Saturday, February 2, 2008

The BioShock effect.

In the February 2008 issue of Game Informer--yes, it's probably available somewhere online, and no, I'm not going to track down a link for you--Matt Miller raises the radical idea that videogames can be meaningful texts. After dipping briefly into Nietzsche to remind us of the Conventional Wisdom About Videogames (escapism, power fantasy, etc.), he suggests that "recent releases seem desperate to strive for some more subtle and powerful thematic visions, and the trend has only recently begun to hit its stride."

Unsurprisingly, he's talking about BioShock. Everyone was talking about BioShock, as the adorably solipsistic Game of the Year ritual was hitting its peak toward the end of the year. BioShock is, by all accounts, a bloody awesome game, and it seems to have succeeded admirably in using narrative elements to emotionally involve the player in what is fundamentally a rule system that involves pointing a cursor at moving things and clicking until they stop moving. "As that sprawling undersea metropolis opens up to players," writes Miller, "it's hard to avoid the cultural commentary." "Hard to avoid" is an interesting phrase, and hints at what I consider to be the central problem of the piece. We have heard so much about BioShock partially because it's a fun game built on impressive technology, and partially because its storyline deals with Big Important Themes. But plenty of games, good and bad, have dealt (or attempted to deal) with Big Important Themes over the years, with varying commercial and critical success. Miller acknowledges as much: "For years, we've had a smattering of titles that seamlessly blend fun and exciting gameplay with deeper and more complex thematic issues, from Oddworld's environmental commentary to the wasteland motifs of Fallout."

As someone who thinks of videogames as a medium with narrative potentialities we've not seen before, it's frustrating to me whenever an interesting title goes unnoticed. Miller, perhaps, feels the same way. But this begs the question, why? Why do players in a saturated marketplace in which a large number of developers compete for finite amounts of money and attention often miss out on ambitious games that experiment with ways to use the affordances of the videogame medium to enact meaningful stories in a completely new way? Who could have been helping to raise public awareness of these games that the public might have greatly enjoyed had they been aware that there was more going on in videogame design than Doom and Mortal Kombat? Do you have any idea, Matt Miller of Game Informer magazine?

Some of the most interesting texts slip under most players' radar, but that's true of popular film, literature, etc. BioShock falls into the category of the Oscar bait film--a work that's to obviously and overtly Big and Important that you can't possibly miss it. In film and literature, most of the heavy lifting is done by academic wonks, but even lay reviewers are expected to pay some attention to what a book or movie seems to say, in addition to cataloging its its raw components. And despite the confusion over exactly how story works in games, as the academics work through the collapse of the imaginary ludology/narratology binary, there's a lot of interesting work going on that could very easily filter into popular consumption were the mainstream gaming press to step up to the plate.

Granted, I don't read a lot of mainstream gaming press anymore; I used to obsessively pick up every issue of GamePro, Electronic Gaming Monthly and DieHard GameFan when I was a kid, a habit I was happy to leave behind once internet access let me cut out the middlemen. I get Game Informer for free these days, and generally flip through it once or twice, become depressed at all the cool games I won't have time to play, and ponder selling all my possessions and wandering the earth like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu. It's possible that the gaming press is doing a bang-up job these days and I'm missing out on it. Still, beyond the occasional nod to the academic community ("Look! It's Henry Jenkins! We're legitimate!"), I don't see much in the magazines and websites I do consume. In the next post, I'll talk a bit about my own experiences with the gaming press, my early experiences trying to parse out meaningful ideas in games, and why I'll probably never have screenshots on this blog.

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