For obvious reasons, the subject of violence cuts deep with a lot of gamers, especially given the current political climate where laws are being written and rewritten with the intent of deterring mass shootings by regulating and possibly censoring what society decides to pinpoint as the causal root of real life violence. And gamers, who are caught in the middle, are thus prompted to ask the following question.
Is BioShock Infinite too violent for its own good?
Absolutely not; it is certainly violent, and astonishingly vivid in that, but it fits. The strongest argument put forward by those against the violence is that it distastefully distracts from the beauty of the atmosphere that is so successful in awe-striking the player.
The truth of that last part shouldn’t be downplayed: Columbia is indeed a spectacle to behold. It is an externalization of white American hubris and a challenge to utopian convention. It is the pinnacle exemplar of human accomplishment in our eternal strife to make Heaven a thing of reality. At least…that’s what it looks like. You, the player, are given quite the false sense of security before being plunged into the maw of the true Columbia.
As Infinite is quick to show, there is a layer of blood, bones, and sin beneath the gilded and magnificent exterior. Given the contextual Progressive Era time period that Infinite is set in, the allegory is very deliberate. Like the planet of Taris in Knights of the Old Republic, there is an Undercity – a place where the poor and racial others that slave away in the unforgiving industry are kept to fend for themselves in a brutal Hobbesian social construct while the rich and “fabulous” people above them can live out their lives blissfully apathetic to their plight.
The metaphors provided in the game are practically screaming at you. Columbia features class tensions that will soon spark a revolution as Bolshevik as they get. Father Comstock seeks to reign fire on the “sodomites” of the world and he will kill anyone in his way. Jeremiah Fink is a ruthless industrial boss who hires muscle to keep his profits. The police hunt and put down the Vox Populi with extreme prejudice, and on the other side of that, Daisy Fitzroy is determined to brutally eradicate the Founders and their sympathizers, no matter how many innocents she has to massacre to do it.
To place Booker DeWitt – a scarred, traumatized veteran of two of the harshest and most racist conflicts in recent history and former agent for Pinkerton – into a city like Columbia during the apex of its existence, i.e. a time where the city’s paradoxical zeitgeist is stretched to its powder keg extreme – and not expect that violence will occur is like performing a welding operation over a puddle of gasoline and not expecting a fire. And if you are distracted from the beauty of Columbia because your skyhook found its way into an enemy’s skull, take the hint – you were supposed to be.
Infinite approaches the subject of violence with its head firmly situated on both shoulders. Its display of the bloodshed is unblinking and thus it is truthful. It’s obviously not realistic (few things in this game actually are) but a tiger cannot hide its stripes. The game is violent because it has to be and to pretend like it could have scaled it back even a little is to delude yourself of the reality of history.
Such reasoning is convenient and obviously doesn’t apply everywhere. So why am I arguing that it does apply here?
Modern videogame storytelling has two major subcategories. There are the games that exist for the player to experiment with a new (or improved) style of gameplay and the games whose purpose is first and foremost to tell a good story. In the former, a chronicle is constructed around the gameplay to give the player as much variation, mobility, and challenge with it as possible. In the latter, the gameplay (as notable game reviewer Yahtzee Croshaw put it) drives the car while the story navigates and picks the radio station. There are good and bad games in both categories, but BioShock Infinite belongs exclusively in the latter.
Let’s keep with the car metaphor for a moment. What also matters is the scenic route you’re taking – the atmosphere. The type of road, the pace of travel, and the obstacles presented on your path – all of which are pre-set by the story – will thus determine what kind of car you drive, which is then where gameplay comes in. A game in which story and gameplay mix naturally essentially consists of the player being able to drive the right kind of car for the journey he/she is undertaking, but that doesn’t mean that one of those two things can’t still be in charge.
The point is that everything gameplay-related in a primarily story-based game is slave to and fodder for the narrative. It is, after all, what you’re there for, and BioShock Infinite as well as its predecessor defined themselves as members of the story-based game niche right at the beginning. And if the story demands violence, then it must have it.
It is understandable that many gamers are nonetheless taking issue with the violence of Infinite, no matter how guileless, story-focused, and historically grounded it may be. Few of us take pleasure in real violence. And while the difference between real world violence and videogame violence is as discernible as the difference between apples and oranges (despite the advance of graphics that continues to make starry-eyed fantasy aesthetically palpable), the idea of extrinsic violence detracting the player from the warmth of an interesting story is not unheard of.
But such principle does not apply with BioShock Infinite. A game should never be condemned or regarded lower in quality simply because you or your family members can’t stomach its violence. Nor should developers be chastised for it. An appalled player caught completely by surprise was most likely not ready for a game like this. There’s no shame in that, but only if it were a different kind of game with a different kind of story might they actually have a point.
However, if the debate about Infinite’s violence persists, perhaps the real question we should be asking is: should we keep crafting stories in videogames that require such violence in the first place?