A part of any artistic entertainment medium is the ability for that medium to force a mirror upon its audience and make them come to grips with the reality that surrounds them. Social commentary has been around for as long as people have been creating art, as the oppressed and visionary alike have looked at the world and seen problems and wanted to find a way to not only entertain but to raise serious questions. Literature has long been one of the truest vehicles to present these kinds of commentaries, with the film industry only recently really evolving to this level of discourse. As for gaming, there have been games in the past that have done it, but it seems like with BioShock: Infinite it has finally become a reality.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that other games have not pushed boundaries and asked some serious, tough questions about humanity, society and everything in between. I’m just not sure that it has ever been done so openly as it has been done with BioShock: Infinite and on such a mainstream level. Smaller games can take a lot more risks when it comes to asking the tough questions, but when it comes to the big budget games, a lot of those tough questions get drowned out by gameplay and by a need to push the story forward and to appeal to the masses.
In the case of BioShock: Infinite it is all in your face, everything from the propaganda posters to the warring factions and the ideals presented throughout “Columbia.” It really is an overt way of presenting American “Exceptionalism” and showing through a fictional veil how America and the Western world progressed from there, highlighting not only the good, but the bad. It reminds me a lot of novelist Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 release, “Against the Day,” which took place during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and took a long, hard look at American “Exceptionalism” as well as the underpinnings of the Anarchist movement.
BioShock: Infinite takes this concept and runs with it, presenting these topics in a mainstream, big budget videogame and seems unafraid of some of the questions and their weight when it comes to a medium that has been historically been seen as “light” and “fun.” That isn’t to say that BioShock: Infinite lays it on so thick that the game isn’t enjoyable, as it is actually on the contrary, as the reviews have been pouring in and they are unanimously positive across the board. Of course, the commentary doesn’t stop at Exceptionalism, either, as it also adds in some of the issues of our time, including the Occupy Movement and others.
The prospects of what might come from this and how a simple game tackling a tough subject and not being afraid to back down on the tough questions is without a doubt exciting. If BioShock: Infinite opens up the floodgates for more serious subject matters in gaming is another thing altogether, but they have shown that you can pin together some of the basic elements that gamers tend to enjoy and mix in topics and ideas that truly make the player think and still have the same level of success as other games can.