Bioshock Infinite: Violence As A Narrative Device

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by Bob Reinhard

Warning: Major Plot Spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Have you ever watched a fireworks display, and noticed that the most glorious fireworks come at the end of short delays. Those moments of silence that punctuate the chaos and color seem to make the explosions that much more impactful. Watching the smoke slowly drift away, overcome by the blackness of a night sky, giving way to those sudden bursts of bright light. That contrast is what makes the display so spectacular.

This use of downtime to emphasize events is something that most any entertainment medium is familiar with. Horror movies, for example, use it to build tension. Those moments of “Don’t open that door!” suddenly followed by the killer bursting through the door and slaying the unsuspecting character.

But for some reason, video games seem to have a hard time using this technique to it’s full effectiveness. It’s part of what we refer to as a game’s “pacing”. Very few have managed to use those little moments between the action to draw the player in and make the sudden blast hit us that much harder. Perhaps that is why from the very start, I was so fascinated by Bioshock Infinite.

Let’s start at the beginning. In what is perhaps one of the most lengthy and relaxing ease-in periods I’ve ever seen in something outside of a JRPG, Bioshock Infinite immediately gives you a sense that something is right on the cusp of breaking. Walking through the idyllic Columbia in search of a mysterious girl seems to be going entirely too well for an action game. We made it into the city with no conflict, and everyone seems completely indifferent to us.

Yet with every step we take further into the city of Columbia, the more things feel slightly off. The bright, vibrant outer shell of the floating paradise starts to crack and peel, revealing some unsettling ugliness underneath. And with the subtle use of visual storytelling, that tension and uneasy feeling starts to build.

Then we reach the raffle.

In an instant, we start to see Columbia for what it is: A civilization built on racism and abuse of the working class. Booker is given a ball and one task: Throw it at the minority couple on stage. This is when the player is seated firmly in an uncomfortable position. A spectator to something vile and, in the framework of how we currently see a functional society, inhumane.

It’s at this point Infinite pulls the bag off our head and reveals to us it’s true nature. It wants to play with you just as much as you play with it. It wants you to know that it’s not going to pull punches. And now we’re left with a startling decision to make: Throw the ball at the couple, or break our peaceful world and throw it at the announcer.

This is a moment where Booker must look inside and weigh his morals against his desire to complete this task and eliminate his debt. Does he make the tough decision to appease this animalistic crowd or does he risk losing his cover. As you’re pushing this idea through the filters in your head, it gives the game enough time to blindside you by having Booker suddenly outed as the False Shepherd we’ve seen in the posters all around the city.

This breaking down of the peace, and then the sudden thrust into conflict, results in Booker abandoning all caution and turning to violence. In an instant, Booker is pulled aside by two members of Columbia’s peacekeepers, and unarmed, he has no choice but to do whatever is necessary to assure his mission doesn’t fail. And what happens next is perhaps one of the most sudden violent acts I’ve ever seen in a game.

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Watching Booker push one of the officers face-first into another’s Skyhook rips us out of the beauty of Columbia and plants us firmly into the familiar “kill or be killed” situation we’re more accustomed too in games like this. After an extended period of time calmly enjoying the sights, the game springs a visceral, gritty blood-soaked explosion directly into our faces. That sudden impact makes the transition into traditional FPS action that much more heart-racing. And the effectiveness of this is all thanks to the prolonged build up leading up to it.

This use of a longer intro sequence gives you time to familiarize yourself with one of Infinite’s most impressive feats: it’s rollercoaster-esque use of ups and downs. The game will continue to use this right up to the very end. Picking us up and dropping us kicking and screaming into a violent warzone, then pulling us out to tell us an emotional story about forgiveness, sin, fear, and ideological conflict.

As soon as the game dropped, many people began voicing their distaste for Infinite’s rather liberal use of violence. Saying the gratuitous use of it was detrimental to the game’s storytelling. However, I’d argue that it’s the exact opposite. It’s what makes the storytelling work.

Booker is not a good person. This sentiment is echoed off every moment of Infinite’s narrative. Giving us a sense of his horrible past, his “do anything to get the job done” mentality, and his internal struggles with his own personal demons. This is only further highlighted once Elizabeth enters the fray.

Much like the calm moments giving way to the action, Elizabeth is a stark contrast of Booker’s character. Her sheltered, isolated personality leaves her at odds with the shock of Booker’s violent action and disregard for keeping the peace. Her care-free almost child-like demeanor is immediately crushed by Booker’s aggression.

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Once you escape the tower with Elizabeth, you’re once again treated to a calm, peaceful walk through a warm sunny day in Columbia. And once more, the feeling that something is going to go wrong sits on our shoulders. And as a trap is sprung to capture Elizabeth once more, Booker is pulled right back into the bloodshed. However, this is the first time Elizabeth herself is pulled into the shadows, and her reaction is predictable: she’s not thrilled about it.

Her utter disgust with Booker’s unflinching killing leaves her at odds with her protector. And throughout the game, she is slowly pulled into a startling reality where sometimes conflict escalates to something horrifying.

This slap in the face alters Elizabeth throughout the game. She slowly becomes accustomed to the things that came as a shock to her at first. Slowly, she begins to accept Booker’s violence and even aids him indirectly by providing weapons and means to kill. This perhaps comes from the battle between Booker and Slate, in which we learn of Booker’s shadowy past and are faced with yet another possible outcome of someone coming from that background. Watching Slate’s inevitable downfall gives us a mirror in which to stare into and learn of Booker’s internal struggles with how to deal with his violence.

This then gives way to another blatantly violent conflict between the Vox Populi and the Founders. The sudden civil war that is sparked by Booker’s introduction to the world. We’re faced with the task of having to arm a rebellion we don’t want to be involved in order to simply escape this place. And in that moment, Columbia transitions from utopia to war zone. Watching the Vox murder the people of Columbia in a savage, unforgiving way is disturbing and shows us the weight of violence in any conflict.

This is used as a major breaking point for Elizabeth during the height of the Vox conflict. Watching Daisy slowly succumb to her violent urges causes a major change in Elizabeth. As Daisy slowly allows her hatred and anger to push her to taking a child hostage shows us yet again the depths to which violence and rage can cause us to sink. It’s at this moment that Elizabeth learns to understand Booker’s violence and kills Daisy to save the child. She realizes that violence in this case prevents violence. She also learns that her nature is not that of Booker’s, and taking Daisy’s life leaves a noticeable mark on her.

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This constant barrage of peace-giving-way-to-chaos is what carries the rest of the game. Booker is forced to face his violent nature in every person and situation he comes across. He has to question himself and what direction his violence nature will ultimately take him. Does he sacrifice Elizabeth, a caring, kind person who he grows to appreciate and care for, in order to further his own agenda, or does he turn his violence into a means to help her.

This is what causes Booker’s character development. Booker’s own belief that he is beyond cleansing, beyond saving, gives way to the belief that perhaps redeeming himself can come from something entirely unexpected. And for the rest of the game, we’re faced with the realization that Booker is slowly pulling himself out of the shadows and making use of his darkness in a way that may someday be considered positive.

This very deliberate use of violence in Booker’s character showcases that he carries this history with him no matter what path he chooses. And through the use of this violence for various means, we as players can not only see the change in Booker’s character, but play an active part in it.

We become attached to Elizabeth. We seek to escape the conflict and bring these characters into a peaceful resolution. And in doing so, we are unwilling to stop in the face of adversity. No matter what the cost, no matter what we have to do, we must keep fighting so that someday these characters we’ve grown to understand and love don’t have to fight anymore.

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And perhaps that’s what makes the ending twist work. Learning that in giving up his violence during his baptism, Booker actually turns into a violent monster of a different kind in the form of Comstock. We see that no matter what path Booker chooses, he carries some form of darkness with him. It’s all in how he uses it. And we come to terms with inevitability.

It shows that everyone has flaws, and the path to overcome those flaws is not easy. It branches off into an infinite number of possible outcomes, all of which are determined by how we choose to deal with our nature. And while the conflicts may change and shift and play out differently, the base feelings within us still exist.

We’re shown countless times how different people can be pushed by their violent nature to do unspeakable things. Slate’s madness. Daisy’s giving in to hatred. Even Booker’s own unrelenting murdering of Comstock. These things are shown to us to give us a sense that Booker could just as easily be one of these antagonistic characters if his nature got the best of him.

These concepts, of branching paths, different outcomes, and action-reaction, is what makes the violence so important in developing Booker’s character. Booker’s past cannot be shaken so easily, and thus we are forced to make the most of his nature. No matter what path is taken, Booker is Booker at his core. And coming to realize this through our control of his violence is what causes this to resonate with us by game’s end.

It’s also useful in giving us a sense of the violent undertones of Columbia and the game itself. Columbia is built on the pain of others, and this escalation of violence shows that boiling over.

So, is Infinite violent? Yes. But it’s violence is purposeful and carries with it an important piece of narrative that is essential to the character we’re tasked with controlling, as well as a truth about the world we’ve been placed in. Instead of simply being told things, we’re showed them through disturbing images and presentation. We’re placed in a world where violence and darkness is constantly crawling underneath the skin of idealism and warmth. Those moments of watching the smoke slowly blow away in an evening breeze before the next colorful explosion comes and draws us out of our comfort zone. And this is where Bioshock Infinite shines the most.

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