(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?