I stumbled back through Rapture last week in BioShock Infinite’s “Burial at Sea” DLC, and the game did that annoying thing where it talked down to me for playing it.
It’s one of those things that video games have been trying to do lately, and it’s kind of sort of infuriating.
There aren’t many moments in which BioShock Infinite is willfully self-aware, but there is a glaring one in “Burial at Sea.” It takes place when players hit the half of the DLC in which a gun is thrust back into your hand — the opening moments (anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, depending on how much you’re willing to screw around listening to half-conversations as you move through the underwater Ayn Randian city that serves as setting) being fully free of combat — when you enter Fontaine’s Department Store, which the powers that be in Rapture first turned into a prison for people they considered enemies, and then sunk away from the rest of the city. That building is filled to the brim with folks who have gone insane from “splicing,” the game’s weird gene-enhancement mechanic, and who are super-aggressive and attack you on sight.
Midway through that portion of the DLC, it’s possible to wander into a section of the store that once served as its bridal department. If you approach a little slowly, you’ll stumble into a room a particular woman splicer has arranged with mannequins, and you can listen to her have imaginary conversations at her imaginary wedding. My first time through this area, upon seeing the woman, I flat-out wasted her immediately, because every single other person I had encountered up until then had attacked me.
Queue the philosophical musings of Elizabeth, the companion character you drag through Infinite who supports protagonist Booker DeWitt and who is more or less a noncombatant. Elizabeth says something to the effect of, “Was she dangerous, or was she just insane?”
Booker, ever pragmatic, responds with something like, “I’ll be sure to ask next time.”
Of course, the implication here is that deadly force upon arrival, with no information as to the circumstances of this poor woman — who, like everyone in this place, is as much a victim as a villain — might not be the only course. My unwillingness to think of any other way through this situation resulted in a potentially unnecessary death. “Did you really need to pull that trigger?” the game asks.
So I replayed the section to see if I really didn’t, because by and large, I find games in which you don’t kill everything that moves to be more interesting than the ones in which you do. I wandered into the imaginary wedding again. I moved slowly. I listened to all the audio there was to overhear. And then I stepped into the gallery filled with mannequins.
And of course the woman attacked me on sight. And I wasted her. And Elizabeth said her piece about maybe not killing folks again, and Booker said his.
Except this time, I obviously did need to kill her because there was no other way. Splicers chase you down with single-minded purpose, and she would have attacked me with the gun she carried until I died and had to reload the area. So what, exactly, is BioShock Infinite saying here when Elizabeth asks me if, as I’m being shot, I really need to shoot this insane person the game has stuck in my path?
Nothing, is what it’s saying. Because BioShock Infinite, like lots of other games that make a pass at this sort of moral depth, doesn’t provide a language to communicate with characters in its game outside of killing them.
BioShock isn’t the first game to do this, of course, but it is the latest and it got me thinking again about the subject. As games attempt to mature and the people making them sometimes attempt to use them to say something more than “Isn’t this awesome?!!!?!”, we wind up with these sorts of comments: a half-hearted look at the violence portrayed in games even as the game trades on that violence. For two more great examples, see Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line, a pair of games that, as I wrote for Game Front, seem to hate the people who play them.
Spec Ops is especially guilty of this mentality, all but calling the player a murderer for in-game murders you literally cannot avoid committing. Far Cry 3 is a bit more subtle, instead choosing to roll out a subtextual comment about the arrested development of players by mirroring it with in-game characters.
In both cases, the super-smart developers seem to miss the fact that video games are a system with defined rules, and the player’s only means of interacting with that system is by acting within that set of rules.
It’s not like there’s a “Try to talk sense to the psychopath” button. You don’t get an opportunity to accept the surrender of enemy soldiers. You literally are a floating gun in most games (certainly in all the above case), so for developers to make a comment about your wielding the gun they’ve forced you to wield feels like it completely misses the point.
These devs are making a comment about the medium by way of criticizing its audience, but I can’t really consider my own actions if I really have no choices. For an interactive medium to ask a player to think about whether they truly must peddle only death, there has to be an alternative somewhere.
I truly believe we’re on the cusp of games maturing as a medium into something more relevant as a means of asking meaningful questions, engendering empathy and emotional responses, and allowing players to think deeply about their actions. But right now, it seems that all games can do is make comments about themselves, and not very well. It’s not until more games start to question not why we play games but why games have the rules that they do that we’ll start to get more meaningful comments on digital acts of violence and the reason so many creators and consumers gravitate toward them. There’s still a lot of growing up to do.
Meanwhile, if you want a comment on game narratives and the choices we make by the very act of being players, try Save the Date. It’s free*.
*Actually, the Paper Dino site seems to be down as I write this. Hopefully it’ll be back soon.