I’m sure you are immediately thinking, “Gee, another person who wants to write about video games.” Perhaps with a roll of your eyes and a small amount of sighing you open up the page anyway, hoping to see something new.
Well, that’s what I’m aiming for.
See, most video game blogs tend to either disseminate news about video gaming or to foist their opinions upon the gaming world as fact. Everything is, “Oooh, Legion comes out August 30, 2016” or “Here’s why Legion will revive the flagging Blizzard sub numbers for WoW.” And that’s fine. It’s factual reporting and opinion journalism.
But I wanted to do something different. For me, and I suspect a growing number of people, games are more than child’s play, some dirty nerdy secret you keep off your OkCupid profile. I wanted to treat video games and the stories they tell with respect from the start. How many of us can honestly say we haven’t been emotionally affected by a video game story at one time or another? Whether it’s enjoyment at the fabulous graphics, the moving story, the sexy characters, the ability to relieve one’s stress, to draw people together either virtually or otherwise, video games have had an increasing presence in our lives.
So in this blog I strive to produce commentary on the games’ stories with a few objectives.
To immerse ourselves fully into the story so we may learn as much as possible.
To identify effects the story may have on society or us as individuals.
To reinforce the emerging idea that video games are indeed literature.
Surely, you jest! Literature is Shakespeare, Milton, Joyce, DuBois, and perhaps Stephen King (he will never, ever die). While this is all true, as technology advances so too must our ideas of what constitutes literature advance. Literature began as oral tales (heeey Beowulf), moved into print (thanks Joannes), and now has some root in film. Why not video games? There’s text, images, a plot… it’s an interactive book with moving pictures. It’s the future of literature. We’ve moved from oral tales of godly heroes slaying dragons around the campfire to moving the godly heroes with our thumbs (soon VR will get rid of that… more on this soon) in our living rooms, connected to thousands of other humans via the internet. Video games have all of the criteria for literature, and this blog treats them with the same respect as the famous bard from Stratford-upon-Avon commands.
So please, comment, debate (nicely), exclaim, dance, have at it. Let’s dig into these fantastic stories and find out what we’ve been missing.
This is a question floating around the internet lately. From the Reddit conversation highlighting the difference between the facial animations of The Witcher 3 and Mass Effect: Andromeda to Twitter conversations lambasting BioWare’s buggy and somewhat disappointing release of the highly-anticipated new installment to the much loved Mass Effect series, fans are clearly expressing something between satisfaction and disappointment. A few reviews that I have read online state the same summation: Mass Effect: Andromeda feels like a game half-finished. For a game 5 years in the making and with a budget of $40 million, this seems to suggest BioWare has got something going on that is affecting their ability to produce excellence.
It was not always so. Early BioWare is the company behind some well-known and loved titles like Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Early BioWare (either before their merger with Electronic Arts or shortly after) saw more success with less budget. How is that possible? I am reminded of the making of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and how their budget was so low that the actors had to supply their own costumes, among other things. Yet that low budget movie created one of the landmark films of the modern cinema era, and I think BioWare has had a similar situation with their early games. With more money, more staff, and more resources doesn’t it make sense that a talented company like BioWare would produce more excellence rather than less?
If I were a full-time video game reporter I would be on the phone or digging into this issue because consumers are being affected negatively. Certain game studios like Ubisoft or now BioWare are getting a reputation with gamers. We have come to expect bugs and poorly crafted games. Many of us refuse to pre-order titles from these companies. Many consumers who pre-ordered The Division regretted it. Some gamers who purchased No Man’s Sky even took their complaints to court, citing misleading business practices and unfulfilled promises. I think one of the reasons for the immense amount of Reddit conversations highlighting the difference between the visual quality of The Witcher 3 and Mass Effect’s latest installment is a growing unease and distrust of gaming studios. If gaming wants to continue growth then isn’t a steadfast commitment to producing well crafted games with great visuals and excellent storytelling a must?
An ending caveat – I do not quite agree with what seems to be a widespread disappointment with Sara Ryder’s character. In my opinion, I think she’s cute and I am enjoying the game, but I think we all see some of the early bugs and some of the facial animations being destructive to our immersion. BioWare can do better, but I am left with this question: how much do we, the consumers or audience, need to give companies leeway before gaming studios just start releasing half-finished games?
In any discussion of subjective terms (e.g. good), it is helpful to first define what those terms mean for the purposes of the discussion because subjective terms are easily interpreted differently by different people. A good story may mean one with a focus on romance for one audience, while another prefers explosions to smooching. For my purposes, good means a story that immerses the audience and moves them towards either great emotion or deeper thoughts. In this blog, I have used this definition as a means to select stories that have a profound effect on us that I can present for discussion or analysis.
Yet there is a price in the use of this definition. You see, once we select a definition for a term that we like, we tend to use it. Through long use, that definition seems to us as natural, as if that definition had existed all along and we merely learned it (see Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense for more on this codification of language). Because I define the good in this way now, my value system is set and stories must meet it or be lessened. So how did I come to this exploration of definitions for a blog post?
I’ve come to find that most games I play recently are just not “good.”
Using my definition, most stories just do not move me emotionally much anymore. Certainly nothing has moved me like The Last of Us moved me, not in recent memory. I play games like Skyrim or Fallout 4 and they are fantastic games, but the stories do not move me. I am not inspired or crushed. I do not become the character through identifying similar values that I possess or wished I could possess. There is no real romance (a particular complaint of mine against the otherwise utterly fantastic Bethesda) or other moving elements in these games for me. I am left with the thought: has the excellence of certain games like The Last of Us ruined my experience with other games?
Perhaps. I still have not yet finished Skyrim or Fallout 4. I enjoy the gameplay, but I feel a distinct lack of emotional engagement with the stories these games offer. Now this is not to say that there is no emotional engagement, just significantly less opportunity or less depth of engagement than other, rarer, games have offered. In Skyrim, I recently undertook the self-given challenge to play my character without fast travel. The amazing environment and other little fun moments I encountered in the world were very pleasing, but they were little moments. The sight of the majestic scenery of Tamriel is a transitory pleasure; it does not fundamentally tell me about myself or human nature. Seeing Sarah killed by the very government that was supposed to protect her after I had spent some time with her in a loving family situation rips at my core, and causes me to question human or governmental action in a post-apocalyptic situation.
It is definitely possible that I just am too analytical for my own good, and perhaps I should just stop thinking deeply about these stories to enjoy the perfectly placed arrow shot or V.A.T.S. murder spree. But once we’ve been touched that deeply by a story (or a person), does going back to superficiality even become a possibility?
I would really like to know, because I feel unsatisfied with most games these days. I want every one to say something to me as deeply as the story of Joel and Ellie.
I recently engaged in a discussion about the new Resident Evil game where a few people expressed their dissatisfaction with the beginning of the story. In their opinion, the story was too unbelievable. For them, the moment of the story’s failure is the protagonist (Ethan Winters) suddenly driving to Louisiana with no backup, no cell phone, no guns, and then the fact that he just walks into a creepy house. In their view, it’s unreasonable to ask the audience to believe that anyone would do this, and starting a story with an unbelievable moment devalues the immersive experience.
I think most people feel the responsibility resides with the author of the story to provide believable details that make the events seem plausible. The story is judged based on the audience’s immersion, or in other words, how easily the story invites the audience into the events. This is quite accurate, and stories that are absurd are usually only loved for their absurdness itself and not for its immersive nature that makes the audience feel as if they are a part of the story. Yet when a story like RE7 is criticized, we should assess whether or not that criticism is displaying a willing and reasonably applied suspension of disbelief.
I can see their point, but these critics are unaware of, or unwilling to do, what is required on their part as audience members. This is a story that includes regenerating flesh (Jack caught me once and chopped off my leg with a shovel. One splash of healing liquid and I was as good as new.), monstrous fungal enemies, human metamorphosis, and supernatural-like psionic powers, obviously fantastic elements. Yet, I am going to restrict my comments to the opening events.
What these critics are suffering from is an overemphasis of the rational that impedes their engagement with the story of RE7. Since it is not often repeated in its original text, I would like to provide Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s text here regarding the matter of the suspension of disbelief as an integral part of the interaction between audience and story. Coleridge writes, “…yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (Biographia Literaria, 1817). While Coleridge is referring to the crafting of effective poetry in the face of a rising rationalism in society, we continue to use the term Coleridge coined in order to emphasize that writers and readers both share a burden of engagement in order to produce satisfaction in any story. In other words, authors need to craft a story that invites the audience into it, and the audience must be willing to allow that to happen. Our modern society needs far less convincing as Coleridge’s, who were newly in love with all things rational; we are quite used to rationalism these days. It is the fantastic in which we willingly engage. One needs only to look at the popularity of movies like Lord of the Rings or superhero tales from Marvel to note that perhaps we not only enjoy the fantasy but we are growing to need it in a society that offers us an increasing emphasis on scientific and rational thought. We should then be careful to practice this poetic faith of Coleridge’s. Providing an open mind and a suspension of disbelief would increase immersion and thus enjoyment of the story RE7 offers.
So during this conversation I imagine that if they were able to read and agree with what I’ve offered here these originally critical people might open their minds to think that perhaps Ethan’s actions are believable, if not reasonable as well. Perhaps we might imagine with our willing belief that someone may be so in love to think of nothing else but their spouse. I imagine that after three years, about to give up hope that my spouse was alive, if I get an email asking me to come to them that I’m out the door immediately to go to them. I’m not stopping at the local gun store to load for bear first. Perhaps I’m a hopeless Romantic. Part of the benefits of the suspension of disbelief is our opening ourselves to others who may choose differently than we would. So even if we would grab all of the guns, multiple cell/satellite phones, and body armor, we nevertheless move along with Ethan because it is his thoughts that drive the narrative. And we should begin to feel and think as Ethan would, instead of demanding that Ethan think and feel like we would. In this way we enjoy the story that is being offered to us fairly, letting all the less credible parts go so we enjoy the wonderful creepiness Resident Evil offers without an unnecessarily critical lens.
Is it more enjoyable to engage with a story critically and logically or emotionally? I think the answer lies in a combination of both, as long as we want to believe.
From time to time I run across people who insist that the author’s interpretation is the only way to engage with a story. I am a rabid fan of The Last of Us, a story that is so powerfully gripping and moving that I cannot help but return to it again and again to feel. David Hume, a fantastic 18th century essayist, writes in his essay “Of Tragedy” that the agitation of the human soul is pleasurable. We are moved by love or anger, pity or sorrow, and those movements are a change from the tedium of homeostasis (the tendency towards stability). Nature may gravitate towards equilibrium; humanity cannot help but seek passions that move us from it. In this devotion to feeling we interpret the matter that moves us, sometimes jealously. We do not wish to feel as if we are wrong in our feelings or to be told that we are wrong in interpreting the subject that moved us to that feeling. Let us look at The Last of Us for an example of differing interpretations before moving to the author’s.
In The Last of Us, the question of Ellie’s sexuality seems to be open to interpretation (spoilers ahead). Yes, in the downloadable content addition to the main story Ellie does share a kiss on the lips with Riley, but the overall feeling of their attachment is open. Ellie isn’t sure of anything but that she doesn’t want to be parted from Riley. Ellie also refers to Riley as her friend and never says lover, girlfriend, or anything that implies a romantic or sexual relationship. Again, note the greatness of writers who leave ambiguous details for the audience to fill! Yet on the other side of the interpretation of Ellie’s sexual preference we note the humorous scene as Ellie thumbs through Bill’s pornographic material, wondering “what’s all the fuss about?” meaning, of course, the fascination with males or the penis, with the reasonable inference that Ellie herself does not share this fascination. Added with this kiss itself, Ellie certainly seems to have the ability to be interpreted as a lesbian. This is the openness of interpretation that capable storytellers use. Nothing is explicitly stated, hints and possibilities emerge, mirroring more closely the complexity and instability of human life.
Now, let us move to the view that the author’s view of the story is the only correct one.
*warning, dense French philosophy ahead. Do not fear; I will steer the boat for us.*
A story, like most things, has a life cycle. It is born within the author’s mind. It grows through editing and polishing. Perhaps other editors come into the early life of the story to insert their own little creations and additions. Then, one glorious day, the story is born and we interact with it.
Once born, the story interacts with the audience, not its author. Imagine the born story moving out of mom and dad’s home into all of ours. Each relationship the story forms with the many members of the audience is different.
Understanding how a story interacts with (philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes sexualizes this interaction in his book The Pleasure of the Text) us as the audience is essential to freeing us from the view that the author is the only one in control of interpretations. Barthes argues that resorting to an author-centric view of a text is imposing a limitation, “interpretive tyranny”, on the text (text can be considered as any body of writing for our purposes). Imagine Neil Druckman, the author of The Last of Us, coming into your home to tell you how to “see” Ellie. It seems silly, but if one argues the author is the authority that is essentially the case. If authorial intention is the king of our interpretations we must cede all thought and only look to the author for details to fill the ambiguity. Druckman may have a preference in his intentions, although given his expertise in storytelling I think his ambiguity is intentional because he understands the value of allowing the audience to participate in the life of a story. Druckman’s preference or interpretation of the story he creates may shape and mold how a story is formed, but cannot be so rigid and unyielding as to stop us from locating evidence and value in our own perspectives.
Rather than omnipresent and omnipotent, the author takes her (or his) place within the life cycle of a story as its creator. Once given to us, we are the interactors (lovers, thank you Barthes) with the story. If the creator has given room for interpretations, we fill that room. The interpretations we form as the audience are subject to reason and evidence, make no mistake. It would be unsupportable to argue that Ellie was into Eskimo love, for example. (Yeah, I really had to tone down what I was about to write. Mooo’ving on.) Thus given life from our interaction, the story takes on (sometimes unintended) attributes. The common view of a story may be entirely different from authorial intent. Observe the word “literally” which has been taken so out of context as to lead to the Oxford English Dictionary’s re-defining of the word! It is the same with stories, which is just a body of words. How can we still argue that the audiences’ interpretive views are “wrong”?
What we begin to see if we remove ourselves from authorial tyranny is that our interpretations tell us just as much about ourselves as the story. Interpretations allow for a much more interesting diversity of views, if employed within reason. If, in your view, Ellie is a gloriously and fantastically open lesbian (or not, whatever the case may be), stop to think how that interpretation connects to your view of lesbianism in your life now. This is the moment in which our interaction with the story moves from Hume’s agitation to our souls towards understanding, empathy, and realization about our own selves. And therein lies the value and power of literature.
Note that the most productive conversations are removed from questions of morality. Let us not argue that sexuality is right or wrong; that would be a critical/judgmental observation. If we are immersed into the interpretative we want to understand how we read a text, and what happens next.
Although there are many interesting elements within the story of Bioshock that deserve attention, my intention for these reviews is to keep them as short as possible. No one wants to read a 20 page paper on the Objectivism of Bioshock, at least not here on a blog. With this in mind, I will visit some of the major themes of the story with an in depth analysis. The idea is to share deeper connections that other fans of the story might not have made and to elicit conversation about the story with other enthusiasts.
So, please do feel free to comment below and discuss these (or other) bits from the story of Bioshock.
Let’s dive in (pun intended).
I want to visit the theme of the protected and the protector and its effect on the audience, as well as investigate the atmospheric visual aspects of this story that place the audience within the philosophy that directs it. Ultimately, these two themes drive what I believe is one of the central ideas of Bioshock – choice and the determination of choice.
One of the omnipresent themes within the story of Bioshock is the elements of darkness and light, a common theme in many stories. Bioshock begins with a dimly lit airplane, a scene of relative comfort and familiarity that is soon dispelled as we are plunged into the ocean amid darkness and fire, a harbinger of the experience lying in wait within Rapture. This is a literary concept known as foreshadowing – the intentional placement of elements that will recur later in the story. The reason for foreshadowing is to allow the audience to better understand the point of the theme, as well as emphasize any lessons the theme may impart. So let’s connect this darkness and light to the story’s later elements to see what we glean from it.
Historically, darkness has signaled danger. In other literature darkness signals either a spiritual or physical evil defined as danger to one’s soul or physical life. Shakespeare writes, “Sable Night, mother of Dread and Fear, / Upon the world dim darkness doth display / and in her vaulty prison stows the Day (The Rape of Lucrece). Both dread and fear are born from Night’s darkness itself, something that we will shortly connect to Bioshock’s use of water and darkness. First, consider Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the use of darkness as a trope (a common literary device) of the suffocating evil in society. This is an easily understood concept: darkness = bad.
Where things get deeper and more interesting for us is the combination with the evils of darkness and the symbolism of water as life. We are almost immediately plunged into the dark ocean. This immersion prompts the necessary observation that the Bioshock: Infinite story similarly begins and ends in baptism (a spiritual rebirth). The atmospheric darkness (and water) continues unabated, and we are aware of its presiding over the events of the story. The effect is immediately and consistently provocative of the awareness that we have been born into a new environment, one that poses danger. The viewer is confronted with associations of danger in both submersion in water and being surrounded by darkness. Yet, upon arrival at the beautifully presented city of Rapture with its bright lights and impressive architecture, the contrast serves to suggest a haven from the dangers of the dark deep waters. We come to realize that while Rapture is safety it is also Ryan’s deliberate choice of safety from the dangers of society, namely compelled altruism (unselfish regard for the welfare of others), religion, and government. The waters then become both protector and threat depending on the player’s perspective on Ryan’s philosophy. Rapture is a testament to Ryan’s guiding philosophic rejection that God and Kings need to direct the basic necessities of a self-made life. Rapture’s atmosphere consistently hovers over the player, presenting the inescapable question: which is the dark danger, the world’s philosophy above or Ryan’s Rapture itself? The question presented by Rapture itself ultimately demands an answer from us and affects the outcome of the story.
Even if we forget that Rapture is underwater (difficult to do with the many leaks the city in crisis has) we are confronted with nautical imagery, underwater trips in our diving suit, and reminders from both Atlas/Frank and Ryan. Moving beyond the danger being submerged in water shares with darkness, consider that water has historically been representative of life. Our bodies are mostly composed of water, and we need to regularly consume water to live. We are born through the expulsion of water (via the womb’s emptying of the fluid in which a baby resides before its birth) and in Bioshock we are placed within the womb waiting to be born into our own philosophies that we take from the story. Ryan buries Rapture in water to birth his utopian society from the suffocating existence of the supposedly normal and natural above world. Bioshock similarly immerses us into the ocean for the duration of our experience. This fetal-existence is alarming for the aware player. Upon realizing we are faced with choices about our own morality, the existence of monster-like splicers, little sisters (remember Atlas calls the little sisters monsters, too), and other denizens of Rapture instills within us the fear of becoming like them. The world seems at once idyllic and dangerous, and the association with Ryan’s philosophy continues to prompt the audience to ask if Ryan’s rejection of the seemingly natural order of things is the cause of the breakdown in his society. Almost the entire experience of Bioshock takes place in the womb of Ryan’s dream, as it were. The life of the fetus-Jack protagonist is similarly mothered by guiding announcements, warning of dangers of infectious agents (parasites), and other parental concerns. We are Ryan’s emerging children merely by stepping foot in his world, and with the eventual return to the air above at the end of the story we, along with the characters, are reborn into the world as we know it having chosen for ourselves our own guiding philosophies and moralities.
It is interesting that the choices we face throughout the story rely heavily on this multi-layered parent/child relationship. Creative director Ken Levine remarked in an interview that the idea of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters came to him from a show that depicted animal-parent relationships, in which the predators threatening young animal life were driven away by their mothers. The parental bond the Big Daddies have with their Little Sisters is both grotesque and charming, and this concept of duality in the dangerous but life-giving water and parental connections it shares is experienced throughout the story, to its credit. It would be very easy to craft a story that asserted one way of living life is better than the other, but Bioshock leaves that question unanswered. It is the audience that must determine if Ryan’s society has been infected by the parasites and the world above or if Ryan’s philosophy is the root of an existence more terrible than the world above. But the parental bond evokes a natural and perhaps more deeper response in our social and biological drives. For many younger audience members who have not yet had the experience of having a child, stepping into the shoes of a protector (or destroyer; more choices!) is a revelation, foreshadowing the emerging choices we may (or do) face as humans. The Little Sisters’ dialogue, childish behavior and appearance, and interaction with the player deepens this pseudo-parental connection, and we are left wondering if this attachment is similarly crafted by Levine as it was crafted in Rapture or if it merely taps into our biological response to protecting children. Yet despite the possible artificiality of the connection it is pleasurable and eagerly anticipated, and possibly one of the major reasons Bioshock receives such critical and popular acclaim.
The darkness of the baptismal and birthing waters of Rapture reveals one of the central philosophies of Bioshock, the choices that we all must make to find our own rapturous existence. A similar thematic concern is increasingly being used in other game-stories, such as The Last of Us where the themes of protector/dependent and a dangerous environment symbolize our real life relationships and provides us with insight as to our choices that arrange and direct our lives. Stories like these are powerful, not only because they tap into deeply emotional situations that provoke a response from us but also because the choices are left to us. In early literature, morality plays (popular around the 15th century) would place the audience within one morality, one choice only. Literature has evolved since then, giving the choice of morality within the fiction that our society does not. So from stories like Bioshock we take away the idea that within these stories at least we are free to become Ryan or not. In this freedom, ambiguous morality, and complexity of ideas lies the brilliance and appreciation of these stories.
What do you think about the relationships and atmosphere of Bioshock? Were there any elements that I did not address that you feel I should have? Did the story elicit a parental response in you or not?
Before descending into the murky but wonderful waters of Rapture, I want to offer some thoughts on how we view video games’ stories. Just as it does little good (and perhaps much harm) to dive into the water without knowing the depth, so I should explain one of my central guiding philosophies about how to interact with literature. Have no fear. This won’t be long.
Wilson Knight, a fundamental literary scholar, writes about this difference between criticism and interpretation, something he cites as personal definitions. To paraphrase Knight, criticism judges the work while interpretation seeks to understand the work (The Wheel of Fire, 1-2). These definitions are just two ways in which readers might interact with stories, and for my purposes I agree with Knight. And while Knight favors interpretation (because who can really judge the genius that is Shakespeare, yet people do it), I suspect that there is no need to place value on any single method to interacting with video game stories.
I think my readers will agree (if you do or don’t please let me know) that the world currently is full of criticism. Judgments. Seeking value. Seeking fault and assigning blame. I do not wish to add to that body of work, but rather place the story at the center of our focus and seek to immerse ourselves into it for greater awareness. Like a bathysphere.
We are all bathyspheres of appreciation… or could be.
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