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Thursday, March 14, 2019

BioShock Infinite: Your Argument Is Invalid (Conclusion)

Two quick reminders:

1- This is part 6 (and the conclusion) of a multipart article, and I’m jumping in with no recap. You can go back to Part 5 or all the way back to The Beginning

2- While I’m not decoding the end or discussing the plot directly, there will be spoilers.

And so…here we are…at the end. The Art Snobs are electrocuting Video Games with force lightning of elitism, but what they don’t realize is that the “dark lord” standing next to them is a geek with a degree in humanities who is going to use what he learned to turn on them.

Time to toss this “video-games-can’t-be-art" argument down a strangely placed bottomless shaft.

Okay.
Someone needs to stop throwing a tantrum about who gets to be special.
It's time for your nap and a baba.

There is so much more I could analyze about BioShock Infinite. More themes, more subtext, more elements that work to reinforce the vision, more failed topical social justice attempts. Each one of the parts of this could be telescoped out into ten more articles of examples. One could write a masters thesis on nothing but the idea of redemption as a driving motivation for nearly every character, or fill fifteen articles with careful analysis of all the symbolism without even breaking a sweat. I suspect a PhD dissertation arguing the inclusion of video games into the annals of art could be made with nothing but this one game.

However, my point was never to do an exhaustive critical analysis, but simply to show that it CAN be done. I don’t need to show all the symbols to prove that at least one exists. I don’t need to examine each element of video game design to show a couple that are working with the themes. I don’t need to examine every theme to show how they play into B.I.’s overall experience as art. I don’t need to unpack every critical review to demonstrate that the analytical tools being used to analyze B.I. are the same ones we bring to the table when we’re talking about film or literature (both “real” art forms).

I actually have the easy job here. I need only ONE solid example to disprove the claim that video games can't be art. I can kick my feet up, chomp some bonbons and write a (relatively) short article that illustrates my point. That is because I merely need to get the artistry of ONE video game on record. You don’t even have to agree that B.I. is “real art,” you just have to agree that it had the ability to be, so even the opinion that they fell short is, in and of itself, a success.

You see, in the final analysis, BioShock Infinite’s gestalt as legitimate art echoes its sociopolitical shortcomings. If the worst criticism leveled against it is that it failed in its ambition, then the medium’s potential must be acknowledged. A piece of art that has failed to live up to its potential must have had the potential to be art.

Checkmate, dillhole art professors.

No...
NOOOOOOOOOOO!
The position that video games can’t be art is quagmired from nearly three decades ago in the medium’s technological infancy when it literally did not have the ability to be artistic. (At least not in a way recognized by the ivory tower. A case could be made for the tension between impact and intent existing from the moment two rectangles and a circle were meant to be a game of ping pong.) And every moment since the 90’s has seen that claim become more and more absurd. Sure, there are disposable entertainment games, and no one is arguing that Modern Combat 27 is “real art” or that Navy Seals Commando 23 has engaging character arcs, no matter how breathtaking their graphics become. But the same continuum of artistic quality exists in every medium—there are literary books and throw-away books. There are engaging shows and mind-numbing shows. There are great films and Adam Sandler movies.

We can still be hard on games that are shallow, vapid, and unconsidered. Twitch-oriented offerings to the “hard core gamer” are seldom interested in symbolism or themes. But some games—some games—are rising above.

BioShock Infinite has a quadruple layering of almost every scene. The ostensible moment, the foreshadowing within the plot of the fact that Booker is actually in an infinite loop and everything is happening exactly as it has before, the sociopolitical implication of the cycle of violence (flawed as it may have been portrayed), and the thematic exploration of free will and the idea that we have any true moral decisions.

In parting, consider two moments:

One— half way through the game, Booker can be made to pick up a guitar and start strumming it. Elizabeth immediately begins to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Think about how much subtext is bursting out of that moment. In the song itself the “circle” is suffering and the question posed by the singer is if there is really a paradise in which there will be no more suffering.  (The fact that it is sung in the basement of a ratty bar in a shanty town right next to a kid living under the stairs is no coincidence.) However, the “circle” can also refer to the Delphian fate of Booker's 123 loops in which he has done the same thing over and over again. But it can also refer to the cycle of violence that perpetuates violence and the fact that Columbia is a city founded by—as well as entered through—acts of violence. But it can ALSO refer to the free will of the characters and their ability to do anything other than their nature and their circumstances predetermine.

And if that isn’t real art, I don’t know what is.

Two— I’ll let you do the analysis for this one on your own. Let the implications seep in (and a chill crawl up your spine) as I leave with the QUADRUPLE layers of artistic meaning in one of the game’s more popular moments—four (see what they did there?) white men standing on a floating platform (at exactly the time Booker gets there), singing in perfectly integrated harmony that God only knows what they’d be without....you.

1 comment:

  1. I was impressed by this game as well, although for more reasons than those presented here. I was raised Mormon and BI has more than a few elements of Mormonism embedded into it's story, complete with the idea of American exceptionalism, white racial superiority, the rite of baptism, and the temples. It was a real journey inwards for me.
    I also find compelling that the reason why Elizabeth is able to create tears is having lost a pinky, a symbol of a promise... One is left to wonder what that promise is, and who made it to whom. I may have to go back and play this game again. Thanks, Chris.

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