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Spoiler Warning: Read no further if you haven't finished or plan on playing Bioshock Infinite in the future
I already examined the significance of Bioshock Infinite to the Bioshock franchise earlier in the week, wherein I discussed the advantages of letting Bioshock Infinite be the last entry in the series.
Now, I want to talk about Bioshock Infinites potential impact on the video game industry as a whole. For a significant period of time in video gaming history, one overarching thread that connected most games was the Final Boss Fight against the main protagonist, or perhaps even someone revealed late in the plot to be pulling all the strings. Along the protagonists journey he would face a series of trials or bosses, culminating in the final showdown. The final test of your skill or the thrilling conclusion to the story, a final showdown was in everything from racing games and platformers to role-playing games and shooters.
The concept of a game devoid of boss fights surely isnt new, and the game industry faces many of the same problems, the great entertainment industry faces as a whole: how to strike the balance between being innovative and feeling familiar. This of particular interest to those trying to advance the first person shooter genre by injecting meaningful and emotional stories into them with varying degrees of success. One way to do this is to swap a traditional boss fight with waves of standard enemy during which a secondary character tries to complete a certain task or learn a vital truth. Typically though games that adopt this approach sacrifice a well developed villain all together in favor of shadow organized X. To invest the time in creating a fully fleshed out antagonist, and then for there to be no boss fight against them, preposterous!
Bioshock Infinite not only attempts this but achieves in spectacular fashion. Perhaps it was a knee-jerk you can hardly say anything about a 5 year development is knee-jerkreaction to fan backlash to the rather disappointing boss fight against Atlas at the end of the first Bioshock. Regardless of how they came to the decision to eliminate boss fights, theyre choice to use the antagonist in a manner more critical to the narrative than to the players gunslinging skills serves to increase the impact of individual moments.
As with Bioshock, each antagonist has a significant amount of information circulated about them before you meet them. Where the boss fights and the areas leading up to them served to lends clues to the evolution of Rapture, Bioshock Infinite is very much wrapped up in the development of people in the current time. The game uses its in a living world to its benefit. Propaganda and rumors are in abundance and by the time you meet Comstock, Fitzroy, Slate, Fink, or Songbird youve heard enough to formulate an opinion even if the information you were given was bias one way or the other.
While the foundations preceding each boss are the similar in Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, the differences are abundant thereafter. When you engage in a one-on-one fight as Jack, the games narrative is temporarily put on hold, the state of Rapture a distant thought, and it purely becomes a skill test for the player. Jack doesnt gain anything from pumping 20 shotgun shells into one guy while avoiding his hack saw. It is purely an interaction between the player and the game. In Bioshock Infinite the focus is shifted away from the player and you become a witness to the development and advancement Booker and Elizabeth as characters. These distilled moments are far more impactful in the latter scenario.
No boss fight could ever encapsulate the amount of emotion generated when Elizabeth stabs Fitzroy in the back. That particular moment captures more narrative, and matures the character more than any boss fight imaginable could. You see the in-the-moment impact of what killing means to Elizabeth, and then the following attempt by Booker to comfort her.
Again, just as Fitzroys death is a big moment in Elizabeths story, the scene in the Atrium where Booker and Elizabeth confront Comstock does more for Booker as a character than any player-inflicted in the game. The choice to substitute standard boss fights for these emotionally charged sequences allows the game to stay better connected to the narrative. Sure you had to fight through waves of enemies to get to that scene, but those moments are worth it
In addition to those two scene, the final or almost final depending on your choice confrontation with Slate shows an interesting mechanism built into the plot. He the guy who has been hounding you and sending hundred of men to their death, well knowing they couldnt stop Booker. And when you meet him, you are faced with not a daunting boss encounter but a wounded man asking for death by you hand.
On all three count the game builds up to a crescendo and delivers not a 10 minute boss fight, but a singular distilled moment crucial to the characters and story. See it as you may, but I see this as, in a way, poking fun at the notion of killing hundreds of men to get to one more guy, and what is one more guy to countless others you killed through out the game.
The very final anti-boss fight ends up becoming lost in the plethora of things beginning to unfold. That is of course the death of Songbird. The ever formidable Guardian of the Lamb, you learn form Elderly Elizabeth, ALWAYS stops you, just as Booker NEVER rows. But as the siphon is destroyed the creature who has haunted your journey and has had a clear impact of Elizabeths childhood, instantaneous becomes insignificant. As though swatting a fly out of the air Songbirds death marks Elizabeths birth.
The use of the antagonist as means of developing and maturing characters instead of merely obstructing them or testing a players skill test marks a direction I hope we will see more of in the future. Let Bioshock Infinite be a template for any game trying to develop strong characters or construct an emotional narrative, people respond best to individual moments. A great moment can make 10 minutes fighting waves of nobodies infinitely better than a sub-par boss fight. There will definitely still be room in the industry for the classic boss fights, but Bioshock Infinite shows us they arent necessary.
Image courtesy: [Bioshock Wiki]
There is a trope in film and media known as Now What? It is a type of ending where a big reveal happens or everything comes to a head, but thenit just ends. Its different from a cliff hanger, not abrupt or leaving anything unresolved, but for the protagonist while the movie or game may be over life continues on. From here the audience can fill in the rest of the story with whatever they so choose, because the specifics dont matter; what matters is that the protagonist now has to live with the consequences of the new revelation or a life altering decision.
Stories that employ the Now What ending commonly end with a conclusive scene where they pull back the curtain to reveal the inner workings, or the couple gets together at the last moment. More broadly the protagonist has achieved the singular goal around which their prior existence revolved: A superhero with no more bad guys to thwart, a doctor whos cured an incurable disease. In video games this is commonly employed in a final scene where the protagonist walks away toward the sunset having defeated the Big Bad and there are no foreseeable threat in the future. There is no hint of another boss, no hidden calling card of the man who is really pulling the strings, just the protagonist walking away, with his singular purpose achieved.
With out spoiling anything, a notable game that employed this was Knights of the Old Republic 2.Not the retail version, but Cut Content version put together by a group of modders from files recovered in the game. The version that included an entire additional sequence on Telos where Bao-Dur sacrifices himself so that The Exile and HK-47 may reach the HK-50 Droid Factory and shut it down. More to the point, the modders uncovered a completely new sequence of events on the final planet. In the Cut Content version of the game it ends with the Exile and crew flying away from Malachor V in the Ebon Hawk. Atton then ask, So Where are we going now? After which it, fade to black. The ending that could have been is the quintessential Now What ending.
*****************ENDING SPOILERS FOR BIOSHOCK INFINITE AHEAD*****************
Which brings us to the point of this foray into ending plot devices of games and movies. In my book Bioshock: Infinites ending is most definitely a Now What situation. To recap, the protagonist, after conquering Songbird and employing him to defend the Hand of the Prophet and destroy the siphon, is then thrust into 20 minutes of exquisite narrative culminating in several revelations. The revelation of particular interest to me is the revelation that the Bioshock Universe exist in a multiverse, wherein every possible of permutation of an infinite number of situations (the variables) are bound by three things: A man, a city and a lighthouse (the constants). Looking past what this revelation means for the game itself, this also serves a very meta-game purpose addressed, not to Booker, but directly to the player. It suggest Irrational can continue to make Bioshock games with that basic foundation for the next 100 years.
But does this mean they should? I believe that after giving gamers a glimpse behind the curtain any game to follow would inevitably fall short. I fear that if Irrational goes the way of Ubisoft and be see Bioshock: Underground and Bioshock: Over the Moon, within the next 3 years they risk losing the good faith they have garnered. Inevitably, you will begin to get those people claiming franchise fatigue and brand dilution. Eventually culminating in entire threads and articles devoted to Remember when Bioshock was good. This may be cynical, but given the current circumstances it is likely. This is not to knock the abilities of the people who devote the time to making Bioshock, but eventually the clock will run out and people get bored.
Why not save us all some angst in the future and put the Bioshock franchise on the shelf where it will be forever remembered with rosiest of glasses. A game that youll have your kids play. The infinite ends that gamers come up in there heads are ultimately the only way gamers can be satisfied. The only way to feed an infinite appetite is with infinite possibilities. Again Id like to emphasize that I think the creative minds behind the Bioshock franchise are incredible, but wouldnt we all like to see something new. I would personally much rather wait 4 years for Geoshock than wait 2 years for Bioshock Infinite 2. Weve already seen the result of a franchise relying heavily of a single framework with Ubisofts Assassins Creed franchise which many would argue is suffering all of the woes mentioned above: franchise fatigue, brand dilution, on the decline since Brotherhood. Even the announcement of a new Assassins Creed is more of a game for the internet of guessing a time and place, than genuine interest in the franchise direction. This is not to suggest that Bioshock will attempt to become an annual franchise, nor should it, but the trappings are there. And we should be wary.
We still have 3 bits of Story DLC in the future to give us a hint at the future of the franchise, but until then speculation is always enjoyable. Where do you want the Bioshock franchise to go? Would you want it to risk the disappointment of a new game or do you want it to end on a high note?
A simple question with a not so simple explanation. Recently, Crysis 3 ruffled feathers for what some consumers considered a campaign that was too short, clocking in around 5.5 hours even on the higher difficulties. This game did have a multiplayer component, which always fiddles with game time, but ultimately as multiplayer is added to more and more titles whether deservedly or not, the timeless constant is the single component. There are some exceptions, with franchise like Call of Duty and Battlefield among many other first-person shooter which heavily emphasize multiplayer. There are also the odd exception of video games like Mass Effect 3 which added multiplayer which was highly praised to the surprise of many, and still has a healthy player base a year later. But for all the other games that will likely be played through once and then dropped in favor of the next great thing should a multiplayer component really factor into a game's playtime.
For the sake of this article I will take the stance, it does not. To explore whether a game can be too short I will, however, explore the basic notion of how long should a game be. By comparing video games to the film industry we can better assess from a consumer and developer perspective what a game's ideal runtime is.
While video games might not have as much mass market appeal as a Summer blockbuster, video game can go toe-to-toe with even the biggest movies in most ways, be they good or bad. The entertainment industry as a whole has seen increasingly bloated budgets perpetuate at an alarming rate.
In the late 90s it was rare to see a movie budget breach $70 million and 1997 Final Fantasy VII became the most expensive video game ever made with a $45 million budget ($64 million when adjusted for inflation). Fast-forward a decade, thanks to a rapid development of new technology in both industries, it is impossible to find a summer blockbuster with a budget less than $200 million. Meanwhile, Grand Theft Auto IV establishes a new record, costing over $100 million to develop.
In the last five years budgets have relatively mellowed out. While there are video games that still push the envelope, Bioware Austin's Star Wars: The Old Republic notably cost $200 million to develop, these game are far and few between and typically in the MMO sub-sector which relys on slightly different funding models. Beyond the rare exception, AAA games have settled into a $40-$100 development range, which might go up as teams shift development toward next generation consoles. Movies have jumped the gun on video games on the high-end, but as mentioned prior this gap may be closed as the next generation of consoles release.
Another key distinction of the movie market is it still maintains a health middle where majority of movies fall around the center with significantly fewer movies pushing to the extreme high and low budgets. This is the exact opposite of the video game market, which has seen a falling out of the middle and a push toward the extremes. This bimodal market has seen budgets at the extremes thrive, while $10-$40 million budget games have all but disappeared. This distinction is important to the overall health of each market and as a result the video game market has become much more volatile than its entertainment counterpart, the film industry. Despite the divergent market video games have seen top end revenues keep pace with the film industry. Blockbusters movies and AAA games can frequently garner about $500 million, and there are the rare exception in each that break $1 billion.
Why does all this matter, you might think. Well lets examine the economics of movies and games to consumers. If a consumer sees a movie in theatre on or near opening weekend he will usually spend roughly $10 dollars. A person buying a video game in a similar situation can expect to pay either $15 or $60, depending on whether it's an indie or AAA title. Movie's standard run time fall between 90 minutes and 150 minutes. Alternatively, video games have a much more varied runtime. However, given the similar the development time and cost of movies are you might expect a similar yield on the consumer's behalf.
By this logic a $15 downloadable title should run the consumer roughly 2-4 hours. At the higher end a $60 release should be about a 9-15 hour experience. Now obviously there are plenty of video games that run well above those time constraints, there are even entire genres devoted to make games with 40+ hour experiences (see role playing games). If you factor in the multiplayer of the biggest blockbuster franchise they too, well exceed those time constraints. So again why does all this matter? This is important for two very important reasons. Consumers need to be aware that games frequently offer more bang for your buck than run of the mill movie. Consumers also need to be wary and reviewers should have an obligation to informer gamers if games don't hit that minimum. This isn't to suggest games which fail hit the 9 hour mark are inherently bad, but it is important that consumers realize that their dollar might be better spent elsewhere or wait till the price drops. The principle role of a reviewer is to inform consumers on a purchasing decision, and it is critical that the economics play a part. Below is a summary chart for your enjoyment.
Leave a comment if you think a game's playtime should or shouldn't factor into a games review score. Does a game's run time influence your purchasing decisions?
My Recent Reviews
Apr 14, 2013 1:41 pm GMT10finalfantasy posted a new blog entry entitled Bioshock Infinite: A Future Without Boss Fights
Apr 11, 2013 8:22 pm GMT10finalfantasy posted a new blog entry entitled Bioshock Infinite: Now What?
Apr 11, 2013 7:47 pm GMT10finalfantasy began Following Transistor
Apr 4, 2013 8:31 pm GMT10finalfantasy reviewed Ridiculous Fishing - A Tale of Redemption and gave it a score of 8.5
Mar 23, 2013 6:45 am GMT10finalfantasy began Following Final Fantasy XIV Online: A Realm Reborn
Mar 15, 2013 10:43 am GMT10finalfantasy began Following Ridiculous Fishing - A Tale of Redemption
Mar 13, 2013 12:33 am GMT10finalfantasy posted a new blog entry entitled Can A Video Game Be Too Short
Mar 11, 2013 10:30 pm GMT10finalfantasy posted in the topic What can bring JRPG's back into the spotlight? on the Primary Games Discussion board
Mar 9, 2013 7:13 am GMT10finalfantasy began Following Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk
Mar 8, 2013 5:18 am GMT10finalfantasy posted a new blog entry entitled Game Reboots: The Christopher Nolan Effect