Monday, January 13, 2014

Bioshock Infinite: Your Argument is Invalid (Part One) by Chris Brecheen

Among many geeks, it is a source of some tenderness that video games are not recognized, and generally not considered a “legitimate” art form. Of course, geeks themselves know this is complete crap. Most sort of roll their eyes at the fact that a bunch of arrogant blowhards haven’t gotten the fucking memo yet. Still, among prudish tweed-jacketed Humanities professors and their slack jawed, drooling zombie followers, there are those who deny that interactive media could ever be true art. They say it in the same tone of voice that was used to say Rock and Roll wasn’t art, that movies weren’t art, that TV wasn’t art, and even that computer animation isn’t art—never realizing that their prejudice for innovation makes them look like a bunch of elitist douchenozzles.

Plus seriously, I don’t really think too many have actually played video games since they were pumping quarters into Tempest and Q-bert.

Usually I don’t give two shits or a fuck (land-bound or flying) about the divide between what the great white man’s phallus ivory tower thinks is art and what they don’t. They serve a narrow aesthetic at best (too busy patting themselves on the back for their open minded, post-colonial theses to notice how predominately—almost overwhelmingly—white and middle class they usually are). But at worst, they seem to be ever stuck in an endless cycle of praising the prior generation’s ingenuity as “the right way to do art.”

If they want to lock themselves in their cloistered halls, turn their discussions into exclusionary circle jerks, pat themselves on the back for having it all figured out, appoint themselves the guardians of the bourgeois aesthetic, hate the art and artists of each generation (who—bafflingly—end up going on being canonized in the next), and then scratch their heads that no one (outside of academics) seems to give a shit what they say about art, that’s their business.

Today is a little different, though. You see, not so very long ago, I watched one of these snide academics tell a friend named Jessica that her MFA in game design—an MFA not officially offered by the university, and an MFA she designed herself by cobbling together classes in computer art, 3-D art, graphic design, literary theory, and film—was little more than a piece of paper and that her lifelong pursuit to bring artistic merit to video games was futile, as they would never be respected as true art.

Today, I’m feeling a little feisty.

“These…video games,” he said (and yes, you have to give it that sneering little pause to get the timber just right), “simply don’t have the ability to be real art. They’re fun. They’re entertaining. Some of them are very pretty. My son plays this one on the X-box that I swear is just like being there. But they’re not real art. Understand that good art actually does have a definition.  It’s not completely subjective—the people that say things like that usually haven’t studied art, but I know you have, so you know this. The composite of the elements has to support a directed vision.  There has to be a theme that is enhanced by the technical aspects of the art form itself.  Video games just don’t have that.  They are just….games.”

For me, all he did was prove he was a complete status-quo-loving tool, without an original thought in his institutional skull for what art even is. It takes a particular kind of disingenuous idiocy not to be aware of how closely developments in art have tracked with developments in technology. Even if you missed things like the proliferation of literacy and writing after the invention of the Guttenberg Press or the popularity of longer fiction tracking almost exactly with the technological cost of printing it, and even if you were unaware of how the 20th century’s technological developments changed art with everything from amplified music, to film, to television, you would have to be straight up fucking asleep not to notice that computers are changing every art they touch. From CGI, to computer animation, to auto-tuning, to the entire MDA movement in canvas art. The very idea that video games couldn’t be art is patently absurd.

But he got under my friend’s skin, and he made wonder if she was wasting her life. I even saw a tear while she pretended to be concentrating on her Denny’s fries.

“Jess, these are the same guys who thought theater could never be high art—it was mindless entertainment for the masses. It was ‘fun.’ And then in 1589 my boy, Billy, wrote a little ditty called The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  He made them all look pretty damned stupid.”

I stole one of her fries.  "Okay, maybe they're not the EXACT same guys..."

“I wish,” she said, “there was just a game that could just…end this debate. Just one game. That’s all it would take. If one game could be high art, they would have to admit that the potential is there for the whole medium.”

I played Bioshock Infinite about 13 months later, and within fifteen minutes, long before I’d even fired the first shot, this article was forming in my mind.

I could drop a number of titles to show how video games are breaking the “high art” barrier. The idea that Shadow of the Colossus didn’t weave its elements into a single poignant thematic vision is laughable. I myself am doing literary analysis of Skyrim on my own blog. And we don’t even need the fancy computing power or ubergraphics of today to cross this Rubicon; Myst was a game, now over 21 years old, whose breathtaking visuals, mind numbing puzzles, and dark soundtrack created a powerful sense of foreboding mystery, which worked with the game’s dark themes of guilt vs. innocence, unclear villains, vengeance, and familial strife.

But Bioshock Infinite is a slam dunk. Perhaps more than any other game, it can end this argument. Every molecule of it tried for something higher, and the end result is as much art as Slaughterhouse Five or Blade Runner. I can show by way of its criticism, its symbolism, its composite elements, and its mechanics that every frame had the ambition to be more than “just a game.”  In the end, I any sad remnants of fossilized sentiment that video games can’t be real art will be completely invalid.

This one’s for you, Jessica.

This will be part one of a five part series on Bioshock Infinite. It’s not going to be your typical “What did the end REALLY mean?” article. There are enough of those as it is. (Plus we devoted an entire podcast to that - check the archives. - Ed) Instead, I’m going to analyze the artistic elements—with a focus on the literary and writing side since that’s where I have experience and training.  However, this discussion will be impossible to have without giving away some spoilers so proceed with caution.


[Chris Brecheen has his own blog at Writing About Writing and if you ever run out of Ace of Geeks articles to read, he wouldn't complain too much if you stopped by to check him out. Check back next week for his continuing analysis of Bioshock Infinite.]

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