My wife was excited to play BioShock Infinite, the new first-person shooter from haloed developer Irrational Games. Her video game experiences are few, mostly the easy-to-play shorts made by thatgamecompany. But Infinite and its inescapable ad campaign piqued her interest. A video game about American exceptionalism, religious zealotry, the limitations of science and poor parenting sounded to her like a great book or film. The first 15 minutes enthralled her, as she took the fantastic voyage into a city in the sky, and then protagonist Booker DeWitt buried a steel claw into a police officer's face, and proceeded to shoot grapefruit-sized holes into the heads of another dozen human beings.
I'd assumed complex controllers kept newcomers from first-person shooters, requiring the use of two thumbsticks and a half-dozen buttons, but for the first time — and I can only imagine I'm late to this party — I see how repellent the violence in shooters has become, specifically to the uninitiated, who haven't spent the last decade roaming shady corridors and unloading rocket launchers. I can stomach a thousand headshots in exchange for an engrossing story, but that says more about me than them.
In BioShock Infinite, you have the ability to pop heads, burn flesh, torque necks, puncture eye sockets and break bones, often one after the other. Elizabeth, your companion, occasionally reacts negatively to your cruelty, before snapping back to her chirpy self, cracking wise about picking a lock as she loiters next to a pile of fresh corpses. If violence is necessary to confirm Booker's status as villain, the first dozen kills more than get the message across. This degree of violence is new to the BioShock universe, which previously only allowed players to contort bodies, not dismember them.
Elizabeth cracks wise about picking a lock as she loiters next to a pile of fresh corpses.
There's an argument to be made that, one for one, a murder in BioShock Infinite is no more graphic than a murder in a film, like Tarantino's Pulp Fiction or Malick's The Thin Red Line. Violence serves these films: Pulp Fiction is a commentary on abuse; The Thin Red Line a voyeuristic view of war's dulling effect on our humanity. BioShock Infinite has little to say about violence. The story of Elizabeth, Comstock and Booker is one of personal dramas and familial traumas that owes more to 1960s American theater than 1990s independent cinema.
Irrational's writers, led by Ken Levine, have cobbled together that rare venue in video games in which characters are allowed to speak. Via audio recordings, we learn the closely held secrets and desires of Columbia's locals and uncover the motives of Elizabeth, Comstock and the tragic Lady Comstock. But the meat of this dramatic sandwich is the murder of hundreds of people impeding the characters from their dramatic conclusions.
Perhaps the rampage would be worth it for a few no-holds-barred human-to-human conversations
The magnitude of lives taken in BioShock Infinite, and the cold efficiency in doing so, is unfamiliar to even the most exploitative films. Perhaps the rampage would be worth it for a few no-holds-barred human-to-human conversations. Elizabeth, Comstock, Lady Comstock and Booker deserve their own group therapy session, a chance to work through years of personal drama. Instead, they get guns. The majority of personal dramas play out as such: Elizabeth has an epiphany about her relationship with an individual; you shoot that individual in the face a couple dozen times until it's dead. The exception to the rule is the ending, in which Elizabeth tells you directly what all of this meant. No conversation, just exposition.
That such an information dump isn't just interesting, but emotionally affecting is a testament to how well the story's been built and how little dramatic payoff's been given till this point. If you squint hard enough, you can almost make out an argument that the entire game purposefully builds to a conclusion in which the violence is sponged away, as if by holy water and forgiveness. The argument assumes everyone makes it past the dozens of sticky and explosive headshots — and doubly assumes that we need yet another violent video game about how violent video game players are. The best attack on violent games, after all, is not making violent games.
Violence doesn't serve BioShock Infinite. It distracts from it.
The magnitude of lives taken in BioShock Infinite, and the cold efficiency in doing so, is unfamiliar to even the most exploitative films
Levine has been outspoken about his ambition to please both the meathead and the brainiac since the release of the original BioShock. But what about my wife? What about the people who can stomach only so much aggressive violence and unchecked cruelty? Defenders of the game's violence have compared BioShock Infinite to Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, which melded together the cerebral indie aesthetic and the mind-numbing blockbuster spectacle. But every comic lover knows the difference between Booker DeWitt and Batman. Batman doesn't kill people.
There's much to love in BioShock Infinite. Be sure to watch our Reviewer's Roundtable, in which I share my feelings about the game's better elements, like the morbid use of a certain R.E.M. song.
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