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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Eyes on the peaks and a heart in the valley

During the summer months, the Swiss Alps offer one of nature’s most gorgeous spectacles.

Usually, whenever I arrive in Switzerland (where I am currently enjoying a brief summer respite), I cannot wait to ascend to the top of the nearest peak, whether on foot, or by some kind cable car, or a combination of the two. At this time of year, the flora seems more interesting the higher I go and, to my mind, few sights are as beautiful as a high Alpine meadow in full flower.

A possible comparison might be a desert at its most floriferous, but it is hard to predict when that occasional abundance will come. If you get to the mountains between June and late July, one of the most gorgeous spectacles in nature is close to guaranteed. Some years are better than others, but there is something about wandering an Alpine meadow, or crouching at the edge of a mountain chasm to peer down at a clutch of faintly scented mountain flowers, that renews the spirit.

The other great pleasure in being up, as opposed to down, is the view. Everyone appreciates that view, even if it is only from the visitors’ centre or the café terrace: the land laid out all around, its most intimate secrets revealed, sheep and people and houses like tiny specks on the valley slopes. The river is a ribbon of light, making its way through the lower meadows, past the cement works and the little Valais towns, each with its own shop and train station, its people polite and reserved, speaking a variety of German that most German-speakers barely understand. When people here meet, they say not “guten Tag” but “grüezi”. Goodbye is “Widerluege”. If you can remember how to pronounce it, there is a delicious, cheesecake-like dish called Chäschüechli. However, my favourite titbit of Swiss German is that, whereas Hochdeutsch has one term for walking uphill (“aufwärts gehen”), Swiss German has two: “uälaufe”, which means “to walk uphill” and “ufälaufe”, which means “to walk uphill and get to the top”. Or so my Swiss friends tell me – although, in matters of language, they do like to play games.

True or not, this is an important distinction, especially here in Valais. At the top are the Blüemlisalphorn (3,661 metres) and Weisshorn (4,506 metres) peaks, which are out of my range, but even the less demanding ones (the gorgeous Illhorn, for instance, which rises to 2,716 metres) can be a challenge for the occasional hillwalker that age, desk work and appetite have made me. It’s worth it, though, for the views and the flora. Or so I thought – but there are some who would agree to disagree.

Rainer Maria Rilke discovered the Valais region in 1919 and returned there to live a short time later. He was drawn by the beauty of the landscape, the flora, the simplicity of local life and the view of the mountains – but he rarely climbed to the top, preferring the valleys and the slopes to the peaks. A favourite place was the Forêt des Finges, on the floor of the valley. “Outside is a day of inexhaustible splendour,” he wrote to a friend in 1921. “This valley inhabited by hills – it provides ever-new twists and impulses, as if it were still the movement of creation that energised its changing aspects. We have discovered the forests – full of small lakes, blue, green, nearly black. What country delivers such detail, painted on such a large canvas? It is like the final movement of a Beethoven symphony.”

From Finges, one looks up and sees the mountains. It was looking up, rather than looking down, that seemed to give Rilke the power to renew his vision. It was here that he finally completed the Duino Elegies, among other works. His mind reached for the peaks but his home was in the valley. He asked to be buried in the village of Raron, where the church is perched on a rock above the river: a choice spot from which his soul might gaze upwards to the delectable hills.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt