Minor Spoilers for Bioshock Infinite’s opening section
Is this what we are? Is this what it all comes down to: a man with a hook/ratchet/winch pulling pieces of people’s faces apart? Of course, based on seemingly random patterns, the man might cave in an enemy skull, or simply puncture it with the hook, or fail in the first attempt only to cock back and swing again until the wonderfully rendered human face no longer returns to the frame. Regardless, the result is the same. The player-controlled protagonist bloodily rampages through an intricately designed world crushing, puncturing, and ripping until enemies cease entering his field of view.
Honestly, add wrench, chainsaw, rifle stock, fist, fist with brass knuckles, baseball bat, what have you, and soon enough you’ve got a description that fits a staggering amount of AAA gaming titles released in the last five to ten years. Essentially it’s the formula for the modern shooter: shoot to kill, melee if you can no longer effectively shoot. The closer the enemies get, the gorier the outcome.
Now, I’ve written about this before, about how NPC’s (and enemies especially) can be viewed as little more than digital flies to be swatted in creative ways by the player. And this makes sense in games like Halo, Saints Row, or Dishonored. The player’s goal is to eliminate the enemy (or possibly, incapacitate in the case of Dishonored), to fight through a series of conflicts with a growing array of weapons and skills with which to dispatch the oncoming enemy forces.
But in my recent play-through of Bioshock Infinite, I found myself not only shocked but repulsed by the in-your-face gore and violence—nearly to the degree of shutting the game off entirely. Of course, a laundry list of reasons kept me playing in spite of my initial reaction, but it is the moment of shock that I’ve chosen to discuss here.
Infinite is a first person shooter. It says so right on the box, or in the game’s Steam description. Why should I then expect anything different from the countless other shooters that flood the industry almost daily? Why was I unfazed by Halo’s Covenant multitudes or the stream of Helghast in Killzone, and yet somehow deeply unsettled by the first Columbia police officer to come into contact with Booker’s sky-hook?
Contrast and expectation.
The opening sequence of Infinite is similar to its predecessor: a darkened sea, a mysterious lighthouse with various mantras and maxims scattered about. Even the rain and cultish leader echo each other. But whereas the original Bioshock sends the player straight into the demolished underwater world of Rapture, where crazed splicers fling themselves at the player from the very first moments, Infinite takes its time.
Booker enters Colombia while its citizens are still at peace. After an eerie baptismal initiation (that arises again cleverly near the game’s conclusion), Booker emerges among the floating platforms of 1800’s Columbia, a city in the sky. Colombia’s people mill about as they prepare for a seemingly exciting annual event: the Raffle. There’s a carnival that gives the player access to Infinite’s various mechanics as a series of carnival games. Booker fires guns at cardboard cutouts of the Vox Populi, who at the time seem to be some sort of rebel gang terrorizing Colombia’s citizens. He tests out tonics, which give him magical abilities and control of the elements. He even sees a late game enemy on display as a carnival attraction. All the while, Columbia’s citizens chat and gossip, ask him questions and ignore him, eat cotton candy and peanuts, play with their children. It’s all very idyllic, with the clear undercurrent signaling some sort of coming upheaval, around which Booker’s story (and the player’s) will most certainly orbit.
Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary so far. We’ve got an intro, a tutorial section, and the makings of an inciting incident. It’s Gaming Plot Mechanics 101. However, unlike the first Bioshock, which introduces the player to combat through trial by fire (electrical shock, actually), Infinite continues with it’s raffle chatter and city gossip as Booker learns about vending machines, Colombia’s currency, health boosts and salts (mana) replenishers, about turret possession, and the mysterious energy that powers the city’s clockwork horse carriages. It’s all very immersive, richly detailed, and for me, downright fascinating.
But all dreams end with the sleeper awakened. Colombia’s, Booker’s, and the player’s end when the tutorials and lore are exhausted, and the game’s (sometimes a little too obvious) god rays come shining down through the foliage around the Raffle stage. A crowd has gathered in anticipation, and Booker is just in time. He unsurprisingly wins the Raffle, and is presented with a choice: throw a baseball at the interracial couple who have appeared on stage (the crowd’s expected raffle reward) or to throw the ball at the announcer (the player’s rebellious option that implicitly aligns with the cultural norms of the game’s audience).
After the choice, Booker is instantly recognized as the False Shepard of Colombia’s prophecies and the audience turns on a dime against him. Here’s where the face-ripping comes in.
The problem, or brilliance depending on how you assess it, is that up to this point, the people of Colombia have seemed pleasant, polite, and good (if a bit snooty). Now, they’re clearly racist, which on its own is horrible. But does their racism merit tearing through them like so many gazelles in the lion’s jaws? Though, even that comparison would have a purpose, at least the lion eats the gazelles (not that Booker should resort to cannibalism).
It may occur to some that the racists have now become enemies and thus fit under my “flies to the swatter” doctrine. Not so. In my previous examples, the Covenant are not peaceful, polite, irritatingly aristocratic ladies and gentlemen. They’re bloodthirsty, though sometimes comical, alien invaders. Ditto for the Helghast, who have their own weak attempts at humanization. Something about Colombia’s denizens is different. Something about Infinite is different. What is it?
Contrast. In most games, the desire to get immediately into the action drives the player into a frenzy of shoot, reload, shoot, reload, rest before having a chance to do much of anything else. Even a game like Mass Effect has clear interaction segments and clear combat segments. In Infinite, a peaceful crowd becomes a gruesomely slaughtered string of corpses in seconds. It happens fast, and it happens to NPC’s that before the attack are humanized from the very first moment. Never are even the guards seen as threatening or aggressive until Booker decides to throw the ball. Any more human and Ken Levine and his team might have convinced me to not even play their game at all. How’s that for “Would you kindly?”
Though contrast does a great deal of the work in setting up the strikingly violent moments after the Raffle, in my case, expectation did the rest. Quite a long time has passed, and a good many titles, since Bioshock (or even the forgettable Bioshock 2). Those games are both well-steeped in gore. Rapture, where the first two games are set, however, is already a bloody mess when the player character arrives. Compound those two details and the expectation is that the protagonist will be adding to the violence that preceded him. Colombia, on the other hand, is clean; we’re talking Disney clean. Everything glows or shines, the clothes are indicative of upper class and the trappings of financial excess. Not only that, but the opening includes no true combat tutorials (just the seemingly innocuous carnival games). Add that to the distance between titles, and a chance to forget just how gory the Bioshock games are, and you have the makings for a stomach churning moment.
Bioshock’s Atlas reveal and the ensuing gameplay segment are powerful but ring of the M. Night Shyamalan school of pulling the rug out from under the audience. Infinite achieves something equally as interesting, if not more so. Under the right circumstances the game evokes an emotional and visceral (as in, gut-wrenching) response early enough that the player might reject the experience all together. And if not that, the observant player is forced to come to grips with Booker’s extremely aggressive tendency toward violence.