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The Politics of 'BioShock Infinite' Are All the Worse When Revisited in a Heated Election Year

But while its narrative is politically pessimistic, Irrational's shooter was, and remains, very positive about video games as a form.

by Ed Smith
Oct 4 2016, 4:37pm

It originally launched just three years ago, but BioShock Infinite, even compared to the other, older BioShock games, feels dated. Its obiter dictum on politics—whether far right or far left, everyone is equally questionable—in this US election year rings particularly false. Only a writer unaware of politics could suggest a Donald Trump is as promising a presidential candidate as a Hillary Clinton. Similarly, the game's examination of religion, and its symbiotic relationship to patriotism, is too open to interpretation. In light of games like Actual Sunlight, Life is Strange, and The Magic Circle, all of which have launched since 2013, all of which approach their respective subject matters with conviction and determination, Infinite's insistence on giving every side of an argument an equal share of the floor makes it feel weightless.

Imbued with what they perceive as a God-given right to rule all peoples, Infinite's ultra-American residents of the floating city of Columbia are racist, exceptionalist, and vehemently capitalist. But also, they live in utopia. The reveal of the city, when players emerge through the clouds and gaze at it framed perfectly through a window, while serenaded by tender religious music, is undoubtedly ingratiating—BioShock Infinite wants us to think this place is beautiful.

Instead of expanding on what they can or can't talk about, BioShock Infinite does what video games have always done: Try not to piss off any customers.

Of course, the façade is gradually removed. As well as its picturesque welcoming center, you are taken to Columbia's slums. But this supposed balancing of perspectives betrays not BioShock Infinite's impartiality, or its writers' integral journalism, but an absence of conviction. Instead of expanding on what they can or can't, should or shouldn't talk about, BioShock Infinite does what video games have always done: try not to piss off any customers.

Documentary maker Adam Curtis describes how politicians today, rather than leaders are perceived as "managers of public life." His film The Trap scrutinizes a style of government, practiced by both the American neo-conversatives and British New Labour, which relies heavily on focus testing, statistical analysis, and constant canvassing of opinion. Such a managerial style is echoed by Infinite's refusal to take a side or make, concretely, any point—its politicizing may be visible, but it's always safe. And in this election year, such a quotidian approach to real-world issues may prove costly. If Clinton is struggling to ignite both young and floating voters, it's because, unlike the unpredictable, entertaining Trump, she's perceived like one of Curtis's managers, a president as usual. When the Republican candidate is as perilous as this year's, one is glad for a steadier, saner Democrat. On the other hand, when you replay BioShock Infinite and imbibe its evasive, watery politics, you cannot help but envy the right wing and its privilege of fierce, definite rhetoric.

BioShock Infinite poses questions, and to that Alamo of self-justification the game can always fall back—like it or not, Infinite dared to ask. But surely we're capable of asking questions ourselves. Particularly in 2016, when the internet provides such a cavalcade of information and opinion, we look to entertainment and art if not for answers then at least for qualified perspective. We trust authors, and film, music and game-makers to be atop their platforms because they have something to say, not something to ask. If BioShock Infinite is merely repeating back to us broad political questions—who can I trust? With what should I identify? Is my country all that great?—then rather than urgent or acerbic satire, its achievement is in capturing uncertainty and insecurity. These are feelings that people, when they turn to proclaimed political observers and commentators, want to be rid of—Infinite only makes them stronger.

More than people, the game is interested in cold, aloof essayism. Two games that came after Infinite, The Talos Principle and The Stanley Parable, address more artistic form and gaseous, theoretical questions, and can almost get away with their absence of heart and humanity. But when Infinite is talking about politics, religion, and race, and treats all three subjects like thought experiments, to be kicked around and intellectually masturbated over, it rapidly drains the game of credibility.

Perhaps, if you squint your brain, there is some truth to its central, cynical assertion. But in modern America, juxtaposing a rich white character and a poor black one, in order to make a point about equality—equality of power, responsibility, and culpability—ignores an overwhelming amount of real-world context. Father Comstock, Infinite's white villain, does many bad things. Daisy Fitzroy, his impoverished, black opponent, does bad things also. Implying that makes them equally immoral however fails to account for either the characters' respective backgrounds or the real-life social circumstances by which they are inspired in the first place. When in 2016 almost five out of every million black people are killed by US police, as opposed to two out of every million whites, and when black American women are paid on average 19 percent less than white American women, it's hard to simply agree—for example—with Infinite's tacit implication that Comstock and Fitzroy can have their actions or characters compared on the same moral grounds.

BioShock Infinite implies punching up is as bad as punching down; stealing bread to feed a family is as criminal as stealing it just because you can. These are moral absolutes and in dispassionate, purely academic discussion they may serve fine. But they make no accommodation either for people. At best, Infinite is the equivalent of book learning. It purports to be taking the pulse of a nation, and capturing the voice of the population, but in favor of its own middlebrow posturing ignores the contexts governing that population's wildly varying experiences. The opposite of good journalism—the opposite of rending the zeitgeist—the game cares primarily about what and who without really asking, let alone trying to understand, why.

'BioShock Infinite,' launch trailer (2013)

Infinite's other main thematic concern, the relationship between the game's maker(s) and its player(s), is handled with greater nuance. Whereas BioShock suggested the player could be either an unaware supplicant of the developer or a mischievous, destructive singularity, and BioShock 2 implied developer and player could work together, so long as they accepted their mutual creation would be chaos, Infinite, more optimistic, envisions genuine, beneficial cooperation.

The Handyman, one of Infinite's most powerful enemies, is a human head on a robotic body—a mix of man and machine. The gun turrets are all modeled on people and resemble a soldier carrying a rifle. Vending machines take the form of a speaking mannequin called Dollar Bill. Columbia's July 6 parade, marking its secession from the United States, features several mechanical horses. Characters like these—combinations of routine, robotic mechanisms and lifelike, even organic parts—resemble a symbiosis between the predictable and unpredictable, the video game as intended and the video game as played. The Handyman is a tortured figure, but at least he works. The clinking, clanging metal horses won't fool anybody for long, but more than in previous BioShock games, they suggest an element of wildness can survive filtering through such a tame form.

Even the player's death, which games routinely ignore and retcon by simply restarting, as if nothing had happened, becomes canon in Infinite. Appropriate to the game's dimension-hopping narrative, every game over represents the forging of a new timeline. Each time you revive, by walking through the door of Booker DeWitt's office, you are stepping out into a fresh reality—you are not dead, but the fact this new dimension has been forged means you did die, and the game acknowledges it.

Infinite's examination of game-maker/-player relations is much more expert than its predecessors'. Nevertheless, when playing it now, as part of 2016's BioShock: The Collection, it's difficult to care. How many times do we need it pointed out? Of course games are artificial. Of course the player's freedom is limited. Of course our actions and decisions are, in big and small ways, influenced or even made for us by the game-maker. Like its removed political oversights, Infinite's deliberations over the nature of games and the passivity or impassivity of writer and player feel largely self-interested—its two central preoccupations, simplistic moralizing and prodding at narrative form, leave you convinced that rather than moral, social, or human issues, Infinite is interested in sophomoric debates about video games.

It asks redundant questions; it gives few or slight answers. In such a heated political climate and with games, surely by now, grown out of idle self-inspection, BioShock Infinite, for all its at-the-time acclaim, feels very limited.

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