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.

Bioshock: Infinite
Screenshot courtesy of Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc.

BioShock Infinite

Video games are called revolutionary so frequently it's easy to forget what the word means. Irrational Games, founded and led by Ken Levine, has become one of the most admired studios in the world, creating games like the newly released BioShock Infinite that both depict revolutionary events and are thought of as revolutionary for their embrace of history and philosophy where other games settle for hedgehogs and race cars. When viewed as philosophic works, however, Irrational's games are distinctly anti-revolutionary. For Levine, all ideologies are bankrupt when their adherents become violent in defense of them, and the player is just trying to survive long enough to reach the escape hatch. This outlook enables an anti-revolutionary quality in game design as well, one committed to the status quo of having fun by shooting at people, something that's at odds with the games’ supposed philosophic backdrops.

BioShock Infinite is the latest in Irrational's series of Shock titles, a shooting game in which players use a variety of guns and magical powers to fight two ideological factions warring over a dream city in the sky called Columbia. Into this city comes Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent and soldier haunted by his role in the ethnic slaughter at the Battle of Wounded Knee (and if you’re sensitive to spoilers, please proceed with caution). DeWitt, a hard drinker with an inescapable mountain of debt, gets hired by a mysterious man to sneak into Columbia and free a hostage named Elizabeth, a young woman with supernatural powers. Their escape triggers a revolution, with the exploited working-class populists, the Vox Populi, taking up arms against the city's aristocracy, The Founders, a group of evangelical originalists who hoard the city's wealth and tell exceptionalist tales of white supremacy.

The game is sumptuous in detail and scope, a spectacular cross between The Wizard of Oz and The Terminator. The opening hour in Columbia is an extravaganza of set dressing and learning through exploration. But those qualities are soon set aside in favor of a smoldering and sour misanthropy. That tonal shift is necessary to rationalize the introduction of shooting-for-fun in such a rich exploratory environment—an approach that, in game design terms, is stubbornly conservative. The Vox Populi don't have a revolutionary idea for how Columbia might be changed, it turns out. They just want to steal power from The Founders while exacting joyful and merciless revenge on the white bourgeoisie who've made them suffer.

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It doesn't take long for Daisy Fitzroy, the Vox Populi's charismatic leader, to devolve into a demented psychopath who’s willing to cross all moral thresholds in pursuit of victory. When the Vox Populi turn on DeWitt and begin attacking him alongside The Founders, there is no one left to root for. Everyone is a villain, in large part because the main thing the game wants you to do is shoot. You can shoot in a lot of different ways: with magic, with guns, when riding around on a roller-coaster-like sky rail system, or while taking advantage of the various support items Elizabeth’s powers can magically warp into the battlefield. And since everyone is shooting at you, you’ve got no choice but to start shooting back.

The first BioShock was admired by critics both as an ego-gratifying combat simulator and a critique of extremism, with Objectivism standing in as the particular but not exclusive source of it. "I wasn't setting out to make a game about Objectivism," Levine told games site Kotaku after the original was released. "I was setting out to make a game about someone who had a very strong belief in a philosophy that was similar to this philosophy. It's a cautionary tale about wholesale, unquestioning belief in something."

This mistrust is perceptible in many of Levine's games, and since everyone’s fair game for vilification, it makes it easier for him to justify a shoot-everything approach. System Shock 2, the outer space precursor to BioShock, follows a hero waking in a space station where all the humans have been zombified by an evil computer AI that’s hoping to wipe out human resistance to its plans to merge reality with cyberspace. Though less directly political, it poses a similar philosophical conflict between the body politic, always susceptible to becoming a brainwashed horde, and the evilness of their ruler. Freedom Force, released in 2002, similarly makes fighting the easily chosen imperative. That game, a cheerfully pulpy riff on World War II-era comic books, focuses on a compound that transforms otherwise normal people into either heroes or supervillains, impelled by their new powers to fight one another.

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