‘It always ends in blood’
“I want a BioShock where we have the OPTION to resolve confrontation without the use of guns,” said one gamer to me today.
As I consider his comment, I can’t help but think more and more it’s like saying you want a Metal Gear game with the OPTION of not fighting ridiculous terrorists and super soldiers, or a Kingdom Hearts game where you can turn all the Disney references off. BioShock, as a series, has always been about violence. Its narrative core is steeped in the stuff, moreso than many other — potentially more violent — videogames.
The idea of violence and BioShock Infinite has come up a lot lately, with many pundits lamenting the need to perform bloody murder in the game — as if it were some brand new introduction to the series, shocking in its sudden appearance. But why? Why is the violence in Infinite being regarded as a “shame,” and why are we demanding a game give us options that run contrary to its central themes?
Why does BioShock Infinite need to be non-violent? Of course, it doesn’t. And I can’t help feeling those demanding non-violence are missing the entire point, expecting things from a game that never led anybody to expect them.
BioShock Infinite is a game about violence. It’s not just a game about racism, or religion, or any of the other “heady” themes it touches upon. The floating city of Columbia is a city steeped in blood, visited by a protagonist with a past of brutality, rescuing a woman who is, in many ways, a product of humanity’s most selfish and oppressive traits. Like BioShock before it, violent acts are a key, fundamental, crucial part of the experience. To demand the option of sidestepping such a thing is to miss perhaps the strongest narrative element of the game.
Ludonarrative dissonance is brought up in discussion, as if the gameplay and the story are somehow conflicting. This is so far from the truth, I have to believe those using the term don’t understand the game at all. There’s no dissonance, not like there potentially was in the recently released Tomb Raider. In Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is presented as an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, as vulnerable as any of us would be — traumatically wounded in cutscenes, nowhere near as strong and experienced as the vicious inhabitants of the island she’s stranded on.
The gameplay contradicts this by way of violent empowerment, giving players access to machine guns, fire arrows, grenades, and a plethora of excessively nasty stealth kills. There is a very clear difference between Lara’s story, and Lara’s interactive behavior. This is ludonarrative dissonance.
By contrast, Infinite‘s Booker DeWitt is a war veteran, whose activities at Wounded Knee were excessive even by the generally horrific standards of the massacre. Though he feels guilt for what he did, he’s a violent man at heart, who inescapably resorts to butchery to solve his problems, and he’s in a city that, while beautiful and charming at first glance, soon bares its teeth and reveals a world ruled by a man whose acclimation to force rivals that of the protagonist. It’s violence meets violence, and the result can only be more violence. This is quite the opposite of ludonarrative dissonance — it’s an integration of story and gameplay rarely seen in even the very best videogames.
Ludonarrative dissonance does not, by the way, mean “violence.” The term has been bandied about a lot lately, and I’m growing more convinced that many people using it do not appreciate what the term means. If they did, they wouldn’t use it as an interchangeable term for “combat” like they do. The violence does not contradict the story in any way. The excess of the violence is not going against the narrative established. It sounds smart to use the term, but only if you misunderstand BioShock Infinite‘s plot. Misunderstanding it is the only way you could believe there’s any dissonance at play.
The violence witnessed in Columbia is excessive because it has to be — when his blood is up and enemies are at their weakest, Booker carves them up in unbelievably horrific ways. He expresses a dissatisfaction with his history of combat, and yet is frequently reminded by other characters that, deep down, he’s a cold-blooded killer. Even as Booker protests, he’s being fed victims by the likes of Slate and Fink, who set out to prove he’s exactly the man he claims he’s not.
Booker’s claims of regret ring hollow when he’s mashing faces to pieces with his whirly claw of death — and they’re supposed to. His entire story is one of denial, of claiming he’s better than those around him, and ultimately, devastatingly, being proven wrong. That first time he gladly grinds a spinning metal claw into somebody’s face is the first clue that Booker’s claims of putting his past behind him are bullshit.
In fact, giving Booker the option of non-violent discourse would in fact be the very dissonance some people claim to dislike. That goes against everything natural to Booker, and everything natural to Columbia. This is not a world of reason, and the “peace keepers” of Father Comstock’s oppressive will are not rational individuals, out for a debate. They’re fanatical, paranoid, dangerous people, and stopping to have a chat with them would simply not make sense. Likewise, the hero is a man who kills, who does stupid things without thinking them through, and ultimately proves everybody right when they say he’s a monster. His story would not work if he reached the conclusion with nothing but speech checks to his name.
Furthermore, though some may think it a “shame” that the otherwise beautiful environment of Columbia gets torn apart by conflict, the downfall of the city is crucial to the story. Columbia is Stepford — a smiling, bright, utterly artificial society, based upon the visually resplendent but cheaply contrived White City of Chicago, built in 1905. Like White City, Columbia is a place of surface-level beauty with a dark side (the cheap plaster buildings of White City looked gorgeous, yet were stalked by the sadistic serial killer H.H. Holmes). We’re supposed to realize that Columbia is a fake, a sham, with an atmosphere of horror under its manufactured surface. In reality, the city is a heavily armed, potentially apocalyptic weapon. We’re introduced to this fact early on in the game, and we’re supposed to realize that underneath the gloss, there’s nothing but sheer ugliness.
It strikes me as wholly ironic that we’re picking on BioShock Infinite to make our point about violence, when it’s more justified here than anywhere else. Even the brilliant Half-Life 2 has to ignore its own backstory to make sense as a game. Gordon Freeman, as pointed out by the antagonist Dr. Breen, is a theoretical physicist. He’s not a super soldier, he’s not magic, he’s just a doctor — yet the only evidence of this ability is his plugging a machine into a wall socket.
The rest of the game is about firing rockets, smashing zombies with crowbars, and sucking up dead bodies to throw at brainwashed soldiers. Similarly, the Uncharted series is borderline creepy when you stop to consider how Nathan Drake is just looking for treasure, yet guns down hundreds upon hundreds of human beings while making wisecracks.
We have to compartmentalize a lot when we play story-driven games — and yet BioShock Infinite is one of the few (outside of war games) where we don’t, and here we are singling it out as the example of why violent gameplay doesn’t work. Talk about a total misfire.
Those asking for a non-violent BioShock Infinite are asking for a different game entirely, an issue made doubly silly when you realize such games already exist. If you want a shooter with more player choice, with less violent options, with chances to talk down the antagonists, you have Deus Ex. That kind of player agency is something Deus Ex excels at, because that’s part of the series’ core philosophy.BioShock has never tried to do that, never led anybody to believe it would do that, and I don’t understand where people suddenly started thinking it would. BioShock‘s core philosophy does not include that level of player agency, that level of non-aggression. It never has. It wouldn’t work for Infinite‘s story if it did.
Not every game needs player choice. Not every game needs a non-violent path. To ask for such things in a game designed entirely around violence is to ask for yet more homogenization in games, to want every single game to cater to everybody at all times. That’s the same attitude that sees multiplayer options shoehorned into otherwise excellent solo experiences. You may believe your motives are more high-minded, but the result is the same. You want to crack and break a game to fit your one template for creative success.
Gaming pundits have a history of insecurity. We worry what “they” will think of videogames, we fret over what “they” will think of gamers. I’m not sure who “they” are, these ever-faceless societal judges who apparently witness and condemn every little thing we do, but we need to get over our fear of them.
People saying the violence in BioShock Infinite is “embarrassing” betray their own lack of esteem for the medium, concerned as they are with what other people might think, and disregarding the fact that many of humanity’s greatest artistry — from the plays of Shakespeare to the many paintings depicting Jesus Christ’s death — are soaked in and driven by violence. We’re a violent species, and that is reflected in much of our art. That’s not say all art is violent, but it does say that, if you’re reading Sophie’s Choice and wishing it was a choose-your-own-adventure, you’re looking for the wrong kind of art in the wrong kind of place.
BioShock Infinite is not your game if you want a non-violent exploration of its themes, because Infinite‘s themes revolve around violence as a core concept. It may not be to your taste, and you may have many other issues with BioShock Infinite‘s story, but to complain about its violence, as if only non-violent art can credibly explore “mature” ideas, makes you sound less mature than you think you sound.
Your argument is shallow, hinged upon the idea that violence in art is simply wrong, and automatically undoes anything else such art tries to do. That is not true. Violence may be all-too prevalent in videogames, but that doesn’t make it bad, it doesn’t make it pointless, and it doesn’t undo anything — especially when it’s thoroughly justified.
So why does BioShock Infinite need to be less violent? It doesn’t. It simply does not. Not for the game it successfully manages to be, and the story is expertly manages to tell. I am glad the conversations about game content are finally happening … but pick an actual good example, people!