What Makes ‘BioShock Infinite’ Art?

Senior Contributor
04.12.13 19 Comments

For that BioShock Infinite postmortem I’ve been promising, I thought I’d talk, for a minute about why the game is art. Because it is, but not in the way you’d expect.

BioShock Infinite‘s political content is daring for a big-budget video game, and a lot of ink has been spilled on that. It’s not exactly an art movie in that respect, but keep in mind that a fair chunk of gaming is about the highly trained American soldier shooting non-Americans, usually brown non-Americans, in the face. So making a game about the dark side of America’s past is undeniably pretty ballsy when you’ve got millions of dollars on the line.

But that’s not what makes BioShock Infinite art.

In truth, in a larger context, the BioShock series isn’t breaking new ground politically. It’s not really an incisive observation to state that following an Objectivist philosophy to the bottom of the ocean is going to end badly.

Infinite is no different. “Racism is bad”, “freedom is for everyone”, “ideology taken to extremes inevitably goes terribly wrong”, these are history lessons we learn in high school. But that was never what made BioShock great.

The first BioShock is, at root, a lengthy meditation on one of the key illusions in video games, that you have free will within the game world. Sure, everything looks wide open, you can theoretically do anything you want… but you’re not truly free, are you? Corvo can’t blink his way onto a ship headed to another country. The soldiers in Call of Duty can’t lay down their arms or try diplomacy first. Would you kindly head to this next objective, and watch this cutscene?

And BioShock Infinite tackles a similar trope/problem: The escort mission and princess to rescue.

Infinite ultimately works its way through just about every permutation of the damsel in distress in video games, and if you want to stretch a point, really the entire game is about how she’s seen and how she’s treated, and how that echoes back on everyone in the game. Victim, daughter, compatriot, villain, spunky sidekick, friend, walking key, escort mission, ammo regeneration; any role a female character plays in a game, Elizabeth fills it.

Probably Songbird is the most relevant part of the game here. In game he’s a big scary monster, but it’s worth considering that in many games, Songbird would be the hero. Think about it: His princess has been taken from her perfect tower. She’s in the hands of some trigger-happy outsider. Obviously she has to be saved, because who’s going to do it? Elizabeth herself? He’s written as an abusive husband for a reason.

So, BioShock Infinite is art not because it has something to say about politics, but because it has something to say about its medium and those who consume it. And in a market where too few games have anything to say at all, it’s refreshing.

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