BioShock Infinite: in defence of graphic violence

BioShock Infinite violence melee execution

[WARNING! Mild spoilers ahead. They’re mild, but you should probably go and play the game first anyway.]

Summary: BioShock Infinite puts stark contrasts in conflict with one another and manages to depict the results in a mature way. Innocence and naïvety come up against brutality and civil unrest, and without the use of graphic violence the artistic effect would be lost.

There’s been a bit of an online furore (as there always is) about the gratuitous the violence in BioShock Infinite.

What’s interesting about this particular furore is that it’s not coming from the camp that typically gets vocal about violence in video games, but from gamers and game designers.

Polygon’s Chris Plante argues (and argues well, I might add) that: “Violence doesn’t serve BioShock Infinite. It distracts from it.”

Plante wasn’t the only one that felt this way about the amount of violence in the game.

Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton piled on with a cool photo (and animated GIF) essay, referencing a blog post by former design director at Epic Games, Cliff Bleszinski.

Bleszinski, who worked on Gears of War 1, 2, and 3 made a similar argument, albeit with a bit more humour:

So, the guy that brought you a chainsaw gun would now like to get on his soap box about violence. Have fun judging me.

This is one of the few games that I’ve loved that I felt the violence actually detracted from the experience. The first time I dug my skyhook into someone I actually winced.

For a reminder of what Bleszinski found so wince-worthy, here’s an animated GIF of my first skyhook kill:

BioShock Infinite melee kill

“I actually winced”

Here is a game that made the designer behind Gears of War and its chainsaw gun wince; that has hardened gamers writing about whether the violence is maybe *gulp* excessive?

As a life-long gamer I’ve found myself thoroughly desensitised to simulated violence, including that portrayed in BioShock Infinite. Only when the other folks in industry started remarking on it was I roused from my torpor.

This ability to get the lesser spotted Serious Game Journalist™, the professional game designer, and (eventually) the desensitised gamer to all write about the issue is in itself one of the game’s many triumphs.

Not only has it got us discussing the intricacies of its ending (read: “trying to find/explain holes in the plot”), but it also has us critically discussing how appropriate the level of violence is in Infinite, and perhaps even in games in general.

That said, Bleszinski’s own words provide an excellent introduction for my disagreement: he actually winced. Artistic victory on BioShock Infinite’s part.

Artistic victory?

To justify my use of the phrase “artistic victory”, let’s look further than the initial wince reflex and the fact that some people might be put off by the game.

Firstly, it should be mentioned that the graphic violence would be completely out of place in a less serious game. In the context of Infinite’s narrative, however, it tells a story all on its own.

In the early parts of the game, right before the player’s character is threatened with an untimely end through the removal of their face, the implement responsible for some of the game’s more gruesome deaths is introduced.

Transportation and murder weapon all in one

The Skyhook: Doubling as enabler of locomotion and gruesome murder.

“This little beauty?” says a member of Columbia’s finest to his colleague about his new skyhook. “The whole division got them. If we’re going to flush the Vox [Populi] out of the skyline system we gotta have the best.”

Skip but a few minutes ahead into the game and a racist, murderous Columbian announcer yells: “Show him what we got planned, boys!”

The spinning blade of a skyhook approaches your head, but what these berks don’t realise is that you’re Booker DeWitt.

A quick flick of the wrist and the neck of one of the lawmen is in your hand, then embedded on the skyhook’s blades, blood exploding onto everything nearby.

“Show him what we got planned, boys!”

In this brief series of events, Irrational Games not only introduce the weapon with which their antagonists plan to suppress a slave revolt, they show us what this weapon does.

And it is inhuman what this weapon does.

Immediately we know what kind of people we’re dealing with and whatever rose-tint remained on our glasses is scoured off with blood.

Booker’s reaction, or more accurately lack thereof, also beautifully reinforces his character while the interaction between him and Elizabeth holds up a mirror to you, the player.

Bleszinski actually goes on to praise this in his blog post:

I’m especially glad that the game also dealt with the fact that Booker (and you, playing) are stone cold killers.

What happens when you brutally slaughter a room full of men (and a woman) in front of an intelligent 17 year-old girl?

Elizabeth, the deuteragonist of BioShock Infinite, is not nearly as comfortable with violence as you are, which is something Irrational also handles well.

The first time she sees you kill, she (quite understandably) runs away from you.

When you catch up with her again, one of the many touching conversations between Booker and Elizabeth plays out with her having to make a choice: work through it, or return to captivity.

From this perspective, it is difficult for me to understand why the level of violence in BioShock Infinite is criticised.

Of the far too many games out there that can be considered excessively violent, BioShock is one of the few in which it is not only necessary for the narrative, but handled in a mature way.

More BioShock Infinite and violence in games articles

Violent video games debate rages on (and the follow-up)

Bioshock Infinite – living up to the hype?

Bioshock Infinite hands-on: revolution in the wings?

BioShock Infinite tackles religion

Video games directly accused as root of gun violence

Violent video games don’t correlate to gun violence

Forum discussion

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  • SparkZA

    Interesting read. I didn’t really think about it deeply – just enjoyed the game. Now that you highlight it, I suppose the violence is pretty brutal but it never felt out of place – probably why I just absorbed it along with all the other cool parts of the game world and narrative.

  • Jan Vermeulen

    I was exactly the same. Until Polygon and Bleszinski said their piece I hadn’t really thought about it.

    Playing through it a second time with this in mind had me thinking about it a lot more critically.

  • Kromas

    The more Bleszinski talks the less I want to hear from him. I felt the violence served the game exceedingly well and was not out of place at all. And they forget about a few parts where you have choice. I will always choose not to be violent if I can avoid it cause I did not want Elizabeth emotionally scarred more than she needed to be. ( yeah I did not steal the shotgun off the wall)

  • Lycanthrope

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Bleszinski is starting to become a bit of a Malema in the gaming industry. Not the I mind him anywhere near as much, but his commentary is starting to feel really, really tedious.

    Good article, enjoyed the read. Glad to see not everyone’s all “ZOMG TEH VIOLANCE IS TOO MUCH!”

  • Jan Vermeulen

    Right now it looks like it’s me, Jim Sterling from Destructoid, and a handful of other writers arguing in favour of “violence as beneficial to art” as it were.

  • Defcon_One

    Violence as a concept central to a game has never really phased me. However, the one scene/level in a game that make me think twice about doing was that scene in Black Ops (I think it was) when you and a group of terrorists/mercenaries shoot your way through an airport terminal, gunning down hundreds of innocents in the process. I must confess, I did “participate”, only to see if it granted me some sort of unlock or achievement. However, it was done with an uncomfortable sense of “if I have to”…

  • Wesley Fick

    I like how Infinite introduces violence and how if affects others, but I think this will be a pebble in the water compared to what The Last of Us is going to put gamers through.

  • Stan Smith

    That was in MW2 . I didn’t mind it at all. The game that really made me think afterwards was the new Spec Ops

  • James Etherington-Smith

    Yeah, I enjoyed that game very much because it didn’t glorify and revel in the killing, but it was a necessity of the narrative – the barbarism of man when his own life and sanity is on the line. Tragically under-rated game of 2012.

  • Jan Vermeulen

    Really looking forward to that. I am worried about the fact that it’s a PS3 exclusive (and I prefer playing games with shooting on PC).

    Interesting factoid: The same guy (Troy Baker) that voiced Booker DeWitt will be doing the voice acting for the protagonist of Last of Us (Joel).