A Commentary On Violence, Race, And Choice In ‘BioShock Infinite’

Posted by on April 12, 2013 at 8:59 am
There's a lot going on behind the scenes.

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in BioShock Infinite.

When I first finished BioShock Infinite, I did what many of us do when confronted with a twisting, turning, rollicking good time of a game/movie/book/whatever: I immediately went to the internet to see what other people were thinking about the game. At first, I found a lot of interesting posts about the ending–interpretations, theories, that sort of thing. I felt like I’d pretty well wrapped my head around the game and wanted to see if there were divergent opinions or interpretations.

Now that the dust has settled somewhat on the surface elements of the game–reviews, the ending, etc.–serious attempts to reflect on and draw insight into the game have begun to pop up. The two that stuck out to me the most were Chris Plante’s article about the violence in the game over at Polygon and Daniel Golding’s take on the game’s artistry, racism, and gravitas at the Australian Broadcast Corporation. I read those articles and many others like them and felt that a couple of significant points have been missed by the gaming community. I felt the need to weigh in and offer up a couple cents on the violent content and racial issues touched on in the game.

On Violence

I’ll admit that I was duly shocked the first time I held down the Y button and “finished off” one of my enemies by driving a giant metal hook into his face. I was immediately reminded of the first time I used the Lancer chainsaw in Gears of War and had a moment where I thought “what on earth is this doing in BioShock?” I was stunned, but I carried on, wondering if it was a simple gameplay mechanic or something that would have ramifications down the line.

The act of executing an opponent in such a grisly way seemed incredibly out of place, even when I considered that I had set some people on fire and summarily riddled them with bullets mere moments before. In a way, it was even more disturbing and grotesque than the Gears executions simply because the perspective never changed–I was face-to-(what’s-left-of-a-)face with an enemy, blood spraying everywhere, with a level of gore that was inconsistent with the other AI deaths. I was also jarred by the variety of animations that would play when an enemy was executed. This was obviously something that the designers put a lot of thought and work into.

This naturally led to the question of “why?” Why have such grisly, alarming, violent deaths in a BioShock game?

At heart, BioShock is about choice, and to a large extent, player agency. The original BioShock made this its centerpiece. “Would you kindly?” has become such an iconic phrase in gaming because it hung a lantern on the medium itself and the player’s role in moving the action forward. In BioShock, it was revealed that the player character was subjected to a Manchurian Candidate-like mind control, and would follow any command so long as it were preceded by those simple, now-famous words.

Up to a certain point in the game, the player was commanded to make choices he or she would already make anyway, ostensibly to continue forward in the game and reveal more of the story, new Tonics, etc. However, when at long last the player met Andrew Ryan, the game threw player agency back in our faces. In order to advance, in order to continue forward, the player had to make a choice he or she might not have otherwise made. It was a requirement to mash Ryan’s face in with a golf club in order to make more things happen in the game. I remember being shocked by this–the entire concept of being able to make meaningful choices in a video game was completely shattered by those simple words: “would you kindly?”

Infinite is in significant ways a remake of the original, but with major variations in form and execution. As Elizabeth says, the universe is full of variables, but at the end of the day, “there’s a man, and there’s a lighthouse.” Though Infinite is never as overt as the original–there is no “would you kindly” device to drive player action–player agency is still a major element of the mechanics of the game. At no point is it vital or essential to execute an enemy, to “finish them off” with a grisly demise, just as it makes no difference if you kill an enemy with a Vigor or a shotgun. It is a completely arbitrary decision on the player’s part, and therein lies the genius. If the player doesn’t want to be exposed to such a disturbing sight, it is completely in his or her power not to be.

I found that as I played the game more, I became less and less disturbed by the animations. That is, of course, until Elizabeth showed up. Her “oh my god!” response the first time I executed an enemy in her presence snapped me out of it–here, this fictional character in a video game reflected on my decision with shock and disgust, where I was merely concerned with dispatching them without wasting too much ammo or salts.

Having Elizabeth react this way, not just once but almost every time I executed an enemy, was a calculated and specific choice on the part of the designers. Booker, and the player, are used to the brutality of these deaths, have come to accept them as something necessary along the way. Elizabeth, sheltered and somewhat naive in comparison, is alarmed by it–much as I was the first time I did it. In a few short hours, I was conditioned and desensitized to the violence and gore and even anticipated the opportunity to execute an enemy if for no other reason than to see if I’d discover a new animation. The game had turned me into a sadist–or, rather, I’d made the choice to be sadistic.

At the same time, this is exactly what I was playing this game for. Granted, I anticipated a new story with new characters, hoping that Infinite would live up to its predecessor by providing me with a gripping narrative full of contemplative, philosophical plot twists. Between those milestones, though, I anticipated the gameplay itself. In the first gameplay trailers, we witnessed the player character grab a shotgun from an enemy’s hand, spin it around in midair, then shoot that same enemy with his own shotgun using only telekinesis. The memory of it still makes me giddy and I was sad to see that that mechanic never made it into the finished product. I played Infinite for new and interesting ways to kill people just as much as any sort of reflecting and ruminating on the ethics of murder that the story might offer me.

Much like Spec Ops: The LineInfinite takes player agency and put a mirror to it, reminding us that we can deliberately make choices that are repellent to us simply by playing the game. One thing Plante’s article points to is the idea that we have an underutilized ultimate weapon in our arsenal to combat this: turn the game off. The player always has the option to simply not play the game, and our refusal to do so makes us complicit in the horrors of the game itself. I just as easily could have popped in the terrific and underrated Rayman:Origins and had a fun, whimsical romp in a lush and beautiful world without ever having to choose whether I was going to subject any of its enemies to decapitation or not.

But I carried on, and soon Booker was confronted with his choices and the weight they carry in the fantastic Hall of Heroes segment of the game. At this point is where we are first given the opportunity to commit actual murder. The other deaths in the game can largely be chalked up to self-defense, but the moment with Slade, with a spotlight cast on him just so, was the first overt moment where I could choose whether to kill a defenseless, defeated enemy or spare him. I chose to spare him, and the kicker is this: I felt good about it. I’d mowed down a hundred people to get to this point, a hundred people whose motivations for trying to kill me were various levels of deranged, and this time I got to choose whether to kill or not and was proud of myself for making the “humane” choice. I then turned and continued to maim and kill dozens of other people without regard or reservation for the rest of the game.

I am a poster child for the entire premise of Infinite. When given the opportunity, I relished and found satisfaction from a choice that was completely meaningless and had no bearing on the past, present, or future. If you choose to spare him, you’ll later find Slade has been maimed and tortured in a cell and have the chance to kill him again, but with much less to-do or fanfare. You can kill him if only to put him out of his misery, or leave him to rot in a cell, and it makes no difference whatsoever. Slade was a constant, once, at Wounded Knee–now he’s just a variable, completely useless and unnecessary to your goals, ambitions, and motivations in the future. He’s another faceless drone to kill or not kill. I put a merciful bullet in his head in that room, and Elizabeth remarked that it really didn’t make a difference, and I moved forward with the game.

Now let’s talk about race.

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