Podcast: Play in new window
This week’s episode is partially about entertainment news, but mostly about tearing the heads off of police officers in Bioshock Infinite. We talk for a long time about how the excessive violence impacts the story. For me it’s an issue that began way back in Grand Theft Auto IV, when the series switched over from being a fun, tongue-in-cheek romp to trying to tell a real story about a character with actual definition. That narrative failed for a lot of reasons, but a big one for me was that Nico was constantly lamenting the fact that, although he had left his old violent ways behind, he kept getting sucked back into that world when he really just wanted to settle down and live the American Dream. Which is a noble goal, but a difficult one to reconcile after you just had him murder forty policemen and countless innocent bystanders on his way to play darts with his idiot cousin.
It’s easy to ignore all the murder when your game is supposed to be a popcorn adventure like Uncharted or Saints Row, but this becomes more difficult when you’re trying to say something. Killing a bunch of people in The Rock or Con Air has very little impact and is easy to brush over, because those films are meant to be fun and mindless. Killing people in A History of Violence or Eastern Promises has an impact on the main character and is a considered narrative choice. Bioshock Infinite is most definitely trying to say something, something that’s dependent on both of its main characters and their relationship on a lot of different levels. The fact that one of these characters is literally covered in the caked-on blood and viscera of hundreds of people who have died by his hand by the end of the game, and that his companion doesn’t seem to mind all that much, is very difficult to ignore.
Which isn’t to say it’s impossible to ignore, especially when you’re used to it from playing countless video games. I really enjoyed Infinite’s story. It’s one of the best video game narratives I’ve ever played, not that there’s a big list of decent game stories I can reel off right here and now. In fact, the story often outshines the gameplay – as we discuss in the podcast there were moments in the final hours where I didn’t want another monotonous gunfight, I just wanted to get to the next plot point. The resolution is wonderful, sci-fi in all the right ways while also grim and thought-provoking. And yet I couldn’t help but think that if the whole thing were told as a two hour movie with 1/100 of the murder it would have been even better. Violence is a necessary part of the story, but when you kill as many people as Booker does, it becomes so commonplace as to not even be an issue. Better to isolate it to a few incidents and talk about it.
There’s a moment in the opening hour of Infinite when Booker, after walking peacefully through Columbia for a bit, brutally murders his first police officer. The violence is so sudden, so brutal, and so unexpected, that it made me jump up and take notice. The juxtaposition was jarring, but in a really good way, a way that the game could have really taken advantage of. Then it happens again and again and again and that sudden, shocking violence is now commonplace and meaningless. Yes, it means something that Booker kills again after his experiences at Wounded Knee. But the question we’ve got to ask here is “Would it have meant more or less if he’d only done it three times as opposed to three hundred?” I think it would have meant more. The violence is then a shock, an issue, to both the player and to Booker.
But, of course, you can’t do that in a video game. You can’t tell a succinct story in two hours because no one’s going to buy a two hour game. And you can’t omit the violence and the shooting, because it’s a first-person shooter – you’ve got to have large-scale battles every five to ten minutes. These are huge obstacles to overcome in serious AAA video game storytelling. “You can tell whatever story you want, but make sure your main character kills as many people/aliens/robots as possible in it.” The fact that Infinite tried and succeeded despite those shackles is notable, but that doesn’t mean the shackles aren’t there.
I’m not against violence in art and I don’t want to play through Infinite by sneaking past all the guards and not killing anyone (and an army of robots, despite my podcast musings, probably wouldn’t work either). All I’m saying, as a writer, is that the level of violence in Infinite gets in the way of the narrative. The story’s still great, the game’s still great, and I enjoyed pretty much all of it. But Booker’s story is hampered by the fact that a defining and gruesome trait of his character must be ignored (by both the game and the player) in order for it all to work properly. It hurts the game. Only a little, but it does. So mad props to Ken Levine and the Infinite team for crafting a story so good that I almost don’t care. Almost.