Published on April 3rd, 2013 | by Liam Dean1
Battling Against Controversy In BioShock Infinite
Controversy and video games are two things that seem to go hand in hand in this day and age. As the art form continues to expand in the scope of its ambition, so too does it grow in the diversity of its subject matter. It’s not always enough to have every game amounting to a 2D sprite traversing a colourful background without context or meaning. Like all forms of expression, we find ourselves reflecting our own culture in the video game worlds and stories we create; and in doing so we invariably include the darker sides of our nature.
Violence, and how it is depicted in video games, has been the most recent topic for discussion as of late. Owing to recent and incredibly tragic circumstances, it is understandable why people would want to challenge the way we view violence both within the context of our own social interactions and in the media we consume. However, this has led to some rather unfair and premature conclusions being made about the impact of violent video games on gamers at large, and many titles have suffered fallout as a consequence. It is understandable then why a game like BioShock Infinite could fall under the banner of “potentially controversial”. Apart from containing copious amounts of violent imagery, it also contains themes of racism, jingoism, xenophobia, sexism and religious discrimination.
It is however my personal belief that BioShock Infinite included these potentially controversial themes to further the impact of its own artistic endeavour, and not to intentionally offend its audience. It’s never acceptable to tell a person that they mustn’t be offended by something. There are far too many potentially offensive topics that are included in Ken Levine’s vision of Columbia for this to be the case. But, having played BioShock Infinite to its conclusion, I do believe that it’s possible for people to appreciate the game irrespective of whether they find it to be offensive. Because without all of these themes, BioShock Infinite wouldn’t have had nearly as great an impact as a piece of interactive storytelling – and that would be a great shame to say the least.
Let us start with the overriding ideas of jingoism, racism and religious discrimination that seem to permeate throughout the entire experience. They are the tenets that make up the foundation of the flying city of Columbia, and from the very moment you ascend into the sun-kissed arena of the cloud faring world, you can see them everywhere you look. The people here seem to worship their leader Comstock and his twisted idea of America like they would a living deity, blindly accepting his heavy handed tactics for the strength of their cause. Anyone who is not white or does not accept him as their personal saviour will at best be confined to slums and menial occupations, but will at worst be openly beaten in the streets or murdered.
It is understandable why someone may misconstrue the fictional setting of Columbia as being a reflection on post-civil war America. The themes of racism are certainly prevalent as they were in some parts of the country at the time, and they have in turn been represented much better in television dramas like Roots or in literature like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The constant references to founding fathers George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could also be interpreted as a slight on the United States Constitution or a criticism of America as a whole. Where BioShock Infinite succeeds in removing itself from direct comparison, however, is in the very nature of Columbia as a city in the clouds. It is mentioned many times that it has separated itself from the union, and that Columbia is the product of one man’s warped world view.
It is also understandable why someone may take exception to the way religion is depicted in BioShock Infinite. There are frequent references to Comstock as being an idol who will lead his followers to salvation, and some rather troubling depictions of how religions can persuade people to do terrible things. One very religiously inclined developer at Irrational Games even came very close to quitting after a certain part of the game (in the words of Ken Levine) “offended him so much”. It’s obviously an issue that Irrational Games had a lot of trouble with, but after a re-writing of Comstock’s character and some story elements, they managed to work around it and keep the developer on board.
Essentially, it’s the careful characterisation of BioShock Infinite’s cast that saves it from the pitfalls of controversy. Booker DeWitt is an incredibly violent man, but in the context of his military history and the turbulent climate of Columbia’s warring factions, the violent gameplay does not seem gratuitous or out of place. Similarly, Elizabeth at first appears to be a typical damsel in distress, holed up in her tower waiting for her knight in shining armour to come and rescue her. Instead of being represented as a sexist stereotype however, she turns out to be a well formed protagonist who arguably has more impact on the story than DeWitt does. And finally, Comstock is a dangerously persuasive leader, using religion and misguided nationalism to brainwash his followers. Instead of being seen as a direct attack on America or on any actual religion however, he is ultimately the head of a separatist movement and a fictional religious cult.
The truth is, as much as I enjoyed the world of Rapture in the original BioShock, it never felt like it had as deep a reflection on human nature as Columbia does. Sure, the attraction of joining a city under the sea in order to share in a cultural renaissance of technology and art sounds credible, but the idea of breaking away from a parent country in order to indulge in your own ideas about nationalism, religion and race sounds dangerously close to reality. Comstock may not be a character who possesses the same charisma as Andrew Ryan, but the ideas that he stands for certainly seem more in keeping with a false utopia and the fallibility of human nature.
Ultimately what it comes down to is how the game feels to play and not just to deconstruct. Everywhere I went in Columbia, I felt compelled to explore my surroundings. Every warped propaganda poster or recovered voxaphone message was a window into the disturbed world view held by its inhabitants. I was surrounded by material that was offensive to me, and yet not once did I feel like the game was forcing me to accept these ideas as my own. Comstock, his followers and even the heavy handed tactics of the uncompromising Vox Populi were always plainly cast as being morally wrong by the game’s writers. I think that the way the writers managed to keep the game tasteful in the face of this controversy is remarkable, and it is really telling of the quality of the storytelling.
BioShock Infinite is undoubtedly a game that deals with controversial subject matter. It is an uncomfortable mixture of observations from real life human nature and a creative fiction that takes considerable artistic licence with its story. Overall, it comes off as being less of a persecutory look at our own history and more of a story that is simply designed to entertain. Quite frankly, I applaud the boldness of Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games. I hope that games designers will have at least learned from their work if they do not make another game in the series, and that great storytelling like this is only the beginning of what we can expect from video games as they mature as an art form.
To read more about the world of Columbia and the game itself, check out our full in depth written review.