Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bioshock Infinite and the Problem with Gear

Last week I started my vacation, which translated into a week of sunshine, swimming, and of course my newest murder simulator, Bioshock Infinite. Now, there is a lot to discuss about Bioshock Infinite, and I'm sure that with nearly a week of life under its belt, the game has been discussed, reviewed, picked apart, analyzed. I have heard a lot about spectacular reviews and heard a lot of complaints from comments sections. In an amusing upset, people almost seem to take umbrage with the game's high scores, citing often trivial-seeming complaints as evidence that the game isn't worthy of the perfect scores it's garnered across the board. In light of that, I've decided to voice the most trivial complaint possible, because Hell's Choir needed a baritone, anyway. Be forewarned: this is a nit-pick of the highest order. In fact, check my vitals. Just by writing this I expect that there is a chance I'll be reclassified as a lowland gorilla and shipped to a nature preserve in Namibia.

Bioshock Infinite shares many of its gameplay mechanics with its predecessors, albeit they are moderately retooled and renamed. Weapons are still upgradable, but you're limited to two. Heavy Hitters fill the role of Big Daddies, injectable Plasmids are replaced by consumable Vigors, and Gene Tonics are replaced by Gear. Here is where I depart. Tonics were the passive portion of Bioshock's character customization, and fell into three categories, with a cap of six tonics equipped per category. Combat tonics affect the ability to fight: they can shield the player from harm or make their weapons more deadly. Engineering tonics change the hacking minigame and reduce prices at vending machines. Physical tonics affect the character's fitness: allowing him to heal more easily, move faster, or hide from enemies. Found around Rapture or developed by researching splicers, Gene Tonics occupy the fiction in much the same way that plasmids do; both can be bought at Gatherer's Gardens, they look similar, and both are clearly meant to be products that are marketed to Rapture's citizens. Splicers appear to prefer them to plasmids, in fact, since many splicers have marked physical deformities that may result from abuse of tonics like Sports Boost, Armored Shell, or even Static Shock, but no splicers ever visibly use a plasmid that is available to the player.
Gear fulfills the same gameplay role as Tonics, allowing the player to customize their experience. However, unlike the simple taxonomic system that distinguished between the three types of tonics and their unique roles in gameplay, Gear is divided into four slots: Hat, Shirt, Pants, and Boots. Only one piece of gear may be worn per slot, with the abilities divided willy-nilly between slots. Some are clearly designed so that they're mutually exclusive (for example, Pyromaniac and Shock Jacket cannot be equipped at the same time, which each deal elemental damage to enemies when the player is injured), but these rules are not hard and fast and the reason for exclusivity between certain items is unclear.

The major problem, however, is that the gear is completely divorced from the story. There is no explanation about why a particular piece of gear causes its effect, and although they're implied to be articles of equipment, there are no models for any of the gear. Oftentimes the relationship between the item and its slot are completely nonsensical: you get a pair of boots called "Tunnel Vision"... which reward the player for shooting down the sights.  Gearboxes are also randomized, so opportunities to imply a story by leaving a particular piece of gear in a specific location are gone. In fact, the only time the game ever appears to acknowledge gear as anything other than a cursory expression of game mechanics is a vandalized tailor shop with a box of gear in front of it, and even that's a pretty threadbare thing.

Why does this frustrate me so much, you might ask, if you haven't already guessed that I'm a crazy person and gone on to more fulfilling ways to spend your day? Obviously, because it's a passel of wasted opportunity. Gear is the final version of what were billed through the game's development as "nostrums". The term describes patent medicine and snake oils, and in that form would have been a perfect companion to the Vigors. It would have grounded them in a mutual universe.

So I have to ask: why gear? Why was a perfectly functional piece of fiction abandoned for an inferior mechanic? My guess is that they thought it wouldn't matter, and of course, it really, really doesn't, does it?

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