So, on Monday’s edition of The Highlight Reel, I departed slightly from my usual subject matter and talked about the evolution of video games as an art form, and how they stack up against other art forms such as film, using the recently released Bioshock: Infinite as an example. In this article, I’ll be going into a little bit more depth about some of the key themes in this game, and why I believe it’s so important for the industry. Unfortunately, I can’t really expand upon the points I made Monday without going into spoilers head first, so this is your first and last spoiler warning: do not read this unless you have completed Bioshock: Infinite.
Video games, first and foremost, need to be fun interactive experiences, in the same manner that toys or puzzles are, but the difficulty comes when games are forced to reconcile that interactive investment with an engaging and thought-provoking story or setting over a 10 plus hour period of time. Very few manage to combine these two elements effectively, so we’re left with games like Mario and Call of Duty, which are fun, but which are basically a series of challenging puzzles with little artistic significance, or Metal Gear Solid, which so desperately wants to be arty and deep, but doesn’t know how to be, so you’re left watching hours of cutscenes in between gameplay segments. While what qualifies as art is, by definition, entirely subjective, in my opinion you can never truly say an art form is deserving of that label until it is capable of deconstructing and toying with the common tropes and clichés that are unique to the foundations of the medium. When a medium can attain this kind of depth, then I would argue it is capable of producing true art, though not necessarily great art. No, great art can only be labelled as such when people are capable of completely missing the point.
I feel both of these definitions are appropriate when discussing Bioshock: Infinite, because I feel they both apply to one of the most obvious themes in the game: violence. At its core, Bioshock: Infinite is a story about violence. It is central to virtually every character in the game, just as it is central to human history itself. One of the most common criticisms of the game is that it is simply too violent, to the point where the excessive, brutal gore used is actively detracting from the message the game tries to send. I can certainly see that point of view, since the game regularly sees you mangling scores of people with what is essentially a blunt circular saw, you set them on fire, you electrocute them, you blow them up with rockets, you pop their heads like they’re made out of some hellish genetic melon-beef hybrid material, and so on. However, as gruesome as it gets, I fail to see how it takes away from the cerebral nature of the story. Your character, Booker DeWitt, is a veteran of Wounded Knee, and it’s revealed in audio logs scattered throughout the game (a brilliant method of storytelling unique to gaming that effectively fleshes out the setting and characters over a period of hours) that Booker was a particularly sadistic participant in that atrocity. He feels guilt for his actions now, but in searching for his redemption he only finds more violence. Violence which, as the player, you get to enjoy, much in the same way that Booker apparently enjoyed slaughtering women and children at Wounded Knee.
It’s not the first time video games have taken that oldest of gaming tropes, mass murder, and deconstructed it to make a point to the player. 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line remains the finest example of a game depicting standard shoot-em-up gameplay as something a little darker, after the infamous level which sees you controlling a drone using a thermal camera and raining down white phosphorous rounds on enemy forces, much in the same way that Call of Duty sees you doing in every damn game. You target a bunch of small white blobs, and press a button until there are no white blobs anymore. Easy peasy. Satisfying, too. It then entices you with a massive collection of white blobs, cowering from your mighty rampage. So, you drop a round on them without a moments’ thought, only to later discover that most of those little white dots were civilians, innocent women and children who you burned to death. It’s a shining example of how the interactivity of games can impart the feeling of being punched in the gut, and it’s something that just wouldn’t be the same in films. You can sympathise with a character in a film, but you can’t be them. You can’t get inside their heads. People are horrible, violent, animalistic creatures at times, and gaming lets us show it and revel in it. Games like Spec Ops and Infinite let you revel in it, but then cause you to look in the mirror afterwards. But hey, it’s still fun, right?
One other criticism thrown the way of Infinite is regarding its depiction of religion. Religion bad, Bioshock say. Downtrodden minorities good. Well, no, not really. To take such a simplistic view of things is to do a massive disservice to the subtly woven narrative. Having taken a somewhat broader view of the game so far in this article, with a look at how the game uses violence in terms of the gameplay, it’s now time for me to give a little background before delving into the plot. The year is 1912, and Booker is called to a mysterious lighthouse with instructions to “bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt”. The girl in question is Elizabeth, held in the floating city of Columbia (held in the air by quantum mechanics, as explained in the game, the city does not ‘float’ per se, rather it fails to fall), a majestic exercise in American exceptionalism that is ruled by the “prophet” Zachary Comstock, a religious, white supremacist zealot who uses his “visions” of the future to rule over the people and comfortably quash the poorly-equipped rebellions that break out. Elizabeth is purportedly Comstock’s daughter, conceived in just 7 days, and, Comstock has warned the people of Booker’s plans to take her away. Now, here’s where things get a little complex. Elizabeth can ‘tear’ reality and step across into an alternate dimension, of which there are an infinite number under quantum theory (for every choice you make, an alternate reality is created where you made the opposite choice). The big twist at the end is (spoilers!) Elizabeth is actually Booker’s daughter, and Booker is Comstock from one of those alternate realities.
Yes, it all gets a bit David Lynch towards the end, and, what I’m finally getting round to, after all this technobabble and plot-splurging is something resembling the point; evil is evil, no matter what hat it wears, and religion (or rebellion, for that matter) does not on its own merits alter that fact. You, the player, had that darkness in you all along, you just didn’t know it. Booker, crippled with drink, debt and guilt, sold his daughter to Comstock (an alternate version of himself) to pay off that debt. Unable to live with that guilt, Booker went to be baptised as a last-ditch attempt to be cleansed. In one universe, he rejected the baptism, deciding nothing could forgive the things he’d done, and was found by the Lutece twins (parallel versions of the same scientist who invented the quantum technology in the first place, only to be murdered by Comstock and scattered across the probability space) who were out to fix what they’d started. In another universe, Booker accepted the baptism but, instead of being ‘cleansed’, he was reborn as Comstock, a man who was still violent in nature, but instead of feeling guilt for his actions, now chose to justify them by using them to fuel his religious idealism. Religion in and of itself is not portrayed as evil in Infinite and, by the same token, those who are oppressed by religion are not depicted as good. Indeed, when the player steps into another universe in which the resistance forces are better equipped, they are just as brutal and bloodthirsty as Comstock ever was, and become the enemies which the player must fight through. However, religion in and of itself is not portrayed as good, either. Evil will out itself, and whatever cause it is done in the name of is irrelevant.
The end of the story comes some time after Comstock is killed by Booker, when it is revealed that there are still an infinite number of Comstocks in an infinite number of universes, meaning Booker will always be brought in to battle him and the loop will never end. Elizabeth promises to take Booker to where Comstock was born to end the loop at the root, and thus takes him to his baptism and drowns him before he can ever become Comstock in the first place. Crucially, at several points in the game the player is offered choices about what action to take through the narrative. This is a common trope in videogames: it offers the player the chance to put their own personal mark on a story, but is ultimately still relatively meaningless. You still play through the story to its scripted conclusion, in effect making it the illusion of choice and nothing more. Indeed, the previous two Bioshock games utilised this tactic, offering the player ‘good’ and ‘bad’ endings. Infinite’s choices, however, never have any impact on the narrative, and there is only one ending, which plays out in exactly the same way, no matter which choices you make during the game. The choices are intentionally meaningless, so when that curtain is pulled back and even the illusion of choice is stripped away, it makes the moment all the more poignant. It is fate – but then, it was always fate, because you are playing a scripted game and the ending was always written, just as it was always written for Booker. Booker finally pays the price for his sins, past and present, and, in doing so, closes the loop and prevents the events of the game from ever taking place. In return for this, Booker gets true redemption: a second chance, and a genuine rebirth, back home, with his daughter who he never gives away as Comstock could never exist in order to take her. What becomes of Booker afterwards, still heavily in debt and still racked with guilt, is another matter entirely.
Playing through Bioshock: Infinite was quite a revelatory experience for me, and it really caused me to think about the nature of free will vs fate, the human condition, and a whole bunch of other stuff I couldn’t fit into this already lengthy article. In my mind, anything that can do that deserves to be experienced even if it won’t always be enjoyed. Maybe you’ll hate it. Maybe you loved it, and just think I completely missed the point myself with my reading. Maybe you just hate this game stuff, hated reading this article and want me to go back to reviewing crappy b-movies. The important thing is you cared enough to feel something. Anything. And in the end, isn’t that what art should do?
Do let me know your thoughts in the comment box below. Or don’t. In another universe you already have, so it doesn’t really matter.