Recently, BioShock Infinite, the current darling of the gaming community (and my favorite game of all time), has come under fire for being excessively violent. It’s not an isolated complaint: Kotaku, Polygon, and the Penny Arcade Report have all criticized the intense violence within the game.
I’m not going to be a dick and suggest that these outlets are criticizing the game to mine pageviews in the wake of the near universal praise of the game (criticizing something the internet loves in a well known location will grant one many many pageviews, after all), because I have far too much respect for the people making this points to do such a thing. I will, however, not only suggest but assert and argue that these criticisms are in fact missing a critical point of the game.
It should go without saying, but there will be massive spoilers for the end of BioShock Infinite in this post. Read at your own peril.
I’m far from one to crave violence in my video games – in fact, most of my favorites are relatively non-violent. It’s not that I find violence appalling, or that I prefer non-violence: it’s just that violence is not a factor in why I love games that I love. For some, violence can be a factor, however, and I am always disappointed when a game turns people off due to its violent content. That said, violence with merit is something that we should not shy away from simply due to the violence stigma. And the violence in BioShock Infinite is absolutely merited, given one of the core themes on the game: redemption and forgiveness.
As the ending of the game reveals, Comstock is a version of Booker DeWitt, the player character and protagonist, who accepted a baptism following the gruesome Battle of Wounded Knee (NOT a Skyrim reference, but an actual battle) and, awed by the forgiveness his God had shown him, experienced a complete and total religious conversion, becoming the charismatic religious leader we had seen throughout the game. A key component of this transformation is Booker’s awe that, in spite of his awful and abhorrent acts at Wounded Knee, he was forgiven by God for them. Additionally, throughout the game itself – particularly during the Hall of Heroes’ Wounded Knee segment, Elizabeth and Booker talk about how they can live with the things they do. As the player indiscriminately mows down wave after wave of enemies, the protagonists are pondering how they can just accept their actions and go on. Booker doesn’t have a satisfactory answer for Elizabeth, and so they leave it hanging in the air, for the player to arrive at their own conclusions.
The violence of the game is not unnecessary. It’s a critical component of the character arc and themes being so wonderfully displayed before your eyes. The game has you perform these violent acts with such rapidity and frequency that you can never really fully process it: you are constantly assaulted by visceral mutilation and gunshot effects (most of which are regrettably not even close to accurate) that just as you begin to come to terms with the fact that you killed a man by repeatedly spinning a rotating hook into his neck, you have to do it again. You have to grin and bear it, and it begins to take a toll on you eventually. And then Booker and Elizabeth start talking about how you can live with yourself after doing such horrible things. That’s the point, and it makes the twist at the end – that Booker’s ultimate forgiveness led him to become Comstock, so awed was he that he could be forgiven for that – far more poignant. This is one of Levine’s points: people followed Comstock because that desire for forgiveness, and the feeling of finally being forgiven, is so powerful that they will follow whoever can give it to them.
The fact that people are then complaining about the level of violence in the game then points to two possible issues, both of which concern me. The first is that people are not actively thinking about the games they are playing while they play them. I don’t want to think this is the case: the people doing the complaining are gaming journalists. If even they can’t be counted upon to think about the acts they are committing as they play and reflect on the game as a whole, rather than separating the violence from the chatter that Booker and Elizabeth have during the lulls between combat. The game is a whole artistic unit, and we shouldn’t be separating these facets of the game, because it stifles reflection and can eliminate points being made. This forgiveness angle was a massive one when I played the game: why did others miss this?
The second is that people are concerned about non-gamers or people who are significantly opposed to violence being turned off. That’s a valid concern: BioShock Infinite is going to turn some people off because of its violence. But we should NOT compromise artistic integrity out of accessibility concerns. We should NOT tone down meaningful violence, violence that is so visceral because it needs to harrow the player in order to make the forgiveness angle more powerful, because we are concerned it may turn some people off. We should not dilute the experience so more people can have it. The purpose of art is to effect emotional reactions, positive or negative. If people are turned off by the violence, that’s a strong reaction of revulsion. Art. If people are instead treated to a really toned down version with a weakened theme, then the art is weakened as a whole.
I am all for having games that can introduce new people to gaming (my go-to game for that right now is Portal) – as Kotaku calls it, “That Game” that we can show to our friends – but not if having That Game comes at the expense of a lesser experience.
BioShock Infinite‘s violence is necessary. Players are constantly asked to think about what they’re doing, to ask themselves if they can just accept it or if they crave forgiveness. If the violence wasn’t visceral, if it didn’t make people uncomfortable, it wouldn’t work. And if we start to tone down artistic decisions such as this in the name of accessibility and being unoffensive, how can we say that gaming is an art form? That’s not what art does. That’s what a business does.
And gaming is an art, not a commodity.