Bioshock, Baptism, and Blasphemy

In a small-town diner not far from here my father and I bowed our heads and prayed for the breakfast a waitress had just set before us. It’s an everyday occurrence — not the diner, but the prayer. Though sometimes it settles into the dangerous realm of rote, the intention is at least an honest one: pausing to recognize that I’d have nothing, not even the food and drink necessary to keep me alive, were it not for God’s grace. I am an unabashed Christian. I’ve been going to church my entire life, first because it’s what I was taught, and later because it’s what I chose. I have been baptized. I have prayed to have my sins washed away.

And as I prayed this morning, I was wearing a t-shirt featuring Songbird, a creature who figures prominently into the video game Bioshock Infinite. I was also wearing that shirt when, twenty minutes earlier, I read an article about another Christian. I presume he does not own a Songbird shirt. Perhaps he did, and has since burned it. Or perhaps he returned it to the store where he bought it, just as he returned the nigh-unplayed game itself. Returned the game, as it were, because he considered it religiously offensive. Blasphemous, even.

I always try to be cautious when discussing someone else’s faith or morality. It’s a dangerous thing to question someone who acts of religious conviction — to doubt whether he should or should not do something which he feels strongly, spiritually led, to do or avoid doing. But many atrocities have been committed in the name of God; many hands have been stayed when they ought to have been lifted, and for the same reason. Put simply: while it is never my place to judge another believer’s heart, having a critical spirit when it comes to things done “for the faith” is, I think, prudent.

And honestly, I’m a little bit mortified by this particular player’s decision: his justification for it, and the implications thereof.

For the unacquainted, Breen Malmberg demanded (and received) a refund for his copy of Bioshock Infinite on the basis that “there is a section of the game that is so offensive to [his] religious beliefs that [he] cannot proceed with it any further…The player is forced to make a choice which amounts to extreme blasphemy in my religion (Christianity).”

I’ll begin by noting that I, and many other Christians, would outright dismiss this statement as untrue. The baptism scene in question — which occurs within the opening minutes of the game, and remains an important reference point throughout — has little to do with Christian sacrament. In fact, it is a baptism of an entirely different religion — one which renounces the Lamb and Savior we already have in favor of a new doctrine of human endeavor; one which clears God off the pedestal so as to replace him with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

It does not take much to recognize that this is a cult — one patterned after Christianity, for sure, but a cult nonetheless. And your “baptism” makes you no more complicit than one who undergoes a Christian baptism instantly becomes a Christian for having done so. From a narrative standpoint, it is necessary for infiltrating the cult you are trying to steal someone away from. From a religious standpoint, it is necessary for establishing the dangers of dogma.

Yet even if Booker’s undergoing a baptism from this heretical preacher did constitute blasphemy, I am nonplussed by Malmberg’s conclusion that the game is asking him to blaspheme. Perhaps had this occurred in the first Bioshock, wherein the line between player and protagonist is far less distinguishable, the experience vastly more personal, I might understand. But Infinite makes it very clear that you are playing through Booker — that he is not you, that he has done things you would not, that he will likely continue to do so. His actions are not, strictly speaking, your own.

Booker is not a Christian. He does not believe in God or sacraments. For him — like the many atheists who have played Bioshock Infinite — being forced to undergo a baptism is, at worst, an obnoxious inconvenience. I’d hope no reasonable atheist would feel that by getting baptized in this game, she had somehow been baptized for real. And as a believer, you ought to be able to personally consider his actions blasphemous without feeling culpable yourself.

Yet Malmberg’s words belie an inherent inability to dissociate himself from his character’s actions, which begs the troubling question of the many other actions he’d be committing in the game which don’t bother him. He admits to having been a big fan of the previous two Bioshock games, both of which feature gratuitous murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of other people, often in ghastly ways. One notoriously violent action is taken out of player hands — you are, just as with the baptism, forced to commit it (by following a command prompt) in order to progress. If Malmberg is so concerned about culpability in Booker’s sins, what then of Jack’s? Certainly a violation of the Ten Commandments must rank higher than an action whose sinfulness is, clearly, not even taken for granted by all believers.

It’s a point seemingly lost on Malmberg, who goes so far as to say “The difference here is that you are forced to make a decision that violates those beliefs in order to continue with the game – which is not something I have run into very often.” One would think a guy who knows the relevance of “A man chooses, a slave obeys” had encountered being forced to murder — a violation of Christian beliefs — at least once before, and would know better.

Of course, Malmberg doesn’t know it, having not played past the opening of the game, but there actually is something to be said for those who are religiously offended by the latest Bioshock.

Infinite‘s problem isn’t in what it shows, but in what it abstains from showing. Irrational has crafted a fantastic cult and a society which has taken real-world extremes to their utmost expression. If Rapture demonstrated what happens when you take God completely out of the picture without questioning it, then Columbia shows us what happens when you focus on “God” completely without questioning that focus. Or, more accurately, what happens when you focus on one person’s understanding of God without questioning it.

We live in a world with an increasing tendency to produce superstar religious leaders, who sway millions with their messages, often (tragically) towards values which are contradictory to actual gospel teaching. One needn’t visit an imaginary world to see charismatic leaders convincing a lot of well-meaning people of terrible things. Just last week I heard a rap song which specifically called out a dozen or so “false teachers” who are currently well-respected in the American church. This is a thing which does happen. Portraying it in a critical light is something I applaud Irrational for daring to attempt, especially in an industry which tends to punish cerebral exploration (though happily that is beginning to change).

The issue with Infinite is that it provides no foil. We are given the negative side of religion, the religious, racist zealots who toss around epithets like candy and say horrible things while metaphorically crossing themselves. What we aren’t given is a real Christian: a person who is a “good guy,” who isn’t a hate-filled bigot, but who still believes in God and baptism and salvation. For a game which celebrates grey areas so much, the binary nature of religious representation is disappointing at best. One could argue the game actually implies that none of the evil in the game would exist were it not for religious faith of some form.

The original Bioshock offered Tenenbaum: a brilliant scientist who realized that her faith in science and in Ryan had led to terrible things, who did not repent of science but rather of her unscrupulous pursuit thereof. Industry was the God of Rapture, and she renounced the religion without renouncing the God. It’d have been nice to see someone like that in Columbia — a person who saw the dissonance between the original Eden and this so-called new one, rejecting not Comstock’s God but Comstock’s understanding of Him.

Without a voice like that, Infinite risks tossing the baby out with the bathwater, offending believers who feel lumped in with the zealots because the game fails to provide a representation of true faith for them to relate to. I wasn’t offended when Booker chose to undergo a charade baptism and I couldn’t stop him. Nor was I offended when he told Elizabeth that he had more regard for her than for “God.”

For who is “God” to Booker Dewitt? Who is the God of Bioshock Infinite? Does He exist? What do His followers look like? Sadly, we don’t know, because Irrational never bothered to tell us. The god of Columbia is a sham, his followers delusional bigots. What god, precisely, should Booker fear? Respect? Love?

There is an argument to be made that Bioshock Infinite is religiously offensive. You just won’t find it in Breen Malberg’s refund request.

Bioshock Infinite: Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

Disclaimer #1: This post is heavily spoiler-driven. Under absolutely no circumstances should you read it without having completed Bioshock Infinite. I don’t care if you don’t think you’ll ever play it — if you play video games, you should probably play Infinite at some point, so don’t read this. BUT PLEASE PASS THIS ALONG TO YOUR GAMING FRIENDS. Because I want a discussion/answers/corrections and that won’t happen if this sits here unread by anyone but my nongaming friends.

Continue reading

Hurts So Good

“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

If you’ve ever listened to “The Dragonborn Comes,” it’s hard not to get excited when the Dovahkiin chant begins. I enjoyed it before ever even setting foot in Tamriel, and now that I’ve been there the music is deeply imbued with memories of battles hard fought, enemies conquered, friendships forged. I loved playing Skyrim. And yet, it is by far the messiest gaming experience I have had this generation.

When I finally broke down and purchased my PS3 last summer, I did so with what proved to be an ill-founded assumption: equating superior hardware with superior performance, I believed multi-platform games would look and run better on my PS3 than on my 360. Though due to the premium I place on multiplayer experience, I’d still likely end up buying most games for the 360, the few single-player games I would buy would definitely be running on Sony’s box.

Initially, this worked out well enough. I played through a handful of Ratchet & Clank titles, and attributed their goodness to the hardware rather than to their Sony development. My first multi-platform game, Arkham City, did little to belie that impression.

Skyrim changed everything. For the first time in my life, I had my console freeze and require a manual reset… three times in one afternoon. Something as mundane as stepping into knee-deep water literally crashed the game, and the first couple times it happened (before I realized that was the cause) I lost an unreasonable amount of progress (thus driving me to compulsive quick-saving, a rather time-consuming process in the game). Eventually patches came along which fixed some of the problems (water ceased to be fatal!), but the game still proves to be rife with bugs, some of which are just as “game-breaking” or obnoxious.

But every time the console froze, I willingly reset and kept playing. And that’s worth noting, because there are plenty of games I would have given up on, either for the day or for good. Assassin’s Creed 3, sadly, fits in such a category, usurping Skyrim for position of “most broken game I’ve played in a decade.”

I loved my time with Skyrim — and I even hesitate to use the past tense here, because there is still so much to do in it I haven’t even attempted — but my experience with it and, thereby, with Bethesda has been anything but pleasant. Adding insult to the injury of Skyrim‘s bugginess is the documented fact that other versions of the game aren’t nearly as bad (and have been more readily patched). And over the past several months, I’ve cringed time and again as DLC extensions of the game have been announced, released, and praised with the footnote caveat: “Four for you Xbox, you go Xbox! And none for PS3.”

As a consumer, there are plenty of things that trouble me about the situation. In the back of my mind, I curse myself for having chosen the PS3 version when I own a perfectly good 360 on which I could be enjoying all the perks of Skyrim without all the headaches. But that’s a straw man, really. Because I paid precisely the same as I would have for the Xbox version, but got far less for my money. And as each month passes, it becomes increasingly clear to me that I am, for Bethesda, a second-rate customer, not worth the time and money it would take to fix the situation. The fact that they have found the time to produce three new DLC packages this year but still haven’t found the time to fix even the main game for the PS3 blows my mind. That they have issued little more than a say-nothing apology that the DLC “might not ever get to PS3” has me nonplussed.

This is my first Bethesda game. I preordered it well before release despite having no prior experience to suggest doing so was wise. This really could have set the stage for a lifelong devotion to the company; had my Skyrim experience been smoother, I wouldn’t have hesitated to go back and buy some of their other games.  I’d have bought all the DLC with joy. I’d have preordered Dishonored and probably started playing it on day one. Instead I find myself incredibly wary of the old “fool me once, fool me twice.” I don’t want to be a fool.

But I want to play Dishonored. And if Bethesda released Dawnguard on the PS3 tomorrow, I might seriously consider buying it. And therein lies the rub.

I want to give money to people who are treating me like I’m worthless (or at least, worth less). I have entered an abusive relationship and I don’t really want to get out of it. Some part of me truly believes I’ll be better off putting up with the treatment than simply saying “no” and walking away. If it weren’t so trivial, it’d be tragic.

And the more I think about that, the more I realize it’s not just Bethesda who’s hurting me, and gamers in general, because they can get away with it. It’s most of the industry. And the beatings are becoming commoner and commoner, it seems.

I made a pretty big stink about Gamestop a while back, and for over a year I’ve stuck to those guns: I’ve refused to buy anything from them, and I’ve dissuaded my mother and grandmother from shopping there as well. I consider the way they handled the Deux Ex situation deplorable, and besides that I’ve never been a fan of their parasitic business model.

But, you know, Game Informer is actually a decent magazine. And by subscribing to it, I’m still attached to the company that runs it. Moreover, Gamestop almost unequivocally has the best bonuses of all retailers, and it galls me every time I pick up my copy somewhere else that I’m missing out on those bonuses. Here’s a relationship I did try to walk out on, and I’ve been unable to stop looking back at it through rose-tinted glasses. The other day I almost actually walked into a Gamestop for sheer nostalgia’s sake. If they were hiring, I might have applied.

The preorder bonuses aren’t just a Gamestop thing, of course. Many games now have actual listing pages on their websites that tell you which bonuses apply to which retailers; often there are a half-dozen options. Coupled with console exclusives (like the four missions I missed out on in Assassin’s Creed 3 for buying the 360 version), buying new games becomes a game in itself, albeit an un-fun one. As the situation continues to escalate, winning moves become scarcer, and it becomes increasingly attractive “not to play” at all.

At first, not playing manifests itself in a cutback on preorders, and shortly thereafter a cutback on day or even week one purchases. A profusion of overpriced “special editions” robs them of their specialness and they are the next to go. Expensive, predictable DLC will be bundled with GOTY-style editions in six months, and the prospect of that value stretches the calendar and makes playing the “it” game during launch window far less attractive or meaningful. If you have a few friends who will be playing that far out (either because they’re addicts or because they too are waiting), then the scales tip permanently in favor of delay.

And this, of course, is the path of the devoted gamer, the one who has grown up obsessed with the industry and is unwilling to move on to other things. Anyone less committed will likely drop out entirely in the wake of online passes, DRM abuse, or lack of access to “day one” patches that fix game-breaking issues in the copy they brought home to an Internet-less house or college. These are the ones who see the abuse and decide to terminate the relationship. They are the lucky ones.

Meanwhile, the industry will continue to abuse its faithful, and I can’t say with any real certainty how to change that reality. The most effective path is also the least likely: a mass divorce, a boycott, a banding together that says “we won’t buy online pass games,” or “we won’t buy your DLC until you fix every version of the main game.” But of course that isn’t going to happen. Xbox owners have no empathy for “Sony fanboys” or vice-versa. Those who lack connection problems can’t be bothered by the cries of those who have them.

It’s a shame, honestly, that we’re all so cavalier. Gamers, as the collective partner of the industry, are a house divided, and whenever some of us call out game-makers as selfish others raise a mirror to the term. In one breath I attack buyers of used games for cutting into company profits; in the next I attack the company for profiteering. This doesn’t make me a hypocrite, mind you; it simply underscores the fact that we’re all selfish in our own way. And I guess that’s capitalism at its heart: a race to see whose selfishness pays the highest dividends.

In the end it comes back to the abuse paradigm. Bethesda can look to my desire to play its games and lord it over me as an excuse to behave however it wishes. And if I am lost, ten others won’t be. It may be arrogant, but they can honestly say “I gave you more than most would have. Go elsewhere if you wish but you won’t find anyone who can do what I do for you.” And when a new trailer releases we’ll look past the bruises in our wallets, the crashed consoles, the lost hours, and we’ll say “take me back.” And with a smile every time, the industry will.

Borderlands: Four the Win

Last night, during a very brief breathing period between spats of absurd firefighting, I explained to our Xbox Live party that this was the first time I’d played Borderlands with four people. To which one member replied, “Wow. I’m honored to be a part.” It was a quirky and seemingly grandiose reply, but hinted at a deeper truth: last night really was a unique and exhilarating experience for me, one I suppose many Vault Hunters take for granted that everyone has tried.

I hadn’t.

I caught onto the first Borderlands far too late to ride the hype wave, only a few months before number two launched. Though many of my friends had a similar idea — we wanted to get the sequel, so best play the original now — our schedules rarely aligned, and so I spent most of the first game soloing or playing with a single partner. I enjoyed it, but my main critique of the experience was that, sans a friend, the landscape was pretty barren, and to that end Borderlands 2 made soloing a far more enjoyable experience. But it wasn’t until last night’s session that I got a glimpse into what made people truly love the first game, and how much I’d been missing while meandering through Pandora alone.

Borderland‘s leveling system is extremely complex. Player level, enemy level, weapon level, Badass Rank, and other factors make straightforward encounters anything but. Whereas in other games the notion of a level 30 character tackling a level 32 enemy wouldn’t seem terribly intimidating, in Borderlands a single level usually determines whether the enemy drops or drops you. This makes even modest progression a challenge, particularly in the “True Vault Hunter Mode” that is Borderlands 2‘s New Game +, wherein enemies and loot scale to your level and entirely new enemies and AI tactics force a far greater tenacity and proactivity than the first run ever did.

Then you add co-op.

When a player joins your “struggle,” all the enemies in the game “become stronger.” Their level remains the same, but the invisible stats behind that number have changed. An enemy a few levels lower than you, which would have been a pushover were you playing alone, now becomes much stronger. The same pushover status applies only if both players are targeting him simultaneously; good luck if you’re trying to split the workload with your friend because this low-level enemy now greatly overpowers you.

And so on, as a third and fourth player are added. The result is a battlefield in which a slew of enemies, even enemies several levels beneath any individual player’s level, are now monstrously difficult to take down, and every other moment finds one or more comrades down for the count and fighting for their lives as they bleed out. It’s a rare moment indeed when at least one person isn’t calling out to be revived, baiting others to a similar fate as they, while trying to save a friend, are downed by the same ruthless enemy.

Our party tackled the “Wildlife Exploitation Preserve” area last night, and after a brutal encounter in the loading docks with a barrage of Hyperion bots, I grimly noted “this isn’t even supposed to be the hard part.” Indeed, with such difficult minor encounters, the thought of facing a boss becomes hysterical. You think back to how much trouble you had on your normal playthrough, alone, and wonder what new attacks Gearbox saved just for TVHM, and how much worse they’ll be when buffed by the four-player multiplier.

Yet despite the absurd difficulty and the countless, costly deaths I incurred over the course of several hours’ plodding, I was enjoying Borderlands 2 last night more than ever before. Perhaps it was because of the mayhem, the ridiculousness of so many explosions coming from everywhere at once. Maybe it was the thrill of seeing Zer0 cloak and initiate a surprise attack on an enemy who, before he could counter, was hurled into the air by Maya’s phaselock and became target practice for Gaige’s devastatingly strong DT.

Or perhaps it was simply the camaraderie, the shared experience of facing a challenge and overcoming it. For that’s what last night felt like: an accomplishment, complete with the face-flushed breath-catching moment in which someone says “Guys, guys, that just happened. We survived that” and, without words, you all marvel at how awesomely true that is.