Friday, April 26, 2013

Death by Botulism

"Centuries of their labor would not reveal to them any more of Creation than they already knew. Yet through their endeavor, men would glimpse the unimaginable artistry of Yahweh's work, in seeing how ingeniously the world had been constructed. By this construction, Yahweh's work was indicated, and Yahweh's work was concealed."  Tower of Babylon, Ted Chiang.
Ruthless, hermetic closure in a narrative space holds an immediate allure for the reader. Hours of guided "close reading" in literature classes (often under the tutelage of very old New Criticism practices) have ingrained an ongoing cultural belief that self-referentiality and resonance within a work are true signs of artistry. Engaging with this type of closure, whether to appreciate or criticize a work, can often elicit a critical language that mimics its subject and I immediately fell into this trap with Bioshock Infinite as I started to formulate my litany of grievances with the game.

I lost myself in the exercise. Much like the chair that I "willingly" strapped myself/Booker into as transportation, it predictably closed like a trap, carrying me along with a momentum that shifted my perspective from elation to something close to sickness.

Elevators, zeppelins, or rails transported me to spectacles as carefully staged for surrender and awe as a cathedral under stained glass. Or a theme park. Like many players in the initial hour of the game, I absolutely surrendered.


Baptized and ushered into a beautifully rendered city in the sky, I wandered through the first areas in a daze, absorbing every detail, every vista, every conversation. It was like listening to the opening of a sermon and running into Disneyland at the same time but this quickly began to exhaust itself. Or rather the sermon began to propagate into every corner of the experience, drowning it in caricature and bombast.

The presentation of the environments became as didactic as the in-game propaganda, giving me a constant pairing of dramatic scenery with religious or racist conversations, placards, portraits, slogans, lest I forget that this was a society of xenophobic sheep.  It was so oppressive and ubiquitous that I couldn't open myself to what I was directed to feel as I was relentlessly funneled along to the next attraction: nostalgia, awe, outrage, revulsion.  All of these seemed over-represented and under-developed, like placeholders, pointers for the next series of events that would justify the gun I constantly held in front of my face.

The lines between the game’s different forms of didacticism started to blur uncomfortably. An elevator sermonized me with absurdly bespoke, interstitial captions wrought into the iron beams between floors, presenting me with what amounted to a silent movie montage as my view panned down through significant scenes of toil on each floor. Who was the ideologue here? The preacher in the game or the one behind the game who choreographed a slideshow in an elevator with such self-assurance in my suspension of disbelief?

As I encountered the museum set-pieces in the Hall of Heroes I began to realize that these exhibits and my passage through them were microcosms for most of the dynamics in the game: wander through sequences of propaganda submitted to my superior judgement and Booker’s tired amnesiac duplicity, admire the dramatic lighting, the exaggerated architecture, the operatic music, smirk at the figures and mobs popping into view, listen to a disembodied villain barking over the PA system, accept the eventual wave of targets that I could mow down like ducks Vox Populi in a shooting gallery.

My only forms of agency outside of this template seemed to be resource gathering to keep my meters topped off and my abilities updated, and an occasional decision that curiously didn’t branch to anything. I was sometimes offered pauses, moments where a choice presented itself between standing around and doing nothing or submitting to an event by pressing a button. It was supposed to feel like stumbling into the intractable "would you kindly?" moment but became less affecting for the repetition.

I need to pause again.  I can feel my criticism getting carried along the game’s implosive momentum, its irresistible urge to make everything a reference to some other aspect of itself.  I get a sense of satisfaction out of doing this but I think the writers of Infinite fell under this same lure.
When one’s language and figures start to resonate among themselves, it feels tempting and obligatory to follow their inward momentum as implicitly significant, something that will almost magically mean something to perceptive readers through the combined weight of their thematic material and self-reflection. Without moderation and a critical, nuanced effort to tie the work back to the world the result becomes inscrutable, closed to any real dialog or reading beyond a dutiful interpretation of its own internally significant figures.

Bioshock Infinite obstinately stares into this mirror and never really returns to anything outwardly significant.

I could feel the maw closing at a certain turn in the game’s story. A proletarian uprising gave me one last possible reference to something outside of Booker DeWitt’s tortured psyche. “It’ll be like Les Miserables!” exclaimed Elizabeth, at which point I should have heard the cynicism approaching but I tried to ignore it. I briefly felt some sense of historical resonance and subversive short-circuiting that wasn’t just a caricature from a theme park. A kid was singing “Fortunate Son” in blues a capella. Irish war songs jumped out of the indistinct roar of the angry mob. It felt exaggerated but energizing and purposeful, like a living Eric Drooker poster.

But this significance quickly self-destructed under the overarching obsession with the zero-sum game, the perfect, closed system: the violent revolution became framed as just another form of futile idealism and hunger for power, the other side of the same coin. Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the rebellion, went power-mad and began barking at me over those same villainous PA systems, telling me that I “complicated the narrative.” This sounded strained in its anachronism, as if her language was suddenly putting on a new costume and wasn’t comfortable with the wardrobe. She figuratively twirled her mustache while holding a child hostage, ready to kill in the name of idealism at any moment. This particular museum exhibit didn’t end with my actions, however. Through a pane of glass, I watched passively as my verbs become Elizabeth’s verbs and she executed Daisy with a pair of scissors.  We moved on to another inter-dimensional tear and the game continued to distill itself into self-referential oblivion.

“There's always a lighthouse. There's always a man. There's always a city.”

I wish I could say that Bioshock Infinite is a missed opportunity, but this would imply a lack of intent on the part of the game’s creators. They foreclosed on most opportunities to use their thematic premise with any kind of bravery, honesty, or outward relevance because they explicitly chose to reduce it to yet another first person shooter meditation on self-redemption.  Though it may be wrapped in the entertaining science fiction conceits of quantum loops and steeped in a self-conscious iconography of McKinley-era Americana, this is in fact the path of least complexity, least offense, least risk.  One can make it all about a few regretful personal choices that can’t be taken back and wrap everything up neatly with a decision that erases everything.  In doing so, any gestures toward historical awareness, racial politics, or self-consciousness about the repercussions of violence become placeholders that point to nothing and ask nothing of the player. The end result is very digestible and briefly poignant, but ultimately obtuse and evasive, artful without art.

As I completed the game, I wasn't sure what to do with the experience it had given me.  It was like walking away from an evening at a theme park that somehow tried to tell me the story of its own significance at every kiosk and turnstile then faded to nothingness as I left the lot.  It was haunting, but not in a way that stayed with me, not in a way that asked me to return.  I feared that if I turned around for another glimpse, I would just be watching the slow heat death of the first person shooter.

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