Defending Bioshock Infinite’s Violence
This article assumes you’ve played Bioshock Infinite and contains a critique of its story. If you haven’t, please do so. It’s pretty good.
There’s been a lot of talk about Bioshock Infinite in the last few weeks, and one of the key points addressed has been how it deals with violence. There’s a lot of violence in Infinite and it’s damn brutal. As a whole, it does have some issues with story and gameplay being a bit incongruent, as they’re mostly separated. Usually, you’ll have a somewhat lengthy combat section where the story doesn’t really progress, followed by some extended exploration of Columbia. However, it doesn’t suffer what’s commonly known as ludonarrative dissonance. Unlike in many games featuring adult content, the violence makes sense.
“It serves to show the rot under the surface of Columbia”First of all, it serves to show the rot under the surface of Columbia. When Booker first arrives, Columbia seems like a perfect city in the clouds. Paradise, almost. Everyone seems content. The sun is shining from a cloudless sky. The carnival is here. Things couldn’t get any better. And then Booker – and the player – is yanked out of the lull, as he’s asked to throw the first “stone” at a couple who’ve commited the terrible crime of falling in love despite not having the same skin color. The first kill involves pushing a guard’s face onto a skyhook, a high-powered spinning mechanic hook attached to the hand, turning his face into mush. Though, to be fair, it happened after he tried to kill Booker. From then on, there’s very little time to enjoy the views of Columbia as hordes of armed zealots charge at you from start to finish. Tony Polanco over at STFUandplay addressed this in an editorial after sites such as Polygon and Kotaku criticized the prevalence of violence.
There’s another point, though, that hasn’t been addressed. That’s the role of the main character, Booker DeWitt.
“He desires redemption for his actions, but turns away from almost every opportunity to do so”He’s a battle-hardened soldier who served in the Battle of Wounded Knee, where he became renowned for his brutality. DeWitt also worked with the Pinkertons later on, and often mentions that he did unforgivable things in his time with them. On top of that, he has to live with the fact that he sold his daughter. He desires redemption for his actions, but turns away from almost every opportunity to do so. While he may feel some regret for the violence he creates in Columbia, he’s past the point where he’s inhibited by it. I’ll admit, though, that I had some troubles early on, as few of his enemies have it coming. Sure, they may be racist and bigoted twats, but in the end they’re simply zealots. They’ve fallen to Comstock’s lies. For example, at an early point in the game, when Comstock is telling them not to harm Booker, they all fall to their knees, letting Booker by. That’s utter devotion. It’s almost tragic to see how they’re used by Comstock, all in the belief that they’ll get to meet their maker when they die. It gets even worse when you encounter the Handymen, who live in complete agony, saying things such as “Go away. Please go away” and “Why are you doing this?”
Ultimately, Booker’s path to violence doesn’t have to be developed through gameplay, because we know what his background is.
Put this in perspective to characters like Jason Brody in Far Cry 3 or Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot. Neither of those have a violent background, neither have of them have been in battle. This makes their sudden descent into brutal killing machines much more incongruent. Brody has lived a sheltered life in L.A, and feels a bit inferior to his girlfriend Liza, whose acting career is about to take off, while Lara is a somewhat geeky archeology student who’s in no way prepared for what’s going to happen. In a way, the two stories have some similarities. Both characters end up stranded on an island where anarchy reigns. No one in the outside world knows what madness is happening there. They both have to rescue their friends from the clutches of the comically evil antagonists.
But in the end it doesn’t work. There’s no real explanation for how they undergo their change so rapidly. It’s understandable why the writers made the main characters “ordinary people”. Firstly, it’s easier to relate to them, and secondly it creates a more interesting premise for a story to unfold. It’s certainly a better alternative to a gruff gun-bro.
“ At the beginning, she is uncomfortable, judging Booker after a bloody skirmish.”Elizabeth on the other hand, shows a much more human reaction to violence. At the beginning, she is uncomfortable, judging Booker after a bloody skirmish. It challenged the naïve attitude she has at the beginning, where she doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation, and has a child-like fascination with Paris. She merely runs off to dance moments after almost being blown up. She does get used to combat around her very quickly, but mostly from a desire to not get captured. She doesn’t participate actively. But when she stabs Fitzroy in the back, her first reaction is to be completely paralyzed. She may have had an idea of what would be going through her head, but she wasn’t prepared for it to be this gruesome. Her dress is covered in blood, and she runs away from the scene. It’s the culmination of her growing increasingly disillusioned with the world as she sees the devastation, and the poverty of Shantytown. This is a pivotal moment in Elizabeth’s arc, a point-of-no-return. In the most brutal way imaginable, she has lost her innocence and become mature. It’s also interesting how she says that killing runs “in the family”, given the big reveal towards the end.
In the end, Infinite doesn’t do violence perfectly. Many of the fights are there solely for spectacle, and the enemies aren’t cruel enough for it to feel alright to brutally murder them. But I don’t think it derails what the story was trying to say. Instead, it could serve as inspiration on how to include violence in games that ultimately don’t condone it.