BioShock Infinite and the Culture of Games Criticism

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.

Is it?

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”?

Or both?

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.

Published by

Tim

Used to run games.on.net, now runs Point & Clickbait. Thermonuclear shit-wizard from hell. Timeless being of perfect granite, dickhead union thug. On Twitter here.

8 thoughts on “BioShock Infinite and the Culture of Games Criticism”

  1. I totally agree with your criticism of Dan’s piece on the subject that violence somehow diminishes any sort of theme or story in it.
    I’m going to refer to Spec Ops, and then probably come back to it a million times, because I think that’s a game that really needs that violence for it to work in the first place. Skyoshock is absolutely a game and not a book or a film, it’s made as an interactive experience and so much effort has been put into the Vigors, the weapons and the enemies to make that engrossing and engaging gameplay. I think violence can be part of a theme or completely separate from it and certainly when you’re discussing nationalism, racism and corruption you have violence mixed in with the themes in the first place anyway. Whilst Booker does a lot of stuff and is obviously your frame of reference and agent for interacting with the world, his actions re: violence don’t change any of that at all. If you were a hovering video camera following the main characters around you’d get the exact same story and themes without participating in any violence and that’d just be a more boring game.

    I think it’s part of the nature of criticism that the majority of it is going to fall on the media that is great but flawed or flawed but great. That quote about Infinite being street art is great because it really sums up what is wrong about the critique or articles about it. Any sort of standards where you’re writing off a game that isn’t 100% perfect as being unworthy is absolutely unconstructive. I really liked the critical reviews that talked about where Skyoshock went wrong because, compared with the really positive reviews and sales, I think that’ll mean the next game in the franchise is going to be even better. It’ll keep the same innovative and creative location and maybe tweak the combat and themes to react to how people felt about it.

    It’s an absolute shame that people’re looking at this critical reading of it and coming away with an opinion that it’s a bad game or an eh game, it’s a great game (Though not my sort of game, I did buy a copy for someone I thought would like it) and all the hard work is in place for the next one to be an even better game.

    I think it’s the nature of critique and even journalism that you’re going to get people writing about things that’re contradictory, insightful, inciting or in some sort of grey area. Like you’ve said, people level way more criticism at Bioshock and Spec Ops (Seriously an amazing game) than ‘bro-games’ (Even used ironically I kinda hate that phrase but it does the job) because there isn’t really a lot to say.

    You’re totally right that Infinite has gotten way more than its fair share of critique and plenty of people saying what is wrong with it and just glossing over the good parts. I’ve totally done that as well, saying “Bioshock looks great but” and that ‘looks great’ part is, well, the vast majority of the game. ‘Looks great’ means it has an actually creative setting, it isn’t some place in the real world or some historical site it’s something created, fictional and interesting and that’s really worth a lot more credit than it is given.

    As for ways to fix it? I’m not really sure, I think it’s naturally going to be hard to encourage journalists who’re really invested in the field to evenly spread their time and critical thinking skills over the full spectrum of games from shit to amazing. People’ll’re naturally going to want to jump into a popular game and show off their analytical skills by grabbing a powerful and deep game and engaging with what it does and what it doesn’t do and I think those’re going to be the articles that people want to read as well.

    Personally I’d way rather read an article about why a game is 9/10 and what it needs to be 10/10 rather than why a game is pretty trash when I probably knew that looking at the title.

  2. But… Dan and Laura and Brendan DO review and discuss those games. They go on about Call of Duty, and Just Cause… all the time. They go on and on about mainstream, AAA action games and then now and then dip into this stuff. If the premise is that these critics don’t cover those games… it’s just not true.

    1. Really? I don’t feel like that is the case at all. Maybe I’m wrong — and I’m not saying that Dan, Laura or Brendan (who I don’t think I mentioned?) are explicitly not covering games like Call of Duty or Just Cause 2 (I know Brendan loves Just Cause 2) — but the premise remains that the field of games criticism rarely engages in the AAA space, and that there is an intrinsically dismissive attitude towards mainstream titles.

  3. Hi Tim

    Thanks for your thoughts. Just a few points.

    1. It seems that your core argument here is that videogame criticism doesn’t engage with a certain kind of videogame. I agree with Christian—this is demonstrably untrue. I honestly don’t want to dig through my own writing history to prove it; it’s clearly there if you look. Looking more broadly, I think it’s there—even dominant.

    2. More directly, for so many years, the kind of game you’re talking about—GTA, COD, Halo—was the only game that received any criticism at all. I think it’s actually a little bizarre that you’re chiding people for writing about games like Cart Life and Dys4ia, given that for so long these games either didn’t exist to write about, or were ignored. Cart Life was released in May 2011, months and months and months before anyone—that is, Electron Dance—noticed it (in Jan 2012), and even longer still before the critics you’re talking about wrote on it. In the long view, the balance sheet is still heavily, heavily in favour of the AAA game you claim is neglected here.

    3. More personally: I’m having trouble placing myself within this ‘we’ that you keep referring to. I wrote this piece for ABC Arts, which has until recently essentially covered only performing and visual arts and has never before run anything on a mainstream game like BioShock, or COD, or Cart Life, or Tetris, or whatever. Before it exploded online, this article was written and edited for an audience that reads ABC Arts first and foremost: not for a gaming community; and not for a community that had previously read effusive praise (you don’t do it here, but the claims that have continually been put to me over the last few days that I’m part of a ‘backlash’ are impossibly wrong). Before that, I wrote for Crikey. Other than that, I write a scholarly-style column for Hyper, where I’ve also done a handful of features, which I suppose is the strongest claim to me being part of this ‘we’ you put forth. But I write a lot about things that aren’t videogames, too.

    What’s more, I’m sure you agree that the games press, and the games critic community (if indeed such a thing truly exists) are not legion, and that there have always been multitudinous disagreements and divergences. There is no programme to get with. The opinions and actions you attribute to this collective ‘we’ here don’t characterize my own thoughts or actions in the slightest.

    4. Finally, to the article. I didn’t say “something must make a statement to be meaningful” at all, and if someone did say that I would disagree with them vehemently. I said that the invocation of racism and real historic events in BioShock Infinite without actually saying anything is insulting.

    5. I also didn’t say that “a game with violence can not also be meaningful, or that a game with violence is somehow a lesser experience.” In fact, I’ve said the complete opposite in the past. What I said in my BioShock piece was that intelligent thematic exploration is difficult—maybe impossible—when combined with unrestrained pleasure in excessive violence. I chose my words carefully.

    Anyway, I’m sorry you found reading my article to be an uncomfortable experience—though frankly, it was intended to be uncomfortable because I think that a lot of the problems of BioShock Infinite demand a deeply uncomfortable response—and I hope you find some clarification in my points here.

    1. Hi Dan! Thanks for your thoughts, appreciate it. I’m going to respond with some of my own.

      It seems that your core argument here is that videogame criticism doesn’t engage with a certain kind of videogame. I agree with Christian—this is demonstrably untrue. I honestly don’t want to dig through my own writing history to prove it; it’s clearly there if you look.

      I’m honestly having a lot of trouble trying to find this. Yes, I know that there are some AAA games that do receive critical attention, but a whole heap of them just slide below the radar. In the last few months for example big names like Crysis 3, Dead Space 3, SimCity, Aliens: Colonial Marines and StarCraft 2 have been shoved aside in favour of easier critical targets like Tomb Raider and BioShock Infinite. I’m not saying there’s zero writing about these games, just that they don’t receive a proportionate amount of attention.

      Going even further back, I struggle to find anybody seriously engaging with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 or Borderlands 2 for example. They ARE there, but they’re not well represented. What about Diablo III?

      I also think there are a great deal of other games that also slip under the radar. Sleeping Dogs, for example. Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army. Path of Exile. Forge. Defiance. PlanetSide 2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown. And that’s just me being a snobby PC elitist, there are heaps of console-only games that don’t get critical attention. Army of Two? God of War: Ascension? Is anybody going to say anything about Injustice: Gods Among Us?

      Some of these are purely multiplayer games, I know — but people play multiplayer games. Don’t they deserve criticism?

      In the long view, the balance sheet is still heavily, heavily in favour of the AAA game you claim is neglected here.

      I don’t think AAA games are being neglected, rather I think a certain type of game (which often would intersect with AAA on a venn diagram) is being neglected. I think certain types of easy critical targets are being hit, “games which want to be criticised”, and some games which are more easy to categorise as pure entertainment are being ignored.

      More personally: I’m having trouble placing myself within this ‘we’ that you keep referring to.

      And fair enough! I don’t really consider myself part of this ‘we’ either, but it seemed the most appropriate vehicle to deliver my points.

      What I’m really getting at is that I think games criticism has become too focused on certain targets, and has reached a point where people are openly defensive about that. I don’t have any exact links because I’m not some sort of weird stalker, but the dismissiveness and derogatory talk around commenters who criticised the Eurogamer review of Halo 4 was a prime example of this: games critics getting together to put down people who legitimately wanted to know something totally valid.

      I didn’t say “something must make a statement to be meaningful” at all, and if someone did say that I would disagree with them vehemently. I said that the invocation of racism and real historic events in BioShock Infinite without actually saying anything is insulting.

      Hrm, I do appear to have conflated the two. Fair cop.

      I still definitely disagree that it’s insulting to invoke racism and historic events without saying anything about them. I think as historic and thematic elements they’re presented in such a way, as you say, to “illustrate the depths of his racism and demagoguery”. I’m honestly not sure why that’s not enough? I’m perfectly okay with such things being window dressing to a larger story, and I don’t think it’s wrong or reprehensible to use them to add flavour rather than dissecting them in detail (and thus muddying the narrative even further).

      I also didn’t say that “a game with violence can not also be meaningful, or that a game with violence is somehow a lesser experience.” In fact, I’ve said the complete opposite in the past. What I said in my BioShock piece was that intelligent thematic exploration is difficult—maybe impossible—when combined with unrestrained pleasure in excessive violence. I chose my words carefully.

      Your paragraph that ends with “Yet while BioShock Infinite remains unguardedly enthusiastic about letting players enjoy violence, what hope does it have to be serious about anything?” implies to me a pretty clear condemnation of the idea of violence and meaning intersecting. Perhaps I am conflating “serious” with “meaningful” but it’s not far off.

      In any case I’m glad to hear you say that, but the impression I got from your piece was definitely that you were proposing the two to be mutually exclusive. If this is incorrect, I apologise.

  4. I don’t agree with a lot of the points in Dan’s original article (sorry Dan, ), but I do think it’s awesome that he’s become the focus of meta-criticism. That he can be proud of.

    I’m wondering if perhaps Myles Barlow will do a review of the act of reviewing other reviews at some point.

    1 star.

Comments are closed.