Bioshock Infinite’s Bleeding-Heart Liberalism
Every form of production, artistic or otherwise, is a struggle with the material, dealing with its internal contradictions and applying force to resolve them in a satisfactory way. It’s often more delicate than that blunt description might suggest, but perhaps that’s only an appearance, the result of a successful war against human and material limitations. Bioshock Infinite, however, leaves contradictions to fester and eat away at its integrity. This is even more curious because the fatal problem––namely, the dissonance between narrative and interactive mechanics––is extremely common in games. What’s more, the problem is not that the game and the story are about different things. Both tackle issues of violence, greed, human misery, capitalist exploitation, etc. Unfortunately, the two sides go about exploring those things in irreconcilable ways. To properly explore this game, we’ll need to briefly look at the game’s press reception, a couple of more critical looks at the game, and finally try to come to the root of why the conversation has worked itself out in the way it has.
First, I’m taking a representative review from the mainstream gaming press. Edge Online awarded the game a 9 out of 10 and lavishes praise on the game throughout. The review opens with this positive appraisal:
“BioShock Infinite is a lavish, spectacular game…where themes such as the nature of choice, metaphysics and the effects of political isolationism jostle for your attention alongside electrifying giant robots with your genetically altered left hand and then shooting them in the face. That Infinite can handle the collision between its philosophical concerns and its dead-end thrills without seeming hopelessly crass or overly portentous testifies to its often touching script, excellent pacing and the kind of unparalleled world building that shows you all of this coexisting cohesively in a golden city in the sky.”
What’s curious about this passage is that, in its headlong rush to praise, it ends up stumbling right into the game’s core problem. Edge notices the “collision”––if it didn’t, its author’s powers of observation would be much in doubt––but argues that the game is able to synthesize its disparate elements. After enticing the reader with such a promising overture, the author is obliged to provide details. One catches the eye:
“…Columbia is alive, its civilian populace a constant presence throughout the game as the city teeters on the brink of war. As well as providing chances for the shooting to cease, these moments let you interact with Columbia’s people…”
We’ll be seeing another author make the exact opposite claim later. For now, let’s briefly discuss the accuracy of this detail. Most of your non-violent interactions with the Columbian populace come either at a carnival at the beginning of the game or in brief moments later on. Unlike in Dishonored, a game I’ve covered extensively here, you can’t speak to townspeople. All of your chats with the populace here are scripted, sometimes with a binary choice presented, none of which end up mattering much. For the vast majority of the game, Columbia is a shooting gallery. In rather egalitarian fashion, nearly all of them exist to become corpses and replenish your money and ammunition. Moving on.
When we click through to the second page of the review, we see this curious paragraph, which is worth reading in its entirety:
That said, there are times when all these incidental character details can bump up against Irrational’s more overt attempts to make a useful AI companion. At unpredictable moments, she’ll toss coins she’s scavenged at DeWitt, her canned call for your attention puncturing the quietness of a scene. Her role as the pair’s lockbreaker, meanwhile, can sometimes pick at the illusion of her autonomy, since she instantaneously and cheerfully responds to DeWitt’s beck and call. This responsiveness makes far more sense on the battlefield, where she can pull aid (cover, mechanised allies or guns) through tears at the press of a button, and where the urgency of her unpredictably tossing potions, health and ammo your way never strikes a discordant tone.
Only two paragraphs after the started to justify the big black “9” at the end of the text, they start to wander. Elizabeth’s agency as a character is eroded. Her scripted moments and quiet moments alone clash with her strange omnipotence over locks. In other words, she acts one way in the (scripted) narrative and another in the story the game tells moment to moment through player action. In the former she’s an active presence, a moral compass, and something of a terrifying power in her own right. In the latter she is a tool, sweeping corridors for loose change and ammunition to feed the protagonists’ prodigious appetites. The review has one more unreservedly positive paragraph before focusing once more on problems, noting that enemies are too “damage absorbent,” that the story “unravels” near the end, abandoning its setting for its own flights of sci-fi fancy. After a canned “but the game is ambitious and beautiful and so all is forgiven” conclusion, the review ends on that puzzling little number. Another contradiction for a game that seems to generate them.
Leigh Alexander gave the game a thorough critique over at Kotaku, making essentially the same point I am with a different method. Additionally, she comes to a strikingly different conclusion than I have. She writes:
“This is a game that lives in its own alternate universe, is in love with its own cleverness, instead of being genuinely clever. There are tears everywhere. And in the game.”
Though I would argue that Alexander’s piece is also far too clever for its own good, it identifies the contradiction that tears Bioshock Infinite to pieces. Though she errs in her explanation by largely refusing to make one––only passingly noting that it might have resulted from a stressful and protracted production period––she can see clear as day that the game’s drudgery and lightweight treatment of violence pillages whatever gravitas its script might have had. While it doesn’t merit a lengthy treatment here, the Foldable Human has also discussed Infinite as an example of games that treat violence as part of their narratives rather than just vomiting it in front of the player uncritically. It almost solely deals with the scripted narrative, and in particular with the narrow story of the protagonist himself, so it is, strictly speaking, accurate. On the other hand, the defining feature of infinite as we have seen and as others have noted, is its inability to digest all the blood it’s spewing up, its failure to actually understand and incorporate violence into a coherent story. As we’ve said, there is a script and a game and rarely do the twain ever meet.
What is needed is a new, thoroughly materialist, critique of the game. This will be necessarily short, more of a collection of notes toward a broader investigation into games as a medium and how they reproduce capitalist, in particular liberal, ideology. With that in mind, let’s take what we’ve gathered so far and carry it a few steps further.
Bioshock Infinite’s dissonant approach to violence not only compromises its scripted statements on “violence” in the abstract but also hopelessly confuses its stance on concrete oppressions and capitalist exploitation. Its horrific failure to deal with the issue of race largely stems from its narrow-minded vision and its insistence on some fanciful idea of “balance” that minimizes the destructive effects of oppression and vilifies the just violence of the oppressed. In the game, the revolutionary Vox Populi, led by charismatic black leader Daisy Fitzroy, begin to overthrow the racist, capitalist nightmare of Columbia but are immediately vilified for using violent means to do so. Liberalism fundamentally mistakes reactionary and revolutionary violence as equal in weight. After all, in a nation of free individuals, to kill is to violate the rights of another in the cruelest way. Yet the liberal notion of “freedom” is only so much mist. It vaporizes the moment you expose it to the sunlight. I suspect that people only noticed the egregious condemnation of revolutionary violence in this game because it is hamfisted and handled so quickly that it quickly ceases to matter. Labour strikes, revolutions, pogroms, public humiliations, back room police torture––it all solves to the same thing in Bioshock Infinite.
By the time the game ends, the game no longer cares about Columbia or its people. It cares about Booker, the protagonist. It cares about Elizabeth in all of her many alternate forms. It cares about maybe one or two other characters. But, as the wise reviewer at Edge noted, it no longer cares about its own setting. Even the script, so lauded for its high aspirations even among skeptical critics, loses all of its weight the moment you start slaughtering black and Irish revolutionaries like so much cannon fodder. Supernatural events begin piling on top of each other; ghosts appear with little warning; the ending folds in on itself so many times we forget that its plot is actively erasing the lives of all those slum-dwellers and wage slaves the game spent so much time lovingly showing us. Loosed from its social bearings, the game reduces its setting to window dressing. And by removing its protagonists from meaningful history and shoving them into a sci-fi house of mirrors, it turns them into ideas or things. Everything is the same as everything else. Nothing matters. It’s solipsistic and weirdly mindless and deeply, deeply liberal. Humanism of this kind, that fetishizes the individual “journey” and makes the player’s avatar, an objectively horrific human being, a sainted martyr by the end fo the game, spits in the eyes of anyone working for progress in the world. Its contradictions finally drown the game, its political and moral incoherence far too dense for the game to keep afloat.
Considering the commercial compromises that probably introduced many of these toxic tensions into the production process––after all, the game needed to justify its enormous budget––it’s only too appropriate to cite Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism. The game offers the player only the redemption “defined and limited by what capitalism requires and allows” (Amin 14). It is a document struggling to be radical but finding itself incapable of doing so because its message––even that “higher” script––serves the ruling class alone. What’s painful is that Bioshock Infinite is actually quotidian, even minor. It is what capitalism looks like, depicted in all its cynical glory. A formerly critical modernity curdled into mysticism, liberation for the bourgeoisie crushing the vast majority of humanity. What sets it apart is its conspicuous messiness, the openness with which it shows its wounds. But this is a game. With all its blood and guts shed without much comment, it cannot hope to compare to imperialist capitalism in the flesh. That’s no comforting note to end on, but by identifying such contradictions in media, we can hopefully find them in our real world and struggle to overcome them. I will let Frantz Fanon have the last word:
We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships of the time before life began. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. Look at them today swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.