Major spoilers for Bioshock Infinite. Didn’t watch/play? DON’T READ!
I’ve read a lot of controversy about the excessive violence in Bioshock Infinite – how it doesn’t make sense in the scope of what the game is about. It’s interesting, because I actually have the opposite opinion.
So first let’s get this out of the way: Bioshock Infinite is a violent game because it’s a first person shooter and that’s what people have come to expect. Half-Life 2, Metro 2033, Deadspace – even the first two Bioshocks, these games all have a certain level of violence in them, some give plot reasons for it, others do not.
But people have a gripe more with the level of violence in Infinite than the presence of it. To illustrate:
So we’re not exactly shying away from the gore.
And I get it, I get that this seems paradoxical to the message of the game, particularly to the player’s position in relation to Columbia proper and the Vox Populi. It seems rather… hypocritical that Daisy Fitzroy scalping a Columbian boy is so ghastly in comparison to the frequent, grisly murders the player doles out.* Of course, there is the fact that the boy is a child (and innocent at that), but in general there is such an emphasis on how wrong the Vox Populi are to commit the horrors that they do in the game – it seems strange when you realize that the player exacts almost equal amounts of chaos and destruction all by himself and he is not condemned.
But that’s the point.
We aren’t some faceless, nameless character – we are playing Booker DeWitt, which is why Bioshock Infinite is such a violent game, despite the morals it espouses.
Booker DeWitt is in no way a decent, kind, moral or good person. He is not a hero in the game; he is a terrible person – and that’s the point of the hypocritical, excessive violence.
One of the most interesting aspects of Bioshock Infinite is that it provides the player the opportunity to struggle with this paradox. If you peruse the internet, you’ll see that a lot of people like Booker. Hell, I like Booker. He gets shit done. And it’s easy to like him when you watch the progression of his relationship with Elizabeth. It’s easy to root for Booker DeWitt because we are Booker DeWitt.
What Levine did here was put us in the shoes of a character and challenge us to still make the assumption that we are the ‘good guy.’ Look, the assumption is natural: it’s how we think of ourselves in life and in most video games. We’ve been primed to assume that we are the ‘good ones’ – if not simply a side that has a valid perspective. We are heroes: Gordon Freeman, Isaac Clarke, Lee from TellTale’s Walking Dead… Hell, even in Bioshock we are given a choice to be a hero as Jack Ryan. Besides, Levine sets it up for us – we are the man who comes to free the lamb trapped in Columbia. (Yeah, his intentions aren’t so noble at the beginning, but he comes to care for her! He wants to save her!)
But we are not a hero in Bioshock Infinite. We are never given an opportunity to be one.
We play a man who has committed atrocities – who continues to commit atrocities. We are playing a man who slaughtered innocents at Wounded Knee – all to salvage his pride. We are playing a man who sold his own daughter to pay his gambling debt. It’s easy to see Booker as the hero when the alternative is Comstock, but Booker is in no way a ‘hero’ – and that’s what the graphic violence points out.
Booker’s immorality is emphasized in the video game because Levine actively chooses to make him so. How easy would it be to absolve him of his crimes? Selling Anna could have been turned into her being kidnapped; Wounded Knee could have turned into a matter of soldier’s remorse rather than guilt at what was clearly a serious war crime. In no universe is any alternative of Booker (post-Wounded Knee) a good, or even decent, person.
But what about saving Elizabeth? What about the remorse, the change that Booker shows in the game? This is the interesting part – and one of the things I think Levine does so well in Infinite. He’s a redeemed hero, we want to say: he’s repenting, he’s doing what he can to make things right.
Two questions: How? and, So what?
Booker DeWitt is ‘repenting’ by acting in the same way that got him here in the first place: he’s blasting the face off of anything and everything that’s in his way. In the game, Comstock points out that Booker is a man who “solves everything with his fists.” Booker hasn’t learned anything.
And so what if he is trying to repent? Don’t get me wrong, I believe that people can atone for the things they have done wrong, they can make amends and try to fix the things that they have broken. But stop a second and think about what this man has done wrong. Think about Wounded Knee. If you need a relatively modern equivalent: he’s similar to a Nazi war criminal. This is not a man who acted within the realm of warfare: this is a man who committed brutality against a race of people for his own selfish pride – a man who killed without distinction except based on that person’s skin color and heritage. Forget spiritual forgiveness for a second and contemplate this: is there any way that someone like this can ever atone for what they have done?
Booker doesn’t think so, so why do you?
Perhaps because we want to believe that people can be better, and we want to believe we are the good guy.
There are many reasons to make the character this way. If we want to be practical for a minute: it gives credence to the hyper-violence the player experiences and commits during the game. It makes the player struggle with his identity as a person who is almost, if not equally, as terrible as Comstock. It also makes a poignant commentary on the world(s) Infinite exists in.
I’m going to borrow a quote from The Dark Knight for a minute:
“I can do those things. Because I’m not a hero, not like Dent. I killed those people. That’s what I can be… I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be.”
Of course the irony is that Batman’s ideals are what would not work in Columbia, but the essence of the quote translates for Booker. Booker is not a hero, but a hero is not what Columbia needs. It needs someone who is the exact opposite, because maybe that’s what it takes to take down Comstock. Forget the Dark Knight’s sentimental views of the human condition; in the Infinite universe it takes a monster to take one down. In Infinite, Columbia has to become a battlefield for Booker’s fractured personhood before it can be rid of him entirely.
Bioshock Infinite is not a game about good versus evil – if the nature of Booker DeWitt didn’t clue you into that, then the flip of the Vox Populi sure did. There are no Luke Skywalkers, no Aragorns, no Kirks, no Links – hell, there aren’t even any Jack Ryans here. This game isn’t even about the kind-of-decents versus the terrible people. Sure, Booker’s and, to a certain extent, the Vox Populi’s side seems better when you look at the disgusting racism, classicism and sexism exhibited by Comstocks’ people. But don’t be fooled: when given the opportunity, both Booker and the Vox react with equal amounts of brutality, prejudice and violence. And maybe that’s the jarring point of Bioshock Infinite.