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No Poorer For It

By (March 1, 2009) No Comment

“So: Is BioShock art? ‘I would hesitate to go that far,’ [Michael Dirda] said after a short pause [in a recent Washington Post article by Mike Musgrove]. ’When there’s a video game that makes the player depressed, that’s when the medium might be onto something as an art form … It’s easy to like something that makes you feel powerful in its fantasy world, as games generally do. But would anybody play a game that makes him sad?’

“If Bioshock isn’t ‘art,’ then art is the poorer for it.” Tycho Brahe, of Penny Arcade.

In the fractious and capricious community of gamers, there are few voices that can inspire the unity that the creators of Penny Arcade can drum up in a single blog post. Jerry Holkins, whose nom de plume is borrowed from Kepler’s famous silver-nosed master, has a gift for words that is difficult to match, even in the wide world of Internet culture, and his statement on 2K’s BioShock serves as my succinct reply to Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda, who was tasked to judge the artistic merit of Ken Levine’s game, a first person shooter than manages to also provide a critique of Randian Objectivism.

To be fair, Dirda is considerably more generous than much of the literary pantheon. When Harold Bloom dismisses actual authors like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling as so much fluff, I begin to wonder if we’re again forgetting the constantly restated lesson that drawing a line between high and low culture degrades art, robs it of fullness. Even if you contend that the Fall of Civilization is upon us, we should at least chart its descent. We may all be idiots and vulgates, but a good cultural critic should ask ‘why?’

BioShock is not a game for idiots, though I’m sure plenty of them have played and enjoyed it. The fact that it does not erect velvet rope barriers around itself is, to me, a comforting sign; there is less chance of mistaking exclusivity for quality. The game itself is intelligent, powerful, beautiful, and ultimately tragic in a way that Mr. Dirda, for all his accolades, has failed to see. Even taking his own very simple disqualification ‘if it had depressed me, it would be art’ at face value, he has misjudged BioShock. But this is to be expected: he did not play to the game’s revelatory climax, where its full tragic dimensions express themselves.

Clearly, I am with Tycho Brahe on this one.

The city of Rapture, from BioShock

But first a little explanation.

BioShock is a first person shooter, a game experienced from the perspective of a single character that moves through the game world. Like most first person shooters, reflex and reaction are the main game mechanics. The player encounters enemies in an unfamiliar environment, and must kill them before they kill him/her. The second level of the mechanic involves resource management: collecting weapons, managing ammunition, and keeping track of how much damage the player’s character has endured. BioShock has gameplay innovations beyond these basic principles, including a highly interactive environment, an ecology of enemies with different behaviors and interactions, as well as a suite of genetic upgrades and weaponized powers called ‘plasmids’ and ‘gene tonics’.

The game’s narrative, however, is what I want to focus on. While gameplay is never entirely divested from the way in which the game’s story is told (in fact, ideally they are tightly linked), these formal structures are less important than the atmosphere and narrative unwinding. The player arrives ‘after the fact’ in BioShock. Some terrible collapse has happened, and the survivors are genetically warped maniacs. The player sifts through the ruins, and must piece together what happened by collecting audio-journals scattered around the game environment. This sheds light on the present story of the main character as well, preventing a observer/anthropologist distance with the unfolding events. Most important, the player is almost always totally alone, save for hostile encounters, and is kept company via shortwave radio, spoken to by the handful of survivors, not all of them friendly.

But now to the story proper:

BioShock is experienced from behind the eyes of a man named Jack who, at the game’s onset, is reflecting on his parents and their assurances that he is special, that he was born to do great things. It is 1960 and a cigarette smolders between Jack’s fingers as we sit with him (as him) in the aircraft that will, in moments, plummet out of the sky and into the Mid-Atlantic. Screams, fading lights, and then darkness. Next, Jack and the player are submerged. A propeller whirs lethally by, a purse slides past our field of vision, and a locket drifts, ghostly, from its confines. Jack struggles to the surface, the refracted firelight creating a deadly corona around the patch of sea he swims towards. He breaks the surface, gasps for breath, and then you are in control.

And you do not lose control, save for a few seconds, for the remainder of the game. From first breath, to final battle, the game is yours. Little in the way of cutscenes, virtually nothing to rob the player of the feeling that they are firmly in command of Jack’s actions, from each bullet he scrounges, each wound he patches up, to the life and death choices he must make in the sunken city of Rapture.

If there is one thing that distinguishes video games from other audio visual media, it is interactivity. We’ve long since accepted film as a legitimate form of artistic expression, even if its roots were relatively Vaudevillian. Why, then, if the most important formal difference between the film and the game is the active engagement of the viewer (who is renamed ‘player’), are games excluded from the realm of art? I think it may be that old ghost of the author, who returns despite Roland Barthe’s celebrated exorcism, taking revenge upon a reader who has grown too bold, trespassing into his semi-divine domain. Great art has almost invariably been created by a terrifically dedicated auteur, be it a Michelangelo, a Joyce, or a Hitchcock. Games give the player considerably greater control over the way the narrative plays out. Interactivity is the unique value of games. It provides a potential for immersion that can, if well employed, more than make up for what it loses in thematic unity.

BioShock includes an increasingly common (in games) narrative apparatus: the consequence of this freedom of choice. The player may choose immediate benefits at the cost of moral decency, or accept the possibility of more distant rewards for a generosity of spirit. This mechanic results in two possible game experiences, as well as three distinct endings, ‘good’ and ‘evil’, as well as a middle one, combining the moral poles to ambiguous effect. But while this is an interesting device, one already adopted by any number of other games (Baldur’s Gate, Under a Killing Moon, Knights of the Old Republic, etc.), it is less interesting than the questions the game raises about the consequences of the ideology that informs such decisions.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the explicit and intentional philosophical jab of BioShock. Within the history of the game, shortly after World War II, a cabal of talented engineers and scientists retreated under the Atlantic and created a city named Rapture, designed to be free of religious authorities, politicians, bureaucrats and societies other ‘parasites’. ‘A city where the great would not be constrained by the small’, to quote the cabal’s leader, one Andrew Ryan. This city of Rapture, which Jack explores, is designed as a Randian Objectivist u-turned-dystopia, and the game itself constitutes an extensive critique of Objectivism, positing the kinds of internal failures that would cause such a society to collapse into a brutal mix of autocracy and anarchy. The former splendor of unchecked brilliance and capitalist motivation has turned into vicious, life or death competition between the genetically twisted survivors through which Jack must carve a bloody path, desperately seeking some means of escape. And Ryan sits over the ruinous result of his ideals, refusing to admit defeat, an embodiment of the excesses of ideology we hoped World War II had cured. His grand rhetoric and unflinching belief in his clear simulacrum of the objectivist system serves as a bitter contrast to the gutted former beauty of his city. He’s easy to hate, about as easy as the character of Atlas is to love.

Did I not mention Atlas? Your sole friend and companion, via shortwave radio, the charming Irishman is Ryan’s opposite: compassionate, mildly religious, fiercely anti-ideological. His gentle requests, ‘would you kindly’, juxtapose sharply with Ryan’s nearly Old Testament affect. He is well written and well acted: as I fought my way through Rapture, I dreamed that Jack and Atlas would eventually escape the hellish city, open up a little tavern together on the surface, and share a lifelong friendship, forged in adversity.

What follows is most definitely a spoiler. I would rather you play the game in a state of innocence, and thus experience the effective power of the narrative first-hand; the telling can never recreate the climax of the piece represents the crux of my argument, and the height of BioShock‘s artistic endeavor. So here goes:

Atlas is a liar. And Jack has no free will.

In the confrontation with Andrew Ryan, a terrible revelation is made. Jack was born and bred in Rapture; bred is the best word to use: he was grown as a genetic experiment. And worse, he was brainwashed, you were brainwashed, to obey any command accompanied by the phrase ‘would you kindly’. Atlas is really the alias of one Frank Fontaine, gangster and con artist, a man who has no ideology whatsoever and is just as monstrous as Ryan. It is a shock; you are suddenly desperately alone, and the character that was so charming, so reassuring, becomes an obscene enemy, and you his unwitting tool.

This is the tragedy I point to, the tragedy that, had he experienced it, might have made Michael Dirda reconsider his assessment. And it is not the only game with such sadness in it. In Grand Theft Auto IV, where either path the character takes leads to heartbreaking loss, either the destruction of his future or the loss of his past, the tragedy gains an almost Dostoyevskian grandeur, totally unexpected from a series renowned for its seemingly senseless violence. Even the space operatic Mass Effect drove a friend of mine to stop playing it only three quarters of the way through, because he couldn’t bear the sadness of sacrificing one of his crew mates in the game.

But that’s not even the point. The point is that, though control is almost never wrested away, it happens that every request Atlas made accompanied by ‘would you kindly’ is flawlessly carried out by the player. There is no conscious acknowledgement that a command is being given, yet the result is that every request is always completed with the sense that it is the player who is choosing to complete them, without coercion. The slavery is silent, as all the most terrible ideological slavery is. Marx put it best: ‘They do not know it, but they are doing it.’

Art reaches its maturity when it holds a mirror not just up to nature, but up to itself: when art speaks not just on whether it imitates life, or life imitates it, but on the vexed dichotomy implicit in that very question. That interactivity, a product of (assumed) freedom, is what video games offer to artistic expression. BioShock proves to be one step ahead of me; that I assume I am free is the most dangerous risk to my freedom. In every moment I thought I was shaping the narrative, the narrative was silently and stealthily shaping me.

But I should not be so dismissive of Dirda’s assessment. He is no fool, and just because he did not have the time or patience to plow through hours of game time to reach the tragic climax doesn’t mean he didn’t make some apt observations. Most importantly, he points out that games are often built around creating a feeling of power, and he is not wrong. Guns and tanks and vast empires are a dime a dozen in games. Most people spend their whole lives sitting in the shadow of great power, and of course there is a simple release that comes from playing a game that makes you, for just a while, feel like the one in charge, the great leader, the general of the armies, the king of the land, the elite commando. And when games fail to be more than a power trip, even if they remain (through virtue of aesthetics) art, they are at best bad art. But they can become art, good art, valuable art, when they demonstrate the tragic failure of power, and many games do. And they have lately become mature art, since they point to the fact that, even if we have chosen the right path, even if we have defied power, even if we lay claim to the ‘good’ ending, the path we took there is still rarely that of our own choosing.

Humans are obsessed with power. Freud points out that civilization has been the process of subduing nature, of extending our powers until we become godlike. And with the teaser trailer for BioShock 2 depicting a young girl raising an expansive cityscape from the untouched sand of some oceanic isle, I can only hope that the discussion of power the sequel engages in will be just as eloquent, tragic and artful as its predecessor.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

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