[SPOILERS. SPOILERS ARE BELOW. GO PLAY THE GAME FIRST. PLEASE, IT DESERVES YOUR TIME.]
After a long few years and three delays, the long awaited release of Bioshock Infinite has come and gone. Critically acclaimed, independently panned, yet apparently generally enjoyed, the game has sparked a debate over its merits and faults that reached all corners of the internet. The inevitable video games-as-art-debate has resurfaced to join the festivities as well as a host of debates over the violence within the game, with no measure of an agreement on any one aspect of the game in sight.
Bioshock Infinite should be praised for sparking debate. Regardless of what you think about the game itself, the debates are an extremely good thing for the gaming industry as a whole. Regardless of what you think of those whom you disagree with, the debates over the merits and faults have gotten those who play games and those who create them to have a candid discussion with one another. The interplay of ideas and opinions is a good thing, and for a game to have sparked this discussion does all the more for showing how our hobby is evolving as a medium. That being said, I wish some of those discussing the game would slow down in their rush to praise or condemn, and kindly think about what they are about to discuss. No viewpoint is outright wrong, but there are a great many that are ignorant or not willing to consider other aspects of the game, and this ignorance holds back the debate as a whole. After reading a host of criticisms and reviews, in a moment of self-importance, I am sharing my own thoughts of the debate and highlighting several things about the game I would love to see others consider. This is my opinion, and only my opinion. I recognize that but I hope it sparks something in anyone reading it, so that they will reconsider the game and all parts of it.
First off, the game is a fictional narrative centered on the theme of choice and the futility of defying fate. Bioshock Infinite’s narrative is not thematically focused on racism, religion, bigotry or class warfare, even though these themes are present in the narrative. It does not try to be a social commentary, and is if anything, a historically flavored first person shooter that uses real historical events with creative license to empower the setting and define the characters. Any game that attempts to set itself in the past should be aware of the historical setting that it attempts to embody, and Infinite does so with grace and wit. While it would have been incredibly interesting for the game to become a discussion of racism, religion and class warfare, I would argue that such a discussion was never the objective of the narrative. Around two thirds of the way through the game, the narrative appears to jump ship on its own story threads in a way that feels very jarring and strange, when in reality we are being reminded of the actual focus of the plot. The story is about Booker, Elizabeth, and how their adventure through Columbia represents their attempt to defy fate. The narrative is also focused on Booker being confronted with the sins of his past, the monster he could have been, and the monster he will always be. It is not a tale of redemption for Booker, whom merely loses the opportunity that creates the plot. This discussion of choice, futility and the burden of our pasts is the true narrative of Infinite. While the plot could have timed a few of the story beats regarding this in a better way, overall the game really delivers on this front. Other story threads are left unexplored such as the story of Songbird, but are resolved by way of the ending even if in an unfulfilling way.
Why then, is there such strong racist imagery? This is to highlight the kind of thought that existed at the time, and to define Comstock through his utopia. The early 1900’s were rife with racial bigotry, and Infinite does not sidestep this reality. Infinite incorporates it into major decisions in Booker’s back story and through one all important moment separates Booker from Comstock through the burden of guilt. Booker staggers away, believing that he has to live with what he has done and struggles with his self-worth the rest of the game. Comstock embraces his past, believing that he has been forgiven for all of his past actions and in his delusional zealotry comes to believe they were never wrongs in the first place. All of Columbia reflects this state of supposed purity while rotting underneath.
Comstock is an illusion of wisdom hiding a brutal extremist, just as his city is an illusion of prosperity that houses every vein of intolerance and suffering. The Hall of Heroes, a segment that has drawn considerable heat from some discussing the game is meant to frame Comstock’s obsession with his own image and complete lack of guilt over his inhuman actions. It is not meant, as some have claimed, to actually cast the victims of the Boxer Rebellion and Wounded Knee Massacre as the aggressors and villains. These segments are so blatant in their use of propaganda techniques that they are not only meant to by the designers to be obviously false (with or without the player understanding the historical context); they are by design supposed to make the player feel repulsed and uncomfortable because such disturbed rationalization of human brutality ever existed and still exists. Each encounter with Comstock’s vision of racial purity is supposed to define Comstock and highlight the different men that Comstock and Booker have become.
There was has also been a lot of exchange in regards to Fitzroy’s revolution, and that it casts the downtrodden and poor as violent anarchists who can only achieve freedom through violence. While the revolution that players progress through is indeed a violent uprising that highlights the barbarism of the Vox Populi, the game itself makes clear that for most of the narrative Elizabeth is able to open portals to dimensions that reflect what she currently hopes for. This plays into Elizabeth calling her power a form of wish fulfillment, as she finds the idea of the Vox overthrowing Comstock to be a romantic ideal which she compares to Les Miserables. It is merely a gateway to a dimension that conforms to what Elizabeth hopes for in which that timeline employs whatever chain of events are necessary to most closely meet her demands. She does not create these dimensions, as the ending makes perfectly clear, but prior to releasing the constraints on her powers, she can only open tears that reflect her current wish. There may exist dimensions where the Vox Populi are able to overthrow Comstock using non-violent means, but given the violent nature of the man himself and the oppressive fist that he uses to control his utopia, the odds are in the favor of a bloody, violent conflict.
This not only plays well in comparing Booker against Comstock whom only solve their problems through violence and force, it showcases another version of Booker who was willing to use the plight of others to achieve his ends, throwing further doubt on the nature of a man who only became a hero after dying for a cause he did not care about. The violent revolution universe in Infinite is not a statement suggesting that the poor and segregated minorities can only achieve equality through violence. It is a reflection of Elizabeth’s fraying idealism which is irreversibly shattered when she kills Fitzroy. In every other regard, it is one potential timeline in a sea of infinite possibilities, used to highlight Elizabeth’s character development once forced to face the nature of the world outside her tower. Even her change of clothing in the immediate aftermath is another symbol of Elizabeth’s maturation, discarding her attire reminiscent of a Disney princess for something far more mature and womanly. Every set piece is meant to further establish the journey of Booker and Elizabeth, and all the other topics are just parts of an excellently realized backdrop.
These themes that Infinite touches on, that have been further discussed here, are great additions to a narrative that is meant to be entertaining and thought provoking. Infinite has been decried and ridiculed for relying on an established gameplay foundation of violent shooting, and for talking about racism, religious zealotry, and class warfare but not hosting an entire debate on the topics it touches upon. Both of these points simply do not hold up. Firstly, the first person shooter platform suits the story very well as both a point of immersion and to give players a familiar system so they can spend more time getting immersed in Infinite’s vibrant world and less learning another new set of controls and which buttons do what. Infinite as a shooter assumes the player is familiar with the genre so that the player can be thrown headfirst into conflict and respond with familiar comfort, much like war-veteran Booker DeWitt should.
While the system does have faults and debatable highs and lows, holding Infinite’s design as a shooter against itself is a meaningless endeavor. This is especially so in regards to the content that Infinite dabbles in. It seems almost as though some are angry purely because Infinite talks about some heady and weighty topics, but does not stop to give you a thorough lecture on them. Infinite assumes you are an adult and can think about and process these themes yourself, inviting you to take from it what you want based on what you enter with. As a player with a solid background in American history, I found Columbia all the more convincingly realized. The perks of understanding the historical context do neglect delivering the same experience for the entire audience, but Bioshock as a series has always delivered based on what frame of mind you take into it. The more you are willing to lose yourself in it, the more you will enjoy it and be absorbed by the art direction, focus on immersion and attention to detail. Many appear to have entered it with a frame of mind that demands more from the game from entertainment. Still others have thought the Wounded Knee Massacre to be a Skyrim reference, though that unfortunate state of ignorance is a problem for another website.
The focus of this blog is not to simply say that one cannot have criticisms of Bioshock Infinte and to defend it against any and all complaints, but attempt refute a number of arguments that are superficial and shallow. By all means, if you do not like the game, feel free to say as much. I wish more of those discussing Infinite would field genuine criticisms that do not rely on absurd demands of the game. Do you not enjoy shooters? That is a perfectly acceptable stance, but do not decry the game as being too violent because it isn’t the genre you want it to be. That insults the creative vision built around the game itself. Do the modern trappings of a rechargeable shield and two weapon limit turn you off from the combat? A very valid criticism, one I agree with, but make that statement rather than complaining that combat is mainstream and boring. Do you wish the game had focused on social injustice rather than dimensional travel? A fine way to feel, but do not reprimand the game because it is focused on a historically themed, time traveling, swashbuckling adventure designed first and foremost to entertain. Did the Christopher Nolan style theatrics near the ending feel like they were confusing for the sake of being confusing? Say as much, and recognize that it just is not for you, rather than generalizing that the story is dumb.
When complaints are leveled at Bioshock Infinite based on the things it is not, rather than what it is, it makes the whole debate sound strangely entitled. This becomes all the more bizarre when so many other developers have leveled complaints at the game, when looking at their own titles turns their complaints into hypocrisy or come off as repulsive elitism. There have been some absolutely brilliant and insightful looks at the game, and where it succeeded and failed. Johnathan Blow had some great insights on where the combat design fails and could be improved, rather than simply saying it was terrible across the board. John Teti’s review attempts to look at the game in some very interesting ways and suggests that it is a remake if anything. He makes some interesting points for consideration, even though I have to say I disagree with almost all of them, especially his discussion of Andrew Ryan against Zachary Comstock. Everyone does not have to love Bioshock Infinite, and you can dislike it on the grounds that you just did not enjoy it, but be honest about it.
Do not try to mask your dislike in strange critiques that it should be an entirely different game because it is not the one you wanted it to be, that is a silly waste of everyone’s time. The debate is great, and I cannot wait to see what other conclusions players come to. The game has fostered one of the most enjoyable conversations over a videogame I have ever had, with my wife, who played through it at the same time and came away from it with distinctly different impressions. The industry as a whole benefits from us talking it out, and showcases just how much a single videogame can inspire thought or debate as a creative work. Just be honest about how you feel, and would you kindly take the time to articulate it?