So I finished Bioshock Infinite.

I didn’t like it.

First off, check this out.

This is the E3 trailer for Bioshock. I was pumped by this. I fell in love with the unusual locale and the gritty, visceral combat. The effectiveness of the trailer is that it’s so open-ended. What happened here? What am I doing with this little girl? What is THAT thing doing with this little girl? What other horrible powers can I use? Even the fact that it ends with the player’s death suggests that the player will have to be re-equipped with a whole bevvy of new combat options upon the game’s release.

Infinite pushed this kind of presentation to the limit with this 10 minute “gameplay” video.

Hype is a powerful thing, and Ken Levine certainly knows how to wield it.

The thing is, these videos are all just ideas. Sequential ideas. Lists in the form of a videos.

Truthfully, others have already gone through the broad issues I have with Infinite, like this guy, and this guy. All I have left is my own list of ideas.

The voice direction. Booker and Elizabeth have two very different problems. Troy Baker plays Booker as a very distinctly dull dude. He sounds like a good actor who received very little direction. But since Troy is a pro, he manages.

To me, it sounds like Courtnee Draper did not deal as well with the lack of direction. On the surface I understand what Elizabeth feels, but I often don’t get why.

Also, Elizabeth just sounds like some lady I could meet on the street today – her throaty casualness doesn’t click in 1912. I kept waiting for a plot reason why that should be. There isn’t one.

Elizabeth’s character frequently doesn’t make sense. The sequences up till meeting her in captivity is pretty intriguing – she seems to be pretty okay with her station in life. But then the moment the shit hits the fan, she’s like, “Let’s get out of here! The exit is this way!” and basically completely stops acting like someone who’s spent a huge portion of her life under lock and key.

The writing. “The only difference between Fitzroy and Comstock is how you spell the name.”

Aside from some real clunkers, Booker and Elizabeth constantly waver back and forth between period speak and modern colloquialisms. It’s especially infuriating since basically every other character actually pretty effectively acts like someone from 1912.

I mean, listen to the guy selling the Voxophones at the start of the game, and then listen to Elizabeth. (Or, shit, look at Elizabeth standing next to Mrs. Lin) Are they even from the same world?

Oh, yeah, the fucking Voxophone recordings. Some things never change, huh? This method of information diffusion was tolerable in the kooky world of Rapture. This shit makes zero sense in Columbia. Are you telling me an old black janitor would 1) be able afford a Voxophone, 2) buy a Voxophone, even though he clearly needs that money for other stuff, and 3) carry it around and use it while he is working?

Who is dropping all this recording equipment everywhere?! (Answer: The same people who are throwing money in the garbage) I will say that I was initially impressed at the way that the other sound levels would drop out so that you could hear the recordings, until some inconsequential dialogue started up, cutting off what turned out to be a pretty crucial recording.

Tape recordings are joined this time by nickelodeon-style moving picture viewers that take up even more of your time because you have to STAND STILL to use them, and yet are even less illuminating. They actually find a more insufferable way to convey information than background blithering.

All the goddamn noise. As bored as Booker and Elizabeth sound most of time, all the bit characters fucking commit. Like, the way bad guys scream. All the time. When they spot you, when they’re shooting at you, when they’re dying, when they’re being burnt alive, when they’re falling. Everything screams when I do anything to it. With the Big Bad’s saying threatening things over the microphone, cronies of every size running at you and shouting, robot cannons chiming and rat-a-tatting, Elizabeth telling you she can’t find anything even though you never asked, and a recording of a horrible old white man shouting about Lambs and Shepherds – fucking kill me. I’m only glad I could turn off the reminders telling me, “Your shield is broken! Find cover!”

None of the encounters are special. My favorite part of the game was fighting this horrible, ghostly boss that can constantly summon cronies to fight for it. Not only did I have to fend off mobs of dudes using all of my wiles, I also had to isolate and kill the boss before it summoned even MORE dudes.

Apparently, they thought this fight was so fun, they made me fight it two more times afterward.

This happens throughout the game. A new enemy is introduced in a semi-effective way, it’s defeated, it feels like a triumph, and then you… fight it again. No battle is unique.

There are never really any milestones. Powers and guns are distributed without much attention paid to the pacing or the mounting action of the story. One obstacle requires attaining a particular power to overcome it. This power is never used for such a purpose again.

The whole thing is extremely linear and yet extremely disjointed. I feel like every set piece could have been put into any order. There isn’t any escalation from one event to another.

Elizabeth’s powers are wasted.

The only time Elizabeth’s power does something interesting while playing the game is when she can make baskets of food materialize in the most impoverished part of the city. It highlights the sheer range of her powers, and clearly represents how someone like Comstock believes in the good it can do. (I’m not suggesting Comstock has any of the limited complexity of Andrew Ryan – he’s doesn’t)

The rest of the time, she can make hip-high walls and freight hooks and sniper rifles appear… in locations that are conveniently empty. There are maybe one or two fights where this can be pretty exciting – it feels like you’re actively taking control of the battlefield, summoning a mechanized patriot to take on another patriot, making a freight hook to get over and behind bad guys, etc.

But it’s, like… why can’t all that stuff already be there?

She also gives you health, salts, ammo, money. Stuff you can all get yourself. It invalidates the purpose of scrounging through the garbage for loot, because Elizabeth always finds items in such greater quantities.

You know what Elizabeth’s powers should have been used for? Getting Infusions – the things that increase your health, salts, and shield. That way your growth is intrinsically tied to Elizabeth – your advantage over everyone else in the game is your relationship to Elizabeth.

The twist isn’t really a twist because I didn’t know what was going on. A mystery only works if you can guess what the answer could be. If I have no expectation for how or why someone did something, why should I be surprised when I find out the answer?

The reason it takes forever for any important clues or tangible story details to be revealed, despite the shortness of the story, is that any single clue would unravel the mystery immediately. Especially if you played Bioshock – you’re already looking for the true identity of certain characters.

The big thing for me, though, is, the tone.

At one point Elizabeth very tearfully sums up her very complicated relationship with someone she once knew, and then–

“Hey, Booker, need some ammo?”

For all the importance being placed on the story and my relationship to Elizabeth, I sure feel like I’m walking around with an ammunition dispenser in a video game.

The most exciting parts of the game have really nothing to do with any of the gameplay mechanics. It’s mostly something neat happening while you watch. Even the sky-lines, one of the more exhilarating parts of the game, are just roller-coasters. The ending, while infuriating, is quite beautiful (Yes, Ken Levine has seen Inception, sure, whatever).

The only advantage Infinite’s ending has over The Third Birthday’s ending is shortness and prettiness.

The most interesting way you can look at Infinite is as a musing on the success of Bioshock. In Bioshock, your choices are stupidly distinct, leading to ending A or ending B. In Infinite, your choices all lead you to the same place.

But here’s the thing. Dishonored was more fun and Virtue’s Last Reward was more compelling.

If Infinite came out even half a year sooner, it would have seemed more clever. But literally every part of this game was done better in another game.

But Electronic Gaming Monthly gave it a 10 out of 10.

For years, the only perfect score EGM ever gave out was to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

The Ocarina of Time featured one-touch targeting, a giant interconnected world, a system distinguishing between day and night, and a world that changes over the course of time – all revolutionary ideas that are still visible in games being made today. A perfect score should indicate nothing short of revolutionary.

I don’t see anything revolutionary in Infinite. If anything, Infinite is regressive. No quick-time events, no cover system – things that were all true in Bioshock. Color-coded magic powers like in Bioshock, vending machines in silly voices like Bioshock, flavor text littered about the ground like Bioshock.

I DO see the appeal in Infinite. Really pretty, lots of things to listen to and look at, interesting ideas that almost flourish.

But 10 of out 10?

Come on, now.

You know the best part of the game? It’s whenever Elizabeth flips a coin at you. The animation and the sound effect are just… awesome.

So I played Bayonetta again.

The role of an avatar – the protagonist as controlled by the player – is to complete two tasks.

1. Act as a distinct character who relates to other characters as the story dictates.

2. Act as a conduit for the player to affect change in the world.

Avatars might lean more heavily one way or the other. Cole Phelps is slightly more effective as character in a story than as a vehicle for the player because the player usually has no goddamn clue what’s going through his head (Thanks, McNamara). On the other end, we have someone like Doomguy, who is just supposed to be a digitized version of the player, with a gun.

The most effective and memorable protagonists tend to either blend these two tasks into one or veer suddenly from one end of the spectrum to the other at a pivotal point.

Raiden, in Metal Gear Solid 2, replaces the storied and liked Solid Snake as the protagonist. This position makes him an embodiment for the message of the game – the growing ease of information control and manipulation in the 21st century. And by suddenly and mysteriously replacing him, he also elevates Solid Snake to the status of a legend, something to struggle toward.

Raiden is also an interesting exercise in the development of an avatar. At the game’s start, he’s more like Doomguy than Snake. His personality is pretty vacuous. He has no backstory. According to Rose, even the walls of his bedroom are bare. His girlfriend frets about him, he doesn’t know how to act cool, his only experience with infiltration is in Virtual Reality simulations – video games, basically. If he’s like ANYONE, he’s like the player.

His standing changes toward the end of the game, once the shit hits the fan. Only after he’s discovered Snake’s identity, after he’s been tortured and interrogated as Snake has, and after Snake LITERALLY passes the sword onto him do we discover more about Raiden, his past, and his connection to the antagonist – a child soldier raised by the bad guy who repressed his violent memories, becoming the plain and hollow shell you meet at the start of the game. Only at this point is Raiden trusted to take part in the melodrama and carry the story through to the end. He transitions from empty vehicle to living legend.

Travis Touchdown, of No More Heroes, comes from a similar situation as Raiden’s, but to the nth degree. Whereas Raiden is modeled like a blank slate for the player to project onto, Travis is actually designed as a caricature of the game’s key demographic – a childish, stylized hipster with violent fantasies who likes Quentin Tarentino as much as he likes gay moe anime bullshit. (He also embodies creator Suda51’s own sensibilities as a Japanese developer marketing largely toward Western males – Suda NEEDS guys like Travis to exist.)

He considers himself worldly, but actually has a very narrow set of interests. Despite the size of his hometown of Santa Destroy, the player can only enter places Travis would ever deign to visit: a niche resale boutique, a video store that sells foreign bootlegs, the workshop of the hot doctor where he soups up his lightsaber, and the pro-wrestler’s office where Travis may or may not realize he is not being taught special techniques so much as being molested.

Outside of his fantasy career as an assassin, the rest of the game is framed by his mostly boring life. He makes walking-around money through terrible part-time jobs, eats pizza to heal, and takes a dump to save his data.

But, again, as with Raiden, things change toward the end of the game. Travis discovers that he has complicated, messy relationships with several of the people involved in his line of work, and he’s not very happy about it. Killing people is cool, but matters of family and intimacy is lame and frustrating. While Raiden is liberated by his connection to the story, Travis is trapped by his. His story suggests that, like the player, he wants the fun of the assassin’s lifestyle without any of the drawbacks.

Before I get to Bayonetta, let me talk about one more avatar. This time, from a movie. No, not Avatar!

Tony Jaa in Tom Yung Goong (aka The Protector).

Like all the greatest works of art, The Protector revels in the conventions of its medium while musing on their necessity. At least, I think so.

In the movie, Tony Jaa lives happily in a village outside of Chiang Mai with his elephants, having been descended from a long line of guys who take care of elephants in villages. During a festival, his two elephants – his BEST FRIENDS – are stolen. Apparently, the theft of the elephants are a demonstration of force by transgendered gangster Madame Rose, who is simultaneously picking off her competitors so she can run the gang. The elephant rustling is simply the smaller part of a larger plan.

Now, there are scenes of gangsters talking about gangster politics, there’s a detective trying to figure out what they’re up to, politicians who are trying to cover it up – all this PLOT stuff.

Half of these scenes end with Tony Jaa crashing through a window into some dude’s sternum and shouting, “Where are my elephants?!

Tony is in the same corner as the audience. They didn’t come here to watch convoluted and nonsensical political machinations play out. They came here to see Tony Jaa get really super mad at these guys about his elephants.

There’s an argument to the made for the amnesiac protagonist. From the get-go, it puts the character and the player on the same page.

Bayonetta is casually interested in finding out more about herself, but she lives mostly in the now. She knows she’s a witch with supernatural powers, so she’s contractually obligated by demons in Inferno to rebel against the equally monstrous angels of Paradiso.

This works out nicely for her, because she loves beating up angels. And as the star of the single deepest and responsive spectacle fighter of the decade, so does the player.

Boss characters are trotted out periodically who pontificate aloud about their purpose, their plans for the resurrection of their god, and how Bayonetta might be at least tangentially involved. But Bayonetta is too impatient. She routinely tells other characters to shut up unless they are 1) willing to fight, or 2) going to give her something with which to have a more exciting fight with something else.

Before I move on, I think it’s important to point out that Bayonetta’s distinctiveness is most apparent in the playing of the game. Both she and Kratos wreak terrible havoc upon their victims, but while Kratos’s gouging violence is accompanied by blaring horns and Ben Hurr-ish booming percussion, Bayonetta is usually supported by frolicking electro-bubblegum pop as she blows kisses at enemies to lock on to them. It’s like dancing at a club – the catharsis comes less in the violent pay-off and more in the doing, the improvising.

I find that both because of her programming and her attitude, Bayonetta is an effective conduit for the player – you always want what she wants.

That’s why I find it weird that we’re having these issues.

You’ll ‘want to protect’ the new, less curvy Lara Croft

This is an older one, but it was considered pretty problematic when it came to light. Basically, the executive producer of the new Tomb Raider believed that getting players to identify with a female protagonist was a lost cause, so he assumed that players would feel more comfortable considering themselves as Lara Croft’s “helper” or guardian.

I still haven’t played Tomb Raider, so this might just be an executive thinking the worst of his demographic and saying what he assumes they want to hear. But it’s strange in light of this more recent piece of news.

Publishers rejected Remember Me because of female lead

“We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.'” For Morris, that response is puzzling. “I’m like, ‘If you think like that, there’s no way the medium’s going to mature,'” he said. “There’s a level of immersion that you need to be at, but it’s not like your sexual orientation is being questioned by playing a game. I don’t know, that’s extremely weird to me.”

Part of me thought that maybe the story was a PR stunt, or maybe a bit of sour grapes from being rejected by other publishers. But I dunno. Do executives think that female protagonists aren’t worth backing, or is the common player REALLY that uncomfortable stepping into a lady’s shoes?

Only 18% of players were FemShep in Mass effect 3, so, I dunno, I guess so.

It seems like developers believe there are two courses when it comes to making a female protagonist for a video game.

1) Design a decent character, alienate your male audience, and lose money.

2) Design a sexualized character in order to appeal to males, limit publicity out of embarrassment, lose money.

What’s interesting about #2 is that it doesn’t seem to be an issue in the Japanese market. For various reasons.

That’s how we end up with characters like Bayonetta.