Spoilers for BioShock Infinite and Mass Effect follow.
BioShock Infinite must be one of the first games in recent memory where its Metacritic user score isn’t a disgusting dark mirror of its critical score. Not only has it bucked the usual trend of being a AAA release with a user rating of 1/10, but gamers are coming out of the woodwork in droves to say positive things, and leave positive comments. Can you imagine that?
Yet I can’t seem to open my Twitter feed or check my RSS without hearing, again, that BioShock Infinite is… well, it’s kinda shit. Apparently. Oh, you know, it does one or two things good, I guess. But man, it’s so over-hyped.
We must be in a great place as an industry when a game that tries so hard to do something interesting and different, and achieves so many wonderful things, gets more critical attention than This Season’s Next Military Shooter. We must be in a great place as an industry when somebody gets applauded for a YouTube video that compiles of a list of “Everything BioShock Infinite Gets Wrong”.
What a useless goddamn frame of reference.
Dan Golding’s recent piece on the ABC’s Arts channel was, for me, perhaps the final straw. With all due respect to Dan, reading his piece made me deeply uncomfortable (Update: Dan has responded in the comments here).
I’m uncomfortable with the implication that simply using themes for thematic effect, rather than exploring them, somehow reduces the credibility of the final product. “Wounded Knee, I believe, is not something you get to invoke in 2013 without also making a statement of sorts,” says Dan.
I’m uncomfortable with the implication that something must make a statement to be meaningful.
I’m uncomfortable with the implication that I, as the player, must make a binary choice between choosing to enjoy the combat — the violence — and choosing to intelligently dissect the themes presented to me. I’m even more uncomfortable with the very clear implication that a game with violence can not also be meaningful, or that a game with violence is somehow a lesser experience.
I’m also not comfortable with the selective distillation of an entire game down to a single moral choice as a means of condemning the whole. Dan points to one of the opening scenes, where a player has to choose whether or not to publicly humiliate an interracial couple, and claims that this is “thunderously stupid”, and that “these are the complex and difficult decisions found in videogames in 2013”.
The point of BioShock Infinite — as I see it — is not to make the choice, but to understand why the choice is false. To borrow a phrase there is, in fact, no spoon — all choices are meaningless in the face of infinity. Where Dan sees an empty page, I — it turns out — see King Lear. Or at least, something very special.
If BioShock Infinite only uses racism for window dressing and thus makes the unforgivable crime of apparently failing to make a meaningful statement about it, what conclusions can we draw about other games?
You know, at one point in Mass Effect 2, I had to choose whether or not to overwrite a splinter-group of sentient machines, who were my enemies, with new programming and belief structures that I approved of — knowing that if I let them go on the way they were, they would attack me and pose a serious threat. But did that make it right to forcibly reprogram them? Just because I could?
And in the first Mass Effect game, I had to choose whether or not to kill my closest companion, because he had just discovered that the key to rebuilding his devastated race was within his grasp… and being used by the bad guy. He wanted to rebel. I had to choose whether to put him down.
I went through the entire game of Dishonored, only killing people whom I witnessed personally performing an evil act. And I got an ending that represented my level of engagement with the world, and with the moral framework I chose to give myself.
There are a lot more choices in videogames in 2013, than the illusion that BioShock Infinite paints. And one of those choices, I think, has already been made — by the culture of games criticism. It’s a choice that I’m not even sure many are aware has been made.
Let me put it this way: Where are the critical dissections of Medal of Honor: Warfighter or Crysis 3? Where’s my 5000-word analysis of the themes in Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army? Why isn’t anybody ripping apart Sleeping Dogs? Fuck, Sleeping Dogs was great. Can’t somebody break down Just Cause 2 for me? Is Rico the real monster?
There’s an absolute place for games criticism and detailed analysis, but it only ever seems to be applied to those games which are already looking for criticism. Games like Spec Ops: The Line or Journey get all the attention, when literal trash like Colonial Marines gets a free critical pass. If you’re not dripping in thematic elements or getting ready to tell a moving story about the human condition, then you get to dodge the critical spotlight and disappear into the bargain bin.
I suspect that the reason we don’t see this is because games critics don’t consider such games worth their time to play. And here we come to the crux of the issue: there’s a general understanding among games critics that the games industry is fucked. It’s broken. It’s churning out the same shit every year, it’s filled with sexism and misogyny, and everybody’s racing to see who can be the first to the bottom of the barrel.
But the barrel grows every year. This Season’s Military Shooter sells like hotcakes. Rockstar’s next Grand Theft Auto game is going to sell like hotcakes. Why isn’t anybody putting these games under the microscope?
Is it because the sort of bros who play these games are the sort of people who can’t be fucked reading what some nerd thinks about video games? Or is it because the people who write lengthy and detailed game criticism don’t think that these games are worth criticising, because they’re clearly designed for bros and don’t offer anything “meaningful”?
And if these games, these pedestrian bro-games, are just unspokenly acknowledged as being shit… why is BioShock Infinite suddenly being torn apart? Why are we so anxious to criticise a game that actually tries to do something different and interesting rather than ticking every generic military shooter box? Where is the context?
James O’Connor says it’s because “for many of us, the idea of simply accepting Infinite as an example of the best that games can possibly offer is hugely troubling”. I get that. I think it’s important to always be hoping for more, to be raising the bar. But I’m equally distrustful — and perhaps a little amazed — that anybody would be taking seriously the claim that BioShock Infinite is the best that gaming can offer.
GamesTM’s review is probably the worst. It pins a perfect 100% award on the game, literally compares it to Citizen Kane, and says it’s as “lavish as it is cerebral”. Ausgamers calls it a “watershed moment” and goes on to say that “I can’t imagine that anything else, in my lifetime, will top this”.
With all due respect to these great publications and to the people who run them: no.
BioShock Infinite is great. It’s a great game. Is it perfect? Fuck no. It’s not even close (if there is even such a thing). It drops the ball in a number of places, and in other places it’s got twenty-seven different balls and you have no idea which one goes where. I immediately distrust any perfect score for anything not only on principle (out of a belief that game review scores are unimaginably stupid), but simply out of common, garden-variety cynicism.
You can’t imagine anything else in your lifetime will top this? Really? Prepare to be surprised.
I’m not saying BioShock Infinite is above criticism, or that there’s no place for criticism. I’m just amazed that the critical eye, which generally refuses to acknowledge the existence of AAA and/or mainstream games, has suddenly chosen to focus so glaringly upon a game that, you know, actually tries. A game that genuinely wants to try different things.
There is a culture of elitism here, an unspoken rule that some games are better than others and that some games are more valid than others. It hangs around games criticism like a bad taste in the back of the throat, subtly shaping the nature of the dialogue around games.
We shriek about how we shouldn’t hold BioShock Infinite up and say “This is it! This is The Game We Can Show Non-Gamers!” because, well, we don’t need anybody else to validate our culture, right? We don’t need legitimacy, but… we’ve become the judge and jury of what is legitimate in our own culture.
We hold up BioShock Infinite to the light and look for holes, but we refuse to take seriously the bro-gamers, with their base, animal need for men with guns. (Those games aren’t legitimate. They’re just entertainment.)
We get outraged when Irrational decide to change their cover art so that it — stay with me here — so that it appeals to more people (people who clearly don’t “get” games like we do). We sigh and roll our eyes as Activision remake Call of Duty for the twelfth time.
We complain that so many games have to find their niche in Kickstarter, and then get excited that 38,000 people like an idea enough to put down money. “Those big publishers!” we cry in rage. “Can’t they see the demand for fresh and new ideas?”
We laugh at internet commenters who have the temerity to want to know about how the guns handle in Halo 4. We encourage people to turn the comments off, to stay away from “basement forum dwellers”, because nothing clever or insightful could possibly come from an internet forum thread. Am I right, fellow critics?
We celebrate indie games. We write long-winded pieces about how great Cart Life is and how Dys4ia changed the way we think. We don’t give a fuck that the latest Call of Duty sold 7.4 million copies in just two weeks, because that’s mainstream shit. We’ll be over here, talking about games that mean something.
With the comments off.
I’m not okay with this. I’m not okay with this invisible line in the sand, the line between cultures. On the one hand, we have people arguing about which games are art and when they are art, and under what circumstances it’s okay to use thematic elements and what meaning we can extract from them.
On the other, we have people who… play games. The people for whom, by and large, games are made. For them, there is no question of art or legitimacy. Games are already part of their culture, and they have been for years. They don’t feel any need to defend or discuss or dissect.
They don’t know the other side of the fence even exists.
In reducing itself only to criticism of a select crop of games, the culture of games criticism has created its own depressing circle of rules and boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not. And now we’re at the point where a game like BioShock Infinite is cut down for daring to try something different, and games that are awful — genuinely awful! — float on by, dismissed as having literally zero relevance. Where Laura Parker (formerly) of Gamespot is disappointed that she’s only getting “street art” instead of Rembrandt.
Roger Ebert didn’t think games were art, but he remains nonetheless an applauded critic and a man that many games critics look up to and study. But here’s the thing: Roger Ebert reviewed shitty Hollywood blockbuster movies, too. He didn’t just sit around, upset when each and every new movie wasn’t as good as Citizen Kane.
And maybe he was the stronger critic for it.