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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis