There have been a lot of people writing about the violence in Bioshock Infinite. Some say there’s too much of it and thst it detracts from the story. Others say its fine and that it adds to the game’s themes. I’m inclined to agree and disagree with both sides.
Yes, the level of violence is extreme at times, and yes, that violence is important to understanding the themes and characters, but I also don’t think that there’s enough extreme violence to properly express the themes that the game is trying to present. Bioshock Infinite should be more violent, or at the very least, its violence should be treated with more gravitas. Either way, there shouldn’t be less violence, but there should be less combat.
People often equate violence with combat, but “combat” is the act of fighting whereas “violence” describes the content of that fight. One serves a gameplay purpose, the other serves a thematic purpose, and in Bioshock Infinite, one is used inadequately, while the other is used too often.
I have a problem with Booker. He’s supposed to be an extremely violent man racked with guilt over his past actions, though that guilt in no way tempers him or prevents him from committing more violence in the streets of Columbia. He’s supposed to be a man caught in a vicious loop consisting of violence that begets guilt that begets more violence. He’s supposed to be an asshole, but the game just treats him as a typical “rogue” hero, not even as an anti-hero. Elizabeth even describes him as “the roguish type” soon after they first meet, and he sticks to that archetype throughout the rest of the game.
But Booker isn’t a good person. At least, that’s what the game seems to be trying to say. Perhaps the game was trying to subvert the “rogue” archetype, revealing the jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold to be just another jerk, but it fails to emphasize this point. It fails to focus on Booker’s negative character traits. Specifically, his capacity and willingness to commit violence.
The game fails to establish his addiction-like circle of violence and guilt. His moments of extreme violence are brief and the game never dwells on them, almost as if it is afraid to let us dislike Booker. He needs to strangle people with the sky hook, he needs to dig it into their skulls, and he needs to do this often enough that it becomes a character trait. But he never does. The game treats this violence as just a side-effect of first-person shooter combat, not as a character choice. Bioshock Infinite is violent because violence sells, not because Booker is a violent man. Therefore, either the game needs to treat its existing violence with more horror, or it needs to up the level of violence so that we players naturally feel horrified by what’s on screen (honestly, the first choice seems far easier to accomplish).
Regarding the combat: I had a great light bulb moment when playing through Bioshock Infinite a second time. I was in an elevator with Elizabeth, and she said something that stuck me as a particularly great piece of writing. Knowing how everything ends, knowing the truth of this universe, her words were filled with double meanings and irony. The game was playing with the idea of identity. It seemed to take joy in showing how two different people deal with the same problem in different ways, allowing us to see how the same events can change people in different ways.
However, for the life of me, I can’t tell you what Elizabeth actually said. I remember how her words made me feel, but I can’t remember any of the details because not five minutes after our conversation, I was deep in combat and my mind had moved on from story, theme, and character to enemy positions, vigor combinations, gear loadouts, ammo conservation, skyline locations, salt supplies, and gun drops.
There’s probably about 30 minutes of combat for every 30 seconds of conversation with Elizabeth. Bioshock Infinite suffers from the same pacing problem that many games suffer from: It separates gameplay moments from story moments, then gives us so gameplay in between the story that it’s hard to keep track of those important, fascinating, thematically rich conversations. I spend so much time thinking about how to kill that I forget why I’m killing.
Taken on their own, I absolutely love the combat mechanics in the game. I beat the game on 1999 mode, and the difficulty forced me to really dig deep into those vigor combinations, gear loadouts, etc. I discovered how awesome skylines can be with the right gear and how shockingly effective the vigors can be when upgraded and used at the right time. I was able to experience a depth that had completely eluded me on my first playthrough. The combat in Bioshock Infinite is superb, but it really does interrupt the story. In fact, the fun combat only makes the pacing issues worse, since it means I’m more immersed in the moment and it’s easier to forget those short bits of dialogue that preceded the combat.
This YouTube movie of Bioshock Infinite has a majority of the combat edited out, and it clocks in at just over three and half hours. It took me at least 10 hours to beat the game. That means there’s six and a half hours of irrelevant shooting to three and a half hours of actual plot. That’s not a good ratio. There’s clearly too much combat in this game.
It’s a classic video game dilemma: Which do you want, combat or story? You can only prioritize one and no matter which one you choose someone is going to complain that you made the wrong choice. Bioshock Infinite chose to prioritize gameplay over story, and I think it made the wrong choice. Maybe if the combat was more violent, it would seem more thematically relevant and not be such a distraction. But it’s not more violent, so it is a distraction.
At least it’s fun.