Okay, it's time to talk about it. About what, you ask? About how totally bananas the violence in BioShock Infinite is.
The beginning of this game is astonishing. Flat-out. It's one of the most effective, intoxicating game-introductions I've seen in recent memory.
So let's to do an exercise. Let's imagine watching the opening of the game as if we'd never played a video game before.
For this exercise, you're not a person who plays games. You're just some person. You like movies and TV, you like stories, and you're interested in seeing what this game is all about. Maybe you heard about it on NPR, or saw a big story in the New York Times. It got you curious.
You fire up the game.
Opening scene: You're on a boat, in the rain.
The people on the boat are speaking in riddles, and you're already intrigued.
You enter a lighthouse.
It's all religious portent...
...reflections in the holy water...
...Dang this is cool. You come upon a guy who has been tied to a chair and shot.
Okay, kind of bloody... the blood on the floor seems a bit over the top... but hey, alright. Dude is dead. Moving right along. You ring some bells at the top of the tower, Close Encounters-style, and crazy red light fills the clouds.
Then you climb aboard a rocket ship:
and launch into the clouds, where you see this:
accompanied by what is just the most haunting, lovely piano theme. You go through a place that looks like this:
And it's all so beautiful and mysterious, and then you come into the city and it looks like this:
And at this point you're pretty much like:
And you can just walk around drinking it in, and you're eating all kinds of candy and hot dogs and there's this amazing carnival tutorial section where you can launch magic at a hidden devil and there are posters, so many posters, posters everywhere, you read them all and see all these names and brands and colors, and you keep having to just sort of stop and stare, and there are flowers everywhere, and a woman offers to sell you a flower to stick in your lapel and then there's this huge robot dude standing there and oh my god it's a barbershop quartet singing the Beach Boys and whaaat...
...I mean you're probably in full-on overwhelm here, you've got mysterious twins offering you weird choices, a telegram with a weirder prediction, and a sign telling people that there's a "false shepherd"...
...with a mark on his hand that matches the mark on your hand and there's just so much and it's all so cool and then you go to the raffle and suddenly oh wow, they're asking you to throw a baseball at an interracial couple, which is, dang, that is loaded imagery...
...but okay, you choose to try to throw the baseball at the announcer instead, the jerk, and then you get grabbed, and tussle with two cops, and then…
...well then, this happens:
You grab one police officer and RAM HIS FUCKING FACE INTO A SPINNING BLADE and like, BLOOD AND SKULL-CHUNKS BLOW EVERYWHERE and WOW what in the world and then everyone starts shooting and then this happens:
...what the shit just…
...Okay, okay. Let's come back to reality, stop pretending we've never played a video game, or that we weren't expecting this. But it was a worthwhile exercise. Here's why:
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.
Plenty of others are voicing similar thoughts. Over at Polygon, Chris Plante has written a smart op-ed about how Infinite's violence limits its audience, including his wife:
Levine has been outspoken about his ambition to please both the meathead and the brainiac since the release of the original BioShock. But what about my wife? What about the people who can stomach only so much aggressive violence and unchecked cruelty? Defenders of the game's violence have compared BioShock Infinite to Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, which melded together the cerebral indie aesthetic and the mind-numbing blockbuster spectacle. But every comic lover knows the difference between Booker DeWitt and Batman. Batman doesn't kill people.
I tend to look for games that I could show to my sister, and have a similar feeling to Plante about Infinite. I wish I could show her this game, but after about the hour-mark, I'd lose her attention. She'd see the absolutely insane violence of the melee kills and say "Well, this is dumb," and get up to go do something else.
Over at his personal blog, former Epic design director (and Gears of War maestro) Cliff Bleszinski wrote a thoughtful post about the game, which he very much liked. In it, he mentions the violence:
So, the guy that brought you a chainsaw gun would now like to get on his soap box about violence. Have fun judging me.
This is one of the few games that I’ve loved that I felt the violence actually detracted from the experience. The first time I dug my skyhook into someone I actually winced. I love shocking people in these games (it’s not called BioShootBeesAtThem) and I found that nearly every foe I zapped to death had their heads explode, Gallagher style. After the 400th head I was like “come on, already!”
Funny, right? That I’d say that? I know, it’s weird. Maybe it’s the fact that they did such a fantastic job of making this nuanced world that hitting you over the head with those moments felt out of place for me.
When the guy whose game featured a reverse up-the-crotch chainsaw melee kill is telling you your game is too violent, it might be worth listening.
Over at Buzzfeed, writer Joseph Bernstein has voiced a similar complaint, pointing out how some of the game's most interesting storytelling moments are muddled, seeing as how they're told via ultraviolence (spoilers):
The penultimate stretch of the game involves coming to terms with the memory of a dead character. Again, it's an important story moment, one that calls out for a sensitive handling. Instead of solving a puzzle, or navigating dialog, or any of the ways that you might be expected to confront long-suppressed emotional pain, the ghost challenges you to three long and frustrating gunfights. Yes, you shoot a bazooka at childhood trauma. In most games, absurdities like this don't bother us, because we don't expect much from most games. In BioShock Infinite moments like these, when the demands of genre bleed into the narrative, we feel disappointed, even betrayed.
The guys at Penny Arcade point out the problem in their own way:
And on, and on. Yesterday, I wrote an analysis of Infinite's combat that took the violence as a given, and simply talked about why, in my opinion, the shooting doesn't work all that well. But even then, it's difficult to talk about the game's combat without talking about the elephant in the room: The fact that by simply existing, the violence harms the game.