Warning: this feature and all the articles it links to contain details of the game's story and outcome.
Whatever you think about that ending, when ABC brought its hugely expensive series Lost to a close in 2010, it concluded perhaps the most fascinating and complex franchise in network television history. This was a mainstream show that constructed its own densely elaborate mythology, employing everything from number theory to ancient religion; a show that encouraged readers to explore the philosophy of John Locke and Desmund Hume; a show that used alternative reality gaming and brilliant community management to broaden the reach of the fiction beyond linear storytelling. It was a shared viewing phenomenon that drew audiences into a cabal of co-conspirators and theorists. The value was as much in the conversations between fans as it was in the onscreen machinations devised by the scriptwriters.
And this, ultimately, is the critical appeal of BioShock Infinite. Here is a mainstream, hugely expensive action game, developed by a team of hundreds over several years. And yet while most Triple A shooters confine themselves to achingly unimaginative military scenarios or archetypal man v alien slugfests, Infinite thrusts us into a bizarre rendering of early 20th-century America and places its combat within the context of religious hysteria, racial struggle and quantum mechanics. Like Lost, it blurs the boundaries between fantasy and scientific possibility, and like Lost it revels in ambiguity. It drops hints and red herrings, it throws in cultural and academic references; it provides the impression that its creators are mad scientist authors with notebooks filled with backstory.
But yet it leaves players to figure out a lot of the stuff themselves – and the evidence it gives us is sometimes troubling. Its commentary on racial segregation and civil rights; its sheer violence; the lifelessness of its world – these have all fascinated and concerned players. And that is where the discourse comes in. Because it refuses clarity, for good or bad, BioShock Infinite has inspired a huge range of impassioned and conflicting responses.
In case you've missed any or all of these, here are 10 articles that interrogate the game in interesting ways. Some are from established writers, some from bloggers and game designers, but all shed light on why this idiosyncratic release has provoked so much discussion.
The Kotaku contributor asserts that the outrageous violence in the game prevents it from being something that can be held up as a great work of art.
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.
Here the writer and comedian addresses Hamilton's concerns and defends the level of violence in the game:
If there is any game that can justify its violence, it is BioShock Infinite. It is a story about a violent man, and about the violence within society. It's a story about extreme beauty, and extreme ugliness. It's also saying a lot about video games, and as it delivers its story and themes, it does it through patterns and behavioural codes that we all understand. The violence isn't only justified by character, story or themes. It's justified by the language of game mechanics that the game is using.
The designer of Bulletstorm questions the ambiguity of the game's opening and the damaging effect of littering the environment with too many shiny things to pick up.
When I reach the second floor of the lighthouse, I am supposed to have a moment there. A moment of shock, I assume. A tortured man, apparently dead, is sitting in a chair. But my first thought is…
Because when you enter the room with the corpse, two big shiny coins are winking at you from the nearby table. The table right next to the corpse.
Booker DeWitt and the case of the young white lady leels: a Bioshock Infinite review – Courtney Stanton
An opprobrious response to the game's depiction of race and racial struggle, as well as other elements of narrative and structure.
When your super-liminally racist society ends up being destroyed by the only black characters in the game, who are depicted as violent, white-people-hating, child-murdering savages, you're just confirming the racist white people's ideas about black people and presenting them as true.
Centering a story about people of colour fighting against racist oppression on a white person and making that white person the agent of the fight's success is racist. Showing people of colour as needing a white person on their side in order to win is racist.
Bioshock Infinite and the terrible case for banning all white people from games journalism – Jeff Kunzler
An incendiary diatribe attacking games writers for failing to address the game's 'abhorrent' racial politics and wishing instead for a non-violent, immersive experience. Kunzler isn't messing around here.
As white people, it's quite gross, utterly disgusting, to write fancy, long-form "articles" about how BioShock Infinite should have been a non-violent spectacle, how the guns are the problem, how much we want to "explore" and be "immersed" in Columbia. It really is a white people thing, to just really, utterly lack any sort of decency when it comes to America's racist history and creative interpretations and/or acknowledgements of it. You don't, well, you just don't sit there and rally against the violence against an establishment like Columbia. It's demented, it's sick, and it's really not okay.
The veteran games writer and Marvel scribe considers the (for him) intended artificiality of the setting, the ramifications of the Vox Populi revolt and the central relationship between Elizabeth and Booker.
It's not really about Columbia. Because for all the splendour of the city above the hills, it's a backdrop to the story of a man and his daughter. Columbia is both the setting and the ultimate threat to be averted at all costs. Not that Columbia doesn't try its hardest to be the star. As a game whose setting can be summarised as "The 1893 Chicago world fair takes off and becomes an American Exceptionalism Death Star." it shouldn't even have to try that hard. Still, she tries, but she fails. And that "she" feels important – I couldn't help note that rather than the conceptually named Rapture, this city is called the name of the goddess of America. Columbia is literally the other woman.
The question presented here is whether Infinite is a smart game for attempting to tackle themes of race, history and morality, or whether it's stupid for simplifying hugely complex sociopolitical concepts. Golding favours the latter interpretation.
In taking the game seriously, I want to be as clear as possible: BioShock Infinite uses racism for no other reason than to make itself seem clever. Worse, it uses racism and real events in an incredibly superficial way—BioShock Infinite seeks not to make any meaningful statement about history or racism or America, but instead seeks to use an aesthetics of 'racism' and 'history' as a barrier to point to and claim importance. BioShock Infinite presents a veneer of intelligence—with wholly unexplored and mystifying asides to complicated concepts like Manifest Destiny and the New Eden—without ever following through. Without any deeper exploration of these ideas, BioShock Infinite's use of American history and the Columbian Exposition is illusory, and already puts the lie to the claim that by engaging with these themes, BioShock Infinite is the place to find substance in mainstream videogames.
This is an interesting sort of companion piece to Gillen's, addressing the artifice of the world, but this time seeing in it a failure to convey meaning beyond the artfully constructed tableaus of misery.
The spectre of Lady Comstock has loomed over us for this entire game, in legend and in portraiture, but we have no intimacy with her cartoonish corpse before we are literally chasing a spectre. This is not a game about American exceptionalism and the choice between obedient prison and chaotic freedom. This is a game where you have to chase a ghost among parallel realities. This is a game that lives in its own alternate universe, is in love with its own cleverness, instead of being genuinely clever. There are tears everywhere. And in the game.
The Levine-led Irrational team has birthed a universe, now, of games about a dominant idealogue enforcing a slavish devotion to fearful systems, even after those systems have become irrelevant. It gives us worlds plunged into the stress of compartmentalized factions where teams don't communicate, where promises are grand and lovely, but terrible on execution.
Another take on the issue of violence, this time closely referencing the first BioShock title and drawing comparisons and distinctions between the two titles – especially in how they represent the 'reality' of their societies.
Whereas in the original Bioshock you at least had the comfort of knowing the people you were killing have gone insane from splicing their genes so they can shoot fire and electricity out of their hands, in this game the only reason these people are hostile toward you is because you've been harolded a heretic, and later because you are mistaken for a ghost. Seriously. At times you'll question how superstitious those who live on the backs of zeppelins really can be, however they seem to think that shooting live crows from your hands by drinking a bottle is passé, as a collective sigh can be heard from the citizens. Early in the game you'll be in a Columbian exposition of sorts (World's Faire plays a big role in the aesthetic of the game), and more people will be gathered in awe over an electric horse than to see a man who can alter the physical properties of his hand to produce electricity by drinking snake oil.
The Gears of War designer performs a fascinating post-mortem on the game from the perspective of another purveyor of digital violence. Bleszinski questions the mechanics and the depictions of race and gender but declares the game, "a true classic for the ages".
With all of the discussion of misogyny in the industry lately, from sexual harassment, to "if you cosplay then you ask for it" mentality to the Tropes Vs. Women question of "Why's it always the damsel in distress?" I'm dying to know what the women of the industry think of the depiction of Elizabeth. I actually wanted to see her "tear things up" in another way more often. (There's that Whedon fanboy coming out in me again.) I was hoping for a moment similar to the end of Lunar. (High five if you get the reference.)
Still, the moment when the Songbird snagged her away from me, or when we were cowered behind the desk together, or when she put my hand on her throat and asked me to finish her if she was going to have to go back…I was moved. During the (incredible) ending I had chills. This is the mother of all videogame endings, the new standard by which all will be judged. This is some Looper, Memento, Source Code, Moon, Usual Suspects, Fight Club, M. Night Shyamalamadingdong stuff. Next level work that can only be brought to you by a talented team and one defiant visionary.
Intriguing stuff then – and the beauty of it is, all of these responses, however contradictory, are valid. Whatever faultlines run through it, Ken Levine's multiverse is one of interpretation as well as existence. Recently, I got into a Twitter conversation with developer and digital music producer Andy Kisaragi; I complained a little about how certain developers and script writers believe that obfuscation equals depth – that by making a narrative ambiguous, you are allowing readers to interpret and therefore elevating the experience to something more profound.
It feels like a cheat; like profundity through the back door. Dot-to-dot depth. But Kisaragi made the great point that in games, it's best to think of obfuscation as part of the "ludology", the gameplay, rather than the narrative or setting. Ambiguity is a game device because as much as being able to choose left or right on a joypad, it allows gamers to invest in and interact with the onscreen action. Uncertainty is a playful state – even in linear media: it says to viewers, you must now involve yourself in this universe. And really, BioShock Infinite is about the perception rather than the reality of possibilities.
Into these gaps of politics, meaning and representation come critical anger and discussion, and also intrigue. The best games are the ones that invite gamers to become critics of the environment, the narrative and the intent. BioShock Infinite has done that. Sure it loves telegraphing its own highly self-conscious "difference", but even that is a brave thing for a multi-million dollar title to do.
In many ways, BioShock Infinite is a horror fiction. It explores fear, dread and visceral violence – and everything else, from racial politics to gender representation, is subsumed into that vortex. Comstock is Kurtz stranded at the edge of civilisation, with Booker as his foil and equal, Marlow. And what they whisper at the close isn't "what have we done?", it's simply "the horror, the horror".
Final note: if you played the game from Elizabeth's perspective, it would be Portal 2, with Comstock as Glados and Booker as Wheatley. This is what I said to Christian Donlan, Simon Parkin and Will Porter on Friday. They looked at me as though I were mad. Sometimes you can go too far with this sort of thing
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