Infinitely Unbearable: A Manifesto Against Violence in Bioshock

Posted by razzdrazz (66 posts) -

(I'm aware this is a little late, but I just recently finished the game. Here's a piece I wrote for my personal blog. Read it here and leave some feedback, yes? I blocked out all relevant spoilers.)

I anticipated Bioshock: Infinite for months.

Then, I played it. I was appalled.

Bioshock: Infinite may be one of the most film-able video games ever made and Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth Comstock are quite possibly one of the most iconic duos in the industry's history. The political undertones of American exceptionalism and its protestation, the fantastical setting of a city in the sky, the love story between an outsider and a confused young girl unwilling to follow in her father's footsteps, a soldier haunted by his past, the unsteady balance between utopia and dystopia- all of these themes, plus a lead like Leonardo DiCaprio, would surely reign in millions at the summer box office. The game became, like its predecessor, an instant classic. Ken Levine's team crafted a compelling story, both fantastical and intellectually stimulating. As I am a student of history, the game's imagery and the apparent thoughtfulness of its construction awed me. I anticipated the game's release for months, thinking to myself that it was made specifically for someone like me, someone who lost faith in the video game industry, with its lack of concern for human life and ignorance of great stories. When I began the opening sequence, I took my time wandering the fantastical, yet realistic world. I listened to every audio log I could find, greedily eavesdropped pseudo-political conversations in bars, and wandered the opening carnival sequence with pleasure as I inspected a Washingtonian mechanical policeman. If an American city in the sky seceded from the Union, it would be Columbia. Then, as I watched and partook in the violence that ensued on my television, I was appalled. The historical prognostication and realistic character development exemplify much of what games lack and what movies contain: human characters, human worlds, human themes. Yet, for all this, the protagonists still crumble beneath the weight of inhuman amounts of bloodshed. Despite all the masterful efforts of the game's creators, Booker and Elizabeth are dehumanized by the violence they enact on others and a mesmerizing story becomes all too familiar. Kill people, kill bigger people, kill more people. End. Sure, in between the shooting portions of the game, the story is enthralling. The vistas, although virtual, are breathtaking and the characters seem human. Yet, when a story beat ends and the rifle pops out on screen, the game's humanity ends. Infinite, then, exemplifies a primary failure of video games, specifically for first-person shooters: killing becomes a player's raison d'être. Why can't the protagonists escape without killing thousands? Why can't they reason with their enemies? That doesn't really matter. For a game that takes itself very seriously, Infinite , merely by being a first-person shooter, becomes an experiment in vulgarity and completely leaves a compelling story in bloody tatters. This game, more than so many others, proves that games will continue to eschew larger audiences as long as they favor absurd and over-the-top sequences of head-shots, mercilessly gruesome beheadings, and sadistic electrocutions to the development of complex plot lines, characters, and settings.

Wounded Knee and Self-Awareness

Booker participated in the brutal killing of Native Americans during the Wounded Knee Massacre. Therefore, his violent actions during the game- chopping heads off, gunning down thousands of rebels and security officers, shooting innocents- are, while morally reprehensible, congruent with his background as a Cavalryman. Moreover, Elizabeth's disgust and disapproval of Booker's killings exemplify how Infinite is self-aware in its use of violence. In that sense, the violence can be 'meaningful.' Yet, despite Elizabeth's apprehension of Booker when they meet, she certainly supports Booker's rampages by the end of the game and pushes the protagonist to pursue violence (ultimately against himself) as the only possible solution. Elizabeth's actions aside, Wounded Knee was a horrific event in history. It launched Native American protest (the 'Ghost Dance' movement) that has continued to the present and remains a terrible example of violence against Native Americans on behalf of the United States. And, perhaps that was the creator's intent: someone responsible for such atrocities, whether redeemed by baptism or not, will always be capable of killing sprees and must be eliminated before he can cause wholesale murder and destruction.

In an interview with Polygon, in response to criticism of brutality in Infinite, Levine argued 'games are games.' For him, all video games are inherently unlike real life. Indeed, the premise of Infinite is fantastical at best. And, importantly, the illusion works. The fantasy of Columbia, and its decay, is what makes the game's story compelling. However, while using "meaningful violence" is useful for criticizing violence in general, Levine ultimately didn't want to change the formula game creators use. Indeed, for him (and many players), the extraordinary levels of violence in Infinite are the norm for video game content. The problem here is that Levine's apathy and lack of regret for mitigating violence exemplifies how the gaming community allows for gruesome images to trump storytelling, a form of immersion that other forms of art- films and writing- thrive on. The mayhem in Infinite is surely shocking , but that's not the form of immersion I always want from a game, especially one with so captivating as this. In the never-ending 'are games art' debate, senseless violence will always block games from being accepted as art for those who, like myself, see it as disengaging and 'filler' content.

It is what it is?

Some may comment that this analysis presumes that the game become something else. Ken Levine didn't make a strategy game or a role-playing game, he created a Bioshock game, complete with a captivating story and gruesome killing. That may be true, but Infinite could be so much more if the game's creators recognized that the violence present in the game took away from the magic of its storytelling. Maybe I forgot what Bioshock was like in the years since I've played the first game. Maybe I'm more sensitive to violence than I once was. I certainly played many shooters over the years. Yet, as a player, I spent months progressing through this game primarily because I couldn't sit through long periods of violence. Though exhilarating at times, the combat in Infinite left me drained. Unlike in some brainless shoot 'em ups, being DeWitt had a sense of weight. Every resounding melee crack and every scream of death made me conscious that I, the player, was inflicting incredible pain and suffering on this digital world and its inhabitants. Sure, I relished a nice, stun zap. It's a fantastic video game and one of the best I've played in a long time. One of the first things I noticed about Infinite is that it plays well: movement is responsive and 'Vigor' powers are satisfying and inventive (who doesn't want to shoot a murder of crows at their enemies or halt bullets mid-air like Neo from The Matrix?). Yet, even in moments of enjoyment, I longed for more narrative content during long sequences of behead this guy, shoot that mech-man's heart and dreaded killing exhaustive waves of enemies. No, something shouldn't be what it's not. Infinite was meant to be a shooter; therefore, the player is meant to kill the enemies in the game. And that's fine. But that choice in design made an otherwise dazzling experience nearly unbearable by the end. What once seemed new and exhilarating transformed into the same old gore-fest labeled 'Mature.' What actually seems mature is a reevaluation of what makes games great: blood, guts, and beheadings or great stories?

Sources: Polygon

#1 Posted by Brodehouse (10106 posts) -

"Infinite could be so much more"... if only they catered directly to me and my feelings about fantasy violence! Yeah, sure.

I think it could be so much more if it didn't abuse causality and character motivation in a nonsensical fashion. That bothered me more than any brutal skyhook kill.

I also like the shaming of soldiers who saw combat and took lives. That at any point they can commit killing sprees until they are eliminated. Assuming you live in a western liberal democracy that has been a part of modern history and World Wars, it's convenient that this comes after many of them have died so that you can have the freedom to hate violence.

You are perfectly free to judge a game entirely on your moral compass and what you consider necessary violence (maybe you should have allowed the violent aggressors of Infinite to kill you instead of resisting with lethal force?), and I am free to disagree.

#2 Posted by Bocam (3808 posts) -

Booker is a horrible person and he only knows how to solve problems through violence. How do people not get this?

#3 Posted by joshwent (2327 posts) -

Despite all the masterful efforts of the game's creators, Booker and Elizabeth are dehumanized by the violence they enact on others and a mesmerizing story becomes all too familiar. Kill people, kill bigger people, kill more people.

Okay, so you got the point of the game right there, but I think you may have not got the point of the game. Booker's past indeed dehumanized him. So much so that he was later willing to give his baby daughter away to clear his gambling debts. During his quest to liberate Elizabeth, he slowly learns what his kind of unchecked propensity toward violence and desensitization can make... a tyrant willing to murder tens of millions in the complete destruction of NYC. In fact, he realizes that he is SO irredeemably cut off from normal human decision-making, that the only way he can stop himself is by accepting to murdered.

I'll be the first one to say that the story in Infinite is disappointingly clunky if not even obscured by the gameplay. For all the discovering-Elizabeth-joyfully-dancing-to-calliope-Cyndi-Lauper, there are 5 oh-fuck-not-another-abrupt-arena-fight-s. But it's clear that all of the violence and shooting therein is part of the characterization. Every time you kill 20 innocent strangers, every barrel of potato chips looted right next to a starving person, every time snap someone's neck with your bare hands, you should feel bad about it, because Booker doesn't.

Yes Levine thinks that a skill-based component in a game is rewarding, so he wanted to make a shooter. But the narrative is still not only intimately connected to that, it's an exploration of what the person behind that gameplay would be like. What personality would be the one who could brutally massacre an entire sky city, and come out unscathed?

(Turns out, it's a pretty unpleasant one.)

Though exhilarating at times, the combat in Infinite left me drained. Unlike in some brainless shoot 'em ups, being DeWitt had a sense of weight.

I think Levine would consider that a resounding success.

#6 Posted by YOU_DIED (703 posts) -

I really didn't think the story was that compelling. In fact I thought it was pretty predictable. I'd read a half-decent book or watch a B sci-fi film over playing Infinite any day of the week. The shooting is average at best. Another team that's extremely adept at creating a convincing setting but unable to populate it with enthralling gameplay.

#7 Edited by BisonHero (6803 posts) -

The thing is, at this juncture, you don't get dump trucks full of cash from publishers unless your game involves shooting a bunch of dudes in the face. If Infinite had been a $60 Gone Home where you walk around a detailed environment, find audio logs, and have the occasional civil discourse, it A) never would've been funded, and B) the entire Internet would revolt over having to pay $60 for a game with very little gameplay.

#8 Posted by Brodehouse (10106 posts) -

Hold on a second. There is a single person in this game who you kill who doesn't attempt to kill you first (AND IT'S YOUUUUUU), or wouldn't attempt to kill you first if they saw you coming. You are not running through low income neighborhoods, preying on the weak and defenseless to satiate your own maniacal bloodlust, you are attempting to go from point A to point B while armed men and women attempt to murder you. It can be said that in a state of war, their actions are as agents of Columbia and not as free-acting citizens and therefore they're personally not responsible for attempting to kill you, but that's what happens when you agree to be an agent, when you agree to join military or law enforcement, and you understand you might pay the ultimate price in doing so. Attempting to portray this as Booker DeWitt's serial murder spree remains to be proven in the fiction.

#9 Posted by believer258 (12100 posts) -

Story quality aside, everyone you kill in that game is attempting to kill you first. Once someone is attempting to kill you, then you have the right to self-defense, even if that involves killing them. Yeah, it's violent, and yeah, Booker isn't a great person, but he can be forgiven for shooting back at guys who are shooting him.

This game, more than so many others, proves that games will continue to eschew larger audiences as long as they favor absurd and over-the-top sequences of head-shots, mercilessly gruesome beheadings, and sadistic electrocutions to the development of complex plot lines, characters, and settings.

Two things.

1) Some of the best-remembered art is gruesome, merciless, and quite over the top. Achilles dragged Hector's corpse around behind a chariot. Dante saw a dude eating another dude's head in The Inferno. Lavinia gets raped and then gets her hands chopped off and her tongue cut out in Titus Andronicus. Tony Montana kills his best friend. Art has a long and storied history of violence. Simply cutting violence out of a game, especially in a game like this where it fits pretty damn well with the character involved, isn't going to bring any more respectability to games. It's not that the violence is present, it's how it's used, and it's used pretty well in Bioshock Infinite, even if much of it is just a gameplay conceit.

And that's not even delving into the fact that "just a gameplay conceit" is a line that I hate writing. Gameplay conceits are the very thing that separates games from other forms of art, and it's the most interesting thing about them. Why can't games be artistic through their gameplay and mechanics alone? Why must they always be compared to movies?

2) What do you mean by "eschew larger audiences"? Call of Duty Black Ops 2 has a segment where you chop dude's heads off with a machete and that series of games has incredibly high sales.

#10 Edited by SoldierG654342 (1805 posts) -

@bocam said:

Booker is a horrible person and he only knows how to solve problems through violence. How do people not get this?

It has nothing to do with Booker. When I object to the violence levels in Bioshock Infinite, I'm objecting to the details in the animations. Like when you electrocute someone and their heads explode, or you watch someone melt after being lit on fire. I suppose if you want to split hairs, you could say that it was the gore, not the violence, that bothered me enough or me to only use executions by accident and to nearly stop using vigors (that and the fact that the carbine combine with mouse aiming made them almost unnecessary).

#11 Posted by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -

Simply cutting violence out of a game, especially in a game like this where it fits pretty damn well with the character involved

That's the problem I had with BioShock Infinite: it didn't really fit. There's a lot in the story that's telling me this violent is horrible and gruesome, like Elizabeth's utter shock at killing Daisy (followed up with this crap) or Booker's resigned attitude toward it. But then you put that in somebody's control, and it felt like it was being presented as fun or enjoyable, really. Something along the lines of this:

That felt hard to reconcile.

#12 Posted by EXTomar (4921 posts) -

@bocam said:

Booker is a horrible person and he only knows how to solve problems through violence. How do people not get this?

This. Not once, at any point in the story were you ever led to believe he was a nice guy or a "scoundrel with a heart of gold". There were hints he might have tried but he did ultimately fail or he wouldn't have been enticed by the "give us the girl and wipe away the debt"...either time!

I'm not sure what is your definition of "appropriate" for action in this game. This is 1910~ where the world clearly knows about fire arms and electricity so I'm unclear why one would feel the graphic nature of the combat would be inappropriate.

#13 Posted by believer258 (12100 posts) -

@video_game_king: I don't know about the game really presenting itself as fun and enjoyable. That seems more like us being conditioned to enjoy violence in games. It's not a perfect reconciliation but I think it works.

#14 Posted by razzdrazz (66 posts) -

Thanks for all the constructive criticism, everyone! I was definitely heavy-handed in this piece and attempted to make a difficult argument. An apology:

I'm not against violence, I'm against becoming a docile body. In certain points in Infinite, I felt as though I was just mindlessly clogging along, just a cog in the machine. This may be too heavy, but we've been so conditioned by violence within our society (this applies just as well to television/movies) that this is the normative form for video games. In fact, compared to other games, this one isn't particularly egregious. My point was that this game's rich historiographical themes seemed to make it more than 'just a video game,' but that the violence, in particular the finishing moves, detracted from those complex themes.

I'm not advocating that FPSs dissolve completely, but the norms of that particular genre did a disservice to an exhilarating story. This isn't Grand Theft Auto, where gratuitous violence/ action is what people come for- it's Bioshock, which is known for in-depth story and so forth. Don't get me wrong, I loved the game. But by the end I had enough for a while, and perhaps that was intended by the creators. I'm just arguing that if games are ever going to be taken seriously by anyone besides those who play them, they should evolve past this sort of nonsensical, rampage-like violence. Even when well-intended, it comes off horrifically to those who don't identify as gamers. Hell, I identify myself as a gamer, and it came off strong to me.

Moreover, having a spouse, especially one who's critical of the industry, changes one's conception of gaming completely. Hearing, "Oh my god! What the heck are you playing?" is good. I'm not for eliminating violence at all- it's part of the human condition and will continue to be so for the extent of humanity's existence. However, I think there are other plot devices for motivating players. I'm not looking for an 'E'-rated experience- I'm just looking for one that's engaging and not mindless.

#15 Edited by razzdrazz (66 posts) -

@joshwent: Also, kudos for thoroughly deconstructing my argument. Levine probably would consider my squeamishness a resounding success. And still, it's a great game, one that I'll probably recommend and remember for years to come. I'm still completely conflicted about this game. Maybe that's the point about Columbia, about America. Definitely just had an Epiphany.

#16 Edited by razzdrazz (66 posts) -

Crazy triple post

#18 Posted by believer258 (12100 posts) -

Thanks for all the constructive criticism, everyone! I was definitely heavy-handed in this piece and attempted to make a difficult argument. An apology:

I'm not against violence, I'm against becoming a docile body. In certain points in Infinite, I felt as though I was just mindlessly clogging along, just a cog in the machine. This may be too heavy, but we've been so conditioned by violence within our society (this applies just as well to television/movies) that this is the normative form for video games. In fact, compared to other games, this one isn't particularly egregious. My point was that this game's rich historiographical themes seemed to make it more than 'just a video game,' but that the violence, in particular the finishing moves, detracted from those complex themes.

I'm not advocating that FPSs dissolve completely, but the norms of that particular genre did a disservice to an exhilarating story. This isn't Grand Theft Auto, where gratuitous violence/ action is what people come for- it's Bioshock, which is known for in-depth story and so forth. Don't get me wrong, I loved the game. But by the end I had enough for a while, and perhaps that was intended by the creators. I'm just arguing that if games are ever going to be taken seriously by anyone besides those who play them, they should evolve past this sort of nonsensical, rampage-like violence. Even when well-intended, it comes off horrifically to those who don't identify as gamers. Hell, I identify myself as a gamer, and it came off strong to me.

Moreover, having a spouse, especially one who's critical of the industry, changes one's conception of gaming completely. Hearing, "Oh my god! What the heck are you playing?" is good. I'm not for eliminating violence at all- it's part of the human condition and will continue to be so for the extent of humanity's existence. However, I think there are other plot devices for motivating players. I'm not looking for an 'E'-rated experience- I'm just looking for one that's engaging and not mindless.

Ah, well, that's a much better explanation than before, though still not one that I necessarily agree with. But then, I separate between mechanics and story quite easily, so the fact that this was so transparently a game at times didn't bug me. In fact, I like that idea. I feel like the synthesis of Hollywood movie and video game interactivity far too often comes at the expense of both instead of playing up the strengths of either.

Out of curiosity, have you played Deus Ex Human Revolution? From what you've said here, that should definitely be your next stop. Maybe Dishonored, but its story is too far from engaging to really recommend. I'd say that Dishonored is even more transparently game-ish than Bioshock Infinite. It's so segmented, there's a central hub world that you use to pick up missions, buy stuff, and go to levels.

Can it be argued that insanely high levels of violence are somewhat inherent to games that have a violent bent? Certainly they could use better justifications but game mechanics mean that more suspension of disbelief is needed than for pretty much any other medium.

#19 Posted by razzdrazz (66 posts) -

Can it be argued that insanely high levels of violence are somewhat inherent to games that have a violent bent? Certainly they could use better justifications but game mechanics mean that more suspension of disbelief is needed than for pretty much any other medium.

Games definitely require more suspension than any other medium, and creators go to great lengths to bring players into their worlds. In a sense, this is exactly my point: the 'shock factor' nature of the violence to which I refer disengages players like myself and others who are less apart of the normative gamer culture. Once the industry as a whole grasps this, I think creators will be more-inclined to construct experiences that are less 'shocking' and more engrossing, more compelling. Certainly, most games that have the type of stories like those present in Infinite or Metro, for example, will invariably contain violence. I'm trying to poke a stick at the FPS genre a little bit here in order to provoke a change or evolution in content. The shooter is so ubiquitous that is seems to overshadow games in a negative way.

I've not played Human Revolution, but I did play a bit of Dishonored and I thought it was a great game. The story seemed interesting, but the mechanics definitely shaped the experience every step of the way. But, it's a 'stealth' game, so I can't complain too much. There's definitely a hard balance to strike between mechanics and storytelling/immersion at which few excel. Papers, Please is one of the best examples of this, as its mechanics communicate super complex themes in a natural way. It doesn't seem contrived. Ultimately, I think the FPS in its current form has little left to compel audiences. Most of its mechanical tropes have been used and reused ad nauseam and this leaks into the experience. Infinite's story and mechanics just felt a bit disconnected in this context. I went into head-shot mode and all that work to get me interested in Elizabeth and Booker went out the window. Maybe that's just me, but I think there's a happy medium here.

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