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.
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.