Sunday, April 21, 2013

Backseat Gaming: Infinitely BioShocking

A bit of history first: I am not a gamer. I'm just going to put that out there first. I have some mild neurological issues and one of the many downsides of it are that when I get tense, my body doesn't really know how to process it other than "oh, something that will hurt us is happening. Send out pain to protect us from further pain!"

This is why I can't deal with seeing horror movies in the theater. This is why I'm not a big fan of "awkward" humor. This is why I watch other people play video games a lot more than I play them myself.

It's not so bad, really. When I was growing up, my sister had a Nintendo and rarely let me play but often let me just watch her and her friends play. It's like she somehow knew I'd experience the majority of games in my life as a backseat player. By the time I developed the neurological problems, I was living with her and my brother-in-law. From playing his consoles (XBOX and, briefly, a PS2), I realized that I physically felt terrible pain and tension from anything other than racing or puzzle games (and Guitar Hero, a few years later)- and even those caused problems if a timer was involved. The only way I could enjoy other games is by watching him play. I spent quite a few nights being entertained by watching him play Counter-Strike on XBOX Live and lose his mind whenever someone suddenly decided that they were going to a "knives only" mission.

Then, when I moved out on my own, I could never afford a console and couldn't justify buying games for my MacBook Pro beyond versions of The Sims. My roommate has a Wii and I've played second banana on a few of the LEGO games but mostly watch her. For any other games I'd like to witness, I find Let's Play videos online.

For plain play-through videos with audio commentary provided by the player, I just YouTube search until I find someone that I like the playing style, video quality, and commentary of. This varies greatly from game to game.

For games that I'd like more discussion and light-hearted takes on, I prefer watching the group from Video Games Awesome. They seem to have found the perfect angle and ratio for appearing on screen yet still displaying the game footage and their live chatroom scroll all in the same screen. They make it feel like you're at a live party playing through the game, though they do release at a relatively slow schedule and, because of the amount of effort put in and how they want to cover everything necessary, they don't do night-of-release videos.

So, let's move on to BioShock Infinite. There be vague spoilers in these lands. You have been warned. I have minimal exposure to the System Shock and BioShock games that pre-date it. I know the plots, the twists, and what they're generally known for. Horror-Survival is not usually my bag- especially when creepy/gross imagery is involved. But back in 2010, I clicked on a link to the first teaser trailer for BioShock Infinite and was reeled in by the wit displayed in the action as well as the beauty in the design. I was reminded of one of my favorite children's novels- The Twenty-One Balloons.

A year later, everyone was talking about the E3 demo and I remember seeing the first few minutes and then I stopped watching. Not due to a lack of interest but due to the fact that around E3 2011, I was in the middle of a terrible cross-country move and trying to start a new job. It was impressive and very "what the hell is going on?!" but I just didn't have the time or energy to be interested beyond making a note to look into the game when it came out. Then another year went by and I realized the game was not out yet. I saw the viral videos promoting it... and the game still was not out yet.

Then it came out. And I spent a whole weekend watching videos of play-throughs.

It was fascinating to see the different playing methods from person to person. And I'm not talking broad strokes like the decision to throw the ball at the couple. Just a difference of those players that opened fired on anyone and everyone once they were exposed versus those players that waited for someone to shoot at them first. There were some that ran into rooms with a gun ready or firing and those that looked around corners and listened for music cues or dialogue first. Some only used the rails when necessary- other's went nuts with riding them. Some preferred vigors as their main weapons, few bothered to use the trap function of the vigors or the ability to control equipment in your favor during fights., some just wanted the guns, many just worked with what they had on hand at the time. Not that many cooled down long enough to bother watching Elizabeth's actions. Most were pretty good about listening to voxaphone recordings to figure out what was going on.

And, painfully-yet-amusingly, a lot of people admitted to not knowing most of the historical references.

It was also extremely fascinating to see how much was different from all the teasers and demos that had trickled out over the years. And how different it was from what people expected it to be. Elizabeth's powers changed significantly. I remember people thinking that the roses from the teaser trailer would be something of significance. The way the vigors worked changed. Hell, even the given plot was greatly different outside "floating city, super powers, early 20th century". It seems that the Songbird was to have a larger role, that the Handymen were possibly supposed to have more of a role, the detail of the horses being mechanical wasn't added yet, and the political issues of Columbia weren't quite what they ended up being. I wonder if they originally only kept the "Revenge of the Jedi" moment due to the response it received in the teaser?

So, as for that plot... it has a lot of elegant twists to it. My favorite being "bring back the girl and wipe away the debt", so to speak. The evolution of what starts off as a hokey, "Oh, those crazy racist times of the early 20th century!" and then adds in some levels of how power (and anger) corrupts even the most noble of efforts, how tragedy informs the decisions we make, and how difficult it is to right our personal wrongs.

...And then you go and add on the ability to step into alternate realities and times, which makes it all even more insanely high-concept. I both love and despise time travel- mostly due to paradoxes from time travel. If a story is strong enough, I'll get over the paradox. And, after a few days, I was able to get over the one of this game.

However: As everyone keeps saying, the game is first and foremost, a shooter. But the footage was getting difficult to sit through as it went on. It got freakin' graphic with what your/Booker's victims would look like once you were done with them. I don't know what it is specifically- maybe it was just too many "oh, now Booker kills people again" moments for me personally or just that I wasn't finding footage of anyone that took the time to "smell the roses" between fights. Or, hell, maybe if I was actually playing rather than backseat gaming, it would be a different story- but the violence was a little too chilling to sit through for too long in any given day. And was really difficult to clear my brain of if I tried going to bed right after watching gameplay.

In contrast, consider this: I've been watching 10+ hours of Jennifer Garner kicking ass and shooting guns in ALIAS this weekend without flinching. I don't know if it's some sort of Uncanny Valley equivalent or what, but some violence (usually gun violence, but sometimes car accidents or general graphic/gratuitous violence) just makes me feel sick and dirty. You know that feeling of seeing the immediate pictures of the people that just happened to be on that sidewalk during the Boston marathon bombing? It's like the diet coke of that feeling. And still damn awful.

But just because I feel that way, doesn't mean that everyone does or even should. And the game is still great- both as an individual game and as a milestone in visual storytelling. It's not perfect, but the emotion response gained from many hours of engulfment in the game's world, seeing everything first person, making decisions for what is seen, plus the facts that the game doesn't have cinematics to pull you out of the story on a regular basis and very few loading screens? That out-weighs what any 70-180 minute movie can give you. Even a weekly TV show can't give you that. And it's nice when stories as rich as this one get done in the proper medium.

Final Notes:

- I don't care about the changes in Elizabeth's cleavage from the teaser to the final product.
- I DO care about how there were a few male/female "teams" in the story but that the two most important ones were not romantic pairings. I wish I didn't have to be excited about that, though.
- I'm still torn on the post-credit scene.
- I wish there was more told/explained about the Songbird.
- I wish there were more "stolen" songs.
- Do most police carry whole pineapples in their pockets? Is this just something I'm unaware of?

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