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Bioshock Infinite: The Not So Guiding Hands of Disability Diversity

{Beware, Traveler, spoilers for Bioshock: Infinite, a minor spoiler for the Preacher comic series, and violent images below}

You know the whole, “Tell me about yourself” question? The one that's just annoying to answer after coming back from your middle school summer break, but over the years grows into something important, a panic-inducing question when it affects whether you’ll get that job or land a second date? We all have a list to draw on when we need to answer it: religion, politics, heartwarming childhood stories, your hobbies, your goals, where you see yourself in five years time… My own answer hasn’t changed much since those middle school days, but I’ve come to think that maybe I should add something to the “Quaker” and “Ballroom dancer” labels.

“I’m disgustingly bad at first-person shooters.”

How bad you ask? Picture however bad you think I am and times that by about ten. I’m a girl, I’m a gamer, and I spend a fair bit of my time arguing that these two things aren’t at all incompatible, but when it comes to FPSs I’m every stereotype imaginable. It takes me a year and a day to get through each level because I’m too scared to move at anything other than a snail’s pace (and then I run away. A lot). I base my weaponry on what shoots the most and the longest because I don’t actually know anything about the different types of firearms. That’s actually a useful strategy on my part though because I don’t so much aim as lay down a barrage of panicked cover fire that I pray manages to hit something. I'm basically Jack Sparrow as hoards of bad guys descend on me.

I suck at FPSs and on the whole I don’t like them. I’ve got nothing against the genre itself, it’s just not my cup of tea. Between lack of interest and lack of skill I’ve only found one FPS that I could both enjoy and complete: the Bioshock series. Thus, these games hold a special place in my heart, resulting in me paying quite a bit more attention to their stories than I might otherwise give to a game. I (finally) got to play Infinite this summer and my slow moving, analytical, fully appreciative play-style resulted in one massive conclusion—this game has a lot to say about disability and most of it isn’t good.

Yeah yeah, we’ve been down this road before and–-spoiler alert–-I’ll walk this road again. It’s amazing how anyone differently abled is still a person deserving of representation. These are people I interact with daily and as long as games continue to ignore and/or mistreat them I’ll continue to write blog posts about it. In all honesty though, Infinite is far from the worst offender (if anything we should work through its treatment of race, but I’ll leave that to the scholars with expertise in critical race theory). The moments in Infinite that caught my eye are small, at least comparatively, but are still worth unpacking together. Take this moment for example:

Games—at least according to that famous Sid Meier quote—are a series of interesting decisions, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that moments of choice are slipped into the FPS genre. Because otherwise you’re not given much agency. Sure, there are a few zones you’ve cleared that you can go back to, but there’s nothing to do there anymore. In one or two places you get to dictate the storyline (like sparing Slate), but there are no consequences for this beyond whether you can live with yourself (I couldn't kill him). And yes, you get to choose what guns you use…but that only affects the game to a very small extent. Infinite provides you with so much health and other supplies that you’re in good shape no matter what firearm you choose, which is precisely why my inept--ass was able to finish. In a gaming culture with open worlds, morality games, modding, stat trees and the like, straight-forward narratives can sometimes feel restrictive. So choice is horned in, even it it doesn’t amount to much.

However, I’d argue that the moment above is one of the few, if not the only place in Infinite where your choice does have a significant impact, even if it doesn’t appear like it at first glance. For those who haven’t played the game, here your character, DeWitt, is trying to secure a ticket from this very suspicious--acting teller. You’re given the choice to either draw your gun, which begins the shootout immediately, or politely ask for your ticket again. Because my own politeness always dominates (Mass Effect was so very hard for me) I asked for my ticket… and immediately got stabbed through the hand. Like, that dagger went straight down into the wood. We’re talking Preacher--level violence here.

What I found notable about this moment was that the game didn’t forget it. If you chose to be a naive little goody-goody like me Elizabeth bandages your hand and from then on out it comes into view frequently throughout the rest of the story. There's also a level of symbolism here, given that the knife goes directly through your AD brand. Erasing the past, anyone?

However, though the game doesn’t forget the injury, it certainly doesn’t let it slow you down. I left that room thinking that I now had a not insignificant handicap to deal with. Perhaps my ability to reload would slow down. Or later on when Elizabeth summons a blimp to break my fall perhaps I’d miss the first time, resulting in a slightly different cutscene than other players received. In short, I expected something to happen. Despite my explanations here that games like Infinite usually don’t allow their choices to have any real impact, at the time I expected some sort of consequence. I mean for god's sake, I’d just been stabbed.

Yes, this isn’t a disability per se, but it’s potentially the precursor to one. I’m no doctor, but it seems to me that a whole lot of horrible things can happen here. What if you’ve messed up your tendons? Or the wound gets infected? Or the knife nicked a bone? I’m not saying all injuries should be realistic (if they were any and all action games could get very boring very fast), but DeWitt is another example in a long line of protagonists who are able to overcome every possible physical ailment. We ignore him getting SHOT because that's how these games function, but moments outside of that expectation should be treated more carefully. Would it be so bad to give us a rugged action hero who is also limited for the rest of the game? Can’t we see some consequences that function as both interesting narrative choices and representation?

It seems like a lost opportunity to me, especially since the game as a whole is obsessed with bodies and how they can be enhanced. Like the potion version in Bioshock, the vigor injections in Infinite give DeWitt extraordinary abilities at the cost of a few moments of equally extraordinary pain. Of course, that’s the only–incredibly brief-–downside. Though whatever vigor you're currently using will sometimes re-appears on your hands, it doesn’t affect you in the way it once did. Would it be cool if, perhaps, when a vigor reappears on your skin you’re suddenly unable to function due to pain, rendering you briefly vulnerable? Yeah. Or maybe adopting vigors lowers your skill at shooting, forcing you to choose between supernatural power or your proven ability to wield a gun. I don’t know. I’ve never been involved in game design (and hats off to those who do it!), but it’s notable that once again there remains no consequences here. Infinite encourages you to enhance your body without once considering the possibilities inherent in limiting your body instead.

As said, it’s a common theme in most video games. With a few very rare exceptions, there’s the assumption that action has to equal able bodied. People in wheelchairs don’t get to go on epic adventures. Deaf individuals don’t get involved in shootouts. The chronically ill don’t get to learn magic… despite the fact that all of these people, and others, would add fantastic dimensions to any of these stories. These are the kind of stories I want to read, watch, and play.

I loved Bioshock: Infinite. It gave me 15 hours (is that slow??) of very entertaining gameplay with an ending so complex I spent a night in a wiki spiral just working to understand it all. On the whole I’ve got no complaints, only a nagging sense that we, as always, can do better.

For all of Elizabeth’s depth and power, a single line from her sums up the game’s feelings towards non-able-bodied diversity. She stands before DeWitt, subtly accusing him of staring at her finger. And why wouldn’t he? She’s forced to wear a “stylish thimble to cover up [her] hideous deformity.”

Perhaps I’m callous, but I for one wouldn’t call missing the upper half of your pinky finger a hideous deformity. It’s hardly noticeable on an otherwise very attractive girl and far less significant than DeWitt's own, emotional branding. Of course, that’s just the point. Any impairment (especially on a woman) is automatically the worst kind of impairment yet any life--altering injuries or sickness–--like DeWitt’s stabbed hand--–have no impact on your ability to navigate an entirely able-bodied world. Elizabeth tells us that any change in the physical status quo must either be ignored or labeled for what it is: something horrible and deserving of shame.

I don’t buy that. Elizabeth’s little speech left a bad taste in my mouth; a slight but noticeable blemish on an otherwise excellent game. My hope is that as we continue making new games we’ll think not just about representation for the sake of representation, but representation as a doorway into excellent gameplay and storytelling. Diversity of any kind isn’t the medicine you have to grimace and swallow because someone is making you; it’s the spoonful of sugar that makes a meal that much sweeter.

Not my finest metaphor? That’s fine. Just keep giving diversity a chance.

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