irrational games

Tearing Down the Levine/Bioshock Idol

by Jed Pressgrove

Some games media couldn’t resist worshiping developer Ken Levine after he announced the closure of Irrational Games, the studio behind the Bioshock series. This cultural elitism — cute at best and misleading at worst — has no place in reports or editorials, particularly when one considers the history and art of video games.

Perhaps this cultural elitism received its purest and most condescending expression from Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander when she reminisced about talking with Levine: “I felt it was refreshing to go talk to a game developer who really understood literature, history, theater, who was so obviously fascinated by culture. In my work I talk to man after man who loves to say ‘badass’ or whose scope of references doesn’t extend beyond the Aliens trilogy.”  The smug implication is that most game developers don’t “get” literature, history, or theater — the cultural capital that makes Alexander a privileged human being — making Levine a special breed worthy to worship. Alexander’s intentions with her description might seem innocent, but her spill indicates and reinforces the myopic mindset that Levine is a lonesome intelligent creature in a video game world that lacks cultural understanding and meaning.

Gamespot’s Tom McShea made a similar mistake when he, under the heading of “Bad News: One Less Artistically Minded Developer,” equated the closure of Irrational Games with the gradual disappearance of “emotionally difficult experiences” (?) and “subversive games” from big-budget studios. (One wonders if McShea is familiar with the emotional difficulty involved in playing, say, Castlevania III.) In reality, most developers are mindful of the “art” behind video games. To imply otherwise is inaccurate and maybe even insulting. But who cares about those people who say “badass” anyway?

And how is Bioshock “subversive”? It’s one thing for Boston Magazine to publish ahistorical nonsense like “[Bioshock] was one of the first games to offer the player a moral choice.” But when Alexander types with wonder, “you as the player character make choices and study whether you think they mattered,” one wouldn’t be out of bounds to question whether some experts are driven by hype.

The gross suggestion is that Bioshock provided insight into “choice,” the most tortured term in gaming. How did Bioshock surpass or even meet Fallout, Planescape: Torment, or even Street Fighter II in regard to the consequences of choice? Bioshock has more in common with a movie like The Usual Suspects. Through its devious plot twist, Bioshock favored manipulation over choice — not that I ever cared, as I found the game’s environments and violence to be the main points of interest.

The anti-game history and anti-artist worship of Bioshock and Levine presents a serious intellectual sickness. People are well within the boundaries of reason to love Bioshock, but its cultural reach is relatively limited, unless we define “depth” as a narrow set of philosophical concerns. Criticizing Ayn Rand doesn’t make you an artistic genius — it simply means you know how to pick an easy target. After all, the failed American Utopia has been snatching our morbid curiosities for decades upon decades. Video games have more impressive cultural stories, but the way Street Fighter II brought together people of different backgrounds for friendly competition is a forgotten legacy. The story’s not smug enough.

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