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Violence Isn’t The Problem In Bioshock Infinite, It’s The Way The Violence Is Handled
Minor spoilers for the opening sequence in Bioshock Infinite follow.
Bioshock Infinite is a brilliant game, one with a genre-bending story and an amazing atmosphere. It’s also an incredibly brutal game, rife with decapitations, body mutilation, and gun violence. Basically, if you can think of a way to violently murder or maim another person, it’s a safe bet that it’s featured in Irrational’s newest release.
It’s been argued elsewhere that this violence limits Bioshock, preventing it from transcending the medium and allowing the game to reach a more artistic and mainstream audience. While it’s undeniable that the violence in Bioshock is excessive, I feel that the presence of violence in Bioshock isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s the way violence is handled in Bioshock; a constant and numbing deluge of death and blood rather than something that feels important and impactful.
Thematically “successful” violence, as a conceit in media, can serve two purposes. First, it can add impact to the story’s moments of conflict. Secondly, and this is more specific to video games, it can provide emotional insight to the events occurring in the game. Both of these successful expressions of violence are achieved through gradual ramp-up and proper pacing. Look at a television show like Breaking Bad, which rarely portrays violence, making the series’ moments of brutality feel significantly more important and impactful. Games like Spec Ops: The Line achieve the emotional connection to violence. The increasing brutality in that game (especially through the evolving melee death animations) mirroring Captain Walker’s decent into insanity and despair. Unsuccessful violence is pointless and eventually blurs into the background (see games like Call of Duty or Battlefield), while successful violence tells us about the mental state of the characters, or provides emotional impact.
Bioshock, at least initially, seems to satisfy one of the two successful implementations of violence. The opening twenty minutes of the game are completely free of any blood or gore, leaving the player with a large and peaceful area to explore and interact with. Eventually, it’s discovered that you are the “false Shepard”, leading to you being apprehended by Columbia’s police force. In a desperate moment of escape, your character thrusts his apprehender’s face into the spinning Sky-Hook blade of another police officer. It’s a terrifying moment of carnage, and the game purposefully focuses on the violence, obscuring very little of the gory act. It’s horrific and incredibly impactful, quickly shattering the idyllic, peaceful atmosphere the game establishes for Columbia.
From that point, the violence in Bioshock remains brutal, but the violence quickly becomes routine. The skyhook kills are just as morbid as before, perhaps even more so when you factor in Booker’s tendency to saw someone’s neck apart, but they are incredibly frequent and the animations remain the same. There isn’t any “arc” to the executions, never growing in brutality as Booker becomes more desperate to escape Columbia. The combat sections quickly become the bulk of the game, and while the combat is well-executed and fun, it becomes repetitive quickly. The impact of taking another human being’s life loses the emotional impact, the game’s combat scenarios devolving into a series of similar (albeit mechanically entertaining) shooting galleries against anonymous hostiles.
I feel like this is a major missed opportunity. Obviously, many first person games are made up primarily of combat, and most suffer from the same emotional detachment in their violence. But few games have such brilliant stories or art direction that is as inspired as Bioshock Infinite. It does so many things right, which makes the shooting’s detachment and lack of impact feel all the more noticeable. If the game focused on it’s strengths, like exploration and storytelling, and saved the violence for specific moments in the story, it could’ve been something truly incredible, something worthy of rallying behind. As it stands, Bioshock Infinite is a great video game, but it’s just that; a great video game. And while that’s more than enough for most people, I can’t help but feel it could’ve been something more important.