The BioShock Infinite Backlash

The following piece may contain spoilers for BioShock Infinite. You’ve been warned!

So, BioShock Infinite, eh? For better or worse, it’s still part of current critical conversations about video games, a month after its release. Usually, I enjoy participating in such conversations, but the discussion surrounding BioShock Infinite has taken somewhat of an odd turn that has made me wary of wading in. At the risk of over-simplifying, players have roughly split into two camps: people who loved almost everything about the game and people who were incredibly disappointed, which correspond roughly to mainstream gaming sites and the less mainstream blogosphere. I find myself in neither camp, so maybe this blog post is just a way of reconciling my feelings on the game with the player reaction I’ve perceived. (However, if I were capable of that level of self-reflection, I would probably question why I’m writing this blog post instead of doing something productive. *sigh*)

There are three possible responses to my wariness at participating in BioShock Infinite discussion: 1) Ignore it and participate anyway. 2) Ignore the conversation entirely. 3) Take a step back from the conversation and attempt to identify and explain the causes of the wariness. Option 1 inevitably leads to Internet shouting matches, so for a while, I had settled with option 2. But a recent post by Kirk Hamilton on Kotaku and Cameron Kunzelman’s round-up of BioShock Infinite links motivated me to switch to option 3. After reading a lot about what other people thought about BioShock Infinite, I think I’ve figured out why so much of this discussion seems problematic to me, and it has to do with how people are examining the game in the context of the medium of video games as a whole.

There’s always a danger in criticizing the critics. If the critics can be criticized, then why not criticize the people who are criticizing the critics? And then in that case, why not criticize the people who are criticizing the people who are criticizing the critics? Before long, you find yourself in an infinite regress with a headache and a pair of soiled underpants, wondering what the hell you’re doing with your life. That being said, I have criticized the critics before, and nobody left a bag of flaming poop on my doorstep, so I’ll risk it.

Before proceeding any further, a disclaimer: you’re allowed to love or hate BioShock Infinite for whatever reason you want. I may disagree with you about those opinions, but I accept them as perfectly valid points of view. My concern is in how those opinions are being discussed, and I think the way some of the discussion surrounding the game has been framed is detrimental to how we discuss video games. Got it? Good,  let’s move on to the meat and potatoes of this overly rambling blog post.

To understand my problems with how the game is being discussed, let’s take a look at a couple of examples. Here’s the beginning of Tim Rogers’ review for Action Button:

A Steam banner advertisement for Bioshock Infinite declares:

“10 out of 10. Unforgettable.” –Game Informer

This tells me one thing: the world’s largest videogame retail establishment owns a magazine, and that magazine cannot forget about Bioshock Infinite.

This tells me that money and mouths crouch silently in wait for this game’s release. It is a great experiment, wrapped in mainstream appeal, wrapped in artistic appeal, wrapped in mainstream appeal — just a never-ending (infinite) sometimes-downward, sometimes-upward, cyclone-hugging twisting torpedo forged by the unholy fusion of casual (curious non-gamers who find the sophisticated veneer attracting) and hardcore (shooting fans (and art appreciateurs)).

And here’s an excerpt from Chris Franklin’s review for Errant Signal:

There are moments I legitimately loved in this game; moments that will stick with me.  But we can’t let games be human and artful in bits and pieces.  Honesty and integrity and empathy aren’t like the marshmallows in Lucky Charms, they’re not meant to be the small good parts surrounded by the fluff of machinegun fire and murder.  And they’re not like the lollypop we get for being a good kid at the dentist; they’re not the sweet reward we get at the end for putting up with all this tacky combat.  They’re things we need to be demanding our games to simply be. Sneaking in a quiet moment or saccharine song between meaningless violence isn’t going to push this medium forward, and no number of ten out of ten reviews can change that.

The first thing that strikes me about these excerpts is that Rogers and Franklin both have an issue with the game having received high review scores. Um, sorry other people liked the game more than you or I did, I guess? But more than that, these sentences imbue their respective reviews with a sense of condescension towards the mainstream gaming press and the tastes of consumers who agree with their critical assessments.

The conflict between the mainstream gaming press and the more “intelligent” gaming blogosphere is nothing new. The latter believes the former to be nothing but a corrupt arm of publisher PR, while the former largely ignores the latter’s existence. But that doesn’t explain why this game in particular has driven such a sharp wedge between the two. (The game currently sits at a 95 on Metacritic.)

I don’t have a good explanation for why the two camps have adopted their respective opinions. (And I don’t mean to say that the two camps are rigidly defined. Rab Florence, often seen as a member of the gaming intelligentsia, for example, had high praise for the game.) But I do think I understand why they’ve been writing about the game the way they have. Let’s take a look at some positive reviews. Here’s an excerpt from Mike Wehner’s for The Escapist:

Bioshock Infinite is both a breathtaking achievement in videogame storytelling and a marquee example of a game that will stick with you long after you see everything it has to offer. Calling it simply a first-person shooter is practically an insult.

A little hyperbolic, perhaps? I’m not sure I see the need to put down other first-person shooters that succeed on their own terms. Let’s look at another positive review. Writing for Darkstation, Nick had this to say:

Bioshock Infinite is the best shooter I have played in a long time. It is an incredible achievement artistically, narratively, and technically.

There’s nothing objectionable here, but it’s notable that Nick thinks the game is an “incredible achievement artistically.”

On the other hand, we have Chris Franklin saying:

Bioshock Infinite doesn’t want to be most games.  It wants to be Important, it wants to Say Something. […] About a fifth of the game seems to stem from a place that at least has ambitions of being artful, of saying something that connects with people.  But the remaining 80% is gunshots, explosions, and magical space booze that gives you colorful superpowers as you slaughter racist religious zealots in a city in the sky with your nine-fingered companion who can take you to alternate dimensions.  Do you see how that might conflict with the grounded emotions and empathetic truths a little bit?  One fundamentally opposes the other and you can’t have both.

Well, this is a bit of a confusing quote, isn’t it? For starters, no I don’t think that necessarily conflicts with the “grounded emotions” and “empathetic truths.” But what really gets me is the assertion that BioShock Infinite wants to be “Important.” Important to what? For whom? Important to the medium, maybe? That’s what Brainy Gamer’s Michael Abbott seems to think:

I have a feeling that Bioshock Infinite will finally be seen as the apotheosis of the FPS genre, a culminating achievement that signals both a peak and an end.

That, I think is the key to understanding why BioShock Infinite has been so divisive. Its supporters see something brilliant in it and want to push it as a landmark artistic achievement for gaming. Its detractors are afraid of such deification and think it would be a detriment to the medium.

But framing the discussion in such terms is actually a detriment to video game criticism. First of all, it’s ridiculous to pin the artistic validity of a medium on a single work. It shouldn’t fall on BioShock Infinite’s shoulders to “push this medium forward” more so than any other game. It’s also equally ridiculous to think that praising a single work or giving high scores to it will somehow damage the medium. Equating a work and its copycats with the entirety of a medium is ironically the same kind of narrow-minded thinking employed by the people who made those copycats.

Secondly, there’s the notion that BioShock Infinite is somehow trying to be “art,” which I find problematic. Take this criticism by Daniel Golding of ABC for instance:

BioShock Infinite, as I have noted, wants to be taken seriously, to be held up and applauded for artful substance and narrative as much as its visuals and design. BioShock Infinite wants to be remembered for having something to say.

Look, I’m not sure I know what “art” is, and frankly, trying to nail down a definition of what constitutes art is something best left to people who have actually studied art (i.e. not me). But I’m confused by the idea that if a game tries to do something that is perceived to “artful” in order to further its own artistic goals, then that must mean it is also trying to attain the goal of being “art.” (If video games are considered “art,” then this is doubly confusing, because how can something try to be what it is by definition?) Since “art” is so vaguely and nebulously defined anyway, this strikes me as an utterly vacuous critique. It’s like looking at a table, saying it’s not a chair, and then criticizing it for being a bad chair.

If you’re going to try to make the argument that BioShock Infinite is aspiring to some special status within the medium, then you’re going to have to do better than saying, “Oh wow, look at how intelligent and serious this game is trying to be.” That’s a false equivalence between meaning and status. Meaning comes from what the game is trying to say and do. Status refers to a game’s position in the medium’s canon, as perceived by players. What’s the relationship here? Are only games that are “meaningful” capable of achieving high status? That’s not a rhetorical question. I seriously want to know what players think makes a game worthy.

I’ll even go as far as to say that there are instances when a hoped-for status is part of a game’s message. It’s an argument that I’ve made with regards to certain TV shows, most notably Community. However, in that case, it was an argument that made reference to specific things the show was doing in order to influence its status. Very brief summary: By using meta references, Community created a sort of feedback loop between itself and its fans, thereby cementing its status for those fans. A similar analysis could be applied to BioShock Infinite. The last few hours of the game posit that there are infinite universes, but that some things remain constant across each one. (“There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city.”) That could be interpreted as an assertion that all stories are essentially the same, and by saying this and acknowledging the limits of storytelling, BioShock Infinite is placing itself above other stories. It’s a tenuous argument, and it’s not really what I think the game is trying to say. But at least it’s an argument. The thing is, though, I haven’t seen anyone make it or any other argument that convincingly links the game’s message with whatever status the game is supposedly trying to achieve. Hence my feeling that there’s a false equivalence between meaning and status being drawn here.

So when people are talking about BioShock Infinite, they’re talking about its place within the medium more than the game itself. But why? If you’ll allow me to play amateur pop psychologist, I think there are two reasons. The first is due to a fundamental insecurity that gamers have about the artistic validity of their hobby. When they see a game they think is being unjustifiably deified, they worry that that game will become the medium’s ambassador, and if it is supposed to represent the best of gaming, then the medium will never attain legitimacy. Let’s go back to that first quote from Chris Franklin’s review: “But we can’t let games be human and artful in bits and pieces. […] They’re things we need to be demanding our games to simply be.” The idea that I or anybody else “needs” to demand that games be something is alarming, but what’s even more troubling is the implication that BioShock is only fleetingly “artful,” which further implies that most of it isn’t “art.”

At the risk of self-aggrandizing, I’ve given a lot of harsh reviews on this blog – here are some examples – but as far as I can remember, I’ve never declared or implied that something wasn’t “art.” As I established earlier, that’s a vacuous critique. It would also be a harmless one too, if it weren’t for the fact that saying something isn’t art is akin to saying that it isn’t worthy of critical consideration. I find it baffling that one would dismiss a work rather than simply deem it bad art. Aside from the fact that it’s, you know, bad – which is wholly subjective anyway – there’s nothing inherently wrong with bad art. It isn’t antimatter that somehow destroys good art.

That brings me to the second, related reason why some people are discussing BioShock Infinite’s place within the medium more than the game itself: those who worry about the state of gaming are interested in curating the medium. They want to pick and choose the games that they think are worthy of attaining cultural significance and filter out those that aren’t. Thus, fans of the game have argued that it’s a landmark work, while those who didn’t like it have often argued more about its lack of artistic merit than about its actual content. In either case, the aim of both parties is not necessarily to preserve the medium for future generations (which would be a noble goal), but to create a sort of museum for the present. However, this strikes me as wrongheaded. Cultural significance is best analyzed with the benefit of hindsight. It’s impossible to know a work’s impact before it has had a chance to actually make an impact. Curation should not be a conscious, active process taken in the present; it’s a byproduct of the natural evolution of the medium and the discussion surrounding it.

BioShock Infinite has inspired a lot of discussion, and that’s great. Just take a look Cameron Kunzelman’s round-up for an idea of the kind of thoughtful conversation that’s taking place. (Some of the linked pieces about how the game deals with race, gender, and class are particularly good.) But it’s important to remember that BioShock Infinite is just one game out of a medium that consists of thousands upon thousands of games. It won’t be seen as the medium’s representative unless people talk about it as if it is the medium’s representative. One shouldn’t place the game on a pedestal, but on the other hand, one need not debate the game’s status, or worse, make blanket statements about the artistic validity of shooters. Bottom line: maybe you didn’t find meaning while staring down the barrel of a gun, and that’s fine. But let me keep searching.

8 thoughts on “The BioShock Infinite Backlash

  1. “Um, sorry other people liked the game more than you or I did, I guess?”

    People want more of Bioshock and they really want Bioshock to be the great stepping stone to that hazy, glorious impress of Official Art Form. It’s more former than latter.

    Bioshock killed its own pacing and gravitas because it shackled itself to a framework and group of systems that betrayed it. Themes were brought up, dropped, and lost in the thousandth gunfight and stupid player conditioning to look for slices of oranges in a trash can. (I guess it needs to be an RPG too).

    The only blog I saw that gave the racial themes any sort of confrontation— without the sketchy praise you see everywhere for being a Video Game Dealing with the Grown Issues—berated it for drawing contrived conclusions unfaithful to the history of the subject matter, just so the white guy who’s killed everything he’s seen along his way can say Oppressed and Oppressor are both just as bad. How delightfully black and white. How classically video-game-y.

    The first hour of Bioshock is possibly part of the best Interactive Entertainment Software ever; the next 10 or 11 hours not so much. It certainly thinks it’s clever, and it might as well be a damned genius. In the video game format.

    But we still pretend to have important discussions, because, sometimes, it’s either that or its back to killing indiscriminately. As we always have in Video Games.

  2. I think it is important to keep things in perspective. Status changes over time, and we won’t know what was worth remembering till we’ve forgotten the rest.

    And it IS important to note that message and status are distinct. But I also think that, depending on a game’s tone, these two can coalesce, purposefully, as a result of decisions made by its creators. When you tackle certain subject matter, you’re simply going to face greater scrutiny from some.

    It’s a matter of context as well. You can’t KNOW one’s motivations, but you can deduce everything up until the point. When someone debuts a game at the Tribeca Film Festival or does an interview on NPR making a point of comparing their project to Shakespearean tragedy, message and status sure seem to be having some kind of fling.

    When the story in a Devil May Cry game seems flimsy, it isn’t seen as a huge detraction. When issue is taken with Bioshock Infinite’s story, it’s a major downfall.

    There’s a reason for that, and I don’t think it’s entirely in the heads of critics.

    1. You bring up a very good point about why status and message get conflated. The way developers talk about their work can invite certain inferences about that work’s intent.

      It leads me to wonder how much of people’s thinking about BioShock Infinite has been influenced by pre-release promotion, interviews, etc. A lot of gaming outlets were touting it as a landmark game even before its release. (For his part, if I remember Ken Levine’s pre-release interviews correctly, he seemed to be describing it as a shooter that would tackle complex issues rather than something important to or different in the medium.) That’s why I try to abstract from all the pre-release hoopla when I sit down to play a game. I don’t know if I fully succeed, and I’m sure my expectations are jumping around in the back of my head, but at least I make an attempt to judge a creative work on its own merits.

      In any case, a more evenhanded, lengthier version of this blog post would have gone more in-depth about how pre-release promotion and press generate expectations not only with respect to content but also with respect to status.

      As for your point regarding Devil May Cry and BioShock Infinite, I think that has more to do with how the game presents itself and the emphasis that the game itself places on narrative. (Having never played a DMC game myself, though, I can’t be certain.) But I see your point. I myself knocked the final few hours of BioShock Infinite’s story for failing to tie everything together, but it’s not a criticism I’d as readily level at something wackier and less narrative-driven, like Saints Row 2. Does that mean that a game with a greater emphasis on narrative should a priori be considered for a higher status? I wouldn’t say so, but I absolutely agree that a game that places a higher emphasis on narrative should face a greater level of critical scrutiny of its narrative.

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