Tuesday, September 17, 2013 :: Tagged under: essay culture video_games. ⏰ 5 minutes.
Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
When I upgraded my video card, a BioShock: Infinite key came with the purchase. Given that all my friends loved it, I played it through and had some OPINIONS on it.
Here is a 20-something male's OPINION on a video game, on the Internet. Imagine!
Actually playing the game.
The fun of consuming the game doesn't really come from playing it. It's a typical FPS that's been tweaked to be the just right difficulty for the target audience of the "average gamer." Like tasting the seasoning in a Dominos Pizza, playing through the game is mostly satisfying the way anything that's been scientifically calibrated by experts spending many hours over it has been: never too challenging and never too boring for you to put down. And while I'm obviously cynical about the whole thing, that doesn't mean it doesn't work.
Game Designer Daniel Cook explains a lot of the thinking behind AAA games in this Google+ essay, and know that BioShock: Infinite follows it to a T. If you're capable of enjoying fast food and pop music (and I am), you can manage a playthrough of this game and have a decent time.
But really, you're never compelled to keep playing because you'll miss shooting things. No, you play to continue the story. The city of Columbia is beautifully imagined and rendered, and while it's got the "movie set built specifically to be destroyed in a sick action sequence" feel, more than a lived-in-yet-opulent city, it's hardly a knock for pulp entertainment to be too pulpy or too entertaining.
A friend and I both mentioned that it often seemed like the game forgot that it was a game: you'd be investigating the world around you, then some random people would show up for you to shoot, presumably because there was nothing for you to shoot at in the previous 2 minutes.
That said, this game puts all of its chips in the idea that its story will wow you, presenting question after question until they reveal the rules of the world and THE BIG TWIST in the last 15 minutes.
And what about that storyline?
Well, something like this:
Big spoilers ahead, by the way. But overall, it lets you down pretty amazingly, for a similar reason to Prometheus. Imagine these questions asked in the style of the embedded video above:
- If Booker lost his memories by being taken through the tear by the Lutece twins, why does he never lose them after traveling past tears with Elizabeth?
- Why did Elizabeth have to wait until Booker made the decision to totally, yes, really kill Comstock for realz before revealing that they were the same person? Why not tell him shortly before his committing, other than for dramatic effect?
- How incredibly convenient for hiring voice actors and concealing a big spoiler that looking through tears, as Comstock did, ages you and changes your voice. It's not like you could hire the same voice actor to create variations of a voice.
- Similarly convenient that Comstock became infertile due to using the tears, and he was obsessed with passing his own DNA.
- Booker has to destroy the town because the town was warned of Booker by Comstock because Comstock forsaw him coming to destroy the town. Who started the chain? Why didn't Comstock look a little bit further?
- Vigors. Whyyyyyyyyy.
- Of all the things Fink's composer brother could have stolen, why does he take the tunes and lyrics from a much farther future? How are pop tunes of the 70's and 80's hits in a time when their themes don't relate to most of the population? Why not take the tunes from, say, 5 years later?
- Why was Elizabeth's mother the only "thing" of her kind, which is to say, murderous ghosts from another universe? How did Comstock know she could be summoned that way?
- In case you were wondering, Elizabeth was Booker's daughter.
- [A big appeal of the original BioShock was that Rapture was an underwater city that was hidden from the world. So Columbia seemed similar -- a weird place that separated itself from society. When it made giant claims of being involved in the Boxer rebellion, and negotiating with the United States government, it was assumed this was just propaganda.] When multiverse theory is revealed, and that this isn't the world that Booker was raised in, it's clear we're just observing one of infinitely many universes where Columbia's claims may in fact be true. Why does this one matter at all? Why are the Lutece's invested in it's outcome? Why wasn't the game set in the universe where everything is identical, but the world is run by Bunny People?
As the Zero Punctuation guy said, this game can't help but travel into its own ass more than a few times, and while he was less bothered by it, I just threw up my arms and felt that I'd wasted a ton of hours on a lost opportunity.
Regarding some reactions to elements in the game.
Zero Punctuation actually echoes a common complaint that I've heard about the game, especially from my Caucasian friends: Comstock and his subjects are so racist! It's distracting!
But a) it's 1912, so people were still pretty awful at that point. I mean, women couldn't vote yet. b) It's not so hard to imagine fundamentalists of a new offshoot of Christianity having major problems with people of color. c) Why are you demanding realism from a game that, as mentioned above, employed the Mother Of All Plot Devices and therefore whose world could just as plausibly been populated by Bunny People?
You can argue that it makes Comstock less sympathetic than Andrew Ryan, because racism is just a pile of Clear Evil and the Objectivism by Andrew Ryan was not. Except... Objectivism is obviously a pretty bad idea, and the game still makes a statement by showing that the piousnes and supposed charity of Comstock and his followers (arguably the opposite of the "every man for himself" practiced in Rapture) isn't enough without a critical examination of how one practices it. There's still something interesting and worth examining there, because Morpheus Meme What If I Told You We Are All Complicit In Racism Even Today? Most people who play the game and find Comstock and his followers completely laughable are probably the same people who haven't known someone who holds a repugnant racial view and seems incapable of seeing why it might be repugnant.
(not to say this is a Great Work that investigates something major. Again, AAA title. But I'd argue Andrew Ryan's philosophies are comparably batty and obviously laughable).
The other critique I heard was that, after the Vox Populi take over the city, the character of Daisy Fitzroy shows the dangers of fanaticism in revolutionary violence with the subtle symbols of the scalps of her enemies and straight-up attempted child murder. A friend of mine argued that this misunderstands revolutionary violence, and I get that to a degree. And the way they tried to tell it was straight-up ham-handed and clumsy.
That said, hearing stories from my mother, grandparents, and others on her side of the family of the civil war in Guatemala from 1966-1996, which includes atrocities from both incumbent powers and revolutionary forces, as well as revolutionary "leaders" who let many die, over and over, while they hid in safety... I can't say I romanticize or support revolutionary violence just because it goes against what I would consider a brutal oppressor. Not to say I can't ever support it, just that there will often be instances where I'm reluctant to get behind it because it's still innocents dying for no reason, and I don't think there's a problem if the game makes that point, albeit clumsily.
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