What games can do – BioShock & Genre

by James M. Potter

For a while now, there has been talk of what a ‘Citizen Kane’ moment might look like for video gaming. So much so, in fact, that an amusing tumbr has been set up to document mentions of it. Last week a review compared a game to Bach, James Joyce, and the aforementioned movie in the same sentence, seemingly without irony. Every week, it seems, somebody writes about whether Citizen Kane: The Game has been made, whether it should be made, or whether Citizen Kane was any good anyway (general response: it was fine). What they’re referring to is a sort of singularity – one game that will prove to the non-gaming world the validity of the medium. A game that will show the mainstream that, far from sitting in a dressing gown engaging in morally dubious virtual activities, gamers are in fact engaged in the contemplation of ART.

Now, those of us who don’t feel guilty about our chosen pastime don’t on the whole spend much time trying to legitimise it (besides, we have really nice dressing gowns). Nathan Grayson writes here about how unlikely and undesirable a single, Citizen Kane-like moment for games might actually be. And the question of whether games are art and whether this needs proving is, I often find, boring and borderline irrelevant. I want to write instead about why games get better by being more gamey, not more cinematic. If there is a moment when the rest of the world decides that the best games can be considered on equal footing with the best films, it won’t be because said games perfectly appropriated cinematic conventions. It’ll be because the fact of their gamey-ness was integral, and elevated them to a higher plane.

We tend to assess the merit of games on how well they tell stories. In fact, we assess a lot of art this way. And games have evolved a remarkable number of different ways of telling stories, be it in the classic, linear fashion inherited from our older cousin the movies, or in ways where narrative is deployed at an environmental, passive level. In my view, the most interesting stories games can tell are stories that can only be told through this medium. I’m going to home in on one particular example to show what I mean.

Lots of virtual ink has been spilled into the streets of Irrational’s 2007 FPS BioShock. Sometimes when you walk around Rapture now, 6 years later, you feel like you’re wading through several inches of meaning, such is the density of opinions well-meaning critics have foisted onto the place. It’s not my intention to add to a crowded field – just to point out how it uses genre to make a powerful story point, in a way unique to interactive storytelling.

First-person shooter games are about agency. They rely on a close identification between player and virtual avatar, putting you right in their skull, seeing out of their eyes, experiencing the world as they do. The buzz surrounding the development of the Oculus Rift VR device shows how important this feature is. While some FPS games will very earnestly try to persuade you that you’re right there in the game, the more interesting examples are those that play with you just as you play with them. BioShock does this spectacularly well, foregrounding the problem of agency in the FPS and using it to make a story point in a very arresting manner [spoilers follow].

From the start, the game plays on the conventions of the first-person shooter. You’re dumped in an environment, given a wrench, and almost without thinking you slip into the pattern of beating anything that moves into a pulp. You’re gradually introduced to what’s going on by a voice coming through a radio, which tells you where to go, what to do, and why the city of Rapture has gone to hell in an underwater handbasket. And so you merrily continue, shooting people and making your way through the world on the instructions of your friendly guide. It’s not until quite a late stage that it’s revealed that, far from advising you, your radiophonic friend has in fact been controlling you. To hammer the point home (quite literally), the game wrenches control from you, and you must watch, powerless, as you beat a man to a bloody mess. This is not only a story point, it’s the game referencing its own gamey-ness, playing on the dissonance between the player and their avatar. In playing a shooter we so rarely question why we should kill all the people; we just concentrate on doing it as effectively as possible. BioShock makes you think you’re the one in control of the character, when in story terms you’re just a proxy. You mindlessly follow instructions just as your character does, and by fulfilling an FPS convention, you’re fulfilling the story. It makes you ask questions about your role in the game. Why am I actually killing these people – and why am I so damn good at it?

It’s because this storytelling is accomplished through an awareness of the issues of identity and control surrounding the first-person genre that the game is so successful at telling its story (even if Tom Francis’ proposed revision to the ending is quite appealing). And of course, foregrounding game genre issues just one way of telling a story in an interesting way. Roguelikes, or more abstract games like Journey, generate stories which are different for each player – in a manner nearly impossible for other media to recreate. This is what video games can do. So, in the various debates about the imminent new console generation, about which of them will have MOAR GRAPHICS or enough processing power to fill the screen with beautifully-rendered dancing llamas, perhaps we should remember that it’s not that stuff which sets this medium apart. It’s what games can do.