Why Talking About BioShock Infinite’s Violence is Important

Last week, the central discussion surrounding BioShock Infinite was one of violence. Too much violence, enough violence, non-violence, violence as art.

There are a lot of fascinating takes on the issue, in fact. At Kotaku, Kirk Hamilton discussed how the fairly extreme violence turns people away from what is an otherwise thoughtful game with a lot of deep ideas. In response, Jim Sterling wrote a piece for Destructoid refuting the idea that BioShock Infinite should be a non-violent game (although he didn’t really attack the stance I’ve seen among many that it could just be, you know, less violent). Our own Phil Owen argued that the nature of the first-person shooter hampers the storytelling of Infinite, which is an inherently violent way to interact with a game.

All this talk about violence in BioShock Infinite might come off as a little irritating. After all, as Sterling points out, why is Infinite held to a standard different than Uncharted or Tomb Raider, each with a protagonist who guns down people by the hundreds? Mass Effect. Half-Life. Even the original BioShock. What makes this game different?

But BioShock Infinite is different, by its very nature, and talking about the choices its creators made in delivering the experience it delivers is important not just in terms of Infinite itself, but in terms of games in general.

Gore Pinatas and Crumpled Ragdolls

Personally, I’m in the “Are you guys serious with this violence?” camp when it comes to BioShock Infinite.

That’s not to say that I’m at odds with the game including violence, or even being violent. It’s important to remember that at the beginning and the end of every day during the creation of Infinite, Irrational Games was not making a story-driven game about parenthood, or a discussion of American racial politics and history, or even a sweeping tale about the weight of ambition and the madness of the super-ambitious. Irrational Games was making a first-person shooter. That BioShock Infinite may have handled all these other elements better had its identity been something different is a subject for another debate, but the Shock series are first-person shooter video games, and BioShock Infinite is one such, with all that that entails. It was never going to be anything different.

Where the discussion gets interesting is in the nature of how Infinite conveys its ideas — the quality of its violence. When you set out to make a shooter, violence is an inherent concept — even titles that allow players to work through them with completely nonlethal actions, these games are not free of violence. It’s the quality that’s different.

The quality of Infinite’s violence is extreme. Booker’s first real act in the world of Columbia, beyond walking around, looking at things and accepting stuff given to him, is to mash a guy’s face into what is essentially a buzzsaw, spraying blood absolutely everywhere.

I don’t disagree with Sterling’s assessment — the brutality can be important. But how Infinite conveys that message is important, too: none of the violence is particularly highlighted to demonstrate the kind of character Booker DeWitt is or what he’s capable of, and the default setting of every punch landed or bullet impacted is “terminal arterial spray.” Infinite has you blast enemies in their faces and keeps them coming at you with gaping wounds, but you don’t think, “Jeez, this sure is making an important statement.” You think, “Man, they threw a whole helluva lot of blood into this game for seemingly no reason, huh.”

Brutality and gore are two different things, and they mean different things. The quality of Infinite’s violence, for me, was excessive without being meaningful — like the fountains of blood in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, but without the stylistic conceits that went with Tarantino’s depiction. Buckets of blood pouring out of a ragdoll’s face, or snapping a guy’s neck and then sending him flying, weightless, for 25 yards, didn’t convey anything meaningful to me. The term “gore pinata” came up somewhere during my reading on BioShock Infinite, and that’s exactly what enemies in the game felt like — so much so that most of the instances in which I found the bodies of victims of the Columbia’s revolution lying around the setting were completely ineffectual, from a storytelling standpoint.

In fact, the level of gore felt at odds with what the game was trying to convey.

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15 Comments on Why Talking About BioShock Infinite’s Violence is Important

Loveless

On April 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Ok, I’m a huge fan of the Bioshock games and I can’t figure out what people are making a fuss about. Its like no one remembers the first fames obvious and subtle violence. In the first game you are given the choice to become a child murdering drug fiend or a savior. You actually are given the coice to rip a parasite from the body of a small child or to help her. You can slend the game beating people to death with a wrench and hearing the noise that is akin to the sound of smashing a pumpkin or a mellon every time you hit a person or their corpse. There is a man who puts live people inside of plaster, another who is mutilating and murdering people in the name of symmetry, and what do you think happened to all the children in Rapture? Do people think the splicers were sitting down for a tea party and scones when they captured a little sister? Hell no, they were killing those poor children and their lobotomized guard dog for their next fix. The Bioshock games started out with violence, you see a man murdered in front of you before you actually set foot in Rapture, hell if you want to get into it you MURDER a plane full of innocents in the opening cut scene.

The discussion of violence and its place in videogames is a different topic all together but I feel like asking if Bioshock was to violent is like asking if a Friday the 13th movie is going to be violent. Of corse it is, that’s part of what it is. This isn’t a disney adventure no matter what Elizabeth looks like.

Loveless

On April 16, 2013 at 4:26 pm

So, I didn’t see the spelling errors in that post, sue me it was typed on a cell phone. :P

Supremeallah

On April 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Let me ask this. Does the violence in this game go beyond the masterpiece that was Soldier of Fortune 2? If not, then people shouldn’t be crying about the violence.

Few have came close to what SOF2 was able to accomplish as far as violence goes.

Phil Hornshaw

On April 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm

@Loveless,

Well, as I mentioned, it’s about the quality of the violence. Bioshock is a horror setting, in a darkened, ruined city, with insane people running around all over. Even the worst of its violence is intense and personal — when you find ruined bodies or people encased in plaster, it manages to be creepy all the way through.

In Infinite, the gore is ratcheted up even more almost, less of the violence and suffering is implied or imagined, and a lot less of it feels like you’re forced to do it as you skulk around, literally fighting for your life all the damn time and just barely surviving like in Bioshock. It feels like it’s more of the “wouldn’t it be cool if” variety of gore. It doesn’t add anything to the scene in Infinite. In Bioshock, the gore adds something to the horror setting and atmosphere. That’s how I feel about it, at least, and the question of “why is this here” is harder to answer in Infinite, which is what makes it important to start.

Mike

On April 16, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Mmmmm, I actually think the amount of blood shooting from the headless bodies was quite in keeping with actual arterial spray. Plus it was always nice to hear how disgusted Elizabeth was whenever Booker did something like that. She was an innocent, and Booker was the destroyer of her naive worldview, blood and violence all.

Loveless

On April 16, 2013 at 7:26 pm

@Phil
I guess I just went into the game expecting violence and gore. I actually felt like the violence was toned down a bit until you enter the Vox revolution world. Sitting here discussing it with friends a point was brought up that someone saw the gore as a stark contrast to the city surrounding you. It got me thinking that perhaps it was included to reinforce the false sheppard idea. Someone who is brutal and murderous compared to the average Columbian and the idealic scene that was the backdrop of the city. The common folk of Columbia may have been bigots but you didn’t see dead people in the steets till either Booker killed them or inspired others to kill them. I might be grasping at straws but I also expected a bit more gore and violence from the game. After seeing plaster maniquins bleed when I hit them in the first game I expected this game to ratch it up a bit more.

I guess the question I have is why did anyone not expect it to be full of gore and violence? I’ll throw another comparisin out there, would you go into a Die Hard movie expecting violence or Unicorns with rainbows coming from their butts? Me, I expect violence, gore and at least one yippie ki yi yeah, not unicorns. It wouldn’t matter the setting of the Die Hard movie, they could hop into the way back machine and I would still expect some gore and violence no matter the era.

I also never thought of the first Bioshock as a horror setting, I may have to look at it like that next time I play. I always kind of looked at it as a reflection of what happens when the worst of humanity is brought out in people. Maybe by you seeing the first as horror andseeing this as something else you were more taken aback by the violence and gore.

quicktooth

On April 16, 2013 at 7:38 pm

This is the most non-commital drivel I’ve ever read. Grow a spine guys, have an opinion. It’s almost breathtaking how desperately you strive not to offend the hideous psychopaths of the world. It’s okay to have a soul. It’s okay to actually want to get along, at any level, with anyone. It’s APPROPRIATE to call the game’s makers out on the sheer soulless horror in Bioshock Infinite. It’s disgusting- at least to any decent, sane, self-controlled person. Remember how everyone suddenly liked MASS MURDER AND CANNIBALISM in Prototype? That’s where kowtowing to that demonic sh!t goes. It’s pretty clear we’ve just crossed a line with Bioshock Infinite. We’d better f|_|cking stop before we lose it completely. Well, you all. I’ve simply not bought the game.

folklore

On April 16, 2013 at 9:14 pm

@Quicktooth
I wouldn’t say prototype was demonic. God of war is much worse and i wouldn’t pin the label on it either. In both of them the violence fits the setting and tone of the game for the most part. God of war might have gone overboard but that’s another debate.
I expected violence in Infinite and got violence. I think they could have included something else besides the throwing people several yards away in a seemingly weightless fashion. I’d rather have more emphasis on the tears.

Also if your looking for something resembling cannibalism look at stubbs or l4d, and those don’t even count.

Rastagir

On April 17, 2013 at 12:06 am

I don’t think that Bioshock’s Infinite violence was excessive.

Columbia is NOT a peaceful and serene place. There are ugly things under the surface, tension, rage, hatred. Every character you meet, even “sweet innocent” Elizabeth, have issues: Comstock, Slate, Booker, Fink, Fitzroy. Each of them is violent and deable at heart (well, ok, not Elizabeth….).

I see Columbia as a shiny veneer, a beautiful surface under which ugly things are bred. I don’t think Columbia, on the whole, was less terrifying than Rapture, on the contrary. It was not a destroyed place where monsters roamed, the monsters here were eating ice creams while dancing and sunbathing. The whole place is a setting for the player to admire and, at the very beginning of the game, hate. Playing as Booker, the only thing I really wanted was to leave that place. The “skyhook in the face” at the beginning of the game, for me, was only the visualization of the violence that was demanded of me when I was given the 77 ball.

I don’t think that Bioshock would work as anything else than an fps.

Sloppy Head

On April 17, 2013 at 2:45 am

The foundation of this article is part of a much wider problem in gaming. For one of the best summaries you can every wish to see on the effects of gratuitous violence as a crutch for videogame developers, I encourage you to watch this video by MrBTongue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZM2jXyvGOc

Michal

On April 17, 2013 at 2:56 am

I felt the same about Fallout 3 and New Vegas. These two games are offering very realistic severing of various limbs in slow motion or you could see spine snapping, when the enemy´s head is flying away after succesful shot. And I asked – why for the f**k´s sake?!
It is just another thing, that destroys the atmosphere of Fallout 1 and 2. Yes, the first two games seemed violent too, but it was unrealistic, over the top violence, when your opponent was cut in half by laser or just evaporated etc. But F3 showes it much more “in flesh and blood”, more closely and needlessly slow, so you could admire your work.

JawaEsteban

On April 17, 2013 at 10:33 pm

@Michal
Interesting point about Fallout 3. Probably important to point out that the most popular overhaul mod for the game (FWE) contains the ability to easily modify gore level and kill physics. Everybody I know who’s running FWE has both dialed way down to improve realism. I really prefer it myself compared to vanilla, much less immersion breaking to have a raider I sniper just drop instead of flying backward several meters. There’s a difference between violence appropriate for the game setting and violence that’s so over the top that it detracts from the game.

RC

On April 18, 2013 at 4:59 pm

That’s really not the question anyone should ask, if there is a question to be asked at all. There are tons of games with similar themes and tons of games or even entire genres (like adventures) without violence. And yet those games usually are a niche. Why is that? We are supposed to wonder now, why games are made like this one, if this is what sells the most copies? I feel like people are joking. It’s so obvious it hardly warrants any discussion.

But personally, I perceive it from a whole other angle anyway. First person shooters once used to be about nothing but… shooting. Probably beginning with games like HL1 this changed. Suddenly they also offered a, often interesting, story. So, for me, the big picture is, that games like BioShock LOWERED the level of violence in such shooters, simply for adding so many other elements to them that have nothing to do with violence. No one picks up Half Life because he wants to see artificial blood. Frankly I can’t imagine anyone doing that. I didn’t. Do they still discuss why there is violence in action movies like “Die Hard” and the like? No?

I also don’t worry about peoples opinion who came in contact with BioShock Infinite only because it had such good marketing, that made people buy it, who don’t normally play (such) games. Their media competence is just horrible, if not even non-existent. These people can’t be a measure of judging things, otherwise we would return to the dark ages. Laugh a bit about them, if you have to, roll your eyes, whatever and move on. If you show this game to grandma, of course she’ll be shocked.

Industry

On April 18, 2013 at 10:39 pm

BioShock was a deconstruction of the FPS genre. It made gamers question “who is my character really, and why is he doing these things?” That’s one of the greatest things about it. I remember playing Dead Space after it and thinking “Why I am I doing all this suicidal crap while everyone else I meet hides in a room? You want your satellite dishes fixed, you do it.”

BioShock Infinite does something similar. It creates a parallel earth which contains actual parallels to our world. It presents our inherent brutality and our poor justifications and it does so in a way that is meant to disgust us. Here we have slaughter over politics, race, class or just interpersonal conflict, and it all goes too far. Meanwhile, we are shown the whole time that the outcomes are predestined and the whole thing is just a cycle of violence repeating indefinitely. The game even ends by setting up the paradox which will contain the events which transpired, creating the cycle and thereby closing it off so that the rest of “all possible universes” can be free of it. But every time you start the game, the cycle of violence is renewed.

So, in my opinion, it is a game that wants you to be repulsed by its violence. It wants you to chose not to play it anymore. It’s trying to tell you to stop feeding the bloody animal in you with ridiculous wish-fulfillment/power-fantasies so that we can all face the future instead of just trying to forget the past.

@phil I remember you described the atmosphere of Columbia as Disney, and I think that had to be intentional. Besides the whole “Elizabeth is a Disney princess trapped in a tower” thing, the whole setting was a theme park ride. Every store is a little generic snack/gift shop. No place really feels like people would live there. It’s almost entirely just places to walk through, waste time in, or move goods to feed the perpetual tourists. I don’t think that this was unintentional. In a game where they took an extra year just to add polish, I don’t think much is unintentional, even the “ugh, another shooting gallery” feeling of the gameplay. I actually do believe that Infinite wasn’t just a game, but a cry for help.

raven22

On July 14, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Criticism about bioshock infinite violence is really annoying. You always assume that the violence in the game is pointless, that it’s some kind of accident in development and that it can’t be justified by the artists behind the games. But it can actually because of the very nature of the game. What kind of universe is bioshick set in? a realistic universe? Absolutely not. Bioshock infinite is a cartoon gone wrong and in a cartoon everything is too bright, too big, too beautiful (just like the beginning of the game) but when a cartoon gets darker, it would make no sense for it to becomes more realistic and less graphic. The violence here is used as a conter-point. The brighter Colombia is, the bloodier the violence must be in order to keep making bioshock infinite looks like a cartoon. It’s sad that people keep blaming the game for an artistic choice that completely makes sense.