The infinite world of video games is a space constructed by rules, by mechanics, and is wrapped in a window dressing of textures and shaders and voice acting, among many other elements, in the hopes to entangle your emotional investment into a narrative, whether that be heavily scripted or open ended. Yet at the end of the day, the rules, they still matter more than anything, and what you do with them in regards to the window dressing, can say a lot more about the people setting those rules than they may intend.
So Bioshock: Infinite, led by an entirely white team, after trampling upon people of color and declaring the supremacy of the angry white man with a gun over all, including the victims of the very real racism of 1910 represented by Comstock, the overt racists who couldn’t possibly share anything with the angry white men of today, and in the end, the white guilt that is just the biggest burden in the world, apparently, considering that’s the note it ended on.
The Vox Populi, led by Daisy, had a cause to which I was committed – fight the oppressors. In Columbia, black bodies were enslaved, passive, villainized and discarded. I could not have been happier to arm them and assist their revolt against the horrific racism rampant through the city. Then, for the sake of a plot twist, I found myself having to fight them instead. As I fought them to progress Booker and Elizabeth’s stories I kept asking out loud in my empty apartment, “Why? Why am I doing this?” With every member of the Vox Populi I murdered, I was erasing their history and oppression one bullet at a time. They aren’t the enemies. They aren’t my enemies.
I was crestfallen and ashamed, but mostly I was angry. I could not believe how poorly oppression and racism was handled simply to advance the stories of a white man and woman. Daisy and the Vox had been robbed of their voices to shout for their rights and freedoms. I found myself wondering, “Did the writing team even consider how offensive this is to black people?” And I decided that the only solution to properly represent stories of colour is to have people of colour write them.
When people of colour don’t write their own stories in games, they end up in hands that will be neither delicate nor fair. The stories end up as botched as BioShock: Infinite where the oppressed turn to extreme violence and act like animals in the guise of creating a morally complex narrative where ethnicity disappears into the wind of white guilt. Daisy was right in saying, “The only thing a coloured child can depend on is the fact they invisible.”
Now, in the post-release downloadable content, the godlike duo of Booker and Elizabeth with their invincible manshooting and mystical worldbending settle into a quiet life down under the sea in pre-Bioshock 1 Rapture. A cute little noir tale in an art deco city under the sea, to help fill out some pre-manshooter atmosphere by walking through some heavily scripted, non-interactive sequences and shooting a lot of dudes under the sea.
But that’s not all! Now you get to play as Strong Female Character Elizabeth, who could, in Ken Levine’s words, “take care of herself,” by being made invisible to enemy A.I. and fetching items for the all powerful player character! Apparently, however, under the immense pressure of being a thousand leagues under the sea, Elizabeth loses these two mechanics of her character, instead taking on a new direction according to Ken Levine, “Elizabeth is much more fragile, in terms of in terms of combat…it’s even more towards a survival horror game…Getting her to use the environment, using tears to create things in the environment to lure people into and sneak up on people and avoid people, that’s very much a part of being Elizabeth.”
Why is this so? What fundamentally differentiates Elizabeth and the all powerful Booker in the world of Infinite? I mean, both are white, disgruntled, and essentially walking gods in the base game, so why does playing with her have to be a fundamentally “weaker” experience of avoiding enemies and hiding, in this world where it’s established that killing thousands of people without remorse regardless of motive or background matter is the only way to succeed?
Oh, wait. Hold on. No, I get it. I just remembered. Elizabeth is a woman. A frail painted jezebel, who couldn’t possibly survive on her own, if it wasn’t for the strong willed, Captain of (Murder) Industry protecting her with several thousand rounds of ammunition. You see, having two XX chromosomes just compromises your testosterone glands and makes you just physically unable to sprint about strapped to the teeth with half a dozen of the deadliest weapons ever conceived, loaded for bear. I’m sorry ladies, but that’s just the rules of Ken Levine’s Magnum Opus, The Bioshock Franchise.
The rules matter, you see. They matter more than anything in a game. As badly as Levine wants to drag you through his universe and his story through non-interactive, scripted sequences separated by blasting away (or apparently sneaking by) hundreds of nameless goons, he’s still making a game, and as “true art” the mechanics that the player interacts with are still making a statement - and with the Bioshock: Infinite franchise Levine is upholding the very institutions of racism and misogyny that he benefits from on a daily basis, by embracing them in his little worlds with the nonsensical mechanics explained only by one’s personal bigotry, and their inability to see outside it. In a world of multiple dimensions and cities both above the clouds and under the sea, the perception that women are fundamentally weaker than men lives on as a reality, and not a socially ingrained deception.
So yet again, Ken Levine and his creative team of mainly male, all white individuals are going to profit and benefit from upholding systemic bigotry for the sake of violent entertainment. This is the sad state of video games as an art form in 2013, that makes it just as legitimate as cinema or literature or any other form of “true art” - where a world of ultimate, almost “infinite” fantasy can be created, where a man can shrug off hundreds of bullets by simply catching a breather behind a solid object, a woman has to hide and sneak and lay traps like a frail little angry straight white not-man.
This is the true survival horror of Bioshock Infinite - is that it’s so many trying to survive under the massive, colossal monster that is a single angry white man’s character arc, who with infinite firepower and nearly unlimited survivability, all those who share the world with him are at his mercy. All those who stand against him are blown away, forgotten an instant later. It’s like a bad Frank Frazetta tribute come to life. The way they construct their society ignoring this fact, trying to pretend The Protagionist is not the physical center of their existence, is a depressing, yet horrifying prospect, a Sisyphean ideal that would drive Camus to madness.
It really does say something, that the first time you play as a woman in the Bioshock universe, you are physically weaker, trapped in a survival horror game, where you must hide and lay traps and scrape by to survive. For this crime, of filling the shoes of being a female character, the power you’re so used to is stripped from you. This is the irrational logic that inhabits the minds of Ken Levine and his design team, that so many pay witness to and line their pockets, and the pockets of their publisher.
And yet again, it will surely be regarded as “true art,” some sort of great accomplishment of the medium, as once again video games travel along the same roads of paintings, cinema, and literature to become a culturally respected method of expression. It’s such a shame that it has to be done trampling over those who weren’t lucky enough to be born disgruntled, white, and male.
What a horror we’re already trying to survive.