When does religious devotion cross the line from piety to blind zealotry? How does national pride morph into tightfisted jingoism, and progressive change rot into racial hatred? Come to think of it, what makes us so certain that our reality is the only one we're connected to? What if our smallest decisions could somehow alter dozens if not hundreds of other realities similar to our own?
Those kinds of thought-provoking, esoteric questions might not seem like the sorts of things you'd normally be wrestling with while playing a video game. But some games (and, therefore, gamemakers) are all about the questions and the unknowns. So they artfully weave those kinds of "how comes" and "what ifs" into twisting, turning storyline quests for answers. Such is the case with the action-adventure shooter BioShock Infinite.
Of Barbershop Quartets and Cloudy Desires
Like BioShock and BioShock 2 before it, this third entry in the series takes place in a retro city filled with wondrous machines. It's a strange society of people sequestered from the rest of the world. But we don't dive down to the deep-sea dystopian land of Rapture this time around. This trip swoops us up, up, up into the skies above the United States circa 1912. We enter a cloud-floating metropolis filled with early 20th-century architecture and golden statuary. It's a place of quiet hymns, sunny picnics and dapper straw hats. It's a shining cityscape of devoted believers led by a Scripture-twisting prophet named Father Comstock. They call it Columbia.
Gamers start out with little more than the knowledge that they're a former Pinkerton detective named Booker DeWitt. He's a savvy tough who's handed a small box of odds and ends and given a mission: "Bring the girl and wipe away the debt." So once he makes his way to Columbia's sky-high streets it's all about piecing together clues and finding out what drives this Father Comstock and his devoted followers.
What caused them to secede from the Union and take to the skies? Why do they have a young girl named Elizabeth locked away in a high tower, protected by an enormous clockwork creature named Songbird? What are those strange dimension-hopping powers she possesses? What does she and this bizarre society have to do with Booker? And why do two letters scratched into the back of his hand brand him as a long-prophesized heretic?
Mr. DeWitt Takes It to Mr. Washington
The questions stretch on and on. And while Booker frantically works to rescue the innocent but supernaturally gifted Elizabeth and find his nook-and-cranny-hidden answers, he's also forced to defend himself from Comstock's fearsome followers. He does so with pistols, rifles, machine guns and shotguns, along with some powerful abilities called "vigors." Like the original game's "plasmids," vigors give Booker the ability to toss magic-like zaps at his foes. He can also levitate them from behind obstacles and pick them off with a pistol, or yank them over to him for an up-close shotgun blast, or hit them with a bolt of electricity. He can summon a flock of ravenous crows that stun and peck at people until a killing blow can be delivered. Booker also has a handheld hook-like device that can be used to connect to and quickly travel the city on Skyline rails … or as a flesh-ravaging melee weapon.
Add that all together and you've got a whole lot of visceral and ugly death-dealing. This may be a cerebral amusement on one side of the gaming coin, but it's an extremely violent, gritty pursuit on the other. Yes, some of the enemies are mechanical—such as the George Washington robot that totes a devastating Gatling gun while spouting red-white-and-blue bromides—but most of the baddies are all flesh and gushing crimson. Characters burn and are ripped, torn and dismembered in many a gruesome way. Bones break and blood burbles. Some of the worst kills are those delivered by the skyhook that digs and rends its way into an enemy's writhing body and can even lop a head clean off if positioned correctly.
There's a bit of foul language that spatters the messy parts as well. We hear s-words, "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n" and misuses of God's and Jesus' names. And there's quite a lot of racist lingo, including slurs such as "chink" and "injun."
The Message Behind the Action Behind the Gore
Columbia is portrayed as an all-white city that frowns angrily at any soul with a different sort of skin. In fact, one of Booker's first interactions at a town celebration offers him the chance to throw a baseball at a bound black couple brought in for the "festivities." If he hesitates, he's chided with, "You're not taking your coffee black these days are you?"
Granted, these types of purposefully provocative moments are woven into the storyline to shock and challenge gamers to think about their own possibly misguided philosophies and beliefs. But, frankly, they can also be easily misinterpreted, depending on who's sitting behind the game controller.
As classic hymns such as "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and "Down to the River to Pray" play out, and blindly obedient bad choices are made by Comstock devotees, one could find oneself thinking that the game is lumping all people of faith into a group of simpleminded folks duped by false hopes and foolishness. In Columbia, American idealism and conservative values could be seen as corrupt manipulative forces among a people all too comfortable with racial extremism.
It's quite plain, then, that this is far more than your average shooter. It's clever. It's complicated. But it's shockingly carnivorous, too.