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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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon