Spoiling BioShock Infinite – why we live in a world of over-information
Preface: anything mentioned in this piece doesn’t constitute a “spoiler” because it’s been discussed ad infinitum in the run-up to Infinite’s release. This is, after all, an opinion piece on the reasons not to spoil the game, so I’ve taken the job seriously. But if you wish to play the game utterly blind, as I did, then you might be best served disconnecting the internet and playing.
You’re in the shoes of Booker DeWitt the first time you set eyes on Columbia, BioShock Infinite’s glorious city suspended above the clouds. The only question is this: are you controlling Booker, or are you watching someone else controlling him?
Take the question at face value and consider it for a second. In a game that has been minutely discussed in previews, with footage strewn across YouTube, do you not already intimately know its story, its setting, and furthermore the way it looks and plays, before you’ve even had the chance to pop the disc into the tray?
With the forks in its tale, Infinite is a game that aches to be played in solitude, absorbed by an unwitting and ignorant recipient. Yet Ken Levine’s latest magnum opus neatly illustrates a troubling trend engulfing the industry: developers are being forced to reveal too much to sell their creations, and in turn, the press is unwittingly spoiling the game for the masses.
“Infinite is a game that aches to be played in solitude”
We first got a whiff of Infinite in 2011, courtesy of an E3 demo that displayed fifteen minutes of the game in action and introduced Elizabeth, a cherubic faced sidekick with curious powers. Eighteen months later, Irrational Games head-honcho Ken Levine found himself seated in front of innumerable cameras, make-up ready and his best, polished lines in place. His job? To explain what those powers were, and why we should buy BioShock Infinite.
By divine intervention or by sheer luck, I missed this promotional talk and witnessed Columbia and its many delights only once the disc was spinning inside my Xbox 360. In bug-eyed wonderment I watched the story unfold. For the first time in years I was playing a game blind. And, when it all came to an end, I was astounded by the themes and ideas it explored. I decided to see what other critics were saying. And I was equally amazed by how much they were willing to divulge.
One reviewer had the gall to explicitly state Elizabeth’s relationship to the prophet and self-proclaimed ruler of Columbia, Father Comstock. Another critic concluded his write-up with a simple summation of the entire story (and I shall paraphrase): “It might purport to be about religion, but Infinite is really a game about…” (the rest cannot be included, lest I … spoil the game!). Furthermore, do we need to have Elizabeth’s special ability unpacked and discussed? Why does Booker’s allegiance to the Pinkerton agency have any bearing on whether the game is good or not? And how is it fair, to a prospective and innocent reader, to explain in laborious detail the existence of the Vox Populi? Levine might well have touched upon the Vox Populi in the lead-up to the game’s release, but unless it’s central to the critique, it’s not information that adds anything to a review.
“Kevin VanOrd’s write-up is thoughtful and oft-poetic, but he does give away a plot-point”
Even Kevin VanOrd, Senior Editor at GameSpot.com, fell afoul of the plague. His write-up is thoughtful and oft-poetic, but he does give away a plot-point: specifically Elizabeth’s dream destination. VanOrd would never spoil anything intentionally, and the destination itself is not hugely important, but while it constitutes a mere grain of sand in the interminable ocean that is the Infinite story, it’s still, unequivocally, a grain of sand that need not be revealed. I learnt about Elizabeth’s dream destination from the comfort of my living room as Infinite’s beautiful tale unfurled on my LCD TV, but readers of VanOrd’s review will stumble across the throwaway remark and hence, never “un-learn” it. I love VanOrd’s work (his writing has an almost liquid beauty) and I don’t want to sound as if I’m criticising him out of turn – I do believe however his review is symptomatic of a larger pandemic, one that deems a “spoiler” to be only information that pertains to events right at the end of a game, and nothing else.
In fact, I read through these spoiler-laden reviews with a great deal of outrage. Only hours prior I’d savoured this big, beautiful story without any foresight of what it was all about, yet in browsing Metacritic I quickly realized others wouldn’t enjoy the same luxury. “Spoiler” might be too harsh a term to use, but if that’s the case, we need to re-evaluate what constitutes spoiling something.
There’s another argument I’d like to make. Having entered Columbia without an outsider’s perspective colouring my feelings towards the game, I’ve started to question whether our time-honoured “review tropes” need to exist. Is it important to know how many guns there are, or that Booker has powers, or that the game is twelve hours long on medium but maybe longer if you.. well, slow-foot it? (In actual fact, the game is far longer or far shorter than twelve hours depending on how you play. But then that’s my point). Of course, no one likes to feel short-changed by a product they’ve spent $60 on. Yet wouldn’t it better to simply explain that Infinite feels full-bodied, and leaves you a satisfied customer?
“We’re propagating a curious culture of letting secrets out the bag”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m guilty of these “review tropes” all the time — but having played Infinite blind and subsequently read what the press has had to say, I tend to think we’re propagating a curious culture of letting secrets out the bag. It’s not done intentionally; they’re not even considered secrets. But would critics not be better served illuminating a game’s positives and negatives in broad brush strokes, or by taking a specific angle? I certainly don’t want to know exactly how it uncoils, act by act. (As an aside, John Teti’s review over at gameological is interesting and informative, and it sparkles on the page too.)
Reviews are a tricky beast that walk a tightrope of being informative versus over-descriptive. They’re important to the sales of a game, and this business is a cut-throat beast. Multimillion dollar video games of this scope need to sell in massive quantities to justify being made in the first place. As such, I don’t blame Irrational Games, or publishers Take-Two, and especially not Ken Levine (who began to look increasingly weary in the final days before Infinite’s release) for trying to keep all ears and eyes glued to a succession of promotional videos and game-talk centred on how Infinite would look and play.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that writers have a responsibility to tone down what they’re giving away, and in a game like Infinite, which is brimming with clever, nuanced ideas, this responsibility is only greater. Furthermore, reading about how Booker can blow people to smithereens and exactly what keys you need to press to sever a man’s head from his neck is, to put it crudely, boring to digest. The audience doesn’t need to know how many guns are contained in the world or what button you press to initiate an action, unless these things have a direct bearing on whether the game is any good or not.
The industry is still in its infancy. Perhaps in the future, reviews of video game will be written less like strategy-guides brimming with over-information on the story in question.