Bioshock-ing Violence: Reacting to the Violence in Bioshock Infinite

This editorial will contain mild spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.

Early in Bioshock Infinite I, as Booker DeWitt, was simply taking in the sights of the utopian sky city of Columbia at a street fair. I “stumbled” upon some kind of lottery that was being held in an open square. On the stage was a man by the name of Jeremiah Fink, who was going on an on about how one lucky winner would be able to participate in a game on stage. As it turns out, I won the raffle by selecting a baseball with the same number drawn by Mr. Fink in a separate bowl. My “prize” was the opportunity to throw a ball at an interracial couple who were tied up and showcased on stage, while a piece of the set dressing was shaped, painted and danced in a way to depict an African native in the most vulgarly racist way imaginable. The game prompted me with the choice to either throw the ball at the couple or at Fink. Choosing to throw the ball at Fink, I’m quickly interrupted by Columbia Police, was identified as the “False Shepard,” and nearly mutilated by a spinning hook thingy by one of the policemen.

What follows sets up the tone for the rest of the game:

I then proceed to shove another policeman’s face into the spinning hook thingy and blood is splattered everywhere. I grab the spinning hook thingy from dead policeman’s bloody, gory face and all, and I am immediately prompted by the game to melee the other policeman to death. I’m even prompted to execute him by holding down the melee button once a small skull appears over his health bar. This particular execution is achieved by shoving the spinning hook thingy (henceforth known as the “skyhook”) into his neck, effectively decapitating him. There are quite a few skyhook executions throughout the game, and each one is as equally gruesome as the first.

In fact, most of the deaths in the game are brutal and bloody. You will see a man’s flesh, skin, and bone burn to ash, electricity cause several men’s heads to burst Scanners style, necks snapped, heads disappearing in a geyser of blood from a well aimed head shot, and much, much more! To go into all the horribly bloody ways death is portrayed in this game would not only take a large portion of real estate for this editorial but it would also spoil the fun.

Wait, did I say fun? I left that part out? My apologies, but yes, the violence in this game is fun and incredibly entertaining. For the most part.

My need to explain this concept is purely reactionary to gaming journalism’s seemingly sudden, near industry-wide outcry against the inclusion of graphic violence in video games where, out of the blue, the violence is “too much” and not necessary. I don’t exist in a vacuum and I quite enjoy reading the opinions of fellow critics and bloggers regarding games that I’m interested in. That being said, I was kind of surprised by the strong, adverse reaction the violence in games have been getting as of late.

When I said that the violence in Bioshock Infinite is fun I followed with the caveat, “for the most part.” Not all of the violence you see in the game is enacted by you as a reaction to people trying to kill you. You will witness a bound man’s skin graphically torn from his flesh by ravens, Jeremiah Fink executed by gunshot through the eye, and Elizabeth stabbing Daisy Fitzroy, Fink’s executioner and leader of the Vox Populi, to death and watch her die in a pool of her own blood. None of this violence is implied – it’s graphic and dark and completely within the context of the story being told.

Furthermore, Booker DeWitt participated in the Wounded Knee Massacre in which over 150 Native Americans – including women and children – we slaughtered by U.S. Troops. And in case you’re unsure, Booker DeWitt is not a Native American. He is a man of violence and is depicted as such in the game. The violence seen in this game not only reflects Booker’s character, but also the character of Columbia. Beneath the veneer of American Exceptionalism lies a dark, sadistic, racist world in which violence not only exists everywhere, but is necessary to survive.

I won’t bore you with the notion that video games have almost always included violence in some form or other. From Mario jumping on a turtle’s shell to send it sliding across the ground taking out enemies in its path, Combat’s primitive simulation war between tanks, or Legend of Zelda’s fantasy monster slaying, violence has always been a part of our pastime. For me, and I think I can safely speak for a lot of other gamers, this wasn’t good enough. As graphics exponentially improved so did the depiction of violence.

In terms of entertainment graphic violence has been a massive part of my life. As a long time fan of all things horror and action films, gore has always been something I’ve enjoyed in my entertainment for as long as I can remember. Romero’s Dead Trilogy were amongst the stand outs. From the moment I saw a zombie in Day of the Dead sit up on a slab and his guts fell in glorious detail to the floor, the work of Tom Savini has been my measuring stick. Slasher films, zombie films, werewolf films – the gorier the better. So naturally, when my avatar blew off the first zombie head in Resident Evil, I was awash with delight and glee. I was also a huge fan of ninja movies growing up so you can imagine my enthusiasm for Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, a proper ninja game. I remember showing my mom the blood splattering on the wall when Rikimaru slit his first in-game throat. She scoffed. I laughed. Finally, games catered to my interests and likes. Games no longer needed cute mascots, fantasy worlds, and cartoon violence. I was getting the same form of entertainment in the games I was playing as the movies I loved. Only this time, I was getting to perform the action vicariously through my in-game avatar as opposed to watching it unfold on screen.

 Grand Theft Auto III depicted gruesome deaths way back in 2001 and now it's an issue?
Grand Theft Auto III depicted gruesome deaths way back in 2001 and now it’s an issue?

I have to digress for a moment, but where were all of these critics when Grand Theft Auto III came out? Sure, the previous three iterations in the series had been violent and bloody, but never in a 3D setting. I remember being absolutely astonished – jaw on the floor – when I first saw screens of Grand Theft Auto III. I thought this game would never be released. The violence they depicted in the game seemed way too much. It had to be. I almost couldn’t believe it when I was actually playing it. Yet there it was in all it’s gory glory – you could take out anyone, innocent or enemy, with violent aplomb. And it sold over 15 million copies.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how violence in video games is being targeted by pundits and law makers as the scapegoat for horrible real life acts of violence in which innocent adults and children have been murdered. It’s not my place to speak about politics and I’m not going to use this forum to do so. What I will say is that I have been playing video games, and more specifically violent video games, for the better part of 35 years and not once have I ever even contemplated acting out what I get to do in video games. I’m not unique or special in this regard by any means.

Keep in mind that some of the same people criticizing video game violence are the same people that heaped praise on Hotline Miami in which the player is tasked with mercilessly murdering swaths of people in extremely brutal ways. Now, for me, I see nothing wrong with this, but why is it that a game can be praised mere months ago, and yet Lara Croft  in the Tomb Raider reboot is called a “sadistic mass murderer” because she kills her assailants in entirely optional ways, or because Booker DeWitt uses a sky hook to decapitate his fascist attackers? Is it because of the graphical fidelity of these AAA titles versus the lo-fi aesthetic of an indie darling?

Crude graphics or not, those are dead people with their guts out.
Crude graphics or not, those are dead people with their guts out.

There seems to be another sentiment going around in which these games are turning off potential players because of their graphic depictions of violence and catering to the shooter crowd. Maybe so, but while I completely see that games are a business, they are also an expression of art. Bioshock Infinite‘s deep, seemingly complex narrative, near Disney-like visuals and characterization, and dark themes seem like a great bridge to gap the hardcore with the casual. But by including this violence, it seems clear that 2K Games, Irrational and more specifically, Ken Levine, aren’t necessarily interested in those that would be turned off by it. These games are made for players like me, who enjoy the violence, the power fantasy, and the content rich story. In all honestly, I’m not interested in having my sister or my girlfriend like the games I play. Not for any reason other than I play games for me and enjoy talking with my peers who enjoy games on the same level as me so that I can engage in conversations about them. Would I like it if my girlfriend could get into video games too? Of course I would. But not if I had to convince her, or anyone else for that matter.

Maybe we need to stop seeing a game as narratively ambitious as Bioshock Infinite as being dragged down by the shooter gameplay in the game. I much prefer the point of view that the game is elevating the genre beyond the military shooters that dominate it. Much like the first Bioshock, the game provides the player with concepts and themes far beyond the good and evil forces by showing how unchecked power can corrode and corrupt. Unlike the original Bioshock, the game takes the concept of variables, constants, choice, time, and space reverberations and alternate dimensions and weaves them so well together with the concepts that has people analyzing, hypothesizing, interpreting, and engaging gamers in conversations that games like Call of Duty, Gears of War and even Halo never have. It just so happens that while the player is experiencing this fascinating, if flawed, story, they are also violently snapping necks and making skin burn off of their enemies’ flesh. That is something that Irrational and Bioshock Infinite should be lionized for, not vilified.

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