The moment you can't ignore in Bioshock Infinite

A videogame that dares to address the banality of racist violence.

Just a few minutes in to BioShock Infinite is a scene that pulled me up short. Your character, Booker DeWitt, has been transported to what looks like a vintage all-American paradise, a city floating in the sky. Strolling through a carnival, he is asked to take part in a “lottery” and handed a baseball. The stage curtains pull back and there stand a white man and a black woman, bound and tied to stakes. That baseball you’re holding? You’re supposed to stone them with it.

Rarely have I been so uncomfortable playing a video game, but the effect is deliberate: BioShock Infinite is determined to make its largely American audience engage with aspects of its history that it would probably rather forget.

Over the course of the game, the spotless, well-ordered city of Columbia is revealed to be part of an explicitly racist police state, one that an Occupy-like group called Vox Populi is threatening to disrupt.

All of this is calculated to get writers like me in a lather; although games have many wonderful qualities, serious engagement with politics is rarely one of them. (I have never seen the phrase “American exceptionalism” appear so often on game blogs before.) The stoning scene also poses an intriguing question – because, minutes after it, I was loosing off rounds into every guard I could see and even stoving in the head of one of them with a hand-held chainsaw.

How, I asked the game’s creative director, Ken Levine, on his recent press tour in London, do you make the player switch between feeling painful levels of empathy and feeling no empathy at all? “There are a lot of reasons why that stoning scene is so uncomfortable,” he said. “There’s the racial component; there’s the powerlessness . . . They are not a threat to you. They are humiliated.

“Have you ever seen photos of lynchings? They were basically parties. It was so shocking to me . . . Anybody with a working sense of ethics understands that hurting powerless creatures is cruelty.” The guards, meanwhile, are trying to kill you, so you feel no compunction in killing them first.

Levine is also concerned with how to create a connection between the player and the game’s characters. In too many titles, the people in them are simply plot dispensers or, worse, broad-brush versions of a stereotype.

At Bafta on Piccadilly the night before our interview, he explained how using a first-person camera angle encourages you to identify with the protagonist. At the same time, other characters must have rounded personalities, shown through the quality of their dialogue, voice acting and facial expressions. (The designers gave the companion Elizabeth oversized eyes so that she can communicate better.) If Levine succeeds, BioShock Infinite will achieve something momentous – making video games more human.

Author's update:

I wrote this piece for the magazine - hence the shortness - so expect more trilling on the subject from me in the future, as I've vowed to try to avoid reading anyone else's pieces on the game until I finish it. But I did want to mention one other moment near the start, because it chimed with something I heard Danny Boyle tell Chris Evans on his breakfast show on Friday: "70 per cent of a movie is sound". He went on to give a really interesting outline of how your eye travels ahead, always looking for the surprise; but your ear is much easier to shock with a sudden noise or burst of music.

Anyway, I then thought about all the bits of games that I never, ever think about when doing reviews: like the sound effects, which in Bioshock: Infinite are often similar to, although not identical to, those from the original game.

But I think this might also be the first game where the rumble pack is used artistically. I've seen it put to utilitarian purposes in things like Heavy Rain,  first-person shooters, or even titles like Johann Sebastian Joust, obviously.

At the start of the Bioshock Infinite, you blast off from a rocket-fuelled pod fired from a lighthouse and the rumble pack in your controller whirrs like crazy. Then - then - you break through the clouds, and the sunlight breaks across the floating of city of Columbia, and the choral music wafts across the breeze. And the rocket engines stop, and the rumble pack and the on-screen sound effects fall silent. 

It's very much like that moment during take-off on an aircraft when you go down the runway . . . . runrunrunrunrunLIFT. It gives you a real feeling of peace. 

And I bet no review you'll read mentions it. 

 

A still from the beginning of Bioshock: Infinite

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Prince’s wife ate other people’s room service (and other Paisley Park tales)

She couldn’t afford to order her own on the $300 a week he was paying her.

 I’m on the phone to Prince’s first wife and I’m trying to picture the wrestling. He had a very strong upper body, Mayte Garcia says brightly – but she had very powerful legs.

“When he knocked me down, I would take my legs around his body and squeeze really hard. So he stopped tackling me down to the floor.” She doesn’t know why they wrestled – couples do weird things, don’t they? Like the hypnosis. In her new book, she says she loved the hypnosis because it was the only time he’d let her talk without interrupting her.

Garcia could not have imagined at 16 – shortly before her parents gave Prince legal guardianship over her, and three years before he put her on birth control – that they would scale such philosophical heights together: the Third Eye, the migration of souls. Seventeen years after their marriage ended, she still sometimes hears the click click click of his spurs down the hall.

What was in Prince’s bathroom? Oil of Olay, fancy soaps and distinctly feminine perfumes. His kitchen? Tostitos, teas by Celestial Seasonings, and honey that comes in those little plastic bears.

They met after her “Puerto Rican supermom” insisted that Garcia get a videotape of herself bellydancing to him backstage. Her note said, PS: I am 16 years old.

During their getting-to-know you sessions, he liked to get a bowl of popcorn and tip a whole bag of Goobers (chocolate peanuts) into it. Once Garcia had joined the New Power Generation as his dancer, her relationship with food became less enjoyable. She couldn’t go to the gym because she was indoors most of the day waiting for his phone calls (Prince’s girlfriends didn’t have his number) – so, in order to keep her dancer’s body, she would eat salad standing up, while he ate fettuccine Alfredo.

She took leftover bread and Thousand Island dressing from other people’s room service trolleys in hotel corridors, because she couldn’t afford to order her own on the $300 a week he was paying her.

Then one day, he saw her standing next to a bowl of whipped cream; so he docked her wages. “He could be mean,” she writes. “But it made him human, and he seemed to like and respect me more when I checked him on it.”

Prince rarely touched people (germs), so when you saw him shaking another girl’s hand you knew you were on the way out. He wrote “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for Garcia but she knows three other women who think it’s about them. She says she wants every girl to think it’s about them. She quotes Michelle Obama: “When they go low, I go high.” She calls him her dear friend.

The couple broke up a while after their child died. Prince didn’t allow an amniocentesis test and the baby was born severely disabled. Garcia says they decided together to let him die. He invited Oprah into their house and showed her the nursery, as though the baby was alive. Mayte was taken from the bed where she slept with his ashes, made up, put on camera and told not to mention the nasty business.

“Oprah was planned months ahead of time,” she tells me now, breezily. “He had this album coming out. He was like, ‘It’s Oprah.’ I’m like, ‘I get it!’”

There’s the facts, and then there’s the way she chooses to talk about them. Who is to say how you should deal with memories of years of abuse?

“People say that forgiving is my flaw, but I really believe that holding grudges and anger is a waste of energy,” she says. “We are all going to die. We are all evolving, trying to become better people, so let it go.”

Prince died a year ago. With The Passing, as she calls it, her desire to write a book increased. “I wanted to honour him,” she tells me. “He was a great friend. He listened, he cared, and he always treated me like a princess. Yes, he was a tyrant. We all knew that.”

I ask her what she would do if she could have him back for one night. She says she’d tackle him again. She misses the popcorn. “They don’t make Goobers any more.” 

“The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince” by Mayte Garcia is published by Trapeze
 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496