BioShock Infinite is not a perfect game. It’s a deep, insightful, masterfully designed title which reminds us that triple-A games don’t always need to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but it does have its flaws. I mentioned a few in my review last week, yet they didn’t stop the game from being one of my most memorable gaming experiences of recent years. One flaw I did not mention has been cited by quite a few people this week, and it has both surprised and disappointed me. This apparent flaw is Infinite’s extreme violence. I didn’t bring it up before for one simple reason: it isn’t even remotely a flaw.
Have no doubts about it, Infinite is a brutal, bloody title that contains countless scenes of gratuitous violence which would make most people feel uncomfortable. Necks are broken, heads explode, men and women are riddled with bloody holes and enemies are pecked to death by supernatural crows. It’s exceptionally disgusting. And it’s also completely necessary.
The general consensus from those who decry Infinite’s violence is that it’s an element that detracts from the rest of the game. Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton walks us through the title’s opening moments, from Booker’s journey to Columbia, through his exploration of the quaint fair, to the moment where Booker savagely beats several policemen to death with his skyhook. The moments before the violence impressed him — they were things he wanted to show his “non-gamer friends” — but when Booker becomes a dealer of death, the game becomes something that he believes some people won’t give a chance.
Polygon’s Chris Plante has similar concerns. His wife, who according to the writer normally plays games from developers like thatgamecompany, with enthralled by the first fifteen minutes of the game, but became put off by the “repellent violence”. I’m not at all surprised, as even I felt rather ill-at-ease during some of the more grotesque sequences, but then Plante passes judgement on the game based on the experiences of his wife. That is very strange.
Plante sums up his problem with Infinite in his final, confused paragraph. “Levine has been outspoken about his ambition to please both the meathead and the brainiac since the release of the original BioShock. But what about my wife? What about the people who can stomach only so much aggressive violence and unchecked cruelty?” I don’t really know how a sensible person could answer that. What about the people that love My Little Pony or only like racing games? What about all of those people who only like their games to be set in space, taking place in a far flung galaxy aboard a spaceship?
The suggestion that Irrational should have compromised their creative vision to appeal to non-gamers or people like Plante’s missus is completely absurd. No game, no matter how amazing, will appeal to everyone. Is it not better to have a focused title that appeals to some people rather than one that tries to pander to the largest possible audience, including those who don’t play games?
The strangest thing about Plante and Hamilton’s criticism is that they both clearly experienced parts of the game that they were able to talk about with their non-gamer friends, or sections that did appeal to people who don’t like shooting people. Irrational obviously did manage to craft a game that has bits of quiet beauty and exploration, yet it wasn’t good enough because the whole game wasn’t like that.
“What if it had been a first-person exploration and adventure game?” Asks Hamilton. I don’t know, Kirk. What if it had been a dating sim? These questions are beyond asinine and highlight the the primary misunderstanding these detractors have about Infinite. It’s a game about violence. Remove the violence and it isn’t BioShock Infinite; Booker becomes an entirely different character, there’s no revolution and it simply becomes a game about wandering around Columbia. I wouldn’t have a problem with such a game, just as I wouldn’t have a problem with a game that explored the Lutece twins as they dabbled in quantum physics, but those would be different games with different stories. To criticise a game for not being another game is ridiculous.
Let’s explore why violence is so integral to Infinite for a moment. This is where I’m going to have to start mentioning spoilers, so if you are yet to finish the game, you should probably skip this part.
In Infinite’s chronology, though not the order of events that players experience, the narrative begins when Booker either accepts baptism and becomes Zachary Comstock, or flees from the baptism, becomes a gambling sot, loses his daughter and then embarks on a quest to rescue her from his alternate’s clutches. The whole reason Booker ends up contemplating baptism is his inability to deal with the man he has become. He’s a killer, and a good one at that.
Booker’s penchant for slaughter is the reason the entire game happens. While racism, zealotry and founder worship are major themes, it is violence that most permeates throughout entire experience. Hamilton poses the question, “What if Booker had been more of an actual private investigator, rather than a commando for hire?” and there’s a very simple answer. Booker is a soldier. His war experience turned him into an aggressive, mentally fractured, gruesome figure. If it was so easy for Booker to set aside his violent past, to just become a simple private investigator who avoids violence, he would never have needed to become Comstock in the first place, and the story would never have occurred.
By suggesting these alternatives, Hamilton isn’t just talking about removing violence, he is, inadvertently or not, suggesting that the narrative be completely changed just because the gore made him feel unpleasant and he was embarrassed to show it to his friends. The violence needed to be there because it was instrumental to the title’s narrative, and to the character of Booker.
The game reaches its most violent point after Booker and Elizabeth enter the reality where the Vox Populi have successfully risen up against Comstock. Civilians lie dead in the street, people are murdered just because they have money and possessions, and the demented Daisy Fitzroy almost kills a child. Columbia becomes a warzone, and Booker has to fight his way through it. The themes of extremism and rebellion are key aspects on the BioShock universe and are inextricably linked to thoughtless acts of violence.
Say cheerio to the spoilers.
What I find most interesting about some of these complaints is that these writers felt the same way about the game as I did, but decided that feeling the way they did meant that the game was ruined. I did not enjoy Infinite’s combat in the traditional sense of the word. I appreciated it mechanically, loved the level layout and found the fast pace to be thrilling, but the brutality of it all made me feel sick. Every time I saw a neck being broken I cringed, when I noticed the exit wound at the back of a woman’s skull — a woman I had just murdered — I felt like a monster and every time I heard someone scream as I charged at them with my skyhook, I wished that I could stop.
Guess what? That means I’m not a psychopath. It probably means the same about all the other people that felt this way. It’s horrifying. Throughout the game, Elizabeth criticises Booker’s use of violence, and she’s audibly frightened by the way he dispatches his foes. You are not meant to feel good about what you are doing. Booker is not a hero. Hell, he’s not even a good man.
Just as it does with extreme fundamentalism and racial segregation, Infinite condemns violence. But it’s hard to condemn something without showing the negative effects or making people feel something, and the game does both of those things.
In a moment of surprisingly self-aware hypocrisy, Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski claimed that, much like Plante and Hamilton, the violence goes too far. “This is one of the few games that I’ve loved that I felt the violence actually detracted from the experience. The first time I dug my skyhook into someone I actually winced.” I’m not at all shocked that he found it all a bit too much, however. Gears of War celebrates violence, and it’s fun to slice an alien in half with a chainsaw-gun. So when he feels bad about killing someone, he thinks that means it’s gone too far. But that, of course, is the point. You should feel like shit when you kill someone. It’s not a good thing, or something to be proud of.
The juxtaposition of the explosive, grisly combat and the serene exploration segments is also key to the sense of wrongness that is weaved throughout the experience. Even when Booker and Elizabeth are essentially sightseeing, delighting in music, candy floss and the beauty of this supposed heaven on (or just above) Earth, horror is never far away. People are being exploited and tortured, Comstock’s forces are hunting the pair and at any point, violence could erupt. The idyllic scenes are lies, giving players a false sense of security, just as Columbia’s citizens ignore the terrible things that go on right under their noses. Without the violence, that ugliness wouldn’t be as clear, and the threat that Columbia and Comstock represent would be greatly diminished.
I wonder if it’s due to all the recent discussions on video game violence that we’re now seeing a game like BioShock Infinite being singled out despite all the other games that focus on nothing but violence, often violence lacking the narrative context provided by Infinite. Perhaps if racism in games or religion in games were current hot topics we’d also see writers criticising the title for making them feel bad when they saw racially segregated toilets or a man using Christianity to exploit an entire city of people. I certainly felt just as uncomfortable when confronted by those aspects as I did when I blew a man’s head off.
Bloodshed is demonstrably not something all games should contain, but we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a game just because it has violence as a key theme. Certainly not when it is dealt with in a mature way, as we’ve seen in BioShock Infinite. What people like Hamilton, Plante and Bleszinski are espousing borders on the promotion of censorship. “This made me feel uncomfortable, so it shouldn’t be in the game.” Instead, we should celebrate the fact that we have a game where violence makes you feel dirty, instead of a righteous hero.