You've probably already read that BioShock Infinite, the new adventure from Irrational Games, is the best release of the young year. That's true. Infinite, the story of a disgraced soldier's quest to rescue a mysterious woman from her imprisonment in Columbia, a fantastical city in the clouds, possesses storytelling, art direction, character design, sound, and thematic development of such overwhelming quality that it makes other games seem amateurish. This, you think as you wander in wonder the cobblestones of Columbia through the game's opening hours, is the game we've all been waiting for.
About an hour into the game, the wandering stops. Events transpire that cause the entire police force of Columbia to want to murder you, and so you take up a series of guns and superpowers in order to murder them first. This is natural, expected. Infinite is the latest in a line of brainy shooters that began with System Shock 2, and so the player knows full well that after some heady introduction, events will transpire that necessitate hours and hours of shooting. (There is a direct correlation, I've found, between the braininess of the shooter and the amount of time the creators trust the player to entertain herself before arming her. Think: Half-Life.)
So, for a few hours after you get the tools of your trade, you go about perforating and flambéing and pureeing your digital enemies, and because it is Irrational, it is all very imaginative and demented. You are able to summon a swarm of Hitchcockian crows, to distract your enemies from the forthcoming perforation. I will not deceive you: This is a satisfying thing to do.
After the game's first spectacular set-piece escape, you find yourself washed up on a beach, gunless. You can spend a while — as long as you want, really — ambling around here, marveling at the old striped bathing costumes, stealing silver dollars from digging toddlers, learning how, exactly, the Columbians built a beach in the sky, discovering the scary local racial politics of public bathing, and grinning like a child at a rendition of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" emanating from a nearby organ.
(Do you know how if you watch someone who never plays games play a game, they get distracted by all of the superfluous information on the screen? You know, walking up to doors that obviously don't open, etc, while you grit your teeth and think, Idiot. A person like this might never actually leave this beach area. They might say: "This is a charming and lovely rendition of a steampunk midair beach. I will explore it for a while and then be done playing." I want to pause to consider the idea that this is as normal a reaction as slavishly pursuing the next objective because of decades of game conditioning. But I digress.)
As I moved off of the beach and into the guesthouse, with some regret, I realized that I was starting to feel dread. It wasn't because I knew that I was being hunted by the dogged forces of the Columbia police. It was because I knew, shortly, that I was going to have to start playing the shooter again.
This isn't because BioShock Infinite is a bad shooter; far from it. Though it's hardly as precise and nuanced as your Battlefields and your Halos, it's never less than competent. By the time the game adds magnetic ziplines and sniper rifles pulled out of wormholes (yes, it will make a kind of hectic sense) and the ability to use water columns as death-dealing tentacle arms, the shooting coheres into something improvisational and spectacular.
No, I dreaded the game becoming a shooter again because the rules of the genre are at odds with the very magnificence of Irrational's game. So gorgeous, so varied, and so ingenious is the universe of BioShock: Infinite that the very last thing I wanted to do as I played this game was to sprint around finding cover and chaining headshots. Columbia is a world you want to traipse around touching, not a world you want to race around destroying.
Irrational lards the screen with so many indelible creations that the actual gameplay, at times, feels like an impatient friend who won't let you savor your meal. "Slow down!" you want to cry, "there are so many treasures here!" But it's always on to the next course. The game features at least four or five designs that are potentially as enduring as the first game's Big Daddies, including animatronic American presidents that spout jingoistic bromides as they strafe you with machine-gun fire; a ship-sized, murderous mechanical bird with a soft side; and my favorite, mournful simian brutes called Handymen. And yet the pace of the game is so fast, the shooting so continuous, the "GET TO THE NEXT THING" so frantic, that it somehow feels like you never get to know them.
It gets to the point during the long middle of the game that the gameplay starts to hinder the wonderful story. A late, affecting section in a mental hospital, a section that is absolutely crucial to the story, is marred by the hordes of imaginary enemies the game forces you to bludgeon. I wanted to creep through the eerie halls of the place, absorbing mood and thinking about a twist the story had just taken. Instead I was panicked about running out of ammunition for my machine gun. It's as if, somehow, those masters of storytelling and atmosphere at Irrational don't trust their storytelling and atmosphere.
The penultimate stretch of the game involves coming to terms with the memory of a dead character. Again, it's an important story moment, one that calls out for a sensitive handling. Instead of solving a puzzle, or navigating dialog, or any of the ways that you might be expected to confront long-suppressed emotional pain, the ghost challenges you to three long and frustrating gunfights. Yes, you shoot a bazooka at childhood trauma. In most games, absurdities like this don't bother us, because we don't expect much from most games. In BioShock Infinite moments like these, when the demands of genre bleed into the narrative, we feel disappointed, even betrayed.
And however accustomed to the first-person shooter we are, the genre has a host of very weird, very jarring conventions that are never more incongruous than in this game. Infinite is a very mature example of storytelling and world-building, in which the main character is able to kill thousands of times more than he is killed, in which ammunition and "health" are everywhere, and in which you can come back from the dead endlessly by paying money. It's fundamentally strange, like dropping mid-'80s Arnold into a Michael Mann thriller.
As soon as I realized that I didn't want to experience the game as a shooter, I started to wonder: Why is BioShock Infinite a shooter at all? Why don't you sneak around Columbia, or create a false identity, or outsmart and outrace your pursuers with the aid of the ubiquitous sky rails, Catch Me If You Can: The Game? Why hasn't Irrational chosen a kind of gameplay that arises out of and celebrates its triumphant achievement, rather than one that turns it into a series of Alamos?
The answer, of course, is that the first-person shooter is the dominant genre in gaming, well understood, with a grammar and a reward structure that appeal to a massive group of people. You could make a strong argument that the very thing that allowed Irrational the time and resources to create such an unprecedentedly polished and realized game world is that they did not try to create a new kind of gameplay experience. And I don't mean to pick on Infinite. It is such a terrific game, but it is so terrific that it feels diminished by a genre that it is better than.
At last week's Game Developer's Conference, I watched a talk by Walt Williams, who wrote last year's shooter Spec Ops: The Line. That game — which Williams himself called "an experiment" — gained a lot of notice for its ambivalent depiction of killing, the fundamental gameplay unit of the shooter. (That a game with an ambivalent message about mass murder gained notice tells you something about how ingrained the mechanics of shooting are in game culture). At the end of his session, Williams argued for fewer shooters, "not because I think that they're bad or wrong, but because I think that creatively, they're too easy. I think we're better than that. Is there something else we can make?"
The best parts of Infinite — and they are among the very best in the history of the medium — are the parts where the game doesn't let you shoot, where you simply walk, and look, and listen. These include the first hour and the last 20 minutes, which are so intense and evocative that they make the rest of the game feel like prologue. It's very difficult to write about the end of the game without ruining the experience for other players, but I will say that it gives some indication that Irrational is quite aware of the endless iteration of shooting that has come to dominate the mainstream gaming marketplace, and perhaps suggests that this brilliant creative company is ready to move on to something different. We need them to. BioShock Infinite is the crowning achievement of this generation, and the best proof yet that we need a new one.