Take the Skylines: Moving Through Bioshock Infinite
Brian Taylor looks at Columbia’s mass transit system.
Talking about a gamespace and how we “move” through it is tricky.
Moving means our gamebody (I guess that’s what it is) changing its temporal relationship to other objects. I think it’s fair to say that space in games is best measured in how long it takes us to get from point A to point B, because, well, how do you measure the speed of light in a vacuum in the game world?
There are two kinds of videogame movement: movement of the gamebody (usually on the left thumbstick or on the keyboard) and movement of the camera (usually on the right thumbstick or mouse). But in a first person game, where there is no modeled body, both types of movement involve the camera. And when you move in a third person game (assuming it’s not a single-screen game), the camera moves, too.
So the functionality of movement in games is messy (and that’s not even getting into the kinesynesthesia evoked by the image of movement and headwave and and and )
When I talk about Bioshock Infinite’s skylines, I’m talking about them from the perspective of someone who’s better at navigating bodies through space than centering them in a frame and shooting (the composition of a headshot does not appeal to my sense of visual aesthetics). I talk about them as someone who interacted with them via an Xbox 360 controller, with two discrete inputs (the analog sticks) which clearly control separate kinds of movement. The left changes my spatial relationship to the things I shoot, the right changes which way I shoot. I speak of them as someone whose body is floating hands and guns and a box that can run into walls or be shot.
There are two kinds of turret sequences: stationary and mobile. The former locks your left-thumbstick movement and usually limits your right thumbstick movement. The latter does the same, but the game or an AI or another player takes control of your left-thumbstick movement. They both usually give you some kind of extra powerful gun and reduce the damage your gamebody takes.
It’s weird, right? They’re this moment of extra empowerment in the size of your gun and your health bar, but they are also disempowering by removing your ability to move.
Remember, your gamebody movement is all made up—friction, gravity, all the things that affect our ability to move in the physical space have to be modeled in the digital. That’s part of what the game engine does. So maybe the removal of that kind of movement, the kind that changes how far away you are from something, is just the logical extension of collision modeling—an open area with movement along any axis → an open area with “realistic” movement → a corridor shooter → a turret.
They’re probably so prevalent because, well, they only require modification of existing movement and shooting and health systems.
In combat Infinite’s skylines don’t give you a stronger weapon. They don’t move you from point A to point B. They don’t lock you in place with extra health. They just loop you around and around and around and around, and cause life-bars to appear above the heads of your opponents because you’re out of control and you can’t really see them from so far away and the areas are so large that maybe you can’t find one or two of the enemies and so this is how you find them.
The skylines are like an anti-turret. Though the game’s hooks are sort of like a turret, its advantage is not one of shelter or of enemies only spawning within its limited field of view. It gives you a height advantage, an ability to survey the battlefield (you are so high up that, on your first use, Booker suggests the things must be magnetized because you jumped so far, an early warning sign of the endgame’s convoluted explaininess, as if everything that happened on-screen had to have an in-world explanation. As if every effect needed a cause.)
Anyway, skylines. You have a full 360 range of motion on the right thumbstick and the left allows you to speed up or slow down. If you can manage to shoot enemies while moving, well, you’re a better shot than I. But if you look at the ground, or relatively near an enemy, you’re given the option to hit the A button and leap down (or onto the poor sap standing there), more or less in a straight line from where you are at that moment to where you are aiming.
It’s jarring because on the skyline, there’s no guarantee you have any idea where you’re going. If you’re looking around, trying to aim at enemies, you might not realize how close you are to an ascent or to a curve and you suddenly find your carefully-aimed shot blocked by a floating building.
Around and around, on the outside of the combat arena (because that’s what those spaces are—arenas). People have a harder time shooting you when you’re on the skyline—I don’t know what the underlying math is, if the floaty area that is your “body” is smaller when you’re there, if their accuracy decreases with distance or if their AI doesn’t know how to lead a target at the speed you’re moving. So while the skyline itself doesn’t have a health bar that takes damage before it’s destroyed, it does effectively reduce the damage you take.
Skylines are mobility and agility and turrets are shells. And yet.