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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As we reach the 50th anniversary of China's Cultural Revolution, are we seeing echoes of Mao?

With the official verdict being that Mao was “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”, his legacy is never far from the mind of today's politicians.

The Great Hall of the People on the western side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing is normally the scene for formal occasions, such as the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. In early May, however, it resonated with singing by a group of young women, 56 Flowers, at a concert staged by an organisation calling itself the “Propaganda Department Office of Socialist Core-Value Propaganda and Education”. Tickets sold for up to £200.

The repertoire of the singing group was of a kind heard only rarely in China today. It consisted mainly of anthems from the Mao Zedong era, among them “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman”, which compares the chairman’s thinking to “the sun that never sets”. The maverick politician Bo Xilai used such songs in his campaign to challenge the central leadership earlier this decade but he is now in prison, serving a life sentence for corruption.

The singers, who describe themselves as “the socialist band fallen from heaven”, wear the sort of scarves worn by Young Pioneers in the Cultural Revolution that Mao launched, 50 years ago this month, to shake up China and assert his leadership.

Some other songs praised the current leader, Xi Jinping, but the event was determinedly retro, demonstrating nostalgia for the era before China embarked on its race for economic growth and before society modernised. In a country where the leaders shape history to their purpose, this was a distinct political statement, and that the performance was permitted at all raised eyebrows among China-watchers. There was even more puzzlement when the organisation that put its name to the show turned out not to exist. Speculation spread that the whole thing had been staged by opponents of the current leadership in an attempt to embarrass it.

While Mao remains the biggest figure in the narrative of the People’s Republic, his three decades in power were marked by killings on a huge scale and the repeated use of terror, ending with the ten-year disaster of the Cultural Revolution. His heritage poses a problem in a country with a vastly changed society that has little affinity with the rampaging Red Guards. The Communist Party-run state needs the Great Helmsman at the centre of its history and its conquest of power. But the kind of nostalgia peddled by 56 Flowers has little relevance in China today, where materialism is more important than Maoist Marxism and where the pressing issues are how to deal with a mountain of debt and reduce excess industrial capacity.

In an unprecedented move in mid-May, the party newspaper People’s Daily ran a severe condemnation of the Cultural Revolution as a grave mistake. However, Mao’s body still lies embalmed in Tiananmen Square, his head is on the banknotes and the official verdict is that he was “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”.

Mao launched the movement that convulsed his country after a politburo meeting on 16 May 1966, which identified “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army and various spheres of culture” but were merely “a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists”, aiming to instal “a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.

The man who had led the Chinese communists to power in 1949 had been feeling disgruntled. He had been marginalised by his lieutenants Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping following the collapse of his attempt to industrialise the country in the Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s and the ensuing famine, which some estimate to have killed more than 40 million people. Mao was nearly 73 but he was not yet ready to be kicked upstairs into a ceremonial post.

Rousing himself for a final power play, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to assert himself, to destroy the Communist Party’s “bourgeois” bureaucracy and to give China a shake-up as he led the nation’s young people on a crusade to “destroy the old”. Once more, he ruthlessly turned Chinese against Chinese to consolidate his power and to pursue a supposedly revolutionary adventure.

The effects were, as with earlier initiatives, catastrophic – politically, economically and socially – above all, for the many millions who suffered death, injury, torture and deprivations. The party, the army, schools, universities and practically all other institutions were caught up in the maelstrom.

The wrecking of the regime’s control mechanisms cleared the way to the economic reform that was officially approved by Deng after Mao’s death in 1976, as Frank Dikötter shows in his magisterial new book, The Cultural Revolution: a People’s History, 1962-76. But loosening control is the last thing that Xi Jinping has in mind. Since taking power in November 2012, he has pursued a crackdown on dissent and is centralising authority in a way not seen since Mao. At the same time, and in the lead-up to a crucial party congress at the end of 2017, he is trying to use his campaign against corruption to root out opponents and change the way that China works.

Some commentators have described it as a new Cultural Revolution, even though the attempt to impose draconian control from the centre under Xi hardly chimes with the Red Guards’ invocation to “storm the fortress” and destroy the centres of authority. Still, there are echoes of 50 years ago. In a speech published this month, the president denounced “careerists and conspirators” who were undermining party governance.

“We . . . must make a resolute response to eliminate the problem and deter further violations,” Xi added, in a tone that Chairman Mao might have used. The context changes but China’s leaders have always been adept at finding adversaries to be used to advance their own ends – though what happened under Mao should stand as a warning of where witch-hunting can lead.

Jonathan Fenby is the author of “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” and “The Penguin History of Modern China”

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad