Gameplay and Values: Another Look at Bioshock Infinite
Media is what we leave behind. It’s a way to communicate to others and inspire solidarity. It’s what will persist when we are gone and it reflects who we are and what we value. All media does this: whether digital or non-digital, participatory or not, media conveys what our personal and societal values are. But different mediums do this in different ways. Books describe, movies portray, music evokes. Games do. By their very nature, games require participation, it’s what defines the medium. But many games still try to operate like other mediums, conveying values through exposition rather than participation. This is disingenuous, counter to what makes a game, a backwards way of creating the media and it creates a weaker product, one that lacks cohesion. A specific series comes to mind that exemplifies why a game should convey values through gameplay and what happens when a game neglects to: Bioshock. In comparing the universal praise for the original Bioshock, with the divisive opinions towards Bioshock:infinite we see that conveying values through gameplay creates more compelling games.
I chose this series in particular because it’s a series with a very clear agenda: each game in the Bioshock series tries to convey some set of values. If you don’t know (or don’t remember) the original Bioshock was about an underwater city named Rapture that was founded by a visionary named Andrew Ryan. Andrew Ryan’s picture for this world was for it to be a place free of morality and restrictions, so that intellectuals could progress in ways that traditional morality would not allow. It discussed Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, where intellectuals could pursue progress without having to concern themselves with the well-being of others. But it wasn’t all rosy, because Rapture fell and it fell because, as you might have guessed things go bad when people aren’t restricted by morals. It criticized objectivism and suggested the depravity of humanity in general: when left to our own devices bad shit happens. The game was loved by many and heralded as a “kind of Art Deco commentary on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, housed within a first person shooter” (Golding) accomplishing both its philosophical aspirations while creating compelling gameplay.
Bioshock: Infinite also has a lot to say. The game takes place in Columbia, a floating city in the sky that was once part of the United States, but which seceded in the beginning of the 20th century. As such it was isolated from the rest of the world, and combined with its highly fanatical and religious leader, father Comstock, this created a seemingly idealistic, but fundamentally racist city. The city acts as an exaggeration and a parody of American values, like manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. It points out the contradictory aspects of freedom and racism that our country was founded upon, the dubious role that religion still plays in our world today and the horrible atrocities that must be committed to create real and lasting change. It suggests that our country was built on the backs of others, that those in charge can rewrite the past in a favorable light when the reality is far from such, and isn’t afraid to criticize the horrible things we’ve done as nation. It also talks about metaphysics, which is cool I guess. But those that looked past its shiny backstory saw that it only “presents a veneer of intelligence- with wholly unexplored and mystifying asides to complicated concepts like Manifest Destiny and New Eden – without ever following through” (Golding).
You’ll notice that I didn’t describe any mechanics or gameplay, for this is where one game falters and the other succeeds. Bioshock was universally loved when it came out, while Infinite, was liked by many but also criticized by many. The main complaint was that the gameplay was sub-par in comparison to the amazing story or that the topics it attempted to discuss were only shallow backdressing. But even the original Bioshock said very little about Objectivism through exposition, it communicated most of its values through what the player experienced and did. Thus when inspecting the criticisms closely, you see that they can be attributed to what I was describing before: that there is a “disconnection between serious themes and your ability to fireball waves of goons in the face” (Dawkins).
First, Infinite falters in just the portrayal of its violence. Kirk Hamilton criticized that the beginning of the game is beautifully crafted, an immersive and peaceful introduction to the world of Columbia before all of this beauty is discarded when you “grab one police officer and RAM HIS FUCKING FACE INTO A SPINNING BLADE”. This ultra-violence extends throughout all of the combat and it just feels out of place in comparison to the weighty topics that the game discusses. The issue here is what values the game is trying to convey: its describing the hypocrisy of America and the horrid acts that our country has committed when you’re experiencing exposition, but when you are actually playing the game you are committing some of the most disturbing acts of violence possible. Do you see the issue here? The violence of Bioshock Infinite is nothing new, it’s the context in which it occurs that makes it unacceptable. Chainsawing a locust from the butt up is fine in Gears of War because that game is about ultra-masculinity and absurdity, but imploding a police officer’s head is not right when you are trying to discuss morals. And because this is what the player does, this is what the player remembers. I never had any discussions with my friend regarding the game’s portrayal of America, but I sure did talk plenty about the gory kill animations.
Compare this to Bioshock’s portrayal of violence. Your starting weapon in this game is a wrench and even once you find a gun you have to scavenge for weapons and use things in the environment to survive. It feels brutal and spontaneous, like you actually are trying to survive in this world without morals. You are forced to genetically modify yourself, just like the people of the world have been, in order to stay on a similar playing field as the people you are killing and every time you use more of your genetic powers you need to pull out a giant blue syringe and ram it into your wrists. Your foes look disheveled and mutilated, the product of such uninhibited and rapid genetic modification. This conveys the downfall of raptures, it portrays what happens when morals are tossed out the window and it gives far more impactful commentary then any of the game’s characters could convey through normal exposition. The portrayal of violence made sense here, it furthered the games values and it described the downfall of objectivism by having the player experience what it does themself. No one complained about Bioshock’s violence even though it ostensibly involves bashing someone’s head in with a wrench or firing a swarm of bees at their face because it’s a game about depravity.
Infinite also undermines its attempts at addressing race issues by creating meaningless player choices, or rather, player choices that do not reinforce the values the game is trying to convey. The game asks the player to pick a pendant, or to hurry a ticket officer, but neither of these choices change the outcomes of the game, nor do they further any goal of the game: they are simply choices to have choices in the game and they make the player feel cheated rather than treated. Infinite’s most egregious attempt at choice occurs at the beginning of the game when the player is asked whether or not to throw a tennis ball at an interracial couple or their tormentor. Basically the game “sets up its moral stakes by asking the player if they would like to be a violent bigot” (Golding), and in the end neither choice affects what occurs afterwards. The game doesn’t use the choices to convey meaningful decisions, but rather uses them as a cheap trick to get the player to feel something. And the player could feel something, really they should when discussing such weighty themes as race, but in using such shallow forms of interaction, the feeling of unease quickly disappear because the ramifications of their decision are so evanescent.
Conversely, choices are done correctly in the original Bioshock because they make the player experience what it is like to be unbound from morality. Your primary choice in the game is to either harvest or save little sisters, genetically modified girls that harvest a resource called adam which is used to create more genetic modifications. When you harvest a little sister you get all of their adam allowing you to survive just a bit better but if you choose to save them you get absolutely nothing besides their thanks. Of course it balances out in the end because when you save enough little sisters their caretaker will gift you with almost enough adam to make up for what you lost, but you don’t know this from the outset. The choice feels meaningful when you make it even if it basically results in the same outcome by the end, but the feeling of a meaningful choice is all that matters. As a result, players experience the difficulty of obeying morals, in a world without any, they see why Rapture has crumbled, because people are capable of horrible things when they are only looking out for themselves. The game also has a subtler choice: whether or not to fight the Bid Daddies that protect the Little Sisters. The Big Daddies are peaceful and caring, they live only to serve the little sisters. And as the player, you choose to attack these peaceful creatures, because that’s what you have to do to survive, and that’s what the world requires of you. Once again, forcing the player into these morally questionable situations is a far better way to convey the dogmas of objectivism, because you must commit or confront the moral quandaries yourself.
Finally Infinite fails to create gameplay that fits its set of values. Alexander notes that infinite’s combat is a “sterile mechanized system that could have been ripped from any other listless hyper-modern game like a bloody spine and grafted messily onto this vision, obscuring it” (Alexander). The combat is fulfilling (to some) but it works counter to what the game wants, which is to immerse the player, to get them to think about the world and what it is. Instead each area appears more as a battleground than an environment to explore because that’s what they are: “it feels as if Columbia is increasingly a combat arena rather than a place where people actually live” (Lees). This is because combat is divided into specific encounters, mobs of enemies that come at you until persuaded with bullets until finally the end of combat is denoted by a stringed note. Then the player continues to the next environment in which the cycle repeats. There’s certainly room for exploration and there are small personal moments with some enemies, like when you see one walk out of the wash room, but because you’ve killed so many and because combat has already lost its punch these encounters don’t feel significant, nor do you care about the human you just murdered. It also doesn’t help that at one point you end up turning on the Vox Populi and become another white man murdering tons of minorities, just as the game tries to tell you that this sort of thing is bad. Again, this wouldn’t matter if the game was trying to convey a different set of values, but because it is trying to tackle real world issues, it should tackle them with a bit more tact than the game does: as in you just murder everyone you see. The issues of race and American values fade into the background in favor of the story as combat just becomes another means to further the plot: Infinite fails to address racism because “just before and after meaningful moments in the story that play with the idea of racism, you have to mow down whichever side of this civil war isn’t trying to kill you” (Snyder).
The original Bioshock’s combat wasn’t anything spectacular on a mechanical level but it became something exceptional when combined with the game’s world, a “masterful exercise in the careful marriage of level design and environmental narrative pulling me intuitively through its world letting me absorb it as observer, interloper or aggressor as I chose” (Snyder). The game had roaming enemies, allowing for abrupt and unexpected encounters in its halls, and they were personal bouts, your foe screaming at you, hints of remorse and sadness in their hoarse scream. As such you were allowed to empathize with your enemies even as you were dispatching them. The game also had limited resources, a small stash of health packs, syringes and ammo to keep you scavenging for more weapons. And because you had to scavenge you also had to explore the environments which had numerous contextual clues for what the world was and why it fell. The gameplay was both satisfying minute to minute and intellectually stimulating because it created a cohesive world, which let you discover why the city fell and identify with the people that inhabited it.
For all Bioshock Infinite set out to do, and for all it did do right, it missed the point of being a game. It forgot that the most meaningful point of interaction was interactivity. It tried to tell more than it showed and so many of its themes fell flat. Bioshock did the opposite. It created a thriving world then dropped the player into it. This allowed the player to truly experience the world and contemplate its themes through doing. Even the “would you kindly twist” stemmed from gameplay, it connected to what the player was doing, rather than just being a plot point. “Bioshock Infinite is a game that wants to blow your mind rather than encourage you to use it,” (Lees) it doesn’t involve or interact with the player through its themes. And this is why Infinite was a middling success while Bioshock is heralded as a classic. Bioshock embraces what it is to be a game, it communicates through gameplay and shows rather than tells. This is what games are good at, and when this is what games should do. They should communicate through gameplay rather than theming. Not all games do, nor do I think all games should, but in doing so you create a clearer message and a more cohesive game.
Alexander, Leigh. "'Now Is The Best Time': A Critique Of BioShock Infinite." Kotaku. N.p., 11 Apr. 13. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.
Golding, Daniel. "BioShock Infinite: An Intelligent, Violent Videogame?" ABC. N.p., 9 Apr. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.
Hamilton, Kirk. "BioShock Infinite Is Insanely, Ridiculously Violent. It's A Real Shame." Kotaku. N.p., 4 Apr. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.
Lees, Matt. "Everything Bioshock Infinite Gets Wrong." YouTube. N.p., 5 Apr. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.
Snyder, Colin. "Motherboard Motherboard." Motherboard. N.p., 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.