Latest news
Shooting Horses in the Face: how Bioshock Infinite could be great
by Parker Scott Mortensen

How do you make a story about shooting people interesting? Whilst video games have long been nearly synonymous with violence, they’ve never been as synonymous with shooting a gun as they are today. Games are often pixelated representations of conflict at its boiling point: they take place at a moment that has already exhausted every method of resolution not including the death of other human beings. Where is the room for a story in a conflict that’s always at its breaking point?

At first look, I’m inclined to be impressed by the new Bioshock Infinite trailer. There’s a lot of glitz and twists on the idea of aligning crosshairs, shooting and killing people. There are new mechanics to bring objects into existence from other dimensions, new guns to shoot at people, rollercoaster expressways to ride and riots to start. Technologically, these things have never existed in a video game before. We’ve been able to shoot people in the face for years now, but we’ve never been able to do it in a floating city, and we’ve never done it so fancifully in such a way.

That construction is what made me ultimately not care about the original Bioshock, a game about shooting people with flourishes that made it feel different. It too was full of things that, technologically, we hadn’t done before either. There were audio logs to listen to, plasmids to toy with, and an underwater city to explore. Bioshock’s uniqueness as a shooter came from its narrative twists, its commentary on utopian society, its Randian roots. So in the end, the most memorable and lasting parts of the original Bioshock were not all the ways you could kill people, but the atmosphere of its underwater city, Rapture, and the story surrounding your trawl through it.

I suspect Bioshock Infinite will work in much the same way, and that’s disappointing. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I feel disappointed whenever I’m given a gun in video games. It's not as interesting to shoot people as the amount of shooting in video games would suggest. When a video game hands you a gun, it’s likely the developers’ conceit that it’s hard to entertain you and tell a story at the same time. How much easier would it be to instead let you just shoot everything in sight?

Surely, there's a way, but the problems are rife and deeply ingrained. For instance, telling a story about a character with a gun creates a discrepancy between the character depicted in a game’s cutscenes, and the character you paint during gameplay. This problem is infamous in the Uncharted series: Nathan Drake, a supposed everyman, who - in cutscenes - can love a woman, speak Latin and decipher hundred year-old treasure maps, is reduced to a murderous war machine in gameplay. For such an everyman, Drake has a lot of blood on his hands.

Why is it that, in video games, the most emotionally embracing and impactful moments happen only in non-interactive cutscenes? One of the best parts of the original Bioshock was its lack of cutscenes, creating a world that was immersive sheerly because it never took you out of it. What excites me the most about Bioshock Infinite is, like its predecessor, its tinges of ideas more interesting than merely shooting people, and the prospect that I may actually participate in them. Watching this trailer sparks some hope that perhaps Infinite can do something to end that disconnect between the character in cutscenes and the character in gameplay. Maybe I can do more than just kill.

My favourite part of this new trailer for Infinite is the part where Elizabeth comes across a dying horse. As she consoles the horse and discovers that she may be able to heal it, you’re given the choice to euthanise it. “He’s in pain,” says Elizabeth. “Not for long,” says Booker, the player’s character, as he cocks his pistol. I have killed a horse before in a video game - it happened fecklessly countless times in Red Dead Redemption - but I’ve never been put into an environment that encouraged much thought about killing one, nor given the choice to do it in front of someone pretty and naive, someone who cared about the animal in a way I thought foolish.

For that moment, Bioshock Infinite isn’t a game about shooting things with a narrative that surrounds it. In games where it is your primary task to shoot, the story will always play second fiddle to the task of killing. The player's mind will always be overflowing with the mental intricacies of the mechanics leading up to a kill, thinking more about cover, bullet drop, ammo management and enemy position than they ever will about plot crescendos, foreshadowing, characterisation or any other basic tenet of storytelling.

How wonderful, then, to have a moment in a shooter where the mechanic may still involve aiming a gun, but yet feel more than the standard face-off between me and the faceless enemy NPCs, managing my ammo or super powers, or even the basic task of aligning a reticule over a bad guy’s face. Instead, it’s something much more simple: a conflict about my capacity to care irrationally for an animal for the sake of another person, someone I might be beginning to care about. In that instance, Bioshock’s core gameplay of pulling the trigger becomes the narrative, rather than just being the bait that tugs you towards the it. For a moment, shooting actually tells a story.

Unfortunately, that instance takes up perhaps twenty seconds of the trailer. The other fourteen minutes are the more technologically-impressive displays of the ways in which Irrational Games have succeeded in making that basic task of killing other people more entertaining. By letting players move anywhere within a battlefield by way of the Skyline, the rollercoaster track that connects the city, killing people becomes a much more entertaining and dynamic affair.

Battlefields with open spaces aren’t new, but the scale and traversal mechanics of this one seem to be. It’s dazzling to think of the code behind such a presentation, something that can render a whole lively world while a player, an agent of chaos, rushes through it on his or her whims; a gigantic world responding to your every movement. It’s all on a scale larger and more explosive than we’ve seen before.

But time is not kind to that which impresses through scale. We will always be able to create a larger scale for ourselves, one that outdoes our previous efforts in every way. If we set out to create the largest, most technically-impressive world, that can handle thousands of computations at a single moment, it’ll be outdone by our next, bigger, technical feat, which handles millions of computations in moments shorter.

The original Super Mario Bros is one of the greatest games of all time, and perhaps the greatest to this day. It hasn’t endured that honour because it is technically impressive. Super Mario Bros was the dictionary for the ideas we reach for and expect out of games today: scaling difficulty, left-to-right platforming, moving from world to world, boss fights, and - most importantly - the princess in the castle. The idea of a journey towards an eventual end goal was not something we’d had before in video games, and we are now better for having learned that structure.

In the same way that Mario became remembered for its language of video games, I suspect Bioshock Infinite won’t be remembered for its language of killing people. For the most part, we are no better for the additions Irrational have made to our lexicon of murder. We can now kill people on rollercoaster tracks and use inter-dimensional ammo and shoot crows at people, but none of these are as interesting as deciding on a single pull of the trigger to end an animal’s life.

In all likelihood, Bioshock Infinite will not be a great game. It will be a good, mechanically-sound game that will, at the end of the day, be about shooting things, and there will be a story that happens around you and passes you by. You will spend most of your time killing things in Infinite, and there is nothing wrong with that. We have always been killing people in video games, and we will probably continue to kill people for the rest of video games’ existence. But maybe someday we’ll find a way to kill that's imbued with things that actually matter to us. I like to think that day will come - perhaps it can start with killing a horse.

Labels: , , , , , ,

- Parker Scott Mortensen

Discuss this article in our friendly forums

Sign up to our community today and discuss our articles, debate over upcoming games and organise matches and playsessions with like-minded people just like you.

Liked this? Spread the word - share with your friends!

Done? You might also enjoy these!

All comments are subject to our commenting policy

GGTL Classics
Some of the very best articles dug out from deep in the GGTL archives, written by some of our past and present wordsmiths alike.
Your continued use of this website and/or any others owned by Gamer's Guide to represents your acceptance and indicates your full understanding of all of our legal policies and terms. Our legal policies and terms are legally binding. If you in any way disagree with or refuse to be bound by any part of said legal policies and terms, you are advised to leave this website immediately.