You wake from a bad dream. It is the middle of the day but you were asleep at your desk. You are a private investigator, Booker DeWitt, and you have been woken by the arrival of a new client, Elizabeth. She asks you for a light. You press X.
So begins Burial at Sea, the coda to the Bioshock series of computer games.
I knew people had spoken highly of Bioshock (2007) and Bioshock 2 (2010), but I was in a non-gaming phase of my life (that is to say, I owned a Wii and a laptop highly susceptible to the vapors). Instead, my first exposure to the franchise was a trailer for Bioshock Infinite (2013) before The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This was an eye-opener, the first time I'd truly realized what a mainstream commercial asset blockbuster games had become. As the year went on, I saw the game praised both for its setting, the floating city of Columbia (steampunk channeling Edison and Ford rather than Victoriana), and its story tackling race, religion, and determinism. So I was surprised when, having returned to the fold, I started playing Bioshock Infinite only to discover it was just another First-Person Shooter. Pretty, certainly, but clumsy and not half as clever as it wanted to be. Nonetheless, it sold over four million copies (though it still couldn’t make enough profit to ensure its developer, Irrational Games, was sustainable) and achieved a Metacritic score of 93 out of 100 (proving SF reviewers aren't the least discerning critics after all).
After dutifully playing through (a process that was neither long nor taxing), I retreated from my console, having once again had my fingers burnt by the hype of the Industrial-Entertainment Complex. In the olden days, I would have waited for the scabs to heal before plunging my hand recklessly back for another spin of the roulette wheel. These days, however, games have second lives through downloadable content and temptation is thrust directly into your living room. In this instance, Irrational have produced three add-ons: Clash in the Clouds, a clutch of arenas in which to let off steam and win medals, and Burial at Sea, two linked but distinct narrative missions. Since these two episodes not only act as sequels but also take the game back to its roots—shifting DeWitt and Elizabeth from 1912 to the Fifties and from Columbia to the underwater city of Rapture—I succumbed to the urge to find out what I'd been missing.
As you enter the gorgeous art deco city, the initial answer is not much. For a lauded example of a medium that is supposedly interactive and immersive, it is remarkable how alienatingly artificial the beginning of Episode 1 is. In two dimensions, Elizabeth is a wasp-waisted femme fatale; in three dimensions, she is a senescent family dog who is losing her marbles. She skitters ahead then stops to stare vacantly at you. You walk on, only to find her ambling aimlessly behind you. As you move, you catch snatches of conversation from the inhabitants of the city. These stolen remarks are as sticky as Elizabeth's movements and half the time you've walked past before you are aware of them. This means that if you want to experience all the back- and side-story, you spend a lot of time belligerently staring at people so you can "eavesdrop" on them from the distance of a few inches.
Eventually you are allocated your first mission, although that is a rather grand way of describing walking around looking inside boxes. You need the next plot coupon, which means you need to get inside a building, which means you need to get a mask. A sign next to you tells you the three locations you must visit. If you missed this, Elizabeth tells you anyway. If you weren't paying attention to Elizabeth, it appears in your objectives screen. If you can't be bothered with reading this, you can press Up and activate a sickly green arrow that acts as a jabbing finger, pointing you the right way.
Safely coddled, there is nothing left to do except traipse round each location since, of course, the vital mask will always be in the last place you visit. Each journey is accompanied by further walk-and-talk and then a pitiful charade whereby Elizabeth persuades a non-player character with no peripheral vision to allow you to "slip" into the back. You see a box. You press X.
This was one of the defining features of Bioshock Infinite. Every object—box, bag, trashcan, corpse—can be searched for a bit of cash, ammo, or health. The accumulation of resources from the ambient environment is a staple mechanism of computer games but is taken to astonishingly tedious levels here, both due to its frequency and the requirement to press X every single time rather than simply hoovering them up. Instead of concentrating on your environment, your eyes defocus and you drift into a Whack-A-Mole trance. Your XBox has been turned into an unnecessarily elaborate and expensive "where did I put my keys?" simulator, the only difference being that tapping your pockets does hold the slight frisson of excitement that you might actually have locked yourself out of the house. The whole rationale for this is then undone by the fact Elizabeth will literally chuck resources at you every time you run low. You just need to press X.
Any film producer would be tearing their hair out at this point but presumably this can be filed under the "hours of gameplay" metric. Things do take a turn for the better once you’ve acquired the mask since it is needed to enter a sort of site specific theater production, surely a first for a blockbuster computer game. Inside we are given one tantalizing hint of the huge potential for games to alter the player's perceptions of their environment before we are back to characters coughing up the plot. Finally the exposition is over and you follow Elizabeth into an elevator. Nothing happens. After a while you realize she hasn't pressed the floor number and the game has left this exciting freedom to you. You press X.
Once you reach your destination, you pull a gun. Yes, it is FPS time. You start with a pistol—sorry, hand cannon—and can gradually acquire a small selection of firearms. This limited selection is actually quite welcome since the last thing I played from this publisher, 2K Games, was Borderlands (2007) with its billion unique weapons. Notionally more guns equals more fun but in reality it is more like pawing through all the crap in the stationary cupboard trying to find a pen that actually works.
Bioshock Infinite failed to make the most of this by introducing its own serious annoyances. Firstly, the weapons were a frustratingly insubstantial bunch. Emptying a clip into someone's face often produced negligible results (gamers of a certain age might call this Klobb Syndrome). Secondly, you could only carry two guns in your inventory. This was a bold but self-defeating move since it meant you had to stick to a generalist pairing (I went through the game with shotgun and carbine) or run the risk of constantly having the wrong tool for the job. Heftier guns and the re-introduction of the weapon wheel in Burial at Sea instantly make for a much more satisfying experience.
These guns can all be upgraded for cash as can plasmids, essentially magic spells (more pleasingly called vigors in Bioshock Infinite but returning to their original title here). In addition, you can find permanent upgrades for health, shield, and EVE, the potion that powers plasmids. Oh yeah, and there are bundles of magic clothes lying around and plentifully stocked venting machines full of bullets (of course there are—Rapture is an Objectivist's playground, after all). If that weren't enough to ensure the game is ever in your favor, Elizabeth can open "tears," rips in the fabric of space-time that lead to other dimensions—dimensions that seem to be blessed with a bountiful and well-placed selection of decoys, robots, and weapons. You just need to press X.
So now you are tooled up your primary method of interaction is murder. DeWitt is notionally an everyman but soon you are transformed into a bloodythirsty psychopath. It is frankly weird that a huge chunk of an entire medium is built around this premise. I mean, imagine if comics were predominantly composed of power fantasies and stunted sexual imagery? Actually, forget that. But within the bizarro world of computer games, the problem is not that these murders are immoral but rather that they are too easy. Strategy and stealth are rarely needed and instead you can happily blunder around shooting people in the face, safe in the knowledge there will always be another bullet or bandage just around the corner.
This brute force approach to gameplay is at odds with the narrative approach which wrings as much complexity—or, at least, confusion—as possible from its multiverse approach. At the beginning of the game, Elizabeth arrives in your office seeking a child, Sally. You thought you knew her too but once you have killed your way to her at the cliffhanger ending of Episode 1, she isn't what you were expecting. But you aren't who you thought you were either. These revelations would have more force if they weren't the exact same revelations from the conclusion of Bioshock Infinite which explains how DeWitt and Elizabeth have reappeared, un-aged and unknowing, forty years later. In both cases, the strain for emotional impact is offset both by the numbing tyranny of the X button and the utterly baffling delivery. If you end up checking Wikipedia immediately after you've finished a game to work out what actually happened then something has gone wrong. You finish the game and wonder why you bothered.
You are sat outside a cafe in Paris (if the croissant, vin rouge, and cigarette don't give the game away, the looming Eiffel Tower will). A man proffers a sketch and asks you your name. Elizabeth, you say. You walk through the sunny streets as everyone greets you by name until you eventually come across a small girl. Sally? You press X.
But that is the only time you press X. The opening of Episode 2 repeats the process of the first episode's prologue but gets it right this time; the background characters are more naturalistic, the layout gently guides you, the setting interacts without your prompting. When you finally do have to close your thumb over the X button, it augurs a dramatic change of tone which pulls you into the game in a sustained twist on the brief theater scene from Episode 1.
Having established that the dimension-hopping Elizabeth has pulled herself out of her own personal heaven and surrendered her powers to right the wrongs of the previous episode, the transition to FPS is smooth and the shooter itself superior. Here is the guile that was lacking from the first episode as you sneak around with a crossbow. Instead of just being glorified grenades, the plasmids can be used to see through walls. Since you can no longer activate tears, ammo is also more limited. Your eyes narrow, your heart beat rises; there is actual tension. It's still not exactly Ravenholm but then what is?
The only thing that took the shine off my enjoyment of this change of direction was the fact that it is so strangely gendered. This extends from the emphasis the story places on sacrifice and pseudo-motherhood right down to the fact that you no longer have a shield since apparently a Y chromosome is required to generate a forcefield. Perhaps most troublingly, melee attacks are disabled against active targets on the grounds that Elizabeth lacks the requisite brawn; instead a message pops up urging you to run away and hide. It is one of those touches of "realism" that says rather more than it intends. Don't worry, I made sure I still shot a lot of people in the face, even though I was wearing a skirt.
Those messages are just one facet of a fussy, intrusive interface, along with fourth-wall-breaking sound effects like the gong of completed missions and the whoosh of that sepulchral arrow. That nannying arrow turns out to be a necessity because Rapture is so gloomy that you can barely see your gun hovering in front of your face (when late in the game Elizabeth returns to the daylight Columbia, it is shocking to be able to actually see where you are going). This is particularly vexing when you can hear the booming voice of an enemy but it is impossible to actually make them out. Not that this matters since their AI is dumb enough that they are unlikely to ever outflank you. In other words, Episode 2 raises the gameplay bar considerably but only as high as a solid B.
Grading the narrative proves harder because if Episode 1 is the epilogue to Bioshock Infinite then Episode 2 is the prologue to Bioshock. Given I was lost when the story was self-contained, I had no chance when the head of this mega-text looped round to swallow its own tail. So, if you have followed the series from the beginning, I imagine Episode 2 is as satisfying a coda as its creator has claimed. If, like me, you are a late arrival then it only offers a frustrating glimpse into an alternative dimension, one where Bioshock Infinite actually lived up to the praise lavished on it.
This is Martin Lewis’s fiftieth review for Strange Horizons. He has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. As Martin Petto, he edits the BSFA Review, blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.