The end of the epic: why the success of Bioshock Infinite is bad for gaming

Phil Hartup hated the critically acclaimed blockbuster. And he thinks you should too.

 

There was a time when games tried harder than this. They’ve never spent more money in production, they’ve never had better hardware, but they tried harder. New game types, new control systems, new themes, new mechanics. They had to wow the audience, impress them and offer them something new. Those days are gone. Now games merely presume to have our attention and because of the hype, because of the money and because sometimes they just look so amazing, that attention is often given freely.

Bioshock: Infinite is just such a game. It deserves a place in history as being the world’s most successfully polished turd.

The acclaim piled on it is easy to understand. Groupthink amongst the gaming press has a habit of running riot and almost from day one of its announcement it was clear to see that Bioshock: Infinite was the anointed one. It contained very serious issues like racism and inequality, it had religious baddies in it, who weren’t Muslim for a change, it had a prominent female character who wasn’t simply there to be drooled over and of course it all looked so pretty in the videos. People were ready for a game that wasn’t as ideologically bankrupt as the Call of Duty series, but was still, for all intents and purposes, that sort of game. Bingo.

Complaints with Bioshock: Infinite are limited to two key areas.

First, and most obviously, it’s a first person shooter and it’s a conspicuously bad one. Everything takes place in a series of arena battles, with the plot occurring in the times between them. This is a really bad sign. It tells us that the story is written and the game, that bit that you’re paying for, the bit that really anything calling itself a game ought to be focused on, that’s just filler. That’s the stuff you do to pad the running time out. That the actual game part of the game has been relegated to the fringes of the experience is evidenced by just how below-par the combat actually is. The mechanics, the arbitrary limitations, the repetition of it all . . . on a mechanical level this is the sort of thing that was done better in Half Life back in 1998.

Secondly in terms of story and themes, what are we really learning here? That racism is bad? That religious fanaticism is bad? A huge amount has been talked about the Bioshock: Infinite story but the elephant in the room is that if the story is written before you even install the game then it is a bad story. This brings us back to the idea of the game as a game.

What makes games special is that you are not supposed to know the outcome. Take a football match for example. If you’re playing football and you don’t know how the match will turn out, but you know you can affect it, that’s fun. That’s really the joy of playing a game. But suppose you put your boots on, you step out onto the pitch, and the referee hands you a script. You play your part in the game, you have to kick the ball when it comes to you, you have to tackle players as they come to you, just like it says in the script, and if you do that right, you win. If you do it wrong the ref blows his whistle and you do it again until it is right and then you win.

This is what a game as scripted as Bioshock: Infinite comes down to; an interactive movie where the totality of the player capacity for interaction is our old friend, violence. Now I am actually rather partial to videogame violence. It can be good clean fun. But when it is forced upon me for reasons that essentially amount to time sinking I find it a little objectionable. There’s no engaging with the people in the game world, and there is little interaction with objects other than to instantly munch them down to heal gunshot wounds.

Now it could be argued that Bioshock: Infinite is being playful and ironic, that it is a self-aware look at games and violence and other things, playing against expectations and messing with ideas of parenthood and conscience and so on, and I’m sure that’s ever so clever. But here’s the thing with that. If you want to be a clever game, first you have to be a good game. You can tell that Bioshock: Infinite isn’t that because people are talking about themes and story, they are not asking about how to play it better. Besides, is a "good guy who is a killer with a mysterious past" such a revolutionary idea? Is rescuing some mysterious yet important girl from a prison really a new idea? Is a one-dimensional dickhead as a principle antagonist really as sophisticated as all that? For a game lauded for its story it is hard to pick anything in this game that wasn’t already clichéd years ago.

But here’s the thing. All this said, Bioshock: Infinite has been wildly applauded by critics. This blood-spattered series of fetch quests, arena fights and pseudo intellectualism is being talked about as one of the best games in recent years. Mathematics departments around the world have been struggling for weeks to find a new whole number above ten but less than eleven just to use for reviewing this game. The team at the Oxford English Dictionary are in the process of removing the existing definition of the word airship from the dictionary to be replaced by the term ‘wonderful floating thing found in Bioshock: Infinite’. This game is, as far as most of the gaming press and public are concerned, the greatest thing ever.

That should worry fans of video games because when something as completely wrongheaded and primitive as Bioshock: Infinite is lauded as a masterpiece, the fallout can only be toxic.

What video games need now are new ideas, not the same old thing with a different set of backgrounds and a new story. This is what video games promised when they first appeared, when people were not just inventing games but inventing genres of game. Somewhere along the way this seems to have stopped happening, to the extent that the best game so far of 2013 is a game that, graphical fidelity notwithstanding, could have been made ten years ago.

Board games are in many ways showing the direction that video games ought to be taking. Games such as Risk: Legacy offer changes to old formulae and new formats and game tropes appear all the time. Meanwhile, what mainstream video games are delivering is akin to the dizzying array of different Monopoly sets you can get. Maybe it’s set in space, or in Legoland, or Russia, or wherever, but it’s still ultimately the same game.

While the 10/10 scores and the plaudits are piling up around titles that offer nothing more than a new story played out in the same old style, the games industry will see no reason to change.

For people who thought that Bioshock: Infinite was new and exciting, congratulations. That’s what’s on the menu, at least from the big developers, for the foreseeable future. For those of us who had our fill of this slop back when it still tasted sort of new and the crunchy bits still had some crunch to them, it’s going to be a long few years.

Oops, too late.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism