We are an impatient lot. To paraphrase Christian Slater in Kuffs, we have places to see, people to do. And 21st century entertainment is all too happy to bend to our ADD whims. Whereas a Henry James novel might take 100 pages to establish the central conflict, a modern thriller starts with a 2-page prologue and continues in 4-page stuttering chunks, all the better to break off in-between a protein bar or a Skype meeting or a DVR’ed episode of Breaking Bad.
That’s why Gus Mustrapa, Kill Screen alum and columnist at Unwinnable, loved his first hour with Bioshock:Infinite, Ken Levine and Irrational Game’s next geo-political horror action extravaganza.
The towering influence of religion washes over you when you first set foot on Columbia. Wading through water, illuminated in a candlelit gauze and urged forward by the strains of an old-time spiritual, the player is literally baptized into a new life. Once inside those pearly gates, you’re witness to a world that is terribly rich.
Anachronistic music, like Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” sung by a barbershop quartet, rings in the ears, posing questions about time and place as it paints a feeling. Overheard conversations hint at darker underpinnings. And the eye candy of the place itself, like a steampunk reimagining of Disneyland’s Main Street half a mile in the sky, draws the player from one wonder to the next.
Mustrapa revels in the details, his lingering made possible by a world that doesn’t automatically shuffle the player onto the next bombastic set-piece. This takes a confident designer; surely, after the success of the first Bioshock, the game that launched a thousand arguments for Games as Art, Levine and his team feel compelled to not only flaunt their sophisticated palette, but give the player the option to soak it all in.
Certainly, a tight and focused conceit can offer an immediate way into the actual playing of the game. Mustrapa offers Portal as a highlight, the first scene offering a perfect nugget of tone, tension, and purpose. But, like two-hour movies or 300-page books, games need not spill all the beans right away. As more and more are experienced in bite-sized pieces on our phones, there’s less chance to lose yourself in the immersive possibilities of an experience unbound by commercial constraints.
There’s no need to shuffle the next paying audience into a packed theatre–your audience already sits, transfixed, ready to go on. Those interactive stories that choose to maximize the flexibility of the medium should be championed, and relished. Mustrapa admits,
Games have the luxury of time. While it is admirable that many find clever ways to get out of the way and facilitate play I can’t help but admire those with the gall to lay foundation.
In a time of dinky shacks and 30-minute love hotels, Bioshock: Infinite looks to be a two-week vacation to paradise. Hopefully the concierge doesn’t mind if I shoot bees from my hands.