BIOSHOCK INFINITE is a Lesson in Video Game Writing

Nope, we don’t even pretend to know about video game writing. But this guys, and reading this article has taught us a hell of a lot (which can transfer right over to our TV writing obsession as well):

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The failure of BioShock Infinite: Writing games like movies
by Peter Bright

It’s high time game developers respected the medium they work with.

As is my unhealthy obsession, I waited impatiently for BioShock Infinite to unlock on Steam—then I played the game through in a single sitting. It took about 11 hours (on normal difficulty), though I didn’t “complete” the game in the sense of finding all the secrets it contains. I left some doors locked, and I didn’t find all the codes, but I did fully experience the game’s main draw: its story.

While many first-person shooters have a story that’s incidental at best, either because it’s barely developed and irrelevant (see early titles such as Doom and Quake) or because it’s badly written and still irrelevant (see the Call of Duty series), that’s not the case with BioShock Infinite.

You play Call of Duty to see the next spectacular special-effects-laden set piece lifted from one Hollywood blockbuster or another. BioShock Infinite doesn’t really have these set pieces. What it has is an interesting universe (a probabilistic multiverse in which you can leap between timelines), at least one compelling character (the mysterious Elizabeth who you’re sent to rescue/kidnap/protect), and a bunch of unanswered questions. The whole point of the game is to find out the answers to those questions, and that means playing it for the story.

Because of this, we don’t want to just dip into the game, get a few hours of generic play time, and then do something else. Instead, we want to press forward and find out what happens next. We’re drawn into a binge play session just as we might be drawn into binging on a DVD box set. And it worked. I binged.

But as with so many binges, I felt dissatisfied afterward. Had I truly played a “game” in the fullest sense of the word, or had I watched a movie-like meditation on violence and America sprinkled with some less-than-innovative interactive ultraviolence thrown in to break up the narrative? As I’ve reflected on the game for the past few weeks, I increasingly lean toward the latter—and I’ve concluded that it’s a weakness in the game’s design. Here’s why.

Pure gameplay

BioShock Infinite is not the first or only game to try to tell a compelling story, of course. LucasArts’ various SCUMM titles, for example, had strong narratives more than twenty years ago. Nonetheless, I think there has been an evolution and maturation of games, with stories becoming more important to major game titles.

Most old games were a celebration of the purely mechanical. We marveled at their technology—even as primitive as games like Wolfenstein 3D now look—and found their basic “find key, open door, shoot bad guys” gameplay cathartic.

Sometimes the gameplay alone is enough. It’s not like anybody really cares why those stupid birds are so angry at the pigs. Nobody plays Angry Birds just to resolve the story. And I’ll gladly stack up those Tetris blocks for hours on end. Minor, if inconsequential, achievements can further extend the draw of the gameplay: you’ll play longer just to get 3 stars on every Cut The Rope level or to finishDoom with 100 percent secrets, 100 percent kills (which, back in the day, I totally did for the shareware Doom).

The speedrun subculture takes this to an extreme, constructing a whole metagame of its own that’s then applied to a wide range of games, both old and new.

This kind of simplicity doesn’t make these games bad. They can provide plenty of enjoyment, and they can be carefully honed, stripped down experiences that perfectly showcase a particular kind of gameplay. Many still admire, for example, Quake III Arena as the crowning achievement in the development of twitch shooters.

It does, however, mark the games as being in some ways primitive. We criticize movies when they appear to have no greater purpose than showing off some piece of technology, often dismissing things like 3D or shooting at 48 frames per second as mere gimmicks rather than tools that can be used to help convey a story or deliver a message. Yet many games are still stuck at this level of development, offering little more depth than L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, and they tend to be allowed to get away with it.

Just as I don’t want every film to be as simplistic as a Jason Statham masterpiece (cruelly overlooked by the Academy though he may be) I don’t want every game to be Doom. I want games that offer me more than gawping at a fancy engine and running around blasting people. I want something more than a train pulling into a station.

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