BioShock Infinite: Hyperviolence, smart storytelling, and parallelism

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(No spoilers until the very end! With ample warning.)

The months leading up to a video game’s release often serve to accomplish one goal: increase interest, which improves sales.

Most of the gaming world was excited about BioShock Infinite, which launched on consoles and PC on March 26. Many were happy to have another BioShock to play; others were thrilled to see developer Irrational Games return to the first-person adventure series it started in 2007 and pioneered years before with System Shock.

The wait was worth it. BioShock Infinite has a 95 aggregate score on Metacritic, and people can’t stop talking about it.

Countless articles have been written now about the game’s mysteries and ending. As designer Adrian Chmielarz noted, “The question of whether Infinite is good or bad is not the point. The point is that Infinite has ignited a discussion on game design like no other game before. Bad games are unable to do that. Bad games are bad games, and we lash out at them and forget about them the next day.”

That’s not a perfect statement — we’re still having trouble forgetting the abomination Aliens: Colonial Marines. We tend to remember the really bad games, especially when they’re big. The E.T. Atari game is a part of history.

But I agree with Chmielarz because of my own reaction to Infinite. If the months before a game launches are all about gaining momentum, then the days after are when the air fizzles out of the balloon. The more you read, the less hyped you get — and the more jaded you become.

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Infinite didn’t disappoint me. Far from it. It is a game rich in storytelling, with a companion to the protagonist who’s not only one of the best A.I. partners in a video game but also one of the most excellently written female characters, with an amazing range of emotions. She’s smart and capable, and never once is she a damsel for you to worry about. I’d argue that the story is as much Elizabeth’s as it is Booker DeWitt’s.

Those beliefs are shared among many other gamers — they’re not uniquely my own. Of course, I disagree with a lot of other assessments: that the violence in Infinite is too extreme, that it’s one of the finest (and only) examinations of racism in games. That if Roger Ebert had lived long enough to play it, it would have changed his mind about games as art.

To me, BioShock Infinite doesn’t do anything that other games haven’t before; it just does them better in some cases. I don’t find it bloodier or more disconcerting than other games. The navigational aid is actually pretty buggy (how are you supposed to find your way around without it when you don’t have a map?). And big issues like racism aren’t a terribly big focus.

I don’t hold its atmosphere or story in any higher regard than I do the original BioShock, which I love, although the ending is much better and so is the dialogue between characters.

However, I concur with my peer Rus McLaughlin at GamesBeat when he says that Infinite‘s violence works to create a contrast in the narrative. Alone, it’s no more staggering than what you’d find in some of the most revered movies, like The Godfather or The Return of the King. But he writes, “Its violence makes you feel violence is wrong, and the story doesn’t just reinforce that idea … you’re forced to confront it.”

What I admire most about Infinite, though, is its parallelism — both within the game and outside it. This is where I make a big fuss over spoilers, so read on at your own risk.

SPOILERS. SPOILERS. SPOILERS.

Spoilers.

I think it’s beautiful that Infinite is essentially a parallel of the original BioShock. Songbird and Elizabeth share the same relationship that the Big Daddies and Little Sisters do. Vigors are basically plasmids. Comstock is a figure much like Andrew Ryan.

Even its messages are similar. My favorite part of BioShock was the big discovery — the meaning behind a certain three words. And Ryan said, “A man chooses; a slave obeys.” That was a powerful moment for me.

Is that not the same symbolism as a bird and a cage — of a girl trapped in a tower, of a man trapped by his memory and mistakes? What is choice when you’re morally pulled into tears — compelled to create more rips in reality — and the world gets progressively worse because of your actions, until it all ends in your own destruction and that of everything around you?

What is choice when to wash away sins you must first spill more blood?

In ways, I think Infinite‘s story is more effective because it’s resonating so strongly with so many people. But I think I’ll always enjoy the original’s more. If violence becomes more powerful and exaggerated through a first-person view, then so does identity. Booker is not me; he’s not you. A disconnect exists where it doesn’t in BioShock, where the character whose eyes I looked through, whose hands I controlled, didn’t talk back. He was more me than Booker will ever be.

That makes the journey — and its implications — a little more personal.

What’s your take on the game? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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