The violence depicted in Bioshock Infinite serves a number of very important purposes. As I’m about to argue, it’s a crucial element to the narrative, the world, the characters and the themes which Bioshock addresses. Pointing to this is the fact that the game itself is fully aware of its own brutality, and is constantly acknowledging and communicating this directly to the player in a number of ways. I’ll try to break down how this is handled with regards to each part of the experience.
About two weeks ago, Kirk Hamilton posted a piece on Kotaku arguing that Bioshock Infinite is riddled with unnecessary violence, including comments from game developers and respected figures within the industry voicing their concerns on the issue. You can read it here: http://kotaku.com/bioshock-infinite-is-insanely-ridiculously-violent-it-470524003
And I think you should read it in order to have a better understanding of the things I want to discuss in this article. I also suggest that you finish the game before continuing, because in order to get a complete grasp on why the current level of violence is necessary, we will need to venture far into spoiler territory. So go ahead and do those things first.
*MASSIVE BIOSHOCK INFINITE SPOILERS BELOW*
The violence is important to define Columbia
The same way Bioshock worked as a study in objectivism, Infinite draws many parallels to American conservatism, and ideas from the uglier parts of American history taken to a fantastical extreme. Columbia is an amazing achievement, a vision, built on top of those flawed ideas. You are almost struck into a daze from the moment you step out into the streets – An entire city made up of huge floating islands in a clear blue sky, covered in beautiful monuments and architecture, brimming with life and culture.
Then you get to the raffle.
You win the competition at an annual event, and your prize is to initiate the lynching of an interracial couple to the cheer of an enthusiastic crowd. This is where you should get the first gut reaction and question exactly what kind of world you’ve entered. However you respond to this situation, you get discovered as the “False Shepard”, and the brutal scene mentioned in the Kotaku Article takes place.
It’s only in the stark contrast between the beautiful setting and the brutality carried out in its name that you are truly introduced to Columbia. You’re supposed to cringe. You’re supposed to react to how this world of wonder and magic contains the most and vile senseless killing and abuse, lacking any real motive or thought. It’s supposed to pull you out of your amazement to show you the brutal foundation and dirty underbelly that this vision is built on.
Zachary Comstocks teachings of honor, purity and forgiveness is nothing more than religious fanaticism that justifies the horrible and inhumane values necessary to literally keep his world afloat.
This fanaticism is further proven about 20 minutes later while moving towards Monument Island, and an entire legion of Peace Keepers blindly turn their back on you with a single utterance from Comstock.
There’s even an entire section dedicated to praising John Wilkes Booth as the killer of Abraham Lincoln, built by what can only be described as Columbias answer to the KKK.
Hence, the violence is necessary in order to characterize the world, how it came to be, and the nature of its inhabitants.
The violence is necessary to depict the story of the world
Following the raffle scene, the true nature of Columbia is clear to us, and it rears its ugly head prominently throughout the rest of the game. As we search for Elizabeth in Battleship Bay we hear casual conversations of how the underclass is stupid, lazy and riddled with disease. In the station, we walk through the dirty, busted, bug infested “coloreds and irish” restrooms.
In Finkton and the shanty where the workers live, we see and hear about the awful conditions people are toiling under the sun with hardly so much as bread for the day. By the time Booker arrives to Columbia, the tension between the upper- and underclass has reached a boiling point, and a strong resistance has taken shape as the “Vox Populi” under the leadership of Daisy Fitzroy.
As Daisy get her hands on enough weapons, the resistance ultimately leads to a revolution against the upper class (The Founders). And, while their motives are clearly justified, the ensuing massacre surely is not. Every citizen is rounded up and executed, Founders slain have their scalps flayed and collected as trophies in the ongoing path to justice; You can hear the rebels laughing as they kill, maim and rip people apart.
Just as Comstock has used religion to justify his atrocities, Fitzroy is using her people’s oppression to justify her own. As Comstock was baptized in the church and found nobility in his actions, Fitzroy baptizes herself in the blood of her oppressors (Fink) and finds nothing less than a total annihilation of every founder to be enough.
This conflict is necessary for the overall theme of violence and sin begetting violence and sin, and how looking away from your misdeeds can only lead to further suffering and bloodshed.
Hence, the violence of Bioshock Infinite is necessary for the story of the world.
The violence is necessary to define the characters
You enter the world with very limited knowledge. It’s a first person game, and you are playing a character with a voice and a name. You have only the haziest of motives and direction when you first start; Your name is Booker Dewitt, and you need to bring back a girl to wipe away some kind of debt.
You are experiencing Columbia for the first time together with Booker, and it’s made pretty clear early on that he has some sort of connection to this world, but you still have very little information on the person whose body you are supposed to be occupying. What you know is that Booker has gotten in bed with some bad people and that he’s desperate to get out. However, you learn fairly quickly that Booker is a bad guy. He has committed heinous acts; killed, oppressed and abused people en masse. So much that he’s become rather apathetic towards it. He acknowledges that he’s a monster, but he seems to have given up hope on that ever changing.
You get the first glimpse of this at the raffle. His first instinct when cornered is to brutally rend a man’s face off, take his weapon and tear the throat out of another. His bloody past has made him immune to gore, and while the player is shocked, he goes through the motions without so much as a remark.
Once you’ve met Elizabeth, the game acknowledges the brutality of the execution moves by having her react in shock and disgust whenever you initiate them. And in combat, every headshot, execution, and sometimes just the firing of your weapon, is punctuated by percussion and screeching orchestra, to highlight the gruesomeness of the act.
Elizabeth has some important relationships to the violence as well. At first, she is frightened by how easy it is for Booker to kill people, but eventually accepts the killing as necessary for the two of them to escape. Later, she herself kills Fitzroy in order to save Fink’s son, accepting killing as necessary to protect others. Eventually, Elizabeth wants to murder her own father in vengeance for what he has done to her, accepting killing for justice rather than necessity. Elizabeth’s final act is to eliminate every reality related to her own, from ever having existed.
As with the Vox Populi and the Founders, Booker is using his own survival, the protection of Elizabeth/Anna and his status as a neutral party, as justification for the death, destruction and general havoc he is causing; Something Comstock even calls him out on this before Booker kills him.
Hence, the violence is necessary in order to define the characters in Bioshock Infinite.
The violence is necessary for the gameplay
And no, I don’t mean because it’s “cool” to rip someone’s throat out. Say what you will about the combat mechanics or the frequency of battles, but Booker is not your typical hero. This needs to be communicated to the player in some way.
While making your way across Columbia, each area represents different aspects this worlds ideals. The hall of heroes is a glorified tribute to Comstocks horrible actions at the battle of wounded knee. Later we go through Finktons industrial zones and shanty-towns and see the horrible conditions of the underclass. We’re supposed to marvel in disgust at the madness of Comstock and his creation, yet these sins are shared with the player character. Each area is a reflection of Bookers past, and he’s metaphorically reliving those experiences by slaughtering hundreds in his path, believing it necessary in order to stop the evil Comstock, who is really himself.
If we go back to the raffle again, just after you see what would be a lynching of a slave and her lover, the very first upgrade you are offered is the ability to magically force people into fighting on your side.
At the final battle against the Vox, you have essentially taken the place of Comstock, and you are using his weapon, Songbird, to fight against airship after airship of Vox soldiers.
There’s a rule of thumb in film that says: Don’t tell, show. Well, as far as gaming goes, it can be translated to: Don’t show, play.
Bookers story is told just as much through references in the world and dialogue as it is in the hands of the player. The actions Infinite has the player do throughout the game reflect Bookers true personality very well, while at the same time leaving room for the player to experience Bookers arc towards acceptance of his sins.
Hence, the violence is necessary for the gameplay.
Reading about the negative reactions to the violence saddens me, because there’s so much to be gained by looking at the decision to have this level of brutality presented within the game. To ask for Bioshock Infinite to tone it down is like covering your eyes to what it is trying to tell you. I’ve seen the argument that there’s a dissonance between the visuals and the gore, but why can’t something beautiful also be violent in a meaningful way? Is it inconceivable that something that’s brutal can take place in a beautiful setting? To ask for Bioshock to tone down the violence is falling for Comstocks teachings, and only seeing the vision without considering the methods of achieving it.