BioShock Infinite Wants to Be Deep and Philosophical, But It’s Just a Hail of Bullets

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April 4 2013 2:27 PM

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

BioShock Infinite wants to be deep and philosophical, but it’s just one big hail of bullets.

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As games have been drawn toward more explicitly philosophic reference material, they have tried to make do with classic gameplay concepts. In changing the frame of reference from deviant computer intelligences or comic book heroes to evangelical racism and labor organizers, Levine's mistrust of extremism begins to feel like sleight of hand. It’s fair to wonder if Levine creates moral equivalence between an oppressor and his victims as a sneaky way to fall back on the same old shoot-‘em-up model, covering over any inconsistencies with spectacle and production value. It would be possible to make a shooting game tied to the point of view of one side in a conflict, but Levine’s expectation that extreme commitment necessarily leads to corruption makes this structure impossible. His stories don’t commit to sides—they mistrust all parties, something that’s easiest to express by having everyone eventually turn on the protagonist.

It’s hard to think of another example where the ruling power and revolutionaries are as interchangeably evil as they are in Levine's work. There is an overabundance of revolutions where the struggle produces horrific acts of violence, from the Maoist attempts to overthrow the Nepalese monarchy to the ongoing civil war in Syria. Yet these instances also show the disproportionate pressure placed on the revolutionary cause that makes an individual moment of violent resistance a sin, while systemic violence of a ruling power is tolerable. It could be said the American colonists were being irrationally violent by refusing to pay taxes to the British and violently destroying property in protest, or that John Brown’s violent slave rebellions crossed a moral line. Both statements are true, but it ducks the more difficult question of whether violence is a necessary catalyst that cannot be done without. The question of when and how violence might be justifiable is not easy to answer, but it’s one that deserves better treatment than to throw up one’s hands and say that both sides are bad.

Infinite uses philosophy as a set dressing, but it's unwilling to abandon fun-centric gunplay in favor of deeper philosophic engagement. There are a number of games that merge the mechanics of gunplay with the moral gray zones of violent conflict. Wolfire’s Receiver is a first-person exploration game where players wrestle with overwhelmingly complicated gun mechanics that require one to toggle the safety, manually load bullets into a revolver’s chamber, then empty the casings after firing. The added detail slows the pace of the game dramatically, but this complements the mysterious atmosphere in a way that could have been extraordinarily powerful in a setting like Infinite’s. Cart Life, which was just awarded the Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival, is another painstakingly detailed account of the grueling life choices faced by the working poor, asking players to micromanage a food cart operator’s daily economy, from buying subway fare to setting kebab prices, and debating whether to splurge on a cigarette at the end of the day. Papers, Please puts players in the position of a border-control agent evaluating visas and passports of an array of different immigrants, from potential criminals to war refugees with obviously forged documents, and asks them to balance the morality of risking their own livelihood to help someone who might need it.

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BioShock Infinite references many of these same ideas in its setting and characterization, but they are incompatible with the gameplay’s guns, magic, and roller coastering. It’s not a revolutionary game but a monstrous one, marvelously alive but wrong-feeling. Ken Levine has created a world where the rational and emotional merge into fantasies so vivid and strange they have to be disbelieved. It's a wonderful spectacle in the moment, full of floating cities, 19th-century labor politics, dimension hopping, and a giant robotic bird. It all quickly falls apart, though—a dreamy spasm of ego, paranoia, and emotional manipulation.

The heart of all revolutionary causes is a belief that people deserve salvation from their present conditions. The anti-revolutionary mind is not opposed to salvation but simply believes it is impossible. (Think about this in context of the game’s ending revelations, when you get there.) "Some men crave money, some men crave love. My father craves a flood of fire," Elizabeth says to DeWitt on the road to the climax, something it seems everyone in Columbia craves. "Why do we deserve salvation?" By Infinite's end, Levine's answer seems clear: We don't.

Michael Thomsen has written for the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, Billboard, n+1, Bookforum, and the New Inquiry. He lives in New York.

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