.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution had a number of flaws – ridiculous, hilarious, preposterous AI being the key one – but its cyberpunk world is so full of places to go that gamers simply adored it.
Think about it for a second and you'll realise those different hub areas you could explore weren’t actually that spacious, but they were so dense with things to see and do and people to meet that they appeared vast.
Dishonored was another recent example of density, of how those who were willing to explore just a little bit were dragged into its fascinating world.
It could be finished in 4 hours, or in 20. And those who paid more attention to the game’s world were rewarded.
Ask yourself why so many people love playing Minecraft? It's certainly not the pixelated blocks. Minecraft is exploration of a world, and gamers want to have that freedom.
Bioshock was Rapture, but Infinite was a colourful shooting gallery and nothing else.