Photographs courtesy Elise Amendola/AP
“Did we even play the same game? What game were you playing?”
I’ve heard myself say this and I’ve heard others say it to me enough times that by now, I know the answer. No, we were not playing the same game. We have all played a different game. We all came at it from a different angle.
I didn’t play the same Bioshock Infinite as everyone else.
Bioshock Infinite unnerved me from the get-go, and that feeling never ended. After only a couple hours of play, I Googled, “can Booker be trusted?” I suspected my own protagonist—myself!—of betrayal. I Googled Elizabeth, too. I didn’t trust her, either. But I didn’t click on any links. I opened up the Wikipedia entry a couple of times, but I didn’t read it all.
I felt almost ready to spoil myself, though, and I gave myself permission to do it if I needed to. The game stressed me out, and not in a fun or suspenseful way. Speaking of spoiling myself, I played the game on Easy mode. This is the first time I’ve ever played a game on Easy, so take note. Call it pride, call it arrogance, call it an inferiority complex—I just don’t like playing on Easy. But this game? I needed this game to feel easier. Because it was already too hard for me to play.
Bioshock Infinite begins on a special day in Columbia. It’s the anniversary of the floating island’s secession from the Union. Happy people of all ages pack the streets to celebrate with fair food and raffles and games. There are flags, and fireworks, and hot dogs, and everyone is looking at me. Everyone is pale; everyone wears a placid smile and dead eyes.
Huge statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and a mysterious fictional man named Comstock loom on street corners. These figures seem to be objects of worship. At one point, I have to wait in front of a turnstile to watch a parade of theocratic imagery fly by.
The setting seems at once familiar and uncanny, with its 1912 setting interrupted by occasional anachronisms, like the barbershop quartet singing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” to a handful of passers-by.
For me, the scene felt familiar and unsettling for other reasons. I couldn’t put my finger on the resemblance right away, though.
On our way to the raffle, Booker and I ran into a sign that told us to beware anyone with “AD” tattooed on their hand. That person is a False Prophet. Booker looks at his hand, and … uh-oh. I guess I’m the Anti-Christ around these parts?
When we get to the raffle, the host on the stage tells us to throw a baseball at an interracial couple. Suddenly, the whiteness of everyone in the town makes sense. And as soon as I lift Booker’s hand to throw the ball—no matter whether I aim it at the couple or the announcer—everybody sees that tattoo, and it’s all over.
Who attacks first? Do they? Do I? I can’t recall how the scene went down, even now. I only remember the dead eyes of a man who grabbed me, those dead eyes soaring upward after I sliced his head off with a huge metal hook.
Where did I get that metal hook, come to think of it? It all happened so fast, I really couldn’t tell you. And when did I—when did Booker—get that tattoo? What does it mean? Who are all of these people? It seems a little late to ask those questions now that I have already killed ten of them. They were attacking me first, of course! ... Right? Twenty down, by now. Maybe more. Better pick up their weapons and keep moving.
Perhaps if I had gone quietly, I would’ve ended up in a jail cell somewhere, content to watch the game credits roll through a barred window. No, no, of course not—this isn’t a world where people go quietly. This is a world of robots and vigors and super-powers and very special, special heroes like Booker, heroes with health bars, heroes who don’t care about whether or not the bottle of vigors has been tested. I’m the protagonist! It’s going to be fine! Another character mentions to me that it’s sort of weird that I’m still alive, that the volume of mysterious vigor bottles I’ve consumed has made me stronger instead of killing me, but whatever. I probably deserve to live, because of my inherent awesomeness. Videogames!
After using my handy metal hook to sling myself around the city on public transit air rails, I kill a balcony full of—police? Military? They have guns, so they’ve gotta go. I land on the ledge and listen to a loudspeaker announcement.
A woman’s voice tells everyone to remain calm, to go into their homes. There’s just a man on the loose and he has already killed a lot of people and he may kill goodness knows who else. Yes, yes, it is a special holiday for us and it’s awful that it’s been ruined by all this anarchy and murder. Please stay inside until we find him and subdue him.
Just stay inside.
I stood still on the balcony for a moment, because that spooked feeling in my stomach had finally made it all the way to my brain. Oh.
I had been in lockdown myself mere days before. I live in Boston, only a few train stops away from Copley Square, where two bombers killed innocent marathon attendees on Patriot’s Day. I watched smoke rise over bloody streets on CNN’s live video feed, in my apartment. I saw the Marathon Sports store with its windows blown out—the place where I’d bought my sneakers, the very shoes I had on my feet at that moment. That store was across the street from the public library that I’d chosen not to go to that day in an effort to avoid big Patriot’s Day crowds, opting to tune out all sounds of fun and write from home instead. I’ve grown up in the Boston area; I spent my childhood and adulthood attending Patriot’s Day parties that took place along the marathon route. The whole city shuts down to accommodate the event and the celebrations that surround it, after all. I could hear drunken revelry outside my window for most of the day. On any other Patriot’s Day, the sounds of celebration would’ve lasted through the evening.
The week following Patriot’s Day was a blur of confusion, culminating in the two bombing suspects shooting a police officer on Thursday night and the entire city going into lockdown all day Friday. Don’t go outside, they told us. Cops will be coming from house to house, checking on you … checking to see if you’re harboring a criminal. This is for your safety. There’s nothing you can do but sit and wait.
I remembered all of this as Booker and I walked into the house attached to the balcony. I heard a woman downstairs speaking to some cops, describing what I looked like. As I turned a corner, I saw that a sketch artist had begun to draw me. Was that me? That didn’t look like me … or, it didn’t look like what I thought I looked like. What did I look like?
I didn’t have time to think about it. Everyone started shooting, everyone except the woman. She huddled on the ground, her hands over her head, rocking back and forth. I killed all the men in the room, one by one. One man by the fireplace only had a pistol. Was he her husband? Was he a cop? He’s dead now.
I walked over to the woman and looked at her. She whimpered and did not get up; she just kept shaking. I saw a plate of oranges on a nearby table and I ate them, for a health boost, while I stared at her. Then I thought about how weird it must be to watch a man murder everyone in your house and then stand over you eating two of your oranges while you cry. I felt like an asshole.
Bioshock Infinite is a game about fate. It’s about infinite worlds, but not infinite choices. You already are the Anti-Christ here before you even know what that means. You already were always going to kill all of those cops. You already were always going to eat oranges while innocent people without guns cowered and waited for you to leave, hoped you wouldn’t hurt them.
Booker uses violence to change the world around him. I have to assume, from the outset, that he’s in the right to do this. I’m cool with interracial couples! And this whole wacky racist town thinks I’m evil, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been set up! So, uh … murder, right? Murder. Seems totally justified.
We may not be living in 1912 anymore, and we may not be on a fantastical floating island where people can attain super-powers via fancy “vigor” cocktails, but people are still racist even today. People are still sexist, too. People are still power-hungry; authority figures still make terrible decisions every single day. People do use violence to change the world around them. And even the “bad guys” actually do think that they are good … and when the “good guys” start getting violent, too, it gets harder to tell what’s what anymore.
The fact that the game justifies its violence because all of these people live in a racist, old-timey, socially stunted society seems like … not enough, to me, right now. The fact that the violence is only against cops and military personnel, people whose careers are marked by violence, feels like not enough to me, either, given how many people I’ve seen mourn Sean Collier’s death over the course of the past week. He was a cop, so I guess he … I can’t even finish the thought. He didn’t deserve it.
As Patriot’s Day and the week following it unfolded, I stayed even more glued to the news than usual. What I read haunted me, still haunts me, still echoes in Infinite for me: the bombers’ political affiliations and their racism, as well as the known systemic racism of the Boston Police Department. Recollections of police brutality, especially during Occupy Boston. Obama taking a break from calling for drone strikes abroad to tell my city about how he wants to keep us safe. We have to stay inside to stay safe, and we have to trust our authority figures to know who the real bad guys are.
Those concepts ticked by in my brain like a news crawler as I shot at the people in this videogame. I can kill these people because I am a good guy, I thought. But when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you’re holding a gun, everyone looks like a bad guy. But what if you’re a bad guy, too?
I didn’t trust Booker, mostly because of the week I’d had before I played the game. But Booker didn’t do much to help his case. I couldn’t understand his grim acceptance of his Anti-Christ fate and his dutiful slaughter of a town full of mysterious opponents, or his insistence throughout his journey that he didn’t trust any of the other authority figures in the game, either. All violence and all power-seeking behaviors seem evil to Booker, but that doesn’t stop him from doing both himself. The game winks at Booker’s hypocrisy on this point throughout, but it offers no alternative. How do we change the system, affect the world around us, without violence? We can’t think of any alternatives in real life, and that leaks into our art as well, it seems.
Booker can never escape his fate. He cannot change the world around him. He does not even have the power to change himself. No one in this game can, no matter how hard they try, no matter how these space-time rifts and superpowers make it appear as though people can mend the errors of their ways or wash away their sins. Booker is still Booker. Booker still makes Booker’s mistakes.
I’m not sure how well Bioshock Infinite’s lesson—that we are bound by fate, that we are who we are and we cannot escape ourselves—holds up outside of constructed narratives. I hope it doesn’t hold up. I hope that people, that societies can change. But I admit, I can’t point to very many real-life examples. I don’t even know how that kind of change might occur. If I did, I’d have saved the actual world by now, as opposed to a handful of virtual ones.
Maddy Myers used to write a column about videogames for the recently deceased Boston Phoenix. She now writes a biweekly column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.