Why Talking About BioShock Infinite’s Violence is Important
Infinite Universes of Michael Bay Films
Agree or disagree on the level of BioShock Infinite’s violence, however, it’s worth talking about, because this is a game that stands apart from many, if not most, other offerings in the medium right now. There’s a lot to talk about in terms of its political ideas, its treatment and depiction of racism and history, its ideas about choice and character — and while I’d argue that it’s an imperfect game, it is definitely an important title on the landscape of games. How a game like that chooses to portray and use violence in its world, and how it requires the player to use and feel about that violence, is arguably more important than your average game, at the least for its visibility.
And BioShock Infinite begs a larger discussion about games. Here’s a title that has a lot of really interesting ideas, at least on the surface. It seems to want to get players thinking about the conflicted, dissonant nature of American history at the start and the means by which we corrupt the narrative of our own lives to keep ourselves happy by the end. And yet to get through it all, you have to explode heads in a shower of blood. That middle requirement really has the capability of muddling things.
My colleague Phil Owen recently described the heavy prevalence of violence in games by way of a cinematic analogy: Imagine all the movies in existence were in the style of Michael Bay. That’s what video games are like right now — almost universally violent, seemingly for the sake of violence. The tools being used by developers to create interactive experiences are mired in gory combat, and even a game that purports to be About Something, like BioShock Infinite is, uses those same tools — and only those tools.
Again, that’s not to judge Infinite’s use of those tools, but the discussion of whether those are the right tools for the job, or the only tools for the job, is a good one. If we start to think about the fact that even the games that seem to have a lot to say to us, such as Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line, do so with a gun glued to our hands, we can’t help but wonder why these games need to use violence to make those points — or if they could still make them in any other way, or as well. Or if they make them at all.
So whether BioShock Infinite could be non-violent and still be fundamentally itself, or whether it would be better served to be less violent, are questions worth asking and worth discussing. The greater discussion about the place of violence in games is also worth discussing, and that Infinite works to be broader and deeper than your average game makes it a good place to start the discussion.
I’m not sure Infinite could be what it is without violence. I’m also not sure its violence effectively allows it to convey what it wants to be. Feel free to weigh in — that’s the point.