This, like all other posts about games and culture over the past week, is mainly about Bioshock: Infinite, so there is a reasonable chance for something you would consider a spoiler. You’ve been warned.
I was listening to the latest episode of Idle Thumbs and Sean Vanaman was sharing an anecdote from Infinite to illustrate that the game was was bound to be minimally expressive because the player only has two verbs: press this to shoot and press that to story. He was in the aptly named Shanty Town and there is a point where you can open a tear to a pile of apples that you assume the numerous hungry city-folk will flock to to feed themselves. However, he hit F at slightly the wrong moment and instead he stole a lady’s purse. This instantly aggro’d every NPC in the vicinity so instead of dying, he gunned them all down. “I was just trying to get you a potato…” he mumbles before loading back the checkpoint.
Now, I had a similar experience. There were a few fellows talking to each other at the end of a road and I saw an Infusion upgrade glowing nicely behind them. I walked up to them and they didn’t really respond. Normally there’s some sort of obstacle between you and your upgrades, but I didn’t see one. Not sure if I’m supposed to buy it from the guy or ask him for it and stuck with zero ways to interact with people besides staring at them or shooting them, I grabbed the upgrade. As soon as my toe passed some invisible line the combat music starts up and the guys rush me. I sigh and gun them down. I DO NOT load back the checkpoint.
I realized then that I had become what I assume everyone who thinks its relevant that such and such person with a gun also played Call of Duty or Counter Strike already thinks I am, just within the bounds of Columbia.
The first 45 minutes of Infinite are absolutely phenomenal. I vividly recall what it felt like to hear a few notes of a song float by my ears, the careful navigation to find its source, and the few minutes of surprise, wonder, and divine satisfaction at hearing “Columbia’s Gayest Quartet” sing their rendition of God Only Knows. I stopped to listen. Had I the ability I would have sat down on the grass and basked in the sun. This is the first time the sound direction powerfully affected my emotions. With a smile on my face I turned back to the fair, taking in the sights and the sounds, the crazy sideshows of enemies I’d seen in trailers on display as products, the idle chit chat of the fairgoers, the carnival games that I only realized MUCH later were tutorials for shooting and Vigor use that I gladly perfected before moving on, completely of my own free will. I felt completely justified in my pre-purchasing of this game purely for its aesthetic despite never completing any previous Bioshock title.
This made the first explicit story choice you make extremely jarring. You realize your cheery fair goers are excited about the raffle, the raffle to see who gets to punish the young interracial couple for daring to live their lives. Amidst the man’s pleas for punishment for himself so only to save his beloved from pain and the jeers from the crowd you are given a timed option to throw the ball at the couple or at the emcee. In those short few seconds I tried, as I consciously or unconsciously do whenever given a explicit choice in a video game, to parse what the outcomes would be for me gameplay wise. Did the game want me to be complicit and throw at the couple? Or did they want me to be complicit and not be a total monster? Booker is trying to sneak in, rescue this girl, and get out, so low profile is probably better. In the end I literally couldn’t get myself to throw the ball at the couple (this is the second instance where the sound direction/voice acting affected my emotions.)
But presumably before you can throw the ball at anyone you are grabbed from behind by the police, revealed to be some prophesied ”False Shepard by the scars on your hand, and then beat them to death until you find a pistol that you use to kill a few dozen men without dropping a beat.
So began the journey of the drunk deadbeat private investigator on the aptly described Chicago world fair turned “American Exceptionalism Death Star” who can murder the entire standing police force and the armies of multiple realities with guns, shields, and magic.
The scenario I described in Shanty Town is not unique. You encounter a police barricade outside Shen’s workshop that if you put a toe over will get you attacked by everyone in building with no explanation, even though their boss wants me on his side. I want to explore the area first before taking the obvious story path, so I hook my way onto the roof and cross unseen. Cue battle music and bullet storm. I later come to some guards being briefed on their mission to take me out on sight. As a guy who is entirely dependent on scrounging ammunition and weapons with an unarmed damsel in distress at my heel you might think I would try to sneak by these foes for good reason. But I have been brutally taught that literally the only way I am supposed to deal with people is to shoot them. If I try anything else, I’ll get shot. And really, it’s my only verb. There’s no hiding, no talking, nothing. The game I want Infinite to be is right there in the opening scenes. But the game that it is is not only not that game, it actively works to undermine ever becoming that game. That’s my biggest problem with the title.
The gameplay has turned me into a monster within the reality that is Columbia. I see my enemies cowed before their leader? I take the time to break each and every one of their faces open with my hook before moving on, just in case. I encounter a bar full of people? I take every piece of food and coin I can find as I would if it was just another empty room and gun down anyone who takes offence and comes at me. Why not? There will undoubtedly be enough ammo in the trash and Salt in the food to get back any resources I might have spent in doing so, not to mention I’ve been thwarted in any attempt to do otherwise. I am forced to kill a few men for protecting their only piece of wealth in their abused and oppressed lives? And I don’t load the checkpoint. I don’t even think about it until I hear that someone else did in a similar situation days later.
Art has never contained violence, only fictional violence. The effect the game had on my actions were actions within the game. Fictional violence desensitizes us to fictional violence in a fictional world on fictional people, just as actual violence desensitizes to actual violence in an actual world on actual people. But Infinite allowed me to glimpse what it would be like to be that non-real person news media fears so much.