An Examination of Looting in Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us

Author’s Note:

The written version of this piece found below is a word for word transcript of the video.

Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us are two of the best games of the year, and having loved each with few issues when I first played them at launch, I recently decided to play through each of these games again. Interestingly, both of these games place an emphasis on scavenging and looting as a pretty core design mechanic. Playing through these games a second time, it became clear to me that one of these games implements looting mechanics very well, while the other does not. I am going to take a closer look at how the scavenging mechanics are implemented in each of these games and examine why they seem so out of place in Bioshock Infinite but compliment The Last of Us incredibly well.

Looting has always been a major component of the Bioshock series, and was really one of the few RPG elements present in the original Bioshock as a sort of holdover from Irrational’s previous game, System Shock 2. In Bioshock Infinite, the looting works much the same way it did in the original Bioshock. Every defeated enemy can be looted for up to three items, which simply requires you to look at the dead body and press a button. In addition to dead bodies, various containers littered throughout the game world can be looted. The types of things you can find consist of one time use consumables that replenish either your health or salts, lockpicks, money, gear, audio logs and ammunition.

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Now that we understand how each of these systems behaves, let’s look at the reasons The Last of Us handles it so much better than Bioshock Infinite.

The biggest problem the scavenging creates in Infinite is a disconnect with the fantastic narrative and world building. Lots of people love to point at the combat of Bioshock Infinite as a major cause of narrative dissonance, but given Booker’s past as a soldier and a Pinkerton agent, it makes perfect sense that he would only know how to solve problems with the barrel of a gun. The scavenging, however, makes no sense in the context of game’s fiction and only serves to break immersion. In both the original Bioshock and The Last of Us, the world is in ruins and society has fallen apart, so it makes sense to sift through the remnants for any potential supplies. Columbia on the other hand, is still a functional city for the most part, so stopping to go through every container doesn’t make a whole lot sense from a fictional standpoint.

Exacerbating this issue is the lack of any coherent logic determining what items you find in what locations. It may not seem like a major issue, but things like this can undermine the believability in what is otherwise an excellently realized world. The questions become not only why would Booker search for supplies in a toilet or a garbage can, but why is there food or ammo in a toilet or a garbage can to begin with, and why an earth would Booker eat anything he found there? It also doesn’t help that oftentimes you will find things in containers that aren’t even big enough to hold them, such as finding a box of cereal and a sandwich inside a box of chocolates.

The Last of Us on the other hand, doesn’t suffer from any of these issues. For the most part, items are in places where they would logically be, and even when they aren’t, the core idea of a world 20 years removed from an apocalypse can excuse it. Even if it wouldn’t make a whole of sense for a spiked baseball bat to be in a bedroom, it’s easier to imagine survival situations that might result in someone leaving these items in odd places, giving these scenarios some believability. There is no thought process that can excuse an orange being in a box of chocolates on a shelf in what is presumably a functional candy store in a populated city like Columbia.

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A big point in favor of The Last of Us is also the simple fact that the core narrative theme of the game, survival, ties into the very act of scavenging. Joel and Ellie are simply trying to survive, and finding supplies to create makeshift weapons or first aid kits feels like something you would actually be forced to do if you found yourself in a similar situation. If you were told you were going to be visiting a crazy floating city, would it ever occur to you that you would be spending a significant amount of time rummaging around looking for new pants and eating apples out of the garbage? The simple fact is the implementation of scavenging and looting mechanics enhance the narrative themes and world consistency of The Last of Us, while the similar mechanics in Bioshock Infinite serve only to undermine the narrative and world building elements.

Unfortunately for Bioshock Infinite, the problems with the looting mechanics don’t end with the fiction, they also disrupt the game’s pacing while adding very little gameplay value. The biggest reason the scavenging disrupts the pacing is because of how much of it there is. The fact that every single dead body can be searched means you spend a few minutes after every battle running around the battlefield looting dead bodies. The majority of them will have either nothing or only worthless things on them, but I found myself doing it anyway because I wasn’t going to take the chance of missing something useful. A large number of the search-able containers are also empty, which only serves to waste more of your time and disrupt the game’s pacing. It also means that every time you enter a shop or building you immediately start looking for containers rather than simply absorbing the excellent art design and environmental storytelling.

The pace of The Last of Us also has the potential to be affected by the looting, but it is mitigated by a few key differences in the way the two games handle these elements. The biggest one of these differences is the fact that you don’t have to search every single enemy. If the enemy had something useful, it drops on the ground when they die. This allows you to do a quick visual scan of the area once combat ends to see if anything dropped, as opposed to having to walk up to every single dead body and search them. It also helps that all the loot items are physical models in the world, which allows you to once again just visually scan rooms and building to see if there is anything of use. There are some objects you must open to search, but there are far less of them than Bioshock Infinite and even still you visually look inside these containers rather than a loot menu, which adds to the immersion instead of breaking it.

From a gameplay perspective, the scavenging in The Last of Us is a key component to the game, and more importantly, feels important to the game’s design. Crafting is a major element of the game, and the scarcity of materials (especially on higher difficulties) means finding materials is vitally important. This gives meaning to your searching and makes it feel important, especially because everything you can find is key to your survival. Every single item you pick up has a purpose, and even if it wasn’t exactly what you needed at that very moment, it will help you in some way.

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In Infinite, the scavenging feels like a chore, and the vast majority of things you come across are entirely useless. So often I found myself being unable to pick up ammo or use consumables because my ammo was maxed out and my health and salts were full, even on 1999 mode. It also doesn’t help that the game is not difficult and there is virtually no death penalty. When you aren’t feeling challenged and the items you find don’t help you at all, it results in the whole looting process feel superfluous. It also doesn’t help that ammo is a non issue, especially since you can buy it from shops. Even worse, the two weapon limit means you’ll more often than not be finding ammo for guns you don’t have with you, once again creating a feeling pointlessness to the looting. Compare that to The Last of Us, where evener single bullet is a precious resource, which means finding ammo is extremely important. You may argue they are two different types of games, a shooter and a survival game, but I would then argue that perhaps the shooter should use a system that serves its gameplay better.

Both games also have a resource based lock-picking mechanic, and once again The Last of Us uses this feature to a much greater degree of success. In The Last of Us, you are forced to use shivs to pick locks. Shivs are arguably your most important crafting item, especially when clickers are involved, and they are created using the rarest material in the game. This means you have a genuine decision to make in regards to picking locks. You can gamble and open the lock in the hopes of finding useful materials inside, or play it safe and hang on to your shiv. It’s the type of tough decision you can imagine making in a stressful survival scenario like the game presents.

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In Bioshock Infinite, the resource you use to pick locks are simply lockpicks, and the only purpose they serve is to open locks. There is no decision involved, you either open the lock or you don’t. There would be some kind of gamble if lockpicks were rare and you could only open a handful of locked doors, but if you spend any amount of time scavenging you will have more than enough lockpicks to open ever locked door in the game. All this system serves to do is force you to waste time searching every room thoroughly if you want to open every lock. There is no skill involved and no tough choice, it basically just boils down to a deciding between wasting time or missing some locked doors.

Don’t take this to mean I think Bioshock Infinite is a bad game — far from it. Both of these games are in my personal top three games released this year. It’s only because I think Bioshock Infinite is so great that the issues regarding the scavenging mechanics stood out to me at all. What I really take away from this is that Naughty Dog designed a system from the ground up for The Last of Us to serve the game, its story, world and overall design. Irrational, on the other hand, simply stuck with a system that made sense and worked for past games in the Bioshock series without changing it to serve Bioshock Infinite in particular, which is in many ways a very different game than the original Bioshock.