Monday, March 24, 2014

Bioshock Infinite: Your Argument is Invalid. (Part 5) by Chris Brecheen

 This is Part Five of Chris's epic deconstruction of Bioshock Infinite, and how it proves video games can be art. Witness the other parts here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Three reminders:

One - I’m jumping right in from the previous articles with no recap

Two - this article necessitates spoilers

Three - this article is not concerned with decoding the plot itself.

I have some bad news.

I’ve spent about four parts of this article lulling a growing audience of geeks into a false sense of security—making them think that I would do nothing but heap praise on one of last year’s most popular (mainstream) titles—and now I am going to turn on them by pointing out where Bioshock Infinite fell on its face.

You see, despite the technical execution, the subtext, the examination of the deep philosophical themes, and the artistic elements that reinforce the theme, there were things Bioshock Infinite tried to do that simply failed.

And I don’t mean it failed like Jake in Chinatown. I’m talking more like the dire fate (complete with hallucinations of great success) that Sam Lowry suffers in Brazil. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I need to give myself time to get to an undisclosed location before the mob finds pitchforks and torches, so let’s start with the criticism.

For starters, let us consider Tevis Thompson’s scathing review of Bioshock Infinite. Like most torpedo jobs of this caliber, it has salient criticism that an open minded gamer would be foolish to blow off as trivial,; considerable umbrage, which is no more than a matter of personal taste within game; and a few “kitchen sink” items thrown in to pad the list list, which are a bit absurd.

Yes Tevis, we’re all impressed that the game is too easy for you unless you put it on hard, and then it’s too hard. How unlike other games that must have seemed.

The article is quite long (though well worth the read) but let me give you just a couple of extended quotes so I can work with them.

"Now geeks…before I get into this. A moment over here next to the Doctor Who posters if you don’t mind? This will only take a second. I want to ask you a favor—especially if you have enjoyed the article so far. In Geekdom we have a bit of…(what’s a delicate way to put this?)…a reputation. Our ability to maybe accept that sometimes great things have bad parts or that we like something that is in any way problematic isn’t, in a manner of speaking, always demonstrated by our outwardly decorum when we discuss our fandoms. In fact, it is fair to say that sometimes the reason intellectual conversations about geek culture go on around us, and we aren’t invited at all to sit at the table, is that we can be a little…strident in our defense. So I’m going to ask you to stick with me through the end of the article and see the point I’m making, and if you still want to be “those fans” when it’s all over, I’ll understand. Okay? Okay."

So let’s look at this criticism:

"Elizabeth may clear the very low bar set for women in games, but she’s not a complex character. She’s a companion cube in a corset. For most reviewers, this counts as a real person. Or near enough….She gradually loses her clothes over the game until she is finally re-damselled and etherized upon a table, mo-capped, fully formed. She also flicks coins and supplies at you, just to remind you she’s still there. She is otherwise invisible to the rest of Columbia, despite being its most wanted citizen. She exists only for you, a marvelous tool, an extension of your strapping self….This is all by design. Irrational head Ken Levine wanted the player to forge an emotional connection with Elizabeth but not have her be a burden. Because lord knows, relationships are never burdens.”

“Why are the Vox capable of just as much cruelty?….Is it because history is full of examples of bloody rebellions and reigns of terror? But then that ignores the actual historical context in America that Infinite claims to care about, where the long struggle for civil and political rights was remarkably non-violent (at least on the side of the disenfranchised). wanted to make a point about how any extreme position is dangerous. Even if that position is racial equality, fair wages, or medicine for your daughter dying in Shantytown….Infinite creates a clear moral equivalence between Columbia’s oppressors and oppressed. Both Booker and Elizabeth voice versions of this ‘one no better than the other’ logic, in case you miss the point. Such false equivalencies are beloved by the lazy, the aloof, the cowardly….The straight, white male gamer could in fact find no better home for his high-minded non-politics than BioShock Infinite.”

Thompson might be one of the most long-winded voices, but he is far from the only one. 

A few gems from this link:

“Infinite doesn’t know how to humanize the white citizens of Columbia and make their vile perspectives comprehensible. Instead, it dehumanizes minorities and laborers so that everyone is a monster.”

“When your super-liminally racist society ends up being destroyed by the only black characters in the game, who are depicted as violent, white-people-hating, child-murdering savages, you're just confirming the racist white people's ideas about black people and presenting them as true.”

“With all of the discussion of misogyny in the industry lately, from sexual harassment, to "if you cosplay then you ask for it" mentality to the Tropes Vs. Women question of "Why's it always the damsel in distress?" I'm dying to know what the women of the industry think of the depiction of Elizabeth. I actually wanted to see her "tear things up" in another way more often.

The long and short of it is that B.I. took on a few sociopolitical topics, with the intention of being enlightened and edgy, and ran afoul of a lot of criticism pointing out that they failed spectacularly in their efforts. In fact, it’s a little bit hard to ignore how consistently the criticism breaks down along exactly those lines with which B.I. was attempting to be “edgy.”

I already know some of you are racing to your keyboards ready to spew out some kind of bile comment in defense of the game you enjoyed so much. How dare anyone not see this the same way you did! Yes. Good. The hate is flowing in you now. Take your nerdrage weapon. Use it. I am unarmed. Strike me down with it. Give in to your hatred and your journey towards the unthinking, rabid fandom will be complete.

Though if you’ll go Light Side for a moment and stick with me, my point has more to do with the criticism itself, and not whether or not I (or you) agree with it.

That said, let me weigh in, as it would perhaps be seen as unfair of me to come this far and then hold myself aloof and disinterested about the criticism of a game I so clearly enjoyed. Here is the cold, hard truth of my opinion:

These authors have a point.


Gamers and geeks sometimes have trouble with the idea that media have aspects, and that it’s okay to like problematic things. Instead, we are intensely driven to have an all or nothing attitude towards those media that denies nuance—an attitude that (ironically) exacerbates the struggle to achieve legitimacy among the snobby assholes high art sommeliers. However, it is absolutely vital to be able to embrace this duality with Bioshock Infinite, because it’s triumphs and its failures are both equally dramatic. For everything B.I. did spectacularly well (and there were many such things), it’s portrayal of racial struggles as being morally equivalent to racial oppression, and depending only on which side happened to be armed were problematic—in some places (like showing the leader of the movement for equality as a child killer) intensely so. And it’s important that we acknowledge that we can like a game that did something badly without ourselves being bad people.

Unfortunately, Irrational tried to draw attention to how damned enlightened they were being and it backfired. Don’t get me wrong, the social commentary fit into the thematic exploration we’ve been discussing for the past two articles. (“Isn’t it amazing how this ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ stuff ends up being just a product of external circumstance, and we’d all do the same thing in the same political circumstances. It’s like there isn’t actually any choice in the matter!” Gee, where have we heard that theme before?) But with both the racial plot arcs and Elizabeth, Irrational bragged so vociferously about how differently they were handling things than other games that they also drew attention to the glaring flaws.

From the grotesque image of having a murder of crows feast on a person of color, to the entire polemic of “they would be just as bad if they had the guns,” to Elizabeth being nothing more than an ammo dispensing machine in the fights who otherwise stays out of the way, the whole game has the feel of someone who thought they were being quite progressive, but who didn’t stop to actually get a lot of input from people who knew or understood the struggles, contexts, and history into which the story plunged itself head first. Accurate or not, I got the distinct impression that this is what a group of mostly white, mostly male, largely middle class and generally apolitical gamers thought was a deep social exploration of race relations, and that they really hadn’t spent a lot of time running the likelihood of the history they insinuated into their alternative timeline past anyone but themselves.

I do think B.I. has a sort of value even in the places it came up short. I would recommend it with the same impetus with which I would recommend someone read Huckleberry Finn. It isn’t in a realistic, accurate, or even generous portrayal of what it’s attempting, but rather it reveals the social mindsets of the time—in this case OUR time. It shows how people can sort of be facing the right direction, have great intentions, be on the right side of big problems like discrimination, and still really lose the plot when it comes to any nuance. B.I. reveals early 21st century perceptions of racism as a horror from our past but obtusely (and rather ironically) fails to consider its own set of modern day in-sensitivities or how privileged its narrative comes across at times. Irrational’s attempts echo (with an almost spooky harmony) the sentiment espoused by many whites: that they already understand oppression without having experienced it or engaged with those who have.

However, instead of focusing on what B.I. did wrong, and the many many many places it stepped on its own toes in a sloppy attempts to pursue lofty social ideals, let’s go back and consider not only the criticism itself, but the intense discussion that it has sparked, all the different opinions, and even the way it has opened the door for some people to become aware of things like privilege and micro-aggressions because of the larger conversation around B.I.’s portrayals.

As people raced to criticize Bioshock Infinite, and others raced to defend it, something happened within that crucible—a conversation. Across a bazillion forums of the internet, and even a few places in meatspace, that conversation changed people. People in power learned why the sophist polemics of B.I. were hurtful. Marginalized voices had a touchpoint with which to discuss those failings. A million bits of art or entertainment every day are ignored despite all of the problems B.I. had (and worse) because they’re just not compelling enough to people to bother correcting. Bioshock Infinite created something so poignant, that folks who took umbrage stood up to say “They got that part wrong, and here’s why…”

Take this last quote:

“Its commentary on racial segregation and civil rights; its sheer violence; the lifelessness of its world – these have all fascinated and concerned players. And that is where the discourse comes in. Because it refuses clarity, for good or bad, BioShock Infinite has inspired a huge range of impassioned and conflicting responses.”

Discourse? Feminist theory? Critical race theory? The appropriateness of violence in the setting? The portrayal of turn of the century race relations? Commentary on civil right? The fleshing out of characters? Wardrobes following male gaze instead of empowerment arcs? Inspiring impassioned and conflicting responses? A crucible of social commentary?

Folks you don’t see this kind of shit about Centipede or Burger Time.

It turns out he had a rough childhood. -Ed
This isn’t your typical “9/10 Graphics 8/10 Gameplay” reviews. These are the kinds of criticisms and analytical tools we bring to the table when we’re looking at literature and film. These are the kinds of discussions that crop up when we’re looking at “real art.”

Here’s the reason I’m bringing all this up. It’s not to piss off geeks and get a good flame war going in the comments (though Ace of Geeks could use the traffic). (We could! -Ed) This is actually one more of my “video games can be real art” proofs:

Even if B.I. crashed and burned (and it kind of did) in its attempt to be edgy and deep with racism in Columbia, the worst criticism that can be leveled at it from an artistic point of view is that it failed.

But in order to fail, you HAVE to have the capacity for success.

No one is making a (non ironic) argument that Galaga failed to portray race relations in the 80’s, because there’s no way Galaga ever could have succeeded in doing so. No one applied feminist theory to Contra that was any deeper than “Look—another game with two ripped dudes.” Q-bert did not spark a discourse.

The fact that Bioshock Infinite took on such huge topics and got raked over the coals is only proof that had it handled things differently it would have succeeded. In other words, if the worst thing you can say is that they got it wrong, you must admit that the medium of video games has achieved the point where it is possible to “get it wrong”—or conversely to “get it right.” And that means they have reached the point where they are indeed real art.

In the interest of brevity, I will save the conclusion for a sixth part. Stay tuned for the final wrap up. (It’s a short conclusion, so it should be along shortly—this particular chunk was just getting pretty wordy.)

Part Six

[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.]

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