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Criticism, great expectations, and BioShock

Iím a critic. I have been since I was an early teenager. Iíve always sought to articulate and understand why I do or do not enjoy certain works of art and entertainment. I donít believe that critics simply exist to eviscerate popular things (they donít) and I am offended by my friendsí and familyís insistence that I am too critical (Iím not). I simply seek to evaluate, like all critics and thoughtful consumers, and articulate my appreciation and disillusion with art. Criticism and reverence go hand in hand, as they both require you to articulate your opinion. Without criticism, we would be a homogenized hive of empty thoughts. People who dislike critics donít get that.

But some criticism is not valid.

Yes, another meta-criticism article about criticism. Iím just as disappointed in myself for writing it as you are. But I want to articulate my thoughts here, in an adequate manner, or else Iíll just go nuts on Twitter forevermore. And Twitter is less ďcriticismĒ and more of an ďasshole factoryĒ as Jeff Gerstmann so adequately put it.

Part of good criticism is judging a product on its own merits and I saw a lot of contradictions in that theory earlier in the year when BioShock Infinite dropped. It was critical darling for about 24 hours before people who discovered that it wasnít the great Messiah that would bring mainstream respect to the medium of video games. Instead of appreciating it as a fantastic game, or intelligently critiquing it as some did, some people neglected to judge it as it is and judged it based on other factors.

Polygonís Chris Plante, a fine writer (and I donít mean that as a way to protect my own ass, I mean it) penned this editorial.http://www.polygon.com/2013/4/2/4174344/opinion-why-my-wife-wont-play-bioshock-infinite In it, he says that Infinteís violence limits its audience because the game has nothing to say about violence, and the blood is a distraction. Now, I disagree with that assessment because BioShock games are about extremism in all cases, like ideology, technology, of human ambition, of human suffering, and violence. But thatís not what bugged me over the past few months. Itís that his wife canít play BioShock Infinite because she doesnít like the violence.

Were you expecting a BioShock game, made by people famous for making violent games about people with extreme ideologies that clash with the established order, to not be violent? As I write this, I know I am being subjective. This is an arguable point. But this sounds like he wanted Infinite to be a game that had no violence, or at least very little violence, within it. And then it defied his expectations.

There are people who havenít seen Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, Drive, The Godfather and GoodFellas because of the violence within those films. And like those movies, Infinite says something about violence, how it is inextricably linked with our ambitions and ideals, and yet it gets shoved under the microscope? Plante writes:

ďLevine has been outspoken about his ambition to please both the meat head and the brainiac since the release of the original BioShock. But what about my wife? What about the people who can stomach only so much aggressive violence and unchecked cruelty? Defenders of the game's violence have compared BioShock Infinite to Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, which melded together the cerebral indie aesthetic and the mind-numbing blockbuster spectacle. But every comic lover knows the difference between Booker DeWitt and Batman. Batman doesn't kill people.Ē

Batmanís not a Pinkerton agent who sold his daughter (spoilers, yo) to pay off his massive gambling debts. Batmanís not a perpetrator of one of worst massacres in American history, who feels guilty about what he did every day. Booker Dewitt is not a man who witnessed murder at a young age and decided to use his thirst for vengeance as a force for good. Booker Dewitt is not a man who refuses to kill because he believes he is better than that.

Batman and Booker Dewitt are completely different characters. The Dark Knight and BioShock Infinite are not similar works of art. And this is not criticism. Plante, Hamilton, and like-minded others expected the game to be something it never had any intention of being: a white knight that would plow through the mainstreamís prejudice about gaming. Heís not the only one who placed an unreasonable hope upon Irrational Gamesí shoulders.

In this article,http://kotaku.com/bioshock-infinite-is-insanely-ridiculously-violent-it-470524003, Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku writes, ďBioShock Infinite is in many ways so, so close to being That Game, the one we can show to our non-gamer friends and say "See? Look at this! It is so awesome! Check out the story! It's like LOST! How neat is this?" But it's not That Game, because it's so hilariously, egregiously violent that a large number of people will never give it a chance.Ē

This isnít criticism; this an unfulfilled wish born out of some kind of insecurity about the hobby. And that insecurity is not unique to Hamilton or Plante; I know I feel it still. And itís something that we all have to shrug off because there is nothing shameful about liking this medium. But weíre still begging for acceptance and I guess that this is another manifestation of that longing. Itís just unfortunate that it has manifested this way.

Itís also a lack of understanding that some people just donít like games. Instead of lamenting that a person who doesnít like video games and isnít good at them canít immerse themselves in Columbia like we can, maybe you can just acknowledge the fact that video games clearly arenít for them. That they donít like them. That they never have and probably never will. Just like I will never enjoy hair metal. I donít begrudge hair metal for being what it is because I canít enjoy it; that judgment is reserved for the KKK.

ďI want to look for games that I can show my sister,Ē Hamilton writes. Why? I donít show my friends video game soundtracks because they donít care and they donít show me System of a Down albums for the same reason. Some people donít like what we like. Why are we still begging for our non-gaming relatives to accept us?

Why are we asking that BioShock Infinite, or for that matter any game, to be ďthat game?Ē It took decades for film to earn respect as a true, challenging art form, but it didnít happen all at once when Citizen Kane hit theaters. It was a succession of dominoes that took decades to fall.

Weíre also asking that this game not be a game, or be a different game than what it is. Part of gaming is the skill component, yet Iím seeing longtime gamers and critics, who understand this better than most, lament that this gameís skill curve acts as a barrier to the heart-wrenching story for non-gamers. But, thatís part of a game. To ask that it has no skill component is to disregard what the medium is at its core. A criticism of that aspect would describe how that skill component is wonky, uneven and so on. No one laments what a film is, they criticize how it is. Why is this logic applying to games?
That is where Planteís and Hamiltonís evaluations fail to me. They are not criticizing Infinite based on what it is, but what they wanted it to be. And if thatís not the actual case, their writing sure as hell makes it seem like that.

BioShock Infinite is extremely violent. And some people donít like that. Thatís ok. Itís part of the gameís message. Why do we hold that fact against it? Why should the game appeal to those who probably never would have given a shit anyway? Why ask for it to be nonviolent, something it never had any intention of being? Youíre just asking for games to be more homogenized than they already are.

There are valid criticisms to lie at the gameís feet: the gun play does occasionally feel like filler, the part with the ghost is the dumbest thing in a great game. Describing those flaws and why Infinite sometimes doesn't work is criticism. This (http://kotaku.com/the-problem-with-bioshock-infinites-combat-468530143, is criticism. I donít even agree with most of it, but I have to say Hamilton (yup, same dude) makes some valid, if disagreeable points.

But complaining that a shooter is a shooter is literally like lamenting the fact that a war film has explosions in it, or that platformers have jumping, or that 1940s noir has fedoras. Itís the difference between evaluating how a shooter could be better and evaluating what else it could have been.

Why canít a ďthoughtful storyĒ and ďlovely worldĒ have violence within it? What were you expecting, exactly? Did you want it to completely adhere to your preconceived notions of what ďlovelinessĒ was? Did you not want it to show you something different? Do you not think that a possible reason the game is so violent is to contrast the shiny veneer of the secretly homicidal religious bourgeois that rule the city?

I think this is why I like the game so much; itís one thing to challenge everyday consumers, but itís another thing entirely to challenge the people who made writing about games and playing them their livelihoods. Itís challenging critics and our criticism.
I would be remiss if I ended this rant with a big ďfuck you, deal with it,Ē so Iíll end with this instead: criticize me. Critique my writing and evaluate my opinions. Tell me why you think Iím wrong or right, unclear, sharp, out of line, or on the money. But criticize what I wrote. Not the Word doc I wrote it on.
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About MJones916one of us since 11:27 PM on 01.30.2012

Delusional nerd with hopes of becoming a filmmaker.