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Artful Without Art: A Critique of Bioshock Infinite

"Centuries of their labor would not reveal to them any more of Creation than they already knew. Yet through their endeavor, men would glimpse the unimaginable artistry of Yahweh's work, in seeing how ingeniously the world had been constructed. By this construction, Yahweh's work was indicated, and Yahweh's work was concealed." Tower of Babylon, Ted Chiang.

A curious thing about ruthless closure in a story is that we start to speak in the same language that created it, even when we're angered by it. My immediate reaction to the experience of Bioshock Infinite is most definitely anger and my first impulse is to use the gameís tropes against itself. I lose myself in the exercise.

The chair that I "willingly" strap myself/Booker into as transportation into the game predictably closes like a trap. It never releases me, really.

Elevators, zeppelins, or rails transport me to spectacles as carefully staged for surrender and awe as a cathedral under stained glass. Or a theme park. Like many players in the initial hour of the game, I absolutely surrender.

Baptized and ushered into a beautifully rendered city in the sky, I wander through the first areas in a daze, absorbing every detail, every vista, every conversation. Itís like listening to the opening of a sermon and running into Disneyland at the same time. How quickly this exhausts itself shouldnít surprise me, but it does.

The presentation of the environments becomes as preachy as the in-game propaganda, giving me a constant pairing of dramatic scenery with religious or racist conversations, placards, portraits, slogans, lest I forget that this is a society of xenophobic sheep. Itís so oppressive and ubiquitous that I can't open myself to what Iím directed to feel as Iím funneled along to the next attraction: nostalgia, awe, outrage, revulsion. All of these seem over-represented and under-developed, like placeholders, pointers for the next series of events that will justify the gun I'm constantly holding in front of my face.

The lines between the gameís different forms of didacticism start to blur uncomfortably. An elevator sermonizes me with absurdly bespoke, interstitial captions in the railings between floors, presenting me with what amounts to a silent movie montage as its view pans through significant scenes of toil on each floor. Who is the bombastic ideologue here? The preacher in the game or the one behind the game who choreographs a slideshow in an elevator with such self-assurance in my suspension of disbelief?

After I encounter the museum set-pieces in the Hall of Heroes I begin to realize that these exhibits and my passage through them are just microcosms for the entire game: wander through sequences of propaganda submitted to my superior judgement and Bookerís tired amnesiac duplicity, admire the dramatic lighting, the exaggerated architecture, the operatic music, smirk at the figures and mobs popping into view, listen to a disembodied villain barking over the PA system, accept the eventual wave of targets that I can mow down like ducks Vox Populi in a shooting gallery.

My only forms of agency outside of this template seem to be resource gathering to keep my meters topped off and my abilities updated, and an occasional decision that curiously doesnít branch to anything. I'm sometimes offered pauses, moments where a choice presents itself between standing around and doing nothing or submitting to an event by pressing a button. Itís supposed to feel like stumbling into the intractable "would you kindly?" moment but becomes less affecting for the repetition.

I need to pause again. I can feel my criticism getting carried along the gameís implosive momentum, its irresistible urge to make everything a reference to some other aspect of itself. I get a sense of satisfaction out of doing this but I think the writers of Infinite fell under the same lure.

When oneís language and figures start to resonate among themselves, itís tempting to follow their inward momentum as implicitly significant, something that will almost magically mean something to perceptive readers through the combined weight of their thematic material and self-reflection. Without moderation and a critical, nuanced effort to tie the work back to the world the result becomes inscrutable, closed to any real dialog or reading beyond a dutiful interpretation of its own internally significant figures.

Bioshock Infinite obstinately stares into this mirror and never really returns to anything outwardly significant.

I can feel the maw closing at a certain turn in the gameís story. A proletarian uprising gives me one last possible reference to something outside of Booker DeWittís tortured psyche. ďItíll be like Les Miserables!Ē exclaims Elizabeth, at which point I should hear the cynicism approaching but I try to ignore it. I briefly feel some sense of historical resonance and subversive short-circuiting that isnít just a caricature from a theme park. A kid is singing ďFortunate SonĒ in blues a capella. Irish war songs jump out of the indistinct roar of the angry mob. It feels exaggerated but energizing and purposeful, like a living Eric Drooker poster.

But this significance self-destructs under the overarching obsession with the zero-sum game, the perfect, closed system: the violent revolution becomes framed as just another form of futile idealism and hunger for power, the other side of the same coin. Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the rebellion, goes power-mad and begins to bark at me over PA systems, telling me that I ďcomplicate the narrative.Ē This sounds strained in its anachronism, as if her language is suddenly putting on a new costume and isnít comfortable with the wardrobe. She figuratively twirls her mustache while holding a child hostage, ready to kill in the name of idealism at any moment. This particular museum exhibit doesnít end with my actions, though. Through a pane of glass, I watch as my verbs become Elizabethís verbs and she executes Daisy with a pair of scissors. We move on to another interdimensional tear and the game continues to distill itself into self-referential oblivion.

"There's always a lighthouse. There's always a man. There's always a city."

I wish I could say that Bioshock Infinite is a missed opportunity, but this would imply a lack of intent on the part of the gameís creators. They foreclosed on most opportunities to use their thematic premise with any kind of bravery, honesty, or outward relevance because they explicitly chose to reduce it to yet another first person shooter meditation on self-redemption. Though it may be wrapped in the entertaining science fiction conceits of quantum loops and steeped in self-conscious iconography of McKinley-era americana, this is in fact the path of least complexity, least offense, least risk. One can make it all about a few regretful personal choices that canít be taken back and wrap everything up neatly with a decision that erases everything. In doing so, any gestures toward historical awareness, racial politics, or self-consciousness about the repercussions of violence become placeholders that point to nothing and ask nothing of the player. The end result is very digestible and briefly poignant, but ultimately obtuse and evasive, artful without art.

As I complete the game, Iím not sure what to do with the experience itís given me. Itís like walking away from an evening at a theme park that somehow tried to tell me the story of its own significance at every kiosk and turnstile then faded to nothingness as I left the lot. Itís haunting, but not in a way that stays with me, not in a way that asks me to return. I fear that if I turn around for another glimpse, Iíll just be watching the slow heat death of the first person shooter.
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About Frohikeone of us since 6:12 PM on 06.26.2007


My interest in gaming began around the age of 7 when my parents purchased my first video gaming system: the Odyssey 2 (otherwise known as Videopac Plus in France, where I was living at the time). It probably began earlier that, actually. That's as far back as I can remember seeing a video game in front of me and being able or wanting to play it, but I must have wanted games before that time or my parents wouldn't have given me the Videopac. I honestly can't remember.

My interest spanned many consoles and/or machines and also led me to programming around the age of 9 on another Philips/Magnavox machine: the VG5000. I didn't like the machine all that much and envied a friend of mine with an Amstrad, a sort of European sibling to the Commodore.

Today, I'm still a programmer and video gamer with a penchant for philosophy and criticism that I picked up along the way.

As a father of two, I consider myself a proud member of a growing population of parent gamers. I believe in educating my kids in the values and pitfalls of gaming in the context of gaining a better understanding of one another as human beings, and in developing a more adept understanding of systems, and the values and responsibilities of acting with and within them.

Promoted C-Blogs:
I suck at games: Shrink wrapped
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