November 19, 2012 by ald7th
I’m still not entirely sure what possessed me to buy BioShock. I also have no idea how I ended up spending an extended period of time playing the game. I wanted to play for the narrative, but I couldn’t just watch a play through on YouTube. I wanted the gameplay as well. A game about rational self-interest and Objectivism seems to lend itself well to actually playing the game myself. After playing BioShock in class, I was intrigued by the balance of narrative and gameplay. The game, developed by 2K Boston and originally released in 2007, has become a benchmark in video game history. Every textbook we have read hails the game as a standout, a high point in the short gaming history. As we discussed gamic action, interactivity, and game as art, I can only harken these topics back to BioShock (as the first video game I have played all the way through since I was fourteen, this shouldn’t be a surprise). Knowing about the history and theories of the video games adds to my intellectual interpretations of the games, but only after finishing gameplay.
Like the narrative in BioShock, those studying video games are often forced between two polarities in discussing games. In Alexander Galloway’s Gaming, he classifies the diegetic and non-diegetic, and places them on an axis against machine and operator. While playing BioShock, I never thoroughly reflected upon how I would define gamic action. As a play based game, BioShock falls under the diegetic operator act, for the game is rule-based and singular (Gaming 38). However, the more I try to classify and fit the game into a category, the more fruitless it feels. The game itself was too compelling–with the interaction of gameplay and thoughtful narrative–for me to properly analyze which part of the axis it may belong. The more history and theory we discuss, the more nihilistic it seems. Like Jack in BioShock, I am forced to choose an action. I cannot find the language to describe a game without resorting to these polarities and axes that Galloway so often presents.
When trying to define BioShock’s interactivity, I believe Tom Bissell said it best when describing his own experience in playing the game: “If I really wanted to explore the implications and consequences of Objectivism, there were better and more sophisticated places to look…Is it okay to think they are mostly fun?…Are games the problem, or am I?” (Extra Lives 36). Part of gaming is controlling. I controlled the game, but the game also controlled me. BioShock enveloped me into a magic circle, and although I did not play the game as others did–it took me two weeks–the interactivity allowed me to exist alongside the game. I think the most obvious form of interactivity came at the end of the game. By that point, from spoilers from class, I knew no matter which option I choose it would not matter. The choices would even out in the end. The overarching authorial intent allows for a limited interactivity with the game. I did not feel this way while immersed in Rapture, but only after, when reflecting on the history and theories. Again, the theories only added to my feelings about BioShock after I had finished playing the game.
Finally, I thought a lot about BioShock when we discussed games as art. Galloway takes art games to an extreme, describing the opposites of conventional gaming. His requirements include foregrounding, aestheticism, visual artifacts, among many others (125). Yet BioShock contained none of these, and seemed more artistic than most of the games that we played this semester. Tom Bissell and the movie Indie Game focus on the role of authorial intent: that the personal goals and dreams of the designers play a major role in deciding whether or not a game qualifies as “art.” Yet, in the atrocity that is All Your Base Are Belong to Us by Harold Goldberg, each and every game seems to be a complete manifestation of the designer. It becomes impossible to define what games can be art, just as it is impossible to define art in a broader sense. Although I appreciate the history and theories of art games, it adds nothing to my understanding and interpretation of BioShock. All in all, my first video game as an adult (first being, I played it all the way through) added a lot of joy to my life. I enjoyed the narrative, but mostly the gameplay. Knowing the history and theory of the games did not affect my experience of playing the game, but does affect my memory of playing the game now.