Sometime in the latter midgame of Bioshock Infinite, I happened to notice that an archway I was about to scoot under was decorated with little bas-relief cherubs. Slowing down my usual breakneck pace through the map, I tilted my view up as I walked under the arch, and observed that, yes, the cherubs were fully three-dimensional, not simply a shadowed texture painted onto a flat surface. Someone at Irrational had taken the time to carefully model this sculpture and place it at this one spot in the game world.
What a shame, I thought.
If I may set up a comparison: much of why I fondly remember so many details about Portal 2’s single-player adventure mode involves the way that the game’s small verb-set works into every aspect of it, whether the player’s current mode of engagement was solving their way through a puzzle-chamber, exploring the vast and untidy ruins beneath the Aperture complex, or engaging directly with one of the robotic NPCs. In every instance, the player feels like the principal force moving the story forward, doing so through direct application of the game’s core verb: portal-painting.
Every step forward in the story hinges on the player studying the environment (whether it’s a open-area exploration or a manic boss battle) until they understand what they need to do with their portal gun and why, executing this plan, and then delighting to watch the results unfold. Despite all this being scripted — the game ultimately offers only one solution per predicament — the player still comes out of it feeling awesome, smart, and involved.
This attitude makes it necessary for the Portal 2 player to carefully scrutinize every inch of the game’s environment, always looking for likely spots to paint portals onto and calculating what their effects might be. In so doing, the player learns the game’s very specific architectural language as they navigate the increasingly complex path to mastery over the offered environment. Unusual features encountered during these studies stand out all the more, and that’s why I can describe for you the kids’ science-experiments exhibit room in detail, even though I’ve only walked through it once, two years ago.
Bioshock Infinite starts out with a similar vibe, and I started to hope for something like Portal 2, except, I suppose, with rather more gunplay. I liked the twist of a non-silent protagonist in an FPS, and enjoyed hearing Booker’s voice immediately (one of many little, individual elements I very much enjoyed in this game). When I arrived at Columbia, I took my time taking in all the little details the environment had to offer, and paying attention to Booker’s muttered reactions to it all.
But by this point I had already been through the initial now-famous press-X-to-get-baptized scene, and thus was already feeling a little disappointed. “Portal Infinite” would have begun with the player realizing “Oh, wow, I see! I need to get baptized, ha ha! Now, how to make that happen, hmm…” Bioshock Infinite just prints
(X) - ACCEPT BAPTISM on the screen, and stalls until you press the button.
There follow many pauses for press-X-to-advance-the-plot after this, in between bouts of madcap shooting. The player has no invitation to get involved in the moments, no chance to work out for themselves what must happen next. The text that very literally spells out Booker’s fated next action appears on the screen as soon as the game’s rules allow it, and once it does there’s essentially nothing else to do until you give in and hit the indicated button. You can wander around and admire the scenery all you like, but nothing except for the single highlighted object or person offers meaningful interactivity.
Furthermore, I don’t believe there’s a single instance in the game where Booker fires a shot or uses any of his eight “vigors” (magic spells, essentially) or their variations in order to push the story forward, even though these make up this game’s core verbset. All these happen only in combat. Bioshock Infinite doesn’t shy from identifying itself as a shooter, so there’s plenty of gory combat to practice these verbs with; once you enter the midgame, waves of weak and dumb enemies begging for high-velocity ventilation rush you at regular intervals. But Infinite also tries hard to reach up and offer something more than just different configurations of rooms for mowing down blood-balloon targets.
Sadly, by offering nearly zero overlap between the core shoot-and-cast verbs that an Infinite player must become most familiar and skilled with over the course of play, these story moments in between combats quickly start to feel like cutscenes with an adjustable camera. Based on the focus of the player’s actual available verbset, and therefore the inevitable main target of the player’s attention, the shooting-gallery bits come to feel like the real game. My attitude towards Infinite came to resemble the one that Leigh Alexander described in her recent critique, devolving quickly from goggle-eyed visitor to rapacious looter, my relationship to the architecture optimized for finding trash cans and ammo crates and disregarding all else as irrelevant.
Sometimes, as with the cherubs over the door, or with some achingly beautiful displays of light and water in the endgame, I would stop and admire things for a while. But these felt like I was bringing my own fun, filling in for the game’s own failure to get me involved at all with all this gorgeous set design. And I really did feel a little heartbroken about that.
Part of me thinks finds this whole line of comparison flawed at base, asking that a shooter be an adventure game. I suppose in my defense I can only offer that Bioshock Infinite really does want to be something more than just another shooter with cutscenes, but ends up trapped by its insistence to wear all that genre’s core tropes. The Portal series (or, going further afield, a game like Dear Esther) does indeed use FPS conventions as a starting point, but it isn’t afraid to leave the shotguns and health kits behind in order to truly strike out in new, genre-challenging directions. That does seem to be what Infinite aims at. And then, having aimed and unsure what else to do, fires a rocket-propelled grenade at it.
 A day later, I recall that there is one plot point that hinges on your acquiring a specific vigor and applying it to a certain object. But in this case too, the game literally spells out every step this procedure, requiring no particular amount of comprehension on the player’s part.