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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

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

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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