Posted on April 16, 2013, Phil Hornshaw 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.