The Undercurrent of Domestic Violence in Bioshock InfiniteS

"I'm sorry. I never should have left. I never should have left. Take me back. Take me back. Take me home... please."

The girl is crying as she says it. The tears remind me of what she said earlier, when we were alone, her hand against her face, smiling sadly: "Promise if it comes to it, you will not let him take me back," as she speaks she pulls my hand down to wrap it around her throat.

"It will not come to that," I promise.

But then it does.

Bioshock Infinite is many things. It is a game the further blends action, role-playing and storytelling, delivering a title that looks to surpass the brilliance of the original Bioshock.

It's a game about the disparate beliefs of nationalism and Marxism and what happens when the people who live by those views take things too far.

But for me the most striking thing about Bioshock Infinite is that it is a game about an abusive relationship. Elizabeth, the young woman who I've disappointed on a recent partial play-through, is introduced as the metaphorical princess in the very real tower. She is presented at first as the objective of the game, your damsel in distress waiting to be saved.

Elizabeth isn't a prop or a power, she's a companion who, from the glimpses I've seen of the game, has more say in what happens and why than the former Pinkerton agent you play in the game.

Ken Levine, the head of the team behind Bioshock, starts off our look at Infinite with a preamble.

Where Bioshock was an examination of a city in ruin, Bioshock Infinite is meant to be a journey through a city on the cusp of ruination.

"She has weird, complicated feelings about Songbird," Levine says. "He is programmed to protect her, but he is like an abusive ex-husband."

"With Infinite we wanted to give you a taste of being in a city in the process of tearing itself apart," he says to the hushed, darkened room of reporters. "You're a big part of that, a catalyst for the simmering conflict between the Founders, who are ultra-patriotic, nativist, America-first, and the Vox Populi, an internationalist, anti-capitalist, Karl Marxian group formed as a response to the excesses of the city."

The city too is its own character. Columbia is meant to be the ultimate expression of the Jeffersonian American ideal. A Shining City Above the Hill, watched by the people, touring the country. But one day it simply vanishes.

Enter Booker Dewitt, a former Pinkerton man drummed out of the agency for being too rough. Buried in debt, Dewitt is hired to find Elizabeth, who has been held in a tower in Columbia since childhood, and return her to New York City.

Her jailor and only friend is the monstrous Songbird, a menacing cross between steampunk machine, parakeet and, as Levine later describes it, an abusive ex-husband.

It is that relationship between captor and captive, the flight from Songbird, that informs the story in way that the bloodshed of warring political ideals never could. This is the sort of deft storytelling that we've come to expect from Levine.

Our look at one section of the game last week begins about a third of the way through Infinite, we're told.

And there is so much to see.

The preview opens in a novelty story packed with silly souvenirs and knickknacks. There are teddy bears, giant wearable Abe Lincoln heads, busts of George Washington. Everything seeps red, white and blue. But the store is abandoned; the only sign of life is a makeshift bed between counters.

As Dewitt we forage for inventory, like cash, a weapon, ammo, "vigors" (potions). Nearby, Elizabeth, maybe eighteen, acts like a kid in a candy store. She picks up toys and plays with the Lincoln head. Then the wind starts to blow and the building rocks under blows. Elizabeth screams and scampers to a hiding place beside a counter.

As we crouch near a counter, a light begins to shine through the cracks in the shuttered windows. The light passes over the counter, a shade of light green and then freezes and turns yellow. Wide-eyed, Elizabeth covers her mouth with both hands.


When the light passes, and the wind dies, Elizabeth grabs Dewitt's hand and forces that awful promise from him, his hand to her throat.

Later, Levine demonstrates how Elizabeth is something more than a moving goal in the game. She has power, the ability to pull objects through "tears" in the fabric of Columbia's reality. Elizabeth is fully realized: she has her own morals, her own take on things and her own plans.

Her powers and personality gives Elizabeth a really active role in combat, Levine tells us.

"At no point do you have to protect her," he said. "We really wanted Elizabeth to be an important part of your combat strategy."

Your run from Songbird through the politically complex, warring landscape of Columbia is complicated by Elizabeth's own feelings for the creature.

"She has weird, complicated feelings about Songbird," Levine said. "He is programmed to protect her, but he is like an abusive ex-husband."

No where is that more evident than in how our demo of the game wraps up.

Hiding in a domed building, Songbird tears through the roof with its beak. Reaching in, his muscled hand grabs you, but before you can be torn to shreds, Elizabeth steps in.

"Stop it, don't hurt him. I'm sorry. I never should have left. I never should have left. Take me back."

Her words seem to sooth Songbird: his glowing red eye turns green.

"Take me back, Take me home please. Please."

Crying now, Elizabeth resigns herself to Songbird's grasp. Her sad eyes follow you as the creature flies from the building and the scene fades to black.

Levine describes that final scene as the "angry ex-husband showing up."

"She was Rapunzel sitting in this tower with her books and Songbird," Levine said. "But then she realizes that all she wants to do is control her destiny."

"This is a story of two people going through the worst times of their lives together and forging a relationship," Levine says.

Bioshock Infinite, due out next year, appears to be packed with action and moments of decision that shape the game world around you. There are amazing new ways to play that have you pulling objects through time and space and zipping around the city dangling from your arm on "sky lines". It seems to deliver a sense of place that gives context to your actions and a politically-charged narrative backdrop that adds a level of complexity to everything you do.

But it's that sad, poetic flight from a Songbird, a metaphor for domestic violence, that rises above the rest, promising a gaming experience that I hope will be as provocative as it is entertaining.

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