Today I read a fantastic article by Daniel Golding on whether new Irrational Games title Bioshock Infinite was able to bridge the (as yet) unspanned gap between intelligent games and FPS games. A link to the article is below and I highly recommend reading it, but if you don’t, the short answer is no. Infinite purports itself as an intelligent game, but falls disappointingly short.
While I haven’t played Bioshock Infinite, Golding’s experience reminded me strongly of my own playing Spec Ops: The Line. This is another game that wants to be taken seriously.
Again, set in a well-known real world location with a twist, The Line takes place in sandstorm-devastated Dubai. While not strictly a first person shooter (more a combination third person slash over-the-shoulder cover shooter) there is definitely a large “shooting people in the face” element. The ‘thoughtful’ aspect of The Line comes from the player’s relationship with civilians. Residents in the ruins of Dubai see the protagonist as yet another US invader trying to administer peace, often at the cost of innocent lives. The player is not welcome, and is treated with hostility by unarmed men and women. I interpreted this as a metaphor for the current day US presence in Iraq, and its intention is noble. Playing the game you will have rocks hurled at you, be swarmed by angry crowds and have to negotiate various other situations thrust upon you. What do you do when a mob of unarmed civilians threaten to overwhelm you? Do you try to push through their barricade? Do you fire shots in the air to scare them? Shoot one as an example, or start spraying bullets into the crowd? In fact, these options are illusions. The game railroads you into using force and the outcome is the same. Similarly, the player is presented with two men hanging from a sign, one a soldier and one a civilian, both of whom have committed crimes. The player must kill one to allow the other to be freed. But again, regardless of the decision, the outcome is the same.
There is also a scene, similar to the Call of Duty airport civilian massacre sequence, where the player uses white phosphorus to burn alive an entire battalion of enemy soldiers. Once again, there is no real choice; if you want to progress the game, you must commit mass murder. The storyline carries on. After all these moral decisions, the game ends with a (spoiler alert) classic ‘Is he crazy? Was it all in his head? Did it even happen at all?’ type ‘however you interpret it’ finale which I’m sure left a lot of players fuming.
Spec Ops: The Line isn’t a perfect game. The moral dilemmas are obviously designed to guilt the player and don’t affect change anyway. But it did make me think. I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ playing it, much the same as I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ visiting Dachau. But, similar to the concentration camp, I do not regret the experience and it invoked thought and reflection. I’m not sure if Golding would define The Line as an ‘intelligent’ FPS. However I’m glad it was developed regardless, and I’m glad Bioshock Infinite attempts to deal with bigger issues, even if it does fall short. Golding questions whether a shooter could ever successfully tackle deeper issues. I say absolutely. And while attempts like these may ultimately fail, better than never trying at all.
In truth, I’m still going to play Bioshock Infinite. I can look past the lack of depth and still enjoy the storyline and gameplay. Sometimes it’s nice not to play against other people, quest endlessly for ever-improving gear or navigate an open-world, non-linear epic. Sometimes it’s nice to be told a story.
Not to mention the architecture… Dubai buried in a sandstorm…