We like to talk about video games. A lot. Sometimes we do it on camera, like on The Gameological Society's The Digest video series. But, even then we can't get all our thoughts and observations in. So we're kicking off a new feature called: Did You Notice? Think of it as a sort of commentary track to Kotaku's appearances on The Digest, where Gameological editor-in-chief John Teti and members of this very site will dig a little deeper into the details and elements that make a new video game sink or sing. So, hey, did you notice these things in… BioShock Infinite?
Evan Narcisse: So, John, we’ve already talked about some of the things that made a bigger impact when we played BioShock Infinite. But, I know that we both had other things that we noticed and wanted to call out. I'll start: when you first get to Finkton, all the non-player animations of the hard-working Columbians are all syncopated in rhythm. It immediately lets you know that you're in a place where human beings are there to become part of or serve a larger machinery. The syncopation was charming at first but then it got really creepy when one NPC turns to look at you, but his arms keep mechanically scrubbing or hammering or whatever he was doing. That moment takes that sequence from Looney Tunes to indentured servitude real quick and really drove home the idea that Columbia's beauty comes at terrible cost to some of the people that live there.
John: I didn’t notice this touch, but I love when visual programming loops like this lend an added poetry to a moment. When you hear a word repeated enough times, it tends to lose its ability to signify. Yet the kinetic equivalent—a “word” of motion—doesn’t behave the same way. When you see a certain motion repeated in a certain rhythm, it often takes on new meaning. It’s a phenomenon that has long been present in video games, but you’re seeing it applied to the pop culture at large in the rise of the GIF. My favorite instance of this is a mission in Mafia II where you walk in on a lame party at some thug’s seedy apartment. There’s a guy in the bathroom who simply hovers over the toilet and retches again and again. It struck me as both funny and sad that there was this virtual being whose sole job was to puke repeatedly—forever, in theory, if the player kept standing there. He also summed up my feelings about that game pretty well, but let’s get back to BioShock Infinite.
Hey, Evan, speaking of tiny, GIF-able movements, DID YOU NOTICE that the best motion-capture performance in the entire game belongs to the kid in the newsboy cap who hands you a telegram? I love this kid. Look at the way he winds up with his whole upper body before he jabs the paper at you. And he gives you a crisp, nonchalant salute when he dashes off. It’s playing off a familiar character type from the movies: The eager delivery kid/newspaper boy is essentially the American version of your typical English street urchin.
To get it right, the kid has to carry himself with a certain dutiful swagger. He has to impart the sense that sure, he’s chipper right now, but he also can’t wait to be done with you, because it’s a hardscrabble life and he needs to get back to it. Infinite manages to capture that whole sensibility in the span of a five-second performance. It’s awful swell of Booker to reward the kid with a nice tip—oh wait, Booker stiffs him. Because it’s not like Booker has HUNDREDS OF PIECES OF LOOSE CHANGE in his pockets.
Evan: You know, it’s funny that you mention the telegraph boy and the paradox of duty and swagger. Because looking back at that moment, he’s probably one of the most free and least liberated characters in Columbia all at the same time. Picture it: a grade-school kid darting in and out of Columbia’s districts with an urgent message for Booker DeWitt. He can go where he pleases as long as he gets that telegram to Booker. But if he doesn’t deliver that message, something really bad will probably happen to him. I can imagine that, in Columbia, you need to do the thing you need to do, or you’re screwed. If you can’t, then the consequences of living in a society where you don’t fulfill your function are dire. Those Duke & Dimwit movie reels imply as much.
The character of Slate is another example of this, but he’s someone who understands Columbia’s perversion of the social contract. He rants about machines taking the place of human soldiers but really he’s scared senseless about losing his status. Lack of status means living life as The Other and, from what we see of it in the fringes of Infinite’s sky city, it’s an awful existence. It’s a dead end, because the collective will to debunk the stereotypes plastered all over Columbia simply doesn’t exist. When you come across that interracial couple, nobody’s saying, “Hey, they might actually love each other.” When you’re fighting your way through the Hall of Heroes with caricatures of Native American and Chinese, no mention is made of their humanity or what they lost at Wounded Knee or during the Boxer Rebellion. They’re not allowed to have another dimension, another reality.
DID YOU NOTICE the code-switching moment that crystallizes this, John? There’s a black man scrubbing the floors at one point in the game and he’s talking to himself in high-faluting proper English. When the player comes across him, his dialogue changes to obsequious, Stephin Fetchit dialect. It stopped me cold in my tracks. When you consider the racist caricatures and this man’s performance of them, the game shows you what The Other looks like to Columbians and, then, how it's actually lived. The guy scrubbing floors may not actually be the stereotype—and may be smarter than anybody gives him credit for—but he’s still trapped.
John: That struck me as one of the game’s cheaper moments, actually. I cringed a little. It’s so on-the-nose. It’s as if I walked into BioShock Infinite’s living room and it was holding a copy of Invisible Man up in front of its face. “Oh, I didn’t see you there!” Infinite says. And then it puts the book down on the coffee table, with the title facing me. Subtle! What struck me is not so much that the guy took on the low-status dialect but that the game’s creators give him the patrician accent when “nobody’s looking” in an attempt to lend him some dignity. The trouble is, you can’t really take a shortcut to dignity like that. If you want the residents of Columbia’s lower echelons to have some depth, you have to put in the work and flesh them out. Instead, as you and I discussed in the video, Infinite takes a characteristically glancing approach. But since Infinite’s underclass end up as bit players in the game’s “everybody’s an asshole!” cavalcade of strawmen, the drama of this moment came off as unearned for me. If the context were different, I might be more moved.
Still, when I hear how you reacted, I’m inclined to give Infinite a bit more credit than I did before. And let’s not lose track of the fact that there are shreds—however scant—of genuine subversion in Infinite. Did you notice that this is a game where you’re told to murder George Washington? (I mean, of course you noticed. You have to kill Robot George Washington a number of times. I’m just trying to stick to the rubric here.) Infinite takes the present-day beatification of the Founding Fathers to its logical conclusion and forces us to face a striking truth: When you turn the Founders into infallible gods, you actually turn them into monsters. So here we have George Washington as a literal monster, and you, the hero, must pump him full of shotgun rounds. Preferably by sneaking up on him and shooting him in the back! If Irrational had dared to also show Washington’s sideboob, Fox News would have had a field day with this.
Did You Notice? is a recurring discussion series that will run when Kotaku writers appear on The Digest, The Gameological Society's talk show.