Let’s talk about Bioshock Infinite.
This will be filled with spoilers. Look away, ye weak-hearted.
Bioshock Infinite was billed as being the best game that has come along in years. The hype machine was turned on and the volume kept increasing: past ten, past eleven, up to fifteen at least. And then it was hyped some more.
I bought, played, and finished the game during launch-week and for the most part I enjoyed it. I thought the story and the environment it was set within was absolutely amazing – quite simply a triumph. I also found it wildly schizophrenic.
I felt that its over-reliance on straight up, balzout combat was out of place and off-putting. It was the drunken, racist guest who won’t shut up at Thanksgiving dinner and you wish would just fucking leave.
From here be spoilers.
Bioshock Infinite takes place in the early 1900s. We, that is, the player, a character named Booker, are tasked simply: “Bring us the girl and we’ll forgive the debt.” Ah! It’s a kidnap/rescue mission? Okay. On with the show.
In this game, there exists a floating, idyllic city named “Columbia” and it is there that we must find the girl. The city silently and secretly makes its way around the world, held aloft by the will of mind-bending technology and hot-air balloons. It is a city we are not allowed to enter until we are baptized (though in whose name, we know not).
Once out of the waters, we are treated to a wonderful, enchanting spectacle. It’s a carnival, replete with booths selling candy and allowing us to play fairground games. We learn a great deal about Columbia and her history. Everything is vibrant and alive: the colors are deeply saturated, the citizens are laughing and happy.
There are no monsters. This is a paradise. We can see why one would choose to live here.
Oh, sure, there are signs that all is not well in fairyland. Subtle indications of racism abound (this is, after all, 1912). There are marks of a poor underclass. But these are fleeting glimpses, and we are on a mission to find a girl.
We play games. We pass vendors selling popcorn and cotton candy. Barbershop quartets anachronistically singing Beach Boys songs.
Eventually we find ourselves engaged in a kind of “lottery” game. We pick a baseball out of a basket with a number written on it. Lo and behold, our number is called, and we are the winner!
What is our prize? We are given the honor of firing a fastball at two living, breathing, captive humans – two people whose crime is only that they love each other.
Oh, yes. They’re an interracial couple. The game is “let’s chuck baseballs at the black woman and her race-traitor boyfriend.”
I, of course, chose to launch my baseball at the master of ceremonies instead.
In that instant, a police-person grabs my arm, pointing at a tattoo there, shouting that I am the devil come to Columbia! Holy shit! I’m the bad guy? This is crazy!
Well, you better fucking bet I’m the bad guy. Because in the next ten seconds I, the character, will have literally used a hand-held chainsaw device to chop off the face of one of the policemen trying to arrest me. I’m not even kidding: blood and brains and chunks of bone will fly away in high-fidelity as I am forced to butcher around five dudes, all unarmed.
There are no other options. I have to kill them.
That’s when I get a gun. And I have to kill more people. And keep killing them.
Let’s take a moment and put ourselves in the shoes of the police.
From their perspective, I am a fucking terrorist. They can’t have a clue who I am (even if I am the devil) because I’ve already killed everyone who thought that. I’m just a guy going around and killing cops. All the cops.
Going forwards, Bioshock Infinite ceases to be a game of wonder and exploration. It is now a game of mega-violent, gory combat (usually versus innocent, albeit racist policemen), punctuated by bits of wonder and exploration.
It’s a fucking shame.
I really wish I could describe the joy and beauty of the story and how aggressively polarized the combat is. If you have played the game, you understand.
Most people do not have the capacity to flip a switch in their heads that turns them into murder machines. Our character, Booker, is a war veteran (from Wounded Knee, no less), so it is plausible that this violence lurks within him. However, we aren’t given to know this about him for some time, and the Booker we are born into seems a peaceful, melancholy man.
A rattlesnake sheds its skin in a painful process that lasts days. Booker sheds his peace within moments, revealing a beast. It’s quite unnerving.
Another game I played recently was the reboot of Tomb Raider. In that game, we start as a young, 23-year-old woman, who literally screams to the men assaulting her that she doesn’t want to hurt them, she doesn’t want to kill them – she just wants to go home. Her journey from a peaceful student into a rage-filled killer exists but it happens naturally: only when we see exactly how brutal and vile her enemies are can she make the switch. It feels plausible.
Not so much with Infinite.
This bothers me. It bothers me because the schizophrenia of the game is so telling. It’s clear that we have a team of artists and writers who desperately wanted to tell a tantalizing story of great importance and weight. Somewhere on the line, someone said “we must insert combat of this nature because REASONS.” Because it won’t sell, maybe. Because we need to have a “hardcore mode.”
Now, to be sure, in the course of the story of Bioshock Infinite there is a switch: one in which we are justified in rage and killing, and that feels true and right (it is when we return from the “other world” and the oppressed have decided to start butchering civilians). But that could have been handled differently.
In the version of the game that exists in my mind, this is the story:
Booker comes to Columbia. He discovers that there is an oppressed underclass, yearning to be free. We tell the story as a mirror of the civil war and the freeing of the slaves. We find the girl, Elizabeth, and she helps us to free the serf class.
This is handled with as little violence as possible. Elizabeth can hop between worlds and travel in time! What fun puzzles can be made by jumping back and forth between worlds and years, stepping on butterflies, to see what changes?
Eventually the right events collide and the revolution unlocks. At this point – and only at this point – do things switch. Revolutions are watered by blood, so of course blood must run, but at what cost? The serf army goes rogue and starts killing the civilian populace in anger. A populace who, though racist, do not deserve death in this manner.
Now we fight. We fight to save the lives of children and their mothers, protecting them over the corpses of their fathers. We rush to get lifeboats working. We disconnect the islands from one another to slow the advance of the mob. We close gates and raise bridges. Destroy gunboats and ultimately make hard choices about life and death.
Then is when we come to the kernel of our story, and the light of the myriad-verse comes to play. We then make our fateful choice once again in the baptismal waters, and the story ends.