Category Archives: Commentary

Bioshock Infinite and a Baptismal Refund

The contents of this article may ironically be inflammatory or offensive.
More importantly, it contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.


Please read at your own risk.

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Polygon and Kotaku posted reports earlier today about a player of Bioshock Infinite who supposedly received a refund from Valve through Steam because of his discontent with the game’s content.

The player, Breen Malmberg, stated in an interview with Kotaku that, “As baptism of the Holy spirit is at the center of Christianity — of which I am a devout believer — I am basically being forced to make a choice between committing extreme blasphemy by my actions in choosing to accept this ‘choice’ or forced to quit playing the game before it even really starts.” He also states in his support letter to Valve that he must receive a refund “on the grounds that he cannot play it.” The full Kotaku and Polygon articles contain the entirety of the interview with Malmberg and his letter to Valve voicing his concerns.

If you’re already beginning to form your own opinions on Bioshock Infinite, Malmberg, and Christianity, you’re not alone. Without going into explicit detail, suffice to say that I am familiar with both the tenants of Christianity and the criticism it receives. For those unaware, baptism in Christianity symbolizes the washing-away of one’s past sins and being seen as a new person in the eyes of the Lord. That’s the gist of it, anyway.

In Bioshock Infinite, one of the very first moments in the game involves the player character Booker DeWitt being forced to undergo a baptism to enter the eponymous floating city of Columbia. Malmberg’s discontent comes not from the act of baptism itself, but that the baptism is carried out in the name of a religion that is not his own. To him, being forced into a baptism in the game is equatable to committing blasphemy to his own, real-life religious beliefs. It is because of this that he asks for a refund — he refuses to carry on in the game so as not to spoil his own faith. Depending on your viewpoints, this either makes perfect sense or is utter lunacy. I happen to be in the ‘lunacy’ camp, but not because of his Christian faith. Not directly because of it, anyway.

Bioshock Infinite is an immersive video game, without a doubt. As you can read in my review, I lauded the game for presenting players with a living, breathing world to venture through and the gripping struggle that Booker and Elizabeth face throughout it. The baptism in the beginning of the game is symbolic in its own right; not just because of what it symbolizes for Christianity or the religious zealots of Columbia, but because of what it represents for Booker. At the end of Infinite, it’s revealed that the Booker we play as refused a baptism earlier in his life that an alternate-reality Booker accepted. The Booker that accepted it became the game’s antagonist Zachary Comstock.

My issue with this entire debacle — with Malmberg’s contention, Valve’s refund, and the in-game baptism itself — is that his complaints are utterly unjustified even in the eyes of a devout Christian. As I mentioned, I’m not critical of Malmberg’s actions because of his faith. No, I am critical because of abhorrent lack of attachment to reality on the behalf of Malmberg and any whose perceptions align with his own.

It should be seen as common sense that video games are not reality. I do not actually feel as though I’m throwing a fireball with the “Devil’s Kiss” Vigor, nor do I feel as though I’ve been washed by the Blood of the Lamb when I went through with the baptism to enter the city, yet Mr. Malmberg apparently did. Well, I suppose it’d be more accurate to say that he didn’t, since he never experienced either of these things. I don’t claim to blame him individually for these views, but he does happen to be the offended party in this situation.

Where is the line drawn for being offended, though? If one is offended at a baptism in a game, then surely one would be offended by the practice of slavery. Or the worship of the Founding Fathers. Or the contempt for Abraham Lincoln and praise of John Wilkes Booth. Or what about the player themselves killing hundreds of thousands of people throughout the course of the game? At what point does one stop being offended by offensive things? Is it Irrational Games trying to make you question your faith? Or bow to idols? Or encourage subjugation? Or is it simply that they are using these as literary elements to draw the player into a more involved and immersive world? My money is on the latter.

It is curious to me that so many different people find so many different things offensive. Mr. Malmberg was unwilling to continue past the baptism. Would others have been unwilling to continue past the infamous Raffle? Would still others object to the Order of the Raven and refuse to advance through the game? Malmberg chose to end his playthrough very early. Others may have chosen to end it a bit later. Are not all of these things horrifyingly offensive, though? Does not the act of enslaving another human being draw contempt and hatred? Is it acceptable to murder hundreds, destroy cities, and ruin lives? Did Malmberg see the man in the lighthouse at the very, very beginning, shot in the head execution-style with a burlap sack over his face and think to himself, “This is perfectly acceptable,” and move on? At what point does one draw the line at being daunted enough to refuse to go any further? It appears to me to be a case of hypocrisy at best and wildly misplaced morals at its worst.

Malmberg isn’t the only one complaining about these sorts of things, of course. You can look back in time and see plenty of people not engaging in media they disagree with. After all, how many complaints were there by Christian groups in 2005 when “Brokeback Mountain” was released? Yet just a year before, how many of them flocked to see “The Passion of the Christ” in theaters? Does seeing a film about an interpretation of the sacrifice of their prophet suddenly make extreme, gruesome, and graphic violence acceptable? What makes the events of “The Passion” any more real than the events of “Brokeback Mountain” or Bioshock Infinite, or any less offensive? If I find the excessive violence of a game offensive, can I receive a refund?

You are not Booker DeWitt. You are not being baptized. You are not killing people. You are not helping a girl name Elizabeth escape from a floating city in the sky. It is not 1912. This is more about realizing the difference between fantasy and reality than about anyone’s religious beliefs. There are plenty of Christians out there who realize the difference between being baptized in real life and being baptized in a video game. What has happened here is that Valve made a mistake by kowtowing to the wishes of one such individual who cannot. Inability to separate fantasy and reality to enjoy a fantastic work of art is not grounds for a refund. All this has served to do is set a bad precedent, not only for Valve and game developers, but for reasonable, level-headed people everywhere.

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Survarium’s Alpha Applications Open

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Last night, I applied for the Survarium alpha test. This title is one that I personally have been looking forward to for a number of reasons. The main reasons being that I am a Kalashnikov-wielding, Bloodsucker-slaying, anomaly-detecting veteran of The Zone. The STALKER series is one of my most-loved game franchises because of its insane difficulty, reliance on scrounging, and high modability. Vostok Games, the team behind Survarium, have urged testers to,  “remember that alpha testing of Survarium is hard work, rather than entertainment. The participants will deal with an optimised game client, experience errors and bugs, submit reports on those and deal with multiple things requiring patience and diligence.” It certainly seems to me that Vostok Games are making sure they don’t run into another Shadow of Chernobyl launch fiasco.

I can vividly remember the hours I spent trekking through the dimly-lit mist of the Garbage or Red Forest with the LURK mod installed or seeing a lightning bolt illuminate, for a split second, a creature that may be my doom. I’m eager to get back into a game where I actually have to fight tooth and nail just to survive. Unpredictable open-world video games that give the player lots of freedom and options but have punishing difficulty are some of my most favorite. Even recent releases like Far Cry 3 (on the Survivalist difficult with no HUD, of course) manage to have shades of this, though Far Cry 3 is more of an action game at heart.

The original Shadow of Chernobyl, another great 2007 title that went through development hell (and even post-release hell until patches made it playable), is still a fantastic play as long as you have a mod like AMK, LURK, or Complete 2009 (2012) to enhance or rebalance the core game. The most recent title Call of Pripyat, while a much easier game, also came with many more improvements to visuals and gameplay. It’s also the only STALKER title that I consider playable with no patches or mods. As for Clear Sky… just avoid it. Between broken game systems and technological and design back treading, it’s really just not worth an install.

I can’t recommend enough the STALKER series (minus Clear Sky) if you want a true challenge and the urgency that you must scavenge and scrape together your tools just to survive. I’m hoping that Survarium will elicit the same feeling I had while wandering through the Zone years ago.

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The Single Constant and Infinite Variables (Contains Bioshock Infinite Spoilers)

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Bioshock Infinite is 2013’s Game of the Year.

I do realize that’s quite a bold statement to be making considering the year is only a quarter complete. We still have plenty of days left in 2013 and new games come out every month, AAA blockbusters and small-studio indie titles alike. I can guarantee with confidence, however, that no game to be released this year will be as important as Infinite was.

In an odd twist, though, Bioshock Infinite is an amazing game because it’s a video game and in spite of it being a video game. Its immersion of a player into its living, breathing world is its strongest tool, and one that can only be accomplished because it is an interactive medium, experienced at the player’s own pace.Its blunt and unapologetic commentary on jingoism, American exceptionalism and racism are all utterly important messages to be conveyed and that can’t be done at the end of a polygonal machine gun barrel. That’s not to say that Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay is poor — far from it, in fact. However, it’s not the times when you’re shooting a sniper rifle or throwing a fireball that are the most important in Infinite: it’s all the times when you aren’t.

The issues I mentioned above, especially racism, are topics that are tiptoed around in the majority of modern media. It’s not politically correct to mention the subjugation or inequality of others because of their skin color or nationality and so these topics are always brought up in a sympathetic light and without being shown for what they truly mean or how important they are. Bioshock Infinite, however, uses no such sweet words or sugar coating. The citizens of Columbia engage in flagrant discrimination of race and nation, turn any would-be troublemakers into the corrupt law enforcement despite the thinnest of evidence, and revel in their inherent entitlement and superiority despite earning none of it themselves.

These abhorrent things are on full and proud display in this fantasy-laden video game; a game where you can shoot lightning bolts from your fingertips and a giant mechanical bird hunts you across a floating city. Because of this, some view these topics with apathetic complacency. The most appalling part of this, though? These issues are still very real and very prevalent in the world of 2013. 

The haunting allure of Bioshock Infinite and Columbia come from its oppressive nature juxtaposed next to its artistic beauty. Despite its incredible presentation and awe-inspiring magnificence, when I first moved the player character Booker DeWitt into the gorgeous town square overshadowed by the imposing statue of beloved prophet Zachary Comstock, the first thought in my brain was, “Something isn’t right here.” The presence of religious dedication is one thing, but the sense of foreboding terror and an impression of a place too perfect to be real was immediate. Shortly thereafter, you attend a family-friendly raffle in which a jovial crowd pulls baseballs from a bowl to determine which lucky citizen gets to have the first throw at an imprisoned interracial couple tied to stakes.

This is a bit too extreme for our modern reality, but the message of hate behind them is unfortunately relatable. Tell me if this sounds familiar: Friendly, agreeable, regular folk that’ll offer help if you need a hand and who’ll buy little Jimmy an ice cream if he’s a dime short also loathe and will fight tooth and nail against the idea of people different than them living their lives as they see fit despite it having little to no impact on their own. Looked at in this light, Columbia becomes the current and abundant naysayers of progress in America given a heaping dose of separatism and self-importance.

The fact that Infinite doesn’t dance around these topics is so vital that it warrants me writing this article and its importance absolutely cannot be understated. Kevin Levine and Irrational Games have given us a harsh look at what America could become if entitlement and chauvinism are allowed to sabotage progressivism and equality. The downtrodden are clearly visible among all the vanity of Columbia, but their plight is never spoonfed to you like a sympathetic documentary. You as the player — as Booker DeWitt — are free to see their lowness and suffering at your own leisure and absorb it for yourself, at least until Shanty Town. At that point, their pain is pointed out to you and you are meant to care. And then Daisy Fitzroy, the ‘benevolent leader of the resistance’, the Vox Populi (Voice of the People), when given a chance, begins to destroy her own city and murder children.

This is where Infinite teaches of the other side of this coin: compromise. Fitzroy does not attempt reason with Comstock or attempt to leave Columbia. She attacks and kills and destroys. Her revolution for equality morphs into a crusade of slaughter. Any sympathy that Booker, Elizabeth, or the player felt for her and her cause evaporates when they witness what she does when given the means to openly rebel. Booker says it best, “When it comes down to it, the only difference between Comstock and Fitzroy is how you spell the name.”

In a first-person shooter video game about magic powers, frantic gunplay, a floating metropolis, tears in space and time, and a journey of atonement, Bioshock Infinite has managed to subtly show, not tell, that both exceptionalism and unwillingness to cooperate can lead to the death of society and how that message rings true even today. Throughout history, “irreconcilable differences” have led to wars, discrimination, and death. Simply sitting and talking with one another might have spared so many lives and years of people being trodden underfoot. It underlines the importance of modern society to forge ahead with true equality and cooperativeness and not let the demons of egotism or power hunger waylay its progress.

In the end, as the Lutece twins so expertly explained, Bioshock Infinite is a tale of constants and variables and the way in which it is presented deserves the highest level of praise. What is constant is that we must coexist. What is variable is how we treat each other.

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