Lots of times people people ask me tough questions. Sometimes these are questions about mental illness that I’m not qualified to answer. Sometimes these are challenging personal questions, like ones about my personal OCD symptoms, or “why don’t we have grandchildren yet?”
People never ask me the questions I have good answers to. For instance, people never ask me: “Fletcher, what is the total nadir of human creativity? What is the single most vile object to pass through the bowels of mankind’s collective imagination?”
Because it is not reality television, or YA supernatural erotica or fanfiction thereof, or secretly evangelical horrorcore rap produced by men dressed as clowns.
Wrapping up my thoughts on Irrational Game’s excellent but deeply flawed Bioshock Infinite, here’s my take on the topics that have drawn the most ire from the right and the left: the game’s depiction of Christianity and of a bloody populist revolution.
- There have been a couple of predictable challenges to the game from the Christian right. Which makes sense, because a cursory glance suggests the game is just messing around with Christianity imagery and iconography to check of another item on its list of hot-button issues. But a more careful analysis reveals the game is an indictment of unearned spiritually, and a reaffirmation of the power of genuine Christian sacrifice.
At the game’s climax, Booker learns that the corrupt theocrat Comstock is actually Booker’s counterpart from an alternate timeline: a parallel universe where Booker found religion, concluded that with God’s forgiveness he basically had carte blanche to do the Lord’s work as he saw fit, and set about spreading the Gospel via Columbia’s airborne armada. Comstock’s story is the classic refutation of Martin Luther’s doctrine of “salvation through grace” – actually, Bioshock Infinite argues, grace doesn’t help if you rely on it to justify evil actions. And I’d argue that’s a necessary statement to make in our political climate, where allegedly Christian activists and legislators quote obscure scripture to justify discrimination, then claim they’re doing God’s work by implementing institutional changes that further disadvantage the poor and underprivileged.
So how does Booker respond to the revelation of Comstock’s true identity? Traveling outside of space and time, he returns with his daughter Elizabeth to the moment of the baptism and allows her to drown him, erasing Comstock from existence and saving his daughter and the people of Columbia from his nefarious influence. Instead of taking the easy path of unearned redemption, Booker makes the greatest sacrifice possible to ensure a better life for his child. And in a game about Christianity, the significance of that should be pretty obvious.
That’s not to say Booker’s a straightforward Christ figure – both as Booker and as Comstock he’s an undeniable bastard, not a man in a position to offer forgiveness but one who desperately needs it. Rather, Booker’s a flawed man who finally does good by following Christ’s example. On a fallen earth (a fallen earth that even the airborne Columbia remains part of) that’s about as good as anyone can do.
- The portrayal of Daisy Fitzroy is an embarrassment. Like, I would actually be embarrassed if I were Ken Levine. I know how it goes. I’m a white dude. I’ve written and even shared stuff that I’ve only realized after the fact could be interpreted as racist or sexist; embarrassment, and then an apology and a hasty correction if possible, is the only reasonable response.
Because the tale of Daisy Fitzroy, scullery maid turned freedom fighter and the only significant person of color in Bioshock Infinite, is something to be embarrassed by. Daisy’s introduced to the player as a hardened but sympathetic revolutionary, fighting on behalf of racial minorities and the underclass against Comstock’s theocracy. That is, until Booker and Elizabeth travel to another parallel timeline, where Daisy has become a self-righteous tyrant as bad as Comstock. Tracking Daisy Fitzroy through an alternate Columbia devastated by civil war, Booker and Elizabeth finally catch up with her just as she executes Jeremiah Fink, the robber baron responsible for keeping much of Columbia’s population in indentured wage slavery. Which, hey, fair enough.
But then she turns around and, with some half-assed justification, prepares to shoot Fink’s son. Daisy’s only prevented from doing so because Elizabeth crawls through a vent and stabs her in the back.
That’s a big problem.
Bioshock: Infinite takes the only significant, named person of color in its entire cast; railroads her into pointless one-dimensional villainy without an explanation; and then sacrifices her to provide development for one of the (white) heroes. For a work so interested in criticizing casual racism in American culture, Bioshock Infinite is alarmingly thoughtless about how it treats its own characters.
- And just as bad: Daisy’s implausible leap from rabble-rouser to child-killer, and the descent of her Vox Populi from idealistic revolutionaries to vengeful terrorists, totally neuter whatever political point creator Ken Levine is trying to make.
Bioshock Infinite is remarkably specific when pointing out the sins of the political right, and that’s what makes it effective satire. Through recordings of Comstock’s sermons and private diaries, through the propaganda he releases to his people, and through the characterization of his alternate self Booker DeWitt, we get a clear look at Comstock’s failure; we see both the beauty of his perfect unfallen America, and the evil he embraces to achieve it. Were I a conservative, I’d hope that playing Bioshock Infinite would help me understand some of the mistakes my political allies were making; the veneration of the founders and the white-washing of America’s past, the eagerness to inflict violence as deterrent and punishment, the willful ignorance to the systemic injustice inflicted on America’s poor and people of color.
But as a progressive, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from Bioshock Infinite. Don’t murder kids for no reason? Thanks for the insight, Ken. Don’t let those Occupy rallies get out of hand? Son, have you seen Occupy Wall Street? At its pinnacle, back in 2011, Occupy was a bunch of muddy hipsters and wilted flower children wielding pet snakes and bongos. We couldn’t hold down a few yards of concrete, much less overthrow a damn city. There are plenty of criticisms to be made of both the Democratic establishment and the progressive movement, but Infinite doesn’t make them, and its platitudes about how all sorts of extremism lead to violence are condescending and simplistic. As commentary on the decadence of the modern American left, explaining how its flawed ideology will lead to tyranny, Bioshock Infinite is totally useless.
And even if it works as a general indictment of extreme leftism, it doesn’t work in a game explicitly and specifically about America. The story of power in America, sometimes for the better and more often for the worse, is the story of a handful of big important men making big decisions and everyone else getting dragged along. Now, that’s obviously an oversimplication, but we’ve certainly never seen anything like the bloody socialist uprising depicted in Bioshock: Infinite. The game throws in lots of references of Les Miserables and Marxist rhetoric to try to establish historical precedent for the Vox Populi’s reign of terror, but that sleight of hand doesn’t change the fact that the Vox don’t have a parallel in American history. Showing a fictional underclass revolution as equivalent to the sort of theocrats and oligarchs who have so much power in real-life America, and then declaring both sides to be just as bad, is intellectually dishonest.
Especially when, in order to sell your false equivalency, you have to paint the leader of the insurgency as a child killer. The only thing that convinced me of was how shallow Ken Levine’s “all extremism is bad” argument is.
I want a “Daisy was right” t-shirt.
Continuing our discussion of Bioshock Infinite. Today I want to talk about some of the game’s weapons and features, and how they might have been better integrated into the world of Columbia.
- One of the defining gameplay features of the original Bioshock were the plasmids – superpowered genetic modifications that could be used alongside your arsenal. They were also a critical part of the game’s narrative, as Rapture’s social breakdown was hastened by widespread and unregulated genetic modification. I’ve heard criticism that the vigors don’t make sense as part of Infinite’s universe the way plasmids did in the original – it makes little sense that a society as reactionary and fixated on tradition as Columbia is would be so blasé about widespread gene-splicing. If the anti-vaccination movement has taught us anything, it’s that paranoid types (both liberal and conservative) are extremely hostile towards science and medicine they don’t understand.
But I see the vigors as more of a missed opportunity for additional social commentary. Infinite’s Columbia is fixated on racial purity and conformity – seeing the populace abuse genetic modification to better embody Farther Comstock’s ideals could have been creepy and appropriate to the setting. It could have led to some compelling moral problems for the characters: workers investing in genetic modification for their children to give them a better shot at climbing the social ladder, for instance, or Booker having to splice himself to go incognito among the populace. Imagine a Grand Theft Auto-style scenario where the cops are pursuing you and you can literally modify your genetic makeup to evade detection.
But while summoning waves of angry crows to fend off Colombia’s fuzz isn’t as creepy or as thematically resonant as spawning swarms of bees from your pores was in the first game, I’ll be damned if it isn’t more satisfying. I’ve cut back both on drinking and on spending money on useless nerd merch since college, but I’d be sorely tempted to buy a “Murder of Crows” vigor flask.
- Speaking of which: it’s striking how often crows appear and reappear through the game. I suspect it’s economic use of existing graphic assets but the birds also remind the player of Booker’s role as an invader/scavenger in this self-contained world.
- On the same subject as the vigors, I thought the original Bioshock was extremely clever in that it explained the freely available firearms and ubiquitous ammo dispensaries of most FPS games not as a concession to genre requirements but as the ultimate consequences of a totally deregulated libertarian dystopia: in a world where there’s no government to control the distribution of weapons, the bad guys all use guns and then everyone has to take arms to defend themselves. (Sadly, this element of Bioshock has recently proved prophetic, as lax gun laws have encouraged random shootings, and conservative lawmakers insist the solution to this is more armed citizens.)
That kind of reasoning doesn’t really work in Columbia, but I think the ubiquitous firearms could still have been part of the game’s satire. As Comstock’s Hall of Heroes and Soldier’s Field demonstrate, his nationalism and religious fundamentalism also include militarism; why doesn’t that extend to the populace as well? Give everyone a gun. It’d lend additional unease to the carnival scenes, as you gradually realize the cheery revelers are all packing heat, and could lead to some cool emergent gameplay as untrained civilians get involved in shootouts. It could also add some poignancy to Infinite’s commentary on racism if armed civilians reacted with greater hostility to minorities, and the player had to decide whether to risk breaking cover to intervene or allow an innocent to be shot.
We’ll conclude the discussion on Friday: I’ll talk about two big controversies surrounding the game, its use of Christianity and its depiction of the Vox Populi worker’s uprising. Bring popcorn (or dig some out of a garbage bin, if that’s more your style).
I’m about halfway through a second playthrough of Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite and I’m totally obsessed with it. As I wrote last week, it’s a wonderful mess of a video game that does so much right and so much wrong, and I’ll probably never get sick of it. I’ve put together some thoughts about different elements of the game I find interesting, and I’ll be posting them over the next few days. Spoilers ahead, and although I suspect the game’s still enjoyable even if you know the twists (I only played the original Bioshock this year, and knew all about the big twist), those of you who haven’t played yet may wish to avoid for now.
- I’ve seen a lot of complaining about the violence in Bioshock Infinite and I’m faintly baffled by it. The purpose the violence serves is obvious and, as far as I’m concerned, totally justified. You’re strolling through Columbia, enraptured by the lush scenery and scientific marvels, totally seduced by this impossible wonderland of turn-of-the-century Americana. And then BAM! You’re invited to participate in the lynching of an interracial couple and then BAM! You’re driving a grappling hook/chainsaw into a policeman’s cranium. It’s a one-two punch that shatters Columbia’s eerie tranquility and establishes the atmosphere of juxtaposed wonder and horror that will permeate the rest of the game.
Now, I’ve heard arguments that the ultraviolence will scare off queasy players who might otherwise give the game a fair shake, and awaken to the creative potential of video games. My response is that Ken Levine isn’t obligated to advance the medium. He’s obligated to follow his muse, and produce the art he wants to make. When artists deliberately set out to create conventionally “great art” we usually end up with boring nonsense: Oscar-bait with massive production values and a soaring orchestral soundtrack but no unique or interesting qualities. I’d take an interesting, repulsive, messy contraption like Bioshock Infinite over a dozen works like that, no question.
- The plagiarized period covers of modern pop songs broadcast through time are neat, and I suspect there’s some intended commentary on intellectual property and the entertainment industry. Maybe something about how the media exploits artists by hacking up their work to make it suitable for mass consumption, then reaping the profits?
- I’ve seen very little writing on the Comstock House asylum seen towards the end of the game – obviously, the treatment of the mentally ill is an interest of mine, and if I try to produce an actual essay on the game it will probably tackle this stage.
But briefly: the House is pretty clearly based on the Bentham panopticon, and Foucault’s critique of it. The Boys of Silence are especially interesting as living instruments of the panopticon, surrogate eyes for the central intelligent, beings that can observe but cannot act. And the patients we see are an effective representation of how society stigmatizes and ostracizes the mentally ill; ghostly and intangible, suspended between parallel universes, they are literally outside our reality.
- I know a lot of people haven’t been sure what to make of the Handymen, Columbia’s cyborg enforcers, constructed by permanently fusing the aged and infirm into massive exoskeletons – I figured they were a commentary on end-of-life care, “death panels,” and our obsession with extending the quantity of life at the expense of quality. And even if that wasn’t what the creators were trying to say, I’m declaring DotA and saying it’s true anyway, because it’s too good to pass up.
- So how about Elizabeth, eh?
There’s something a little queasy about Elizabeth’s sexualized depiction, and how it colors her interactions with her parents (all three, across dimensions). Thankfully, the designers modified the pandering design that appeared in the game’s 2011 trailer (breasts or eyes, I couldn’t tell you which were bigger, but the overall effect was uncomfortably evocative of the combination of sexualization and infantalization of animated women that the otaku kids call moé). But there’s still some male-gaze stuff going on in the version that appears in the final product.
It’s especially queasy in light of twists of the game’s ending: Comstock and Booker are the same man across universes, Elizabeth is Booker’s daughter. So there’s some really creepy subtext when Elizabeth changes from her original outfit, now torn and bloodied, into the form-fitting, cleavage-emphasizing gown of her mother, Lady Comstock; we now have the daughter playing dress-up as the mother so dad can get an eyeful. And this is before the Lady herself is resurrected as a shrieking, undead harpy (well, Siren, technically) that Elizabeth and Booker must rebury.
What makes this seem deliberate and thematic instead of just Freudian is that this part is immediately followed an alternate-future scenario in which an elderly Elizabeth adopts the mantle of her father, the Prophet Comstock, raining fire-and-brimstone sermons (as well as literal fire and brimstone) over the world below. So we have two sequences in which the child play-acts as each of her parents, before forging her own path at the end of the game.
And having Elizabeth act out the roles of both of her parents, and showing that neither of these options is healthy or appropriate, goes a long way to turn the creepiness of her Lady Comstock cosplay into an asset. I’m not sure this totally excuses the way the designers sexualize her, but at least it gives a solid thematic reason for why the game encourages the player to oogle the daughter figure through the eyes of her father. It’s supposed to be wrong and uncomfortable and it’s something the narrative explicitly rejects.
(Well, at least that’s my DotA explanation for it. We all know the real reason is that the creators were probing the middle space in the Venn diagram between “Sexy” and “Tasteful” and that they misjudged the final design just a bit.)
- Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little about the game’s implementation of weapons and “vigors” (genetic superpowers) and how it might have been done better.
I recently snagged a preowned Playstation3 from Gamestop, along with a copy of Bioshock Infinite, which I finished up last night. B:I is a fascinating mess, a big tangled knot of theme and character and historical reference and criticism of the medium that can’t quite be solved. Pull at one thread and another comes undone. I suspect there will be as many interpretations as players. I can’t say I loved it but I’m glad it exists, and I’ve enjoyed reading other people’s takes on it, and I’m looking forward to playing it again. I might try to get up some more coherent thoughts about it up here next week.
I’ve been thinking a lot about videogames and narrative, and I was reminded of the videogame theory class I took back at Swat and one paper I wrote in particular: a take on The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask for Nintendo 64. I was a die-hard Zelda fan growing up, and although I’ve cooled on the series with recent installments, for better or for worse Majora’s Mask was one of my defining gaming experiences as a teenager. The weirdness of the thing, how it took gameplay conventions and NPCs I was familiar with and pushed them into uncomfortable (uncanny?) places, got inside my head. It’s one of the games I’ve replayed the most, and the one that I’m most frightened to replay again, because I’m confident the combination of time and circumstance and adolescent psychology that made it so potent ten years ago can’t be recreated.
I wrote this paper my senior year of college: it’s a little clunky, and it gets a little academic at points (I still love the Tarot symbolism of the moon and tower but some of you might roll your eyes). Anyway I thought it was worth sharing.
Til We Have Faces: The Identity of the Hero in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to create for videogame players a “miniature garden that they can put inside their drawer”. This was the genesis of the Legend of Zelda franchise, as series that includes some of the most-loved and best-selling titles of all time. True to Miyamoto’s ambition, the Zelda series has excelled in presenting players with a complex world to explore and challenge. Yet the series includes one entry that, bizarrely, subverts the ludological and narrative principles of the rest of the series. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was released in 2000 for the Nintendo 64 game console, as a direct sequel to the best-selling and groundbreaking The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Yet to the disappointment of many the title was radically different from its predecessor. Few of the major characters from the previous game returned, and the series’ beloved kingdom of Hyrule was replaced by a surreal alternate universe. Majora’s Mask was a profoundly unusual game, one that bent backwards to subvert the heroic fantasy so crucial to the success of previous Zelda titles. In the context of the extremely popular Zelda franchise, Majora’s Mask daringly undermined the series narrative premise by offering an adventure based, not on violence, but on compassion and transformation.
Everyone, my family and I will be participating in the IOCDF’s One Million Steps For OCD Awareness event in June. The IOCDF does great work, so please consider donating – they’ll really appreciate anything you can contribute.
Here’s the letter I wrote for the IOCDF, explaining how the disorder has affected my family, and how the organization helps sufferers:
“OCD is the pathological intolerance of risk, however minute, and the surrender to protective ritual, however unbearable…As an OCD sufferer, I did any number of asinine, irrational things not because they would protect me, but because I thought they might,and I’d be darned if the one night I failed to properly pray the lord my soul to keep was the night I died before I woke….”
Not a lot of people get this about OCD. People associate repetitive behaviors such as hand-washing and counting with the disorder. In reality, most of the action is actually happening inside the sufferer’s head – the physical (or mental) rituals are a way to ward off the ceaseless, cyclical thoughts that torture the sufferer.
I’ve suffered from OCD for as long as I can remember, but wasn’t diagnosed until I was twenty. My particular variant of the disorder involves uncontrollable, intimately disturbing intrusive thoughts, with no visible compulsions. OCD severely impacted my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. It wasn’t until I was properly diagnosed and received appropriate treatment at the McLean Hospital OCDI and The Anxiety & OCD Treatment Center of Philadelphia that I found myself on a path of learning to manage this insidious disorder.
The OCD Foundation is doing critical work on the frontlines of the battle against OCD using the most powerful weapon we have: education, both to raise public awareness and to instruct treatment providers in diagnosis and care. Sadly, there are still many areas of this country where no one is trained in the appropriate treatment modalities for addressing OCD; there are many areas of this world where clinicians have little familiarity with its diagnostic definition. I’ve met friends in treatment who battled undiagnosed OCD, not just through college like I did, but for most of their adult lives. The IOCDF is working to change that, and I’m walking to help them out.
Please consider making even a small donation – the website is simple to use, fast, and totally secure. If you’d like to create your own page and join my team, Team Triggered, I’d be happy to have you. Also, if it isn’t too much trouble, please post this on Facebook and pass it along to anyone who you think might want to donate.
Thanks for your support. I really appreciate it.
It’s a bit short notice, but I’ll be participating in a conversation this afternoon on HuffPost Live about colleges and mental health care with Dr. Jenny Hwang of Stony Brook University and Allison Prang of the University of Missouri. We’ll be taking questions and comments on air, so definitely check it out if you’d like to be part of the conversation.