Thursday, April 4, 2013

Strong Pictures and Subtle Themes in 'BioShock Infinite'

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters, I go on a short photographic journey through BioShock Infinite.

The column is partly an expansion of the discussion Jorge and I had on this week's podcast. The broad point is that Infinite isn't afraid to deal with very heavy themes, but it also doesn't explicitly lecture the player about the significance of the imagery that's on screen. The result is a game that deals explicitly and confidently with subjects that most games never touch. Infinite goes beyond simply acknowledging that racisim, sexism, and religious zealotry exist and that those things are dangerous; it shows how those forces can structure a society by becoming daily realities that reinforce the power of those who benefit from them.

All this is done through imagery and overheard conversations, so it's up to the player to use their brain for something besides aiming and shooting. It's an approach that respects the player's time, level of engagement, and intellect. It's also an approach that is all too rare these days.

I've been wracking my brain over the last week trying to come up with other games that deal frankly with traditionally taboo subjects like racism and menstruation. There's stuff in Infinite that is even rare in the independent scene, so it's astounding that it shows up in one of the most publicized games of the past few years. Seeing this material in a game is great, especially when it's such a mainstream one. Hopefully it emboldens designers and publishers to take more thematic risks and to let strong images stand on their own.


  1. GChristopherWilliamsApril 5, 2013 at 12:06 AM

    Only two games that I can recall contain menstrual imagery (yes, that's the best way that I can politely describe it) or menstrual blood, Edmund McMillen's The Binding of Isaac and McMillen's Cunt. In both instances the imagery is intended to shock and dismay (much as all of the other bodily fluids and grotesquerie in his work is intended to).

    He is frank, but probably not in the way you mean.

  2. Great call, Chris! I totally forgot about that. Those games tackle taboo subjects from a different angle, but you're completely right about how unashamed they are in doing so.

  3. I made a comment on the popmatters site, but I'll post it here too: The allusions to anti-semitism among both the elites and the populists in Columbia rarely gets attention, even when themes of prejudice in Bioshock Inifinte are discussed. Perhaps a single voxophone and a never-used vending machine are too subtle for people to remember?

  4. Agreed, Raphael. It's subtle, but I appreciated how the antisemitic grafiti came out once the riots started. At the risk of reading too far into it, it feels like Levine puts just enough Jewish imagery to clue in the observant or the people culturally predisposed to notice that sort of thing (remember Sander Cohen from BioShock?).