A short argument for violence in Bioshock Infinite

There’s an interesting discussion developing in the aftermath of Bioshock Infinite’s release, led primarily by Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku, who says in his comprehensive breakdown of the game that the “ridiculous violence stands out in such sharp relief when placed against the game’s thoughtful story and lovely world”.  His article carried such a strong tone of incredulity that Ken Levine went so far with the violence, but I’m here to argue that that was exactly the point, and if anything, that’s the only part of Bioshock Infinite that worked best for me.  Why?

Because Levine has finally succeeded in making us disgusted.

Violence in Bioshock Infinite is over the top, and at times absolutely splatterhouse.  The first weapon you get is a Sky-Hook, and with that, you go around twisting enemy necks clean off with blood spraying everywhere. In fact, every time you make a melee kill of the sort, there is a very disturbing crash of strings played in the background, like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller – and it never gets any less creepy each time you make a melee kill.  This sort of obvious sound editing cannot be anything less than intentional.

If Bioshock Infinite is Levine’s commentary about the nature of games, and in particular, on-rails shooter type games, then violence is certainly the main course that we need to get dug into.  In interviews, Levine states that in his games “violence is necessary”, and he goes on to explain that it is a “limitation of the medium”, that he can “write a scene about anything” but it’s “really tough to make a game about any particular topic… because [in movies] you don’t need the skill component, and you don’t need to sort of train people on the systems…”

I can’t say with certainty that Levine intended for his violence to be over-the-top, but clearly he considered the concept of it.  And so we can deduce that intentional or not, the violence in Bioshock was designed, and the fact that we are disgusted by it should be a cause for celebration – we’re too anaesthetized to it in all other games.

I think it’s brilliant that the vapidly beautiful world of Columbia is juxtaposed with the bloody violence that goes on in and around its corridors.  It would be a lot cooler too if blood could literally splash on the walls each time you kill an enemy, almost as if you’re ruining the place metaphorically.

Hamilton argues that the shooter mechanic of Bioshock Infinite is the most redundant feature – that we could’ve done with less of it or taken it out entirely.  I think that’s completely the wrong way to look at it.  The narrative of Bioshock deals with conflict: conflict of self, other, society, ideology, etc. and what better way to resist or abet these narrative concepts then with the greatest symbol of conflict of all?  The firearm.  Religious fanatics, revolutionaries, guardian robots all want a piece of you, and they too use violence to restrain you, so I would argue that there is just no reasoning with these sorts of people.

This is particularly evident in the game when one of DeWitt’s former wartime mates, Slate, forces DeWitt to shoot at fellow soldiers to give them the honourable warrior’s end they so crave, a sort of forcing of violence that you couldn’t back down from.  This is cleverly juxtaposed by having the fight take place amongst cardboard cut-out dioramas of Native Americans swarming the soldiers at the Battle of Wounded Knee.

In the same way, military games espouse that there is no reasoning with terrorists or insurgents, that they have to be put down and the only way to do that is with a gun.  When in a Call of Duty or Battlefield game have we ever had the choice to lower our firearm against an opponent?  That’s some pretty deep inward-looking commentary about the ugliness in video games going on in Bioshock Infinite, and it’s great.

Hamilton believes that the violence in this game is “indulgent and leering”, and certainly that is an opinion.  I agree that it is indulgent, but why does this make it a bad game?  Why are people so resistant to the violence that occurs in this particular game?

To answer that question, I must first put it into context.  If there’s one thing I felt was missing in this game is the ability to sneak past foes and not engage in fights.  You could choose not to fight Big Daddies in the first two Bioshocks, and at times, even pass enemy encounters entirely.   In Bioshock Infinite, the asylum bits with the trumpet-helmet wearing enemies was the only section of the game that allowed you to sneak a little.  Every other time, when you entered a zone where you saw multiple tears that could be opened, you knew another big, albeit annoying, fight is about to take place. Enemies were more readily aware of your presence, and it strongly felt like there was no other way around other than shooting your way through.

But that’s the point about not having choice isn’t it?  We are so disgusted by the violence in the game and yet we can’t stop partaking in it; we’re not allowed to stop.  Because the lack of choice is made ever more apparent to us in this game, in comparison to other games which hide the lack of pacifism so well, we abhor and try to resist even more.

Talky talk

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