Hello, Don’tRead Faithful!
I know this seems like a book blog, but ultimately it’s a blog about storytelling. Storytelling in book form is my chosen craft (and in my opinion, the most consistently able to described as ‘art’), but every once in a while a narrative emerges in a different media that I feel like addressing.
I recently picked up and beat Bioshock: Infinite and I wanted to discuss it here, as I feel its a game which transcends some boundaries and offers up some great lessons in storytelling. As the focus on my blog is literature, I will restrict my constructive criticisms to story and plot related points.
For those who don’t know, Bioshock: Infinite is a game about a utopia in the sky circa 1912. A grizzled veteran named Booker Dewitt is sent there to rescue a girl who is imprisoned in its center.
Easing Us Into Their World: Okay, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a ‘utopia’ in fiction that didn’t hide a seedy underbelly. As cliche as this is, we still don’t quite see it coming when BI yanks the rug out from beneath us. I’ll try not to spoil too much, but the juxtaposition of the dystopian elements between periods of the seemingly calm and happy society, who are largely unaware of the underside is always an effective tool to show your readers things aren’t always what they appear–and it’s traditionally a device used to draw attention to our real-world society.
To sweeten the pot, we’re shown more and more dystopia as the game progresses, allowing us to feel the descent into madness and desparation along with the characters.
Frank Depictions of Social Issues: Let’s face it, America’s got a bit of a checkered past. But as people who take pride in our country, we don’t exactly like remembering its bad parts. I don’t blame us–I mean, who wants to remember the haircut they had in eighth grade?–but a lot of pop cultural depictions of 19th-20th century US just gloss over the sticky, human-rights atrocities or worse, just leave out black and brown people altogether. While it may be painful for everybody to remember those days, trying to forget them is an affront to the men and women who suffered through it to change things for the better. But BI takes the race dilemma center-stage and makes it a central theme. They don’t really pose any conclusions or condemnations, they just treat it as it is: a fact of life at that time, as it is a fact of life today. Racism is a thing. Deal with it.
Which leads me to my next bullet…
Not Choosing Sides: As things heat up in the story, the tensions erupt and lots of forces are pitted against one another. Religion v. Secularism, Ethnocentrism v. Cultural awareness, Haves v. Have-Nots in what amounts to a violent class struggle. All through the story, our two main characters struggle to survive and find themselves working at times for both sides of the conflict, but the only conclusion they draw is that the two groups are pretty much the same in terms of brutality and penchants for violence. And living in their world, so too are the main characters, but I’ll talk about that in a second.
The two sides fight go to war and the violence escalates, but the audience is never told who is right. We’re never told what to believe, and that’s an important point in narrative. Religion tells you what to believe–that’s why when works of fiction do it, it’s called “being preachy.” Fiction shouldn’t presume to dictate morality, but it should make us question it. Good fiction can do this by presenting both sides of a case as honestly as possible, but withholding judgement for the audience to decide.
Self-Awareness: Not as in, “Oh, no the machine is self-aware! The matrix will soon have us!” BI’s Characters, Booker and Elizabeth, are forced to do some questionable things to survive. Booker is no stranger to violence, having been a soldier during two historically bloody conflicts, but as a teen shut-in, Elizabeth is unused to killing–both watching and doing. As the envelope is pushed farther, our characters frequently question their own actions. It helps them to be more believable.
But it goes a little farther than that. Frequent videogame players may find themselves a little detached when looking at the polygons on the screen, but the characters of BI remind us of what the violence–a common aspect of modern videogames–actually represents: ending the lives of other human beings. So many of us pull the trigger on-screen, but would we in real life?
There was a section in which the Final Boss orders his men to lay down their weapons and let me pass. Naturally assuming I’d have to fight them later, I thought I’d save myself the trouble and eliminate the squad. I gunned down eight men, one by one while their comrades watched, and PRAYED to their god. Afterward, I realized I would never have had to face those people in combat and had killed them for no reason.
BI promotes awareness of yourself by exposing you to all these things and making you react to them.
Pushing You Out of Your Comfort Zone: This is one thing that I feel is non-negotiable in art. If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it’s not art–it’s a decoration. The main idea of art is to communicate feelings and situations–good and bad–to which you wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed, and thereby force you to confront them. When we think about these things, we grow as people.
BI does this in spades. From early on, we’re shown a hyper-jingoist, American derived, theocratic false-utopia, with racist policies and we have to react.
Or we get the game over screen…
Bioshock: Infinite does a lot of things right, especially for a videogame. It’s not surprising when you learn that a writer was behind the helm–Ken Levine was behind the first Bioshock game (another stellar example of how the videogame medium can be used as art) and he also wrote some books and TV shows and movies.
I don’t mean to say it’s perfect; I have my issues with BI, which I won’t go into here. But I like videogames and I feel the interactivity of the medium has so much untapped potential for poignant narrative. But a lot of videogames are written by software developers.
That works, when it works, but if you’ve played most new releases, then you’ll see how far that gets you.
Or maybe I’m just TOO critical.
Anyway, if you’re a fan of good stories, broaden your horizons by playing some videogames. Bioshock Infinite is a good start, and I plan to write more on games with literary stories in the future.
So leave me some comments!