Aesthetically Obese and Still Scrounging

I don’t play many video games – in fact at this point I only have two games for my Playstation 3: BioShock and BioShock Infinite (the latter now making the former redundant because it contains a digital copy of the original). I use the console as a media player more than anything, so I’d hardly consider myself anything resembling a serious gamer, but when it comes to these two games – I am a fiend. I’ve played the original more times than I can count and I’m currently playing Infinite the second time through. These games are so aesthetically rich and contain so much detail that I should have some kind of diabetes equivalent for spoiling my ears and eyes rotten.

The writer and gamer Tom Bissell argues in his book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, that perhaps video games contain too much story and or too much detail. More specifically Bissell writes that “the impulse to explain is the Achilles’ heel of all genre work, and the most sophisticated artists within every genre know better than to expose their worlds to the sharp knife of intellection.” He compares two games within the zombie apocalypse genre: Resident Evil 4 and Left 4 Dead. Bissell expresses his preference for a game like Left 4 Dead in which “almost nothing is explained,” and “the little characterization there is comes in tantalizing dribs,” where as in Resident Evil the developers have gone to “great narrative pains to explain what is happening and why.” While ultimately these two narrative styles seem to be more a matter of personal preference than anything else, I find that the wild bunnyBioShock games manage to offer both experiences. What’s even cooler is that the player can choose the experience that best fits his level of interest.

For a player that simply enjoys an FPS complete with super powers that takes place in, if nothing else, an interesting environment – the game offers that experience. The player can play either the original or Infinite without being bogged down in story too much. Both games offer a menu that explains the current objective and provide a directional arrow to keep the player on the right track so if he wanted to just follow the arrows, mowing down anything in his way and ignoring the rest, he can. For me though, all of these perhaps superfluous details (depending upon one’s perspective) are addictive. I’ve become so involved in finding every secret, every piece of gear, every audio diary, every voxophone, every cipher and code, that the games are legitimately stressful for me to play. This isn’t because of the difficulty. Even on either game’s most difficult setting, the most delightfully frustrating part of the game is finding these little tidbits which might give me a previously unknown insight into the story or into the incredibly complex worlds of both Rapture and Columbia. Don’t get me wrong , it’s not just the narrative components or aesthetic elements that make these games so remarkable – it’s because in my eyes they are nearly flawless in all aspects (gameplay, sound, graphics, etc.)

To be perfectly cliche, the games are like icebergs. The player can hang around the surface and explore everything the light touches or he can dive underneath and explore the vastly bigger and intricate details that both environments offer within their respective game. It just depends on what you’re looking for.


  5 comments for “Aesthetically Obese and Still Scrounging

  1. Isaac Whalen
    April 18, 2013 at 1:47 am

    I agree that what make the Bioshock series interesting is that the storyline is told via the gameplay. It is up to the player how much they want to invest in discovering the story and the world. One of the interesting techinques, which you mentioned is a audio diaries/voxphones. Since the player must find them (usually out of order) the job of piecing the environments narrative together is up to gamer.

    Also, one critique of Infinite, the use of Vigors was WAY played down when compared to Plasmids in Bioshock.

  2. Haley
    April 18, 2013 at 4:20 am

    You make an excellent point here, and I think what the BioShock titles manage to do is understand the specific strengths and constraints of a game as a storytelling medium. BioShock is a series that encompasses deeply complex stories and equally complex games, and you are correct in observing that the creators took advantage of a fact that a game, in contrast to, say, a novel, does not require you to “read ever word” in order to be satisfying as an experience. While it’s true that even a medium that seems as static as a book can be experienced differently depending on who is reading it, within a video game with as much to explore as BioShock, it’s entirely possible to proceed through the “text” in a way that literally no one else will experience but you. Tailoring the game to suit the preferences of various players was ingenious on the part of the developers, to be sure.

    I began to contrast your description of BioShock’s experiential flexibility with some of the JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) that my little brother enjoys. Many of these titles feature long, unskippable dialog exchanges, often made up of text, that don’t vary at all across different playthroughs (save perhaps in the order one encounters them). Although on the surface it would seem like BioShock is the “better” of the two experiences for affording the player more ways to interact with the game world, I think in the end it does come down to preference and style; as with any medium, there’s an audience for just about everything. Bissell has strong opinions about the qualities he values in a game, I have mine, and my brother his own. The conclusion here might be that while games are certainly a unique, the way we think about them and judge their worth is always informed by our personal values, just as with any other medium.

  3. Dylan Tibert
    April 18, 2013 at 10:12 am

    I stumbled upon a near painful illustration of this optional content exploration the other day as I was visiting a friend in Spotsy. As I arrived, her father happened to be playing the original Bioshock as he sauntered along on his treadmill. Seeing an opportunity for conversation about the same rich game I just so happened to be playing and engaging with for class, I chimed in with a glowing list all the complexities and simplicities, including the allegorical siphoning of Ayn Rand, that I really enjoyed and respected about the game. He just sort of stared at me, and then retorted by making fun of me for “looking for meaning in a stupid, mindless game.” Now he was just rescuing the last little sister, so he was damn near close to the end of the game. He had made it almost entirely through Bioshock without accumulating one iota of respect for the narrative elements. It was to the point where I had to explain who Andrew Ryan was! I was so absolutely baffled and perturbed, but I held my tongue and let my friend handle the argument against the “mindlessness” of video games. Point of this little anecdote being, it’s never been more apparent to me that in the case of video games like Bioshock people will only get as much as they care enough to look for. The story’s either spoon fed to them in the fashion that Bissel so (coughrightlycough) crticizes, or they don’t give a shit.

  4. Ethan Stackpole
    April 18, 2013 at 11:27 am

    I think your focus on the adaptive nature of the Bioshock games is spot on. In many ways the player is responsible for adding much of the complexity to the games by their desires to explore. However, I do want to highlight the fact that the usage of the Resident Evil/Left 4 Dead is not a good example on Bissell’s part of the usage of obscurity in videogames and how useful it is. I would argue that instead of using a comparison between what I consider to be a very poorly written videogame (Resident Evil) and a good (albeit moderately generic) videogame, it would be better to compare stronger examples of either. However, in the face of comparing two strong videogames (of the different complexities we are discussing) I think that it would be proven that it is entirely gamer preference, as we are discussing.

  5. Allison
    April 18, 2013 at 11:33 am

    V, I like the Bissel quote you used in regards to the value he finds in subtleties within genres. And it’s true, the player gains a unique brainpower interaction with a game that like you said, the storyline is not “spoon fed” to them. And that does throw us back to the first game we played which is like that in its purest sense… LIMBO– a game in which every sense the player is hanging in LIMBO, particularly in the sense that the gamer has no full understanding of the extent of the meaning of the game. You mentioned that in Left 4 Dead almost nothing is explained either. And I agree that is what makes Bioshock unique. YES! I love the comparison of Rapture and Columbia to an iceburg. It is true, each person will experience the game differently and chose to value what he wants. This does add to a richer, more personal experience that is unique to video games like Bioshock.

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