BioShock Infinite - A Bloody Shame

BioShock Infinite is being lauded as one of the greatest stories ever told in a video game. Unfortunately, it is its commitment to being a traditional video game that might ultimately call to question statements like that.

By Tony Walter | Apr 2, 2013


BioShock Infinite is a first person shooter, and as such, it is going to be a violent experience. Remember my article about shirking blame? That applies to anything, not just sexism. Giving Infinite a free pass for being hyper violent just because it's a video game and that's what games do, is more than a little short-sighted.

To clarify, violence isn't necessarily unnecessary, in all cases. It's one of those 'a time and place' sorts of things. And yes, video games, as a rule of thumb, are going to be more violent than other mediums. Though I'd argue that's not necessary, I understand the decision as a design conceit. However, when the violence actively works against the greater narrative within the project, that is when it becomes a problem. Violence doesn't feel out of place in a science fiction shooter like Halo - the game doesn't attempt to emphasize the power of death, and story beats have impact for other reasons (i.e.: major character reveals, betrayals). More importantly however, the violence of war in Halo does not feel misplaced, but rather an integral part of that fiction.

It would help if the combat were more fun.
One of the problems with the combat in Infinite is that it is, simply, not that great. I recently explained to my friend, "the worst part of the game is the part where you're playing it." The combat is maddeningly repetitive. Repetitive combat doesn't tend to draw as much attention as other repetitive things, for some reason. If the game were a puzzle game, you would be matching the same three shapes over and over again, occasionally having to match six or nine shapes, and occasionally the background would change colors - don't worry, it's a really pretty background. Point is, when that music picks up, and you draw your weapon, you'll be doing strikingly similar routines at the end of the game that you were doing at the beginning and middle.

The dozen or so different guns in the game are about as varied as they are in any traditional FPS. You got your pistols, the machine guns, the shotguns, the sniper, and the launchers. There is only one variety of ammo, unlike the original BioShock, so the tactics with guns always comes down to: shoot this dude in the face as hard as you can. There are also the eerily out of place Vigors, re: BioShock's Plasmids, which do a slightly disappointing job of spicing up the combat. The Vigors are almost 1:1 with their BioShock counterparts. Remember the bees? Well, here are some crows. Like enraging enemies? Well, now you possess them. And they didn't even try changing up the electricity or fireball attacks. The powers were new and incredible in BioShock, now they feel familiar, and with only a flimsy justification within the narrative. Why am I one of the only people in this city with these powers? They were literally handing them out at the fairgrounds.

The Skyrails are an attempt to vary combat, but are ultimately too disorienting to be useful.
Gear and Skyrails are the two new gameplay features that attempt to set this apart from its predecessor. The momentum of Booker's movement and sporadic placement of Skyrails makes them far too unreliable a tool to bother using during combat. Gear is a decent enough idea, but oddly balanced, it would seem that each piece is entirely random, regardless of where you are in the game. I found a piece of gear in the initial set that ended up being far better than anything I found for the rest of the game, and in fact found inferior versions of the same power during the final segments. Ultimately, the new features end up doing little to create variety during the combat.

The combat in the original BioShock encouraged strategy. Some different ammo types were actually trap placements. You were able to hack turrets, health stations, and security cameras, essentially creating a tower-defense meta-game, in specific situations. That element is totally lost in Infinite. Traps are attached to the Vigors, but they are practically worthless as you're never really tasked with defending an area. You can just as easily target specific enemies with the same attack results, rather than hoping they happen upon one of your placements. When it comes down to it, you'll find a tactic in this game that works, and you'll likely find yourself playing it like that all the way through. I personally found electrocuting enemies followed up with a shotgun blast or spray of the machine gun, to be the most effective strategy.

The first death in the game hits harder than the last one.
While better gameplay design might have made the action sequences more tolerable, in the end, the true problem is that they exist at all. The rampant shooting feels like little more than a choice to appease the mass gaming audience, instead of supporting an intricately woven story, and sadly, at the sacrifice of the impact several of the story beats could have had. Think back to the moment after the raffle, the first kill in the game. Booker defends himself and executes an officer. The moment is jarring, exciting, and terrifying. All of the feelings of an earned impact. All of the feelings absent during the final moments of the game. The reason this works is because you aren't yet desensitized to the death. These are living people as far as you're concerned, and you've just killed one. The impact fades quick as you proceed to shoot your way through a large troop of angry police in the following moments.

After eleven hours of shooting people in the face, the murder of key characters washes over me like a light breeze. The game completely desensitizes its audience, and then expects them to care about death. Playing the game, you're witness to far more gruesome deaths than anything you'll witness during the key plot moments; drownings and bludgeonings pail in comparison to perpetual electrocutions, decapitations, neck snaps, suicides, and burnings.

The melee executions ripped me from the fiction.
I actively avoided hitting the melee button because these scenes were ruining my experience.
Perhaps the constant murder is an attempt to establish Booker DeWitt as an antihero, but certainly an effort so hyperbolic wasn't necessary. Does every villain need to murder hundreds of people for us to 'get' that this person is a villain? Discovering Booker's history more than emphasizes his morality, and some ambiguity would be far more striking and memorable than the guy whose head just popped from electrocution.

Us gamers are a jaded bunch though, maybe near-genocide is the type of thing it takes to get the point across. The constant killing in all of the first person shooters, and heck, any mainstream game, has us all numb to the impact of death. This disappointing truth is also one of the biggest barriers of entry for new fans. I can think back to several moments in the past where my friends would witness some horrible, violent act happening in [insert M-rated game here] and reacted with a gasp or an expletive - the act being nothing but mundane for me. This is a sad reality, but one we don't have to put up with.

The most disappointing realization I had about Infinite, is that I had thought this game could change that reality. The original BioShock took the idea I had about what a first person shooter could be and ran with it in some interesting ways, both in narrative and gameplay. Creating an amazing, in-depth, and meaningful fiction, but without the sacrifice of fun, intriguing, and strategic gameplay. Sure, that game may have dropped the ball in the final moments, but the experience is still one that is ingrained in my mind. Instead of again taking steps forward, BioShock Infinite feels a lot like retracing familiar territory, and not even doing it as well. Most irksome is that this is only because they didn't trust their reach enough to take steps forward without sacrificing the larger audience. The game is a traditional shooter because otherwise it wouldn't guarantee them a bestseller.

Columbia is definitely a beautiful and interesting world.
I just wish I could have experienced it in a more profound way.
What if Infinite had been paced more slowly, and instead of combat as the main gameplay mechanic, we had logic and environmental puzzles to deal with? Perhaps character interactions could play a larger role. Imagine BioShock Infinite as an adventure game. In some ideal world where adventure games got the sort of attention that first person shooters got, maybe BioShock Infinite could have been what I really wanted. Reality is, we are in that world now. Last year we saw The Walking Dead achieve great success as an adventure game. The game wasn't non-violent, but it paced its violence and made character deaths mean something. Imagine the sort of impact the end of Infinite might have had if it had been paced like The Walking Dead.

There have been a lot of big words tossed around BioShock Infinite. Perhaps this hyperbole is to be expected when a good game comes out early in the year, as though fans are salivating for something to get excited about. I don't think BioShock Infinite is a bad game, by any means. There was a story there that I loved. There were characters there that were brilliant. There was a world that I would love to spend more time in. Unfortunately, all of these aspects are marred by the fact that I actually need to play it to experience them.


  1. I honestly didn't think that combat was that bad, though I was playing on Normal so enemies put up about as much of a fight as a wet piece of paper and battles therefore didn't last too long. To the games credit though, I've read that 1999 mode takes significantly more finesse and strategy.

    And yes, gear is randomly placed, and yes this is generally a dumb idea. I generally play sorcerer, so I wanted to make a vigor focuses character, but there was no sure fire way to get vigor focused gear.

    You've already read my thoughts about how ridiculous I think the violence is in this game and the dissonance that results from it (this is Justin, btw), but as I said before I understand why it's there.

    Sadly, in the end, the game is a product, and as a product it needs to have as wide of an appeal as possible. Full retail games in this genre need visceral action in order to appeal to the masses. Hell, Ken Levine himself admitted the cover was designed to appeal to Fratboys. They may not understand the ending, nor any of the themes that are present in the narrative, but at least they'll have fun eviscerating people. Yes, The Walking Dead is fantastic in it's storytelling, but it's a downloadable title, and an episodic one at that, so it could take more risks. Even The Walking Dead got an FPS spin off, and from what I can tell it's selling like hotcakes despite negative buzz. In fact, I overheard someone saying that it's not "boring like the other one." Is this trend a good thing, especially for people like us who play games primarily for narrative? No, but its a necessary evil. That's business.

    Would I love to have a game where I was free to explore Columbia and solve puzzles? Hell yes. Is it feasible for full release? Not really. There is potential hope, however, in DLC. If fan theories are correct and Constance is Songbird (never confirmed, so technically not spoilers) we may get the opportunity to experience Columbia as a citizen and, more than that, as a child who hopefully won't go around murdering everyone. Solving puzzles and finding clues to sneak into Elizabeth's tower, while slowly becoming disillusioned with Columbia would be fantastic. Here's hoping.

    Also, I found that most deaths in the last half of the game were meant more as development for Elizabeth or foreshadowing as opposed to having any meaningful emotional impact on the player regarding to that character's passing. If you're referring to the final death, I would argue that whether or not you feel pity for him or feel like he deserved it is kind of part of the point. In my eyes the person murdering him is making the greater sacrifice, as they know the ultimate outcome (this is hard without spoilers).

    Anyway, there's my 2 cents. As you already know, I agree with quite a few of your points, though I feel like I feel slightly more positive about the game than you do :-P

    1. Well, you're not wrong by any stretch of the imagination. But what we have here is two different discussions: one is pointing why the game's violence is inept from both a gameplay and narrative (which I think is much more crucial here) standpoint, and one is pointing out *why* the inept violence exists.

      I, personally, believe there is no room for apologists in critical thinking, in thoughtful analysis, and in self-reflection for pop culture. This article isn't trying to articulate how fucked the video game industry is and why the creators of BioShock have purposely chosen to inhibit their game to appeal to a wider audience. This article has chosen to take a scarily accepted notion about the industry and prove through examples and analysis that it's resulted in an adulterated gaming experience.

      "Would I love to have a game where I was free to explore Columbia and solve puzzles? Hell yes. Is it feasible for full release? Not really."

      Why not? What leads you to make such a statement? If we choose not to accept it, then things can change. If we challenge these pressures and point out how it's resulted in an inferior product, cannot we begin to shift the opinion? Maybe you're right: there may be no hope for studios who believe sending in swarms of endless enemies is the only way to sell games. But you could translate the argument to any medium. Why can't a sci-fi film be both mass-appealing and thought-provoking? Studios will, of course, opt for the dumb shit. But cannot a balance be achieved? Looper challenged that idea last year. Blade Runner challenged that idea thirty years ago. 2001: A Space Odyssey upended an entire genre and movie industry with that idea.

      I will admit, as a noob to video games (I pretty much only play Zelda). But, in regards to your Walking Dead example, I think reality speaks for itself: the first-person version was berated, while its predecessor was lauded. People appreciate a quality game, and the discussion has nothing to do with how much money a game makes. That is, I'm sorry, a one-note discussion. Of course a bland version of BioShock/every summer blockbuster/the latest shitty rapper with a million dollar production budget will make more money. what? The films, music, and even video games we love and remember have nothing to do with how much the experience waters down itself and appeals to a mass audience--so why are we so content with patting these studios on the back and offering up bland "reviews"? The issue is worth discussing beyond a financial standpoint, because your defense of BioShock: Infinite is the very definition of "selling out": sacrificing artistic integrity for profit. We don't excuse it for other forms of entertainment, so why OK to do so for video games?

  2. Violence is necessary because in order to be the hero, you must kill (subdue) the opponent. Justifying the killing can make it okay, so long as you're reasoning goes a bit farther than "Me good, them bad, they die". It's like the makers of video games think so little of their audience, they can get away with flimsy excuses. But if video game sales show anything, it's that they can and will.

    I don't typically play shooters (for a number of reasons, none of them have much to do with the violence), but nearly all games have some form of violence. Games that challenge your morals (thinking specifically of the Fable series here) change the way you play. I cannot play through Fable and be evil. I just can't do it. I have no desire to kill something that hasn't attacked me. I see no reason to shoot a guard just because he's in authority. But the point is, you have the choice.

    In shooters, I don't think you have that. It's kill this or it WILL kill you. Violence is practically mandatory. Where I think they could go a bit differently, while still achieving the same hero/villain aspect, is lessen the gore and/or make the few opponents harder to kill instead of just adding hordes weak opponents. Death isn't what makes people cringe, it's the decapitations with blood spraying thirty feet in all directions. It's the sound of a bone snapping. It's the the drawn-out suffering you have to watch (and if you claim this is for more realistic playing, please stop deluding yourself. It's still a game).