This goes without saying, but heavy spoilers for Bioshock: Infinite. You have been warned.
If I wrote an article in response to every Kotaku article that upset me, I would probably need to do this full-time. Kirk Hamilton just recently wrote about Bioshock: Infinite, claiming that the violence in the game is unnecessary, and that it hurts the strength of the game. Not only is this wrong, but the idea of it offends me. Kirk’s article proves that he entirely misunderstands the point of the game, the main character, and the story and analysis within the powerful narrative of Infinite itself. Infinite is an example of a merge between story and gameplay; the perfect combination required to make a powerfully messaged video game.
Enter our protagonist, Booker DeWitt: a snarky, hard spoken man of action. He also happens to be a veteran of two massacre leveled “battles”, where he was known to scalp his fallen foes, a former Pinkerton agent, a gambling addict, and heavy drinker. If it hasn’t already become apparent, Booker is a violent man, and when you put a violent person into conflict, why is it a shock when they respond with violence?
One central, overlooked theme of Infinite is the difference between “forgiveness” and “wiping away” something. Booker’s departure from this being his main attribute is one of many points in Infinite‘s plot. Elizabeth is entirely frightened by you after she witnesses you massacre a group of enemies, like normal people would be, only sobering after she understands that the mass murderer is her temporary protector, and that her freedom lies in his hands. His ascension from murder as his default reaction comes forth during the game’s second act, exploring the plight of the lower class, understanding that not every person needs to die. The end of the story has him come to grips with his identity; he wants to protect and save, he wants to be fundamentally good, but he is too far gone and murder is too familiar a tool for him to live without. Booker has sought and found forgiveness for his murdering past, changing from a serial murderer, justified only in the loosest terms of morality and warfare, into a reluctantly violent protector, who has began to channel the rage and blood lust that consumed his life into a force for good.
Therein is the sole difference between Comstock and Booker; the difference between what they seek. Comstock exists as a version of Booker who wanted the literal interpretation of Baptism, for his sins to be wiped away and forgotten, not forgiven. But Comstock misses the point of baptism, because rather than be repentant for his crimes, he frees himself of the guilt and abuses his newfound freedom to commit more acts of evil and selfishness, shaping a false faith around his supposed glories. In a misguided and misunderstood quest for redemption, Booker found a way for him to leave his past behind, only to pick up a new shield to hide from his evil. Booker, on the other hand, rejects the notion that his crimes can be wiped away with water, and internalizes this turmoil, causing him to try to find a true path to redemption.
That’s why, despite Comstock not killing a single person on-screen, he still comes off as a bigger villain than our hook wielding hero; Comstock is unrepentant of his crimes. So what happens when we put context and analysis behind the “excessive violence” of Infinite? Why it suddenly seems like it has a narrative purpose and makes sense doesn’t it? When used as a tool for drawing the difference in the theme of “forgiveness vs. wiping away sins”, violence becomes a significant symbol and tool of the story.
“Well Nick,” you say, begrudgingly understanding of the fact that Infinite’s violence make narrative sense, “Why does the Kirk’s article offend you? It’s just his opinion.” Kirk’s article offends me because it becomes appallingly clear that Kirk misunderstands the point of Bioshock, he misunderstands what makes the game good, and he has the gall to claim that the violence is why our culture will not be accepted by the mainstream media. Kirk’s highlights of the intro break down to him being impressed by pretty set pieces and pretty colors, but the moment he is confronted by something that makes him a twinge uncomfortable, he starts throwing up red flags. An interracial couple faced with the prospect of stoning with highly racist imagery? Well that’s just not PC! Booker shoves the face of a racist cop into the spinning hook blade meant for HIS face, and starts murdering people? Well golly, that’s just not family friendly! Infinite is supposed to make you uncomfortable and make you cringe, the whole point of this intro was to highlight how backwards and horrifying this seemingly pristine culture was!
Kirk’s discomfort with the violence and urge that we sweep this sort of thing under the rug so “his sister or other friends” can watch him play games flies in the face of the themes and point of Bioshock: Infinite. Saying Infinite would be better without all of the things that made him uncomfortable would be akin to saying “Requiem for a Dream was a good movie, but it’d be better without all that icky drug abuse and sex” or “I wish 2Pac rapped about puppies, so I could finally show my mom the value of rap music” or “Man, if only Cersei Lannister stopped killing people and having incestuous sex with her brother and cousin, I could finally get my pastor to watch Game of Thrones with me!”.
Censorship and PC-isms are hallmarks of not just our generation, but of another antiquated era; that we can wipe away the past that our ancestors have committed. Like the controversy around Django: Unchained, Infinite has attempted to show the ugly side of history, and embellished or not, interracial couples were frowned upon (with stoning not being out of the question), people looked down on other races, theme parks were once super-patriotic indoctrination centers, factories once did in fact pay workers in funny-money redeemable only in their stores and the like. These are real facets of history, and to wipe them away for the sake of modern comfort is the exact opposite of the lesson of Infinite. Instead of attempting to bury them, hide them, and wipe away old sins, we need to face the reality of their existence and find new ways to move past them. If we are relating this lesson solely to the game, we need to understand that elimination of these core elements weaken the story, and the violence of Infinite is core because Booker is core, and one of Booker’s most defining traits is how goddamned violent and scary he is.
The lesson here: Games don’t need the approval of the mainstream media. This, and a few other AAA titles are steps in the direction of merging powerful stories and narratives and amazing gameplay. The merge of interactivity with the ability to craft narratives and stories that studio executives would reject has made the games industry unique, giving us the chance to present stories in unorthodox ways and finding stories the mainstream media wouldn’t show. If the mainstream media can’t approve of that, then perhaps its time we stopped waiting on the approval of a bunch of uptight and hackneyed zombies in suits, who can’t handle the idea that they raised a poor generation of children and would rather blame everything but themselves. The only thing wrong with Bioshock: Infinite is that it isn’t longer and that there isn’t more for us to analyze and see.
Nick Nguyen is a self-styled game analyst and amateur journalist. He counts Bioshock: Infinite among Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line as games that are changing our generation for the better.