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Why Bioshock: Infinite is so violent?

Why Bioshock: Infinite is so violent?

I read this article by Mark Hamilton on the website Kotaku before playing Bioshock: Infinite. Now, normally I get on with my life when I read articles like this, thinking to myself “don’t play it if you don’t like violence” or things like that. I don’t mind fictional violence at all because I have a controversial belief that pixels cannot feel pain and therefore violence is allowed in video games and all forms of it- mindless, thoughtful, stupid, juvenile, anything. But when I played and finished Bioshock: Infinite I came to the conclusion that the violence is completely necessary for the game, and it is quite meaningful, and it’s anything but “insane” and “ridiculous”, so I decided to write a response.

I cannot discuss this matter without delving into spoilers, so don’t read further if you haven’t finished the game.

The article starts with a questionable request from the reader. “Let’s imagine watching the opening of the game as if we’d never played a video game before.” Urm, why? The game does not make any claim to be suitable for someone who has never played a game. Or read story. Or even studied philosophy to some extent. You have to be familiar with the previous games in the series, and the game is richly allusive, so you have to have a rich background in entertainment in order to fully appreciate the game. The article follows with a series of screenshots that convey the point that the game is pretty – and yes, it is pretty – and then presents some snapshots that convey that the game is violent, and yes, it is violent. And what is wrong with that? Well, here goes the rationale:

BioShock Infinite is in many ways so, so close to being That Game, the one we can show to our non-gamer friends and say “See? Look at this! It is so awesome! Check out the story! It’s like LOST! How neat is this?” But it’s not That Game, because it’s so hilariously, egregiously violent that a large number of people will never give it a chance. […] I tend to look for games that I could show to my sister. […] I wish I could show her this game, but after about the hour-mark, I’d lose her attention. She’d see the absolutely insane violence of the melee kills and say “Well, this is dumb,” and get up to go do something else.

That’s a very strange and – excuse me for my rudeness – stupid anecdotal criteria for judging a work of art. He is wrong because my sister played the game and loved it. OK, I’m joking, I actually don’t have a sister. OH MY GOD! I cannot judge any game because I don’t have any sisters! I have to ask my parents to spice things up in the bedroom or I will have to abandon gaming once and for all, you know?

You’re right, I’m needlessly mean. But it’s really hard to not poke fun at such ridiculous reasoning. Of course, it is not BAD if a game could appease Hamilton’s sister. I have absolutely no qualm with Hamilton’s crusade to find THAT game which convinces his sister to join the ranks of gamers. But that raises some questions. Why should he feel disappointed if a game doesn’t? Are games supposed to be designed in a way to appease his sister? Should a game creator prioritize his sister over plot, theme, and the philosophy behind the game? Should artists be so eager to broaden their fanbase to include his sister to forgo something they artistically decided to put in the game? And finally, has Hamilton shown f***ing Harvest Moon to his sister?

Of course, he is not alone in this regard. He quotes Chris Pilante from Polygon who has another close-minded relative and feels Levine’s artistic universe should revolve around her ass. We first hear how his wife was excited about Bioshock: Infinite but she couldn’t stomach the violence, and then he asks: “But what about my wife? What about the people who can stomach only so much aggressive violence and unchecked cruelty?” As you can see, there is this repulsive sense of entitlement. I’m sorry Chris, but Bioshock: Infinite is not human rights, or healthcare. It’s an artistic expression from an artist to people who might appreciate his works.

So even if the game really WAS mindlessly violent, Hamilton’s criticism would still be irrelevant, because it ascribes a task to the game which it has never claimed to want to follow, and also, he can find another game for his sister, the rest of humanity should not suffer a watered-down game for it.

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But why Bioshock: Infinite is so violent? The answer is clear. This is a bleak, nihilistic, and sad game, which questions the nature of power, and the nature of human society, and even transgression against this system. The beautiful surface is in contrast with the bleak themes and realities below, and this contrast. The game creates a pretty box with ugly contents. And that is the point of the game, that there is no heaven, and heaven is a lie. People like Hamilton are so overtaken by the heavenly aspects of the game that they forget that it is a deception, and how the game is supposed to portray the ugliness of its world if not through violence? Look at this quote from Hamilton: “The ridiculous violence stands out in such sharp relief when placed against the game’s thoughtful story and lovely world.” The world is not lovely. That’s the point. It’s a racist theocratic dystopia.

When you first begin the game, you are in awe of the beautiful scenery, and yes, the shock of your first kill is a legitimate shock, you wince, but it is because of the contrast. You suddenly realize that it is the real world, where people bleed, and death and murder are real things. Violence drives Fitzroy so mad she becomes a greater villain herself, and tries to kill a child. Would a bloodless, harmless revolution drive its leader so mad? Booker DeWitt not only becomes the villain, he IS the villain, he is Comstock. We know Booker is traumatized by his own atrocities in Wounded Knee, but they twist him so much that even after he is born again he is again a monster. Where would the game be without this trauma? Without violence, the game is meaningless. Violence does not detract from the experience of the game, it IS the experience of the game. This is a game about violence and its roots in religion, history, racism, and how it pollutes everyone.

But our detractors have their retorts ready. Pilante says: “If violence is necessary to confirm Booker’s status as villain, the first dozen kills more than get the message across.” Umm….. what? Has he forgotten that Bioshock is a video game, and games have these thing called gameplay, and combat, and levels? But then when he goes on to say “BioShock Infinite has little to say about violence. The story of Elizabeth, Comstock and Booker is one of personal dramas and familial traumas that owes more to 1960s American theater than 1990s independent cinema.” It shows he has misunderstood the game, and he has missed entirely the racial politics, and religious themes and imagery.

And then we go to Pilante’s last argument. “The argument assumes everyone makes it past the dozens of sticky and explosive headshots — and doubly assumes that we need yet another violent video game about how violent video game players are. The best attack on violent games, after all, is not making violent games.”

Well, yes. You have to be violent in order to make the violence real. The best works on violence are themselves very violent. The best works on trauma are traumatic. The best works on love are romantic. And yes, we still need them. We will need them as long as there is violence in the world.

Which brings me to my final point. Hamilton manages to be the most irritating in the final lines of his article: “And in the meantime, hey, I’m actually okay with ripping digital heads off, as far as it goes. I’ve been playing video games for ages, after all.”

Which brings up the question – why is it that, most of the times and with a few exceptions, the well-thought works of art illicit such complaints? Why Taxi Driver and Clockwork Orange and Django Unchained enrage people, and not Bullet in the Head or Dead Man Down? OR why not Tom and Jerry? With the exception of Mortal Kombat and Rapelay the other famous games which ignited the flames of controversy are great works of art that criticize the society, including the GTA series. So, are people offended by the violence or by the message, by the unmasking?

To me, such responses only strengthen the value of a game like Bioshock: Infinite. In a corrupt world anything worthy of being said is discomforting, after all.

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