My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, December 28, 2018

BioShock Infinite as Art: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 1)

Note: this is an Ace of Geeks rescue and a multi-part piece that was fairly ....uh...indulgent of me. So for my reposting of it, I've got an eye on places I can trim it down from a six part article. Except for today (because the revision caught me off guard), I will be revising it and posting it piecemeal on the days that Writing About Writing usually takes off––should take me a little over a week to get it all posted.

Among many geeks, it is a source of some tenderness that video games are not typically recognized or generally considered a “legitimate” art form.

Of course, geeks themselves know this epic jackhole pomposity needs to be taken out behind the chemical shed; however, as with trying to get Science Fiction a seat at the big kids' table, it seems a bunch of arrogant blowhards haven’t gotten the fucking memo yet. Among prudish tweed-jacketed Humanities professors, there are those who deny that interactive media could ever be true art. They say it in the same tone of voice that their long-dead compeers used to say that TV wasn’t art; and before that they used to say Rock and Roll wasn’t art; and before that they used to say that movies weren’t art; some of them still insist that computer animation isn't art; and they still haven't quite grasped that overarching historical irony that everything that now fills the very Humanities halls they haunt was at one time passionately decried as not art.

Surely THIS time they are right to be elitist, gatekeepery, and exclusionary, though. Surely this time their prejudice is spot on.

Ancient humanities prof: "Ug think good if like bison,
but not high art worthy of consider."

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

Usually I don’t give two landbound shits or a flying fuck about the divide between what the great Eurocentric ivory tower dwellers think is "real 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 overwhelmingly white and middle-class their defense committee was). But some days they seem to be ever stuck in an endless cycle of praising the prior generation’s ingenuity as “the right way to do art," and doing modern artistic movements more harm than good.

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 the current and younger generation (who—bafflingly*—end up going on being canonized in the next generation), and then scratch their heads that no one A) could have predicted such a Shyamalanian twist and B) seems to still give a shit what they say about art.....  If they want to do all that, normally, that’s their business.

*This is irony. It's not really baffling.

Today.....ugh. Today is a little different. 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, but one she designed herself by cobbling together classes in computer art, 3-D art, graphic design, literary theory, film, and independent study—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.

Fuck that tweed jacket in particular.

“These…video games,” he said (and yes, you have to give it that sneering little pause to get the timbre 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 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 what I'm saying is true. 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.”

I'm paraphrasing. Dillhole was a lot less articulate. It took him like ten minutes to get this out and there was at least two minutes about Edvard Munch that made no sense. Towards the end, I was actively hoping paratrooping Cubans would take over the campus.

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. Like, I'm pretty sure if HIS boss had heard that speech, he would have instantly earned his sew-on elbow patches. It takes a particular kind of disingenuousness 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 Gutenberg Press or the popularity of longer fiction tracking almost exactly with the technological cost of printing it (in those early days, novels were "not art," by the way), 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.

I'm not hoping Atari's Combat wins an Academy Award, but the very idea that video games couldn’t possibly be art is patently absurd.

Yet Dillholicus McDill got under my friend’s skin, and he made her wonder if she was wasting her life and an inheritance that could have gone towards a better car.

“Jess, these are the same guys who thought theater could never be high art—it was just 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 sillypants.”

“I know,” she said. "I just wish I could show them one game that is....unquestionable. 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.”

Thirteen months later, I played Bioshock Infinite.

I could drop any 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 that I will absolutely finish this year. (Morgan Freeman Narrator's voice: "He wouldn't.") And we don’t even need the fancy computing power or ├╝bergraphics of today to cross this Rubicon; Myst was a game, now over 22 years old, whose breathtaking visuals at the time, 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. It's an....okay game. (My opinion will be somewhat hard to obfuscate in this article.) Some love it. Some hate it. Some are pretty meh. But perhaps more than any other game I could unpack (or at least just as much as any other as of this writing), it can end this argument. Every molecule of it tried for something higher, and whether you think it succeeded or not, I can make its case. (I can also write a 30 page paper on the powerful literary elements in The Bell Jar while wishing I had that six hours of my life back, so this isn't about my opinion.)

In this essay.....

Haha. See what I did there. Since that's a meme these days?  Okay but seriously in this essay, I can show by way of its criticism, its symbolism, its composite elements, its mechanics, and even its breathtaking failure at sociopolitical commentary, that every frame had the ambition to be more than “just a game.”  In the end, any sad remnants of fossilized sentiment that video games can’t be real art will be completely invalid, and Dillicus Maximus will go extinct like the dinosaur he is.

This one’s for you, Jessica.

This will be part one of what was originally a six-part series on Bioshock Infinite. (I'm kind of hoping I get it down to five in revision.) It’s not going to be your typical “What did the end REALLY mean?” article. There are enough of those as it is. 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.

On to Part 2


  1. My interest is tickled by this series. I need to know what your take is on this game because I feel very strongly about it. I was completely taken by it, partially because I found many elements of my Mormon upbringing in it, even if I do not practice any longer. Those elements, almost seamlessly weaved with American history made this game a delight for the story lover in me. Looking forward to reading more!

  2. I absolutely loved this article. Two games stuck with me as worthy of praise for HighArt™ were Guild Wars 2 and PlanetSide 2. The latter for it's incredible visuals and gripping mechanical design, and the former for its stunning attention to detail and painterly aesthetic.

    Whenever someone tries to tell me that video games aren't art (something that I actually encounter almost regularly on campus), I show them one of these videos and make them shudder a little bit. Even the comment sections of these videos are full of people praising how artistic they are by all objective measure.

    I think you'll get a kick out of these. If this isn't art, then what is?



    And for incredible, gorgeous and melodic symphonies, look no further than Jeremy Soule,the brilliant composer for the Skyrim and Guild Wars 2 sountracks. If these aren't considered art, then the artistic Overton Window is so narrow that it cannot possibly be meaningful to anyone.

    (Jeremy Soule GW2 Playlist)

    (Skyrim theme)

    and for the real kicker....

    Fear Not This Night, the most mindblowingly beautiful song Jeremy Soule- or perhaps any modern composer of the 21st century- has ever created. And it was created for a video game.

    (Fear Not This Night)