choice

The Fetishization of Violent Enslavement in Gaming: A Response to Retro Gamer

by Jed Pressgrove

As surely as artists have the right to depict violence, people also have the right to enjoy and criticize violence in art. From the enjoyment angle, many gamers are sensitive about criticism of violence in video games, partially due to politicians and media using violent games as a scapegoat for their own failures to foster a safe society. Indeed, the idea that violent games breed killing machines is an overstatement from a statistical standpoint. At the same time, it’s fair to raise questions and make claims about how violence is used in games and how its usage might impact our sensitivity to violence or conflict with our morality. Some game critics have written good analyses of game violence (see articles by Patrick Lindsey, Ed Smith, and Mark Filipowich, among others). But a recent article in Retro Gamer (Issue 131) gave me considerable pause after I read its evaluation of a certain act of violence in BioShock.  The most troubling sentence was in the article’s final paragraph:

‘A slave obeys,’ it tells us, as we smash our own father’s head in with a golf club — an activity we had no choice but to perform.

Let’s note that we, the audience, always have a choice about what art we consume in our homes. We can stop reading books, watching movies, listening to music, or playing games at any point. I recall Takashi Miike, the transgressive filmmaker of Audition and Ichi the Killer, saying that if the violence in one of his films gets too much for you, take a break and resume later. This very simple choice that we have as an audience stands in contrast to the notion that a game segment was “an activity we had no choice but to perform.” This notion rejects enjoyment of violence in favor of a morbid fascination with supposed enslavement.

The Retro Gamer article in question is part of a regular column called “Future Classics.” I was unsurprised to see BioShock selected for this distinction. The game is overly loved by game critics. The issue doesn’t lie with people enjoying the game or discussing its themes. The issue arises when critics, such as Leigh Alexander and Tom McShea, promote a sort of cultural elitism when speaking about BioShock or creator Ken Levine (Alexander’s and McShea’s negative reviews of BioShock Infinite do little to refute their appraisal of Levine’s superiority). All that said, my disappointment in Retro Gamer’s article is more related to its refusal to place BioShock’s patricide in a meaningful historical context; after all, history is the magazine’s strength (Retro Gamer is my favorite magazine for this reason). Instead, the article blandly sets us up with an unenlightening genre statement: “It [BioShock] took the assumptions developers (and players) had made about the FPS protag, turned them on their head, and fired them back at us.”

What about the assumptions that the above claim makes about all of us? This line of thinking about BioShock’s “subversion” brings to mind the commentary of The Stanley Parable, which draws a useless parallel between pushing buttons in an office, pushing buttons as part of a mechanic in a video game, and pushing buttons on the controller as a game player. Sure, some gamers are unintelligent and exploited by big studios, but are we all as unaware and dumb as The Stanley Parable suggests?

Moreover, are the gaming literati that unaware and dumb? Have they forgotten that not one but two 1980s action games toyed with the idea of confronting one’s father in violence? As if it couldn’t be anymore obvious, both of these 1980s games starred ninjas! Retro Gamer should have known better. The BioShock article ignored the precedence of Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden and glorified a more graphic form of patricide with the takeaway that we really didn’t know any better. On the contrary, I’m pretty sure most players know what a plot twist or design choice is. The suggestion that BioShock and The Stanley Parable enlightened us might be more than condescending. It’s starting to seem flatout dishonest.

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Always Full of Crap

by Jed Pressgrove

Always Sometimes Monsters spreads the dangerous idea that humans are horrible. Developer Vagabond Dog’s exploitation of modern working-class anxieties and paranoia should not be celebrated, and its disregard for morality and diversity should not be interpreted as “ambitious.” Always Sometimes Monsters preaches the exact opposite of ambition: stay sad, stay mad, stay bad.

Vagabond Dog paints a dog-eat-dog world, but this truth isn’t presented as a realization through experience — it’s a presupposition, a demented rulebook by which we can judge our idiotic actions. Always Sometimes Monsters blandly states upfront that “In this system there can be no right or wrong,” rejecting the social conviction of the citizens who react to your decisions in Fallout. Like the film Pulp Fiction and its imitators, Always Sometimes Monsters packages human life as a bundle of unexpected, dark connections. As such, your decisions in the game merely build a unique portrait of misery and immaturity.

Framing its main story as a narrative from a bum in an alley, Always Sometimes Monsters unwisely suggests that we should sentimentalize our bad choices. No matter what sex or racial group you choose, you play as a writer who desperately pines for an ex one year after breaking up. The quest is to travel across the country in order to arrive at your ex’s wedding. As this aspiring but lazy writer, you face poverty, hunger, and preposterous moments of decision making.

The story quickly exposes its take on life as a sham. For example, if you take a job at an advertising company, every member of the company asks you for advice on how to deal with a recently fired and unstable employee. Another scenario involves a friend who is hopelessly addicted to heroin; to get medical treatment for him, you have to intimidate a doctor through violence. In another segment, you might become a major player in a conflict between a union leader and mayoral candidate (nevermind that you might have slept on dirty mattresses in alleys nights before). While these situations might create a lot of intriguing material, their utter ridiculousness do not support the game’s conceit that we operate in a morally undefined world.

Several critics have praised Always Sometimes Monsters for offering characters of different sexes and racial groups, but the diversity is mainly there to impress you as options. The game shares virtually nothing about social reality or identity. By largely reducing race, for instance, to insults from unlikable, unrelatable non-playable characters, Always Sometimes Monsters puts the blame on random individuals rather than systems of oppression that can affect anyone’s perception or behavior (see Mainichi). Vagabond Dog’s approach to gender and race strokes the egos of people who think they’re above discrimination and prejudice.

Always Sometimes Monsters also fails at exploring survival and work. The game offers the pretense that you need to work to buy food so that you can eat for stamina, but more than halfway through the game, I learned you can survive fine without eating at all. More significantly, Vagabond Dog doesn’t show an understanding of labor. Even though the game might lead you to do annoying jobs for measly paychecks, the narrative fails to touch on our conflicted existence as natural laborers like the superior Actual Sunlight. At the very least, it’s an insult to writers that the protagonist completely pissed away a lucrative opportunity to write.

Indeed, the general immaturity of the game reveals a lack of seriousness about the subject matter that it wants you to take seriously. Early in the game, you can pick up dogs and give them to a dubious institution for money. But later on, you might wind up boxing one of the abused dogs in a ring! Moreover, the game’s obsession with feces further illustrates that its moral sermon is better suited for a toilet than a diverse audience.

The most disappointing aspect of Always Sometimes Monsters is how flippantly it views its most poignant scenes. In the first city, you have the opportunity to have dinner with a lonely old woman who shares stories about her dead husband, but your character takes no lasting wisdom or respect from the visit. Even more disappointing is when the game raises points about spirituality, redemption, and providence before promptly forgetting them. When a preacher asks you if you believe, you can say “Yes,” which then places a victorious car race in the context of a miracle. The game’s subsequent scenes, however, do not acknowledge this experience. Always Sometimes Monsters’ smug dishonesty is a sin of storytelling.

Irrationally Buried at Sea: How Infinite Flunks Philosophy

by Paul Schumann

I have fond memories of BioShock and its good story, stunning graphics, and fun gameplay. I played Ken Levine’s last game, BioShock: Infinite, hoping it would live up to the original. After finishing Infinite and its Burial at Sea DLC, I considered how the philosophies of Levine’s games differ — and why Infinite is an intellectually unsatisfying experience.

The fictional cities in BioShock and BioShock: Infinite are extensions of the philosophies of their founders. In the original BioShock, Andrew Ryan’s underwater city Rapture recalled the objectivism of Ayn Rand, only this paradise of the individual had fallen — the one place on Earth with “no gods or kings, only man,” but man’s failings had not been checked at the door. A classic utopia scenario, Rapture’s flaw was assuming that an economic system based on glorifying the individual could overcome the baser instincts of human nature. Ryan would have done well to read Jefferson and Madison, who saw the virtue of the populace as essential to the preservation of liberty in society. The difference between the Founding Fathers and Ryan lies in the former’s belief that liberty and license are not the same thing. In Rapture, the supermen and superwomen of tomorrow succumbed to a madness born of envy and license. Genetic experimentation led to addiction to the supposed wonder drug ADAM. As a result, unwanted children were pressed into service as “Little Sisters” to harvest and recycle ADAM from the dead bodies scattered in Rapture.

BioShock: Infinite appears to start the same way as its predecessor. A man enters a lighthouse that takes him to a mysterious city. The city is not Rapture under the ocean in the 1960s but rather Columbia, high above the clouds in 1912. Nevermind how a city floats; “science” is the answer that’s given, but it’s quite a cheerful sight. No blood or corpses like in Rapture — Columbia appears to be another happy city in America at the turn of the century. Yet there is more than meets the eye about both this place and your character, private detective Booker DeWitt. The city’s shiny exterior hides a rotten core, built on the excesses of industrialism, violent racism, and a cult-like devotion to the city’s founder, Zachary Comstock. The “protagonist” Booker turns out to be the alter ego of Comstock, your nemesis for most of the game. Your mission in Infinite is to right a wrong you did many moons ago — to save your daughter from Comstock’s clutches — a situation that came to pass due to your pride as well as guilt and despair over past transgressions. What could have been an incredible tale of redemption becomes a depressing exercise in condemning a man to death for his sins.

Gameplay shows how BioShock and BioShock: Infinite part ways. In order to escape Rapture in BioShock, your silent protagonist first has to survive, and that means using the drug that helped drive the city mad. The edge ADAM grants you in combat requires you to constantly obtain more from the Little Sisters. Here, choice plays a role, for the player could either rescue or kill the zombie-like carriers for a lesser or greater amount of ADAM. As your enemies grow more numerous and more dangerous, it could be tempting to rationalize the deaths of Little Sisters. (Though truth be told, on the lower difficulty levels it didn’t really matter what you decided. You just thought it did.) In any case, the more “good” or “bad” you are in relation to Little Sisters determines whether you flee the city or attempt to become its new master. The philosophy of BioShock is clear: doing good may not yield instant gratification, but the alternative can lead to a worse place than before.

In contrast, everything about Infinite’s gameplay is a case of serious deja-vu for the doomed protagonist Booker, who killed many Indians during the American frontier wars and violently broke factory strikes as a Pinkerton agent. Booker’s past is brought back to haunt him by acquaintances old and new. Even his drinking habit gets revisited by a new dependence on a wonder drug known as “salts,” which grant Booker powerful combat abilities. The deeper into the story one goes, the more it feels like a bad dream, as Elizabeth, the woman you rescue, can open portals to alternate realities, known as “tears.” In order to survive this dream, you have to gun down countless police and militia who are merely trying to keep their city safe. When you get mixed up in a revolution and start shooting Irish and black freedom fighters, there seems to be something off about the whole situation.

Perhaps that is because choice is mere window dressing in BioShock: Infinite. The grand twist in the first BioShock was that your most significant choices up to the reveal were not your own. Even so, BioShock was about our choices defining us. Infinite’s twist is that all the choices that matter were made before the game began. Booker has made bad choices throughout his life, bringing pain and suffering to all in his path. His attempts at “redemption” are a lie he keeps telling himself. In the first BioShock, there are different endings based on the morality of your in-game actions. Infinite, however, declares there is only one way the game can end. The Burial at Sea DLC attempts to tie Columbia  and Rapture together but does little to change Infinite’s nihilistic tone. Elizabeth, the Burial at Sea protagonist, must die before the story’s done, not knowing the results her actions will yield.

Levine has said he doesn’t set out to write a story for any particular agenda. Levine deserves credit for writing characters who are interesting rather than seeking to please whichever interest groups are in vogue. He certainly achieves that — there’s no question that the Lutece twins, Booker, and Elizabeth are beloved by fans. But what is BioShock: Infinite trying to say if choice is meaningless? Through Infinite’s tale of amnesia, madness, death, and despair, the player learns that attempting to do good is folly. Death for the protagonist is the only way peace can be secured; you can’t see Booker and Elizabeth ride off into the sunset. I almost wonder if Infinite’s nihilistic ending is a sly statement about the huge amounts of time gamers spend with their favorite pastime. In a way, the only way to stop the madness of Infinite is to stop playing the game. As much as “player choice” may be a tired or poorly executed game mechanic, the fact does not change that we are human beings who can and must choose.

At best, Infinite warns the player not to be Booker. According to Thomas Aquinas, Natural Law can be discerned by reason, so one’s path shouldn’t be regarded as entirely a result of chance, environment, or fate. If anyone is doomed, it is the person living an unexamined life. Booker DeWitt would seem to fit the bill. He’s not concerned with good or bad — he’s the guy with the gun. In light of that, the takeaway from BioShock: Infinite is simple (forget trying to explain the rabbit holes of different dimensions). Booker’s unexamined life makes him a slave to his passions, and refusing to face his faults leads him to use religion as yet another excuse for his bad behavior.

There is perhaps a bigger puzzle than the meaning of Booker and Elizabeth’s tale: what caused critics to fall in love with BioShock: Infinite in the first place? The combat mechanics are similar to those in the first game, but the enemies in Columbia are a far cry from the mutated freaks of Rapture. Wreaking mayhem in the form of bloody head shots on the poor schlubs in Columbia gets tiresome after a while. It’s quite ironic that some critics who look down on Call of Duty players were satisfied when Infinite ramped up the shooter elements to provide countless enemies to mow down along with weapons, shields, and powers with which to do so. Is Infinite a great game because it tells a postmodern fairy tale, where there are no heroes and no truth, only a cruel universe? Is it a great game because it’s packaged as a gung-ho jingoistic shooter but is, in reality, a deconstruction of the dark side of American history seen through one troubled man’s eyes? While some might see such ideas as claims to fame, I think it was the quasi-philosophical feel of Infinite that captivated many critics. Much like the thought coming out of most modern liberal-arts philosophy departments, Infinite tends to confuse rather than enlighten. In the game’s second act after multiple “tears” are opened and entered, the story’s logic of worlds within worlds is reminiscent of Inception, a movie many loved but couldn’t understand. Since philosophy literally means “love of wisdom,” an “intelligent” game should give us something tangible to take away from the experience. The first BioShock possessed a clarity of vision that accomplished this, but Infinite ultimately wasted excellent characters by embracing muddled storytelling.

In interviews promoting Infinite, Levine was very clear about the message of both BioShocks. He said the games are a warning against extremism or “true believers,” such as Andrew Ryan of Rapture and Zachary Comstock of Columbia. It’s an understandable idea when one considers the death that extreme ideology has brought to the world. Infinite is ultimately weakened by its rejection of absolutes, however. With Infinite, Levine proposes an absolute commitment to “questioning everything” (a contradiction in terms), but there is more to the world than mere constants and variables. Indeed, there is a danger that Infinite’s commitment to open-mindedness can lead to a denial of absolute truth and, following that, denial of good and evil. My basic issue with Infinite can be summed up by this quip from GK Chesterton: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”