Friday, January 11, 2013

BioShock Infinite and Creative Anachronism

Randall Stephens

A screen capture from BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013)
I'm not proud to admit it . . . Sometimes I play video games.  And, no, I don't live in my mother's basement with black-light posters on the walls.  I don't subsist on Cheez Puffs, Slim Jims, and Mountain Dew. I have a job. I have a life.

Confession over.  

For non-gamers (lots of people), I'd like to say a little about a fun game that draws creatively off the past.

BioShock, which rolled out in 2007, was set in a disturbingly macabre, underwater, Ayn Randian dystopia. (Shooting libertarian fish in a barrel?) The submerged city, populated by psychopathic surgeons, genetically altered loonies, and a raft of creepy grotesqueries, is the gamer's playground, where she/he looks for clues and tries to set things right. Calamitous fun all around.

It was not like other games. So thought Greg Howson of The Guardian, who reported back in 07:

Yes, you are dispatching enemies in traditional FPS style, but at the same time marvelling at the atmospheric ruins of the failed subterranean utopia. A surprisingly engaging story is fleshed out by diaries left scattered around, while a hacking sub-game that lets you pilfer from safes and tame robotic security slows the pace down nicely. Your morals are tested early on too, although the consequences are not fully realised. The violence can jar and the action can get repetitive, but BioShock is the first truly next-generation videogame.
A screen capture from BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013)

I'll admit it. I was hooked after I finally bought the game for my Mac. For this religious historian, I was surprised to see strange religious themes here and there. An apocalyptic subplot didn't add too much to the game, but certainly didn't subtract from it. 

The time frame for BioShock was also mesmerizing. The dilapidated underwater Art Nouveau city called Rapture is a trashed mall in 1960, the year of the game's actual setting.

All that to say that I was delighted to read in the new issue of Wired about Irrational Games latest venture: A new installment called BioShock Infinite, due out in February 2013. My guess is that there will be as much buzz surrounding this as there was swirling around the 2012 release of Assassin's Creed 3, with its remarkably detailed romp through Revolutionary era New England.

What can gamers (and historians) expect?  For one thing, more wall-to-wall creative anachronism reminiscent of films like Brazil, City of Lost Children, Time Bandits, and Delicatessen or the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip DickBioShock Infinite is set in a cloud city, called Columbia, from our future's past.  Surprise, it's another dystopia. But this time of the Gilded Age/Prog Era, steam punk variety. Rival factions vie for influence and control. Gamers witness socialists and anarchists churning it up with a conservative faction of know-nothing style racists who pine for a simpler, more pure America. Haywire exceptionalism and violent political causes should add plenty of fireworks.

Here's what Ken Levine, president and creative director of Irrational Games had to say about it in the Washington Post:

In this world, we came up with the idea of looking at what was happening at the time of the game [the 1890s], with the jingoism movement and the nationalist movement versus internationalist movement. This was before the tea party, before Occupy Wall Street. Actually, when people saw that demo, they thought we were aping the tea party; they thought it was a hit piece on the Tea Party. But these movements tend to happen. There have been nationalist and nativist movements many times through history.

The anachronistic playfulness sounds positively fun. For instance, the rightest faction called the Founders creates a robot tour guide, the Motorized Patriot.  But instead of enlightening tourist on the glories of the Founding Era, this lumbering automaton becomes a menacing enforcer, a Disney Hall of Presidents George Washington gone  Westworld. The dark humor of the creators is back in force.

As in the first BioShock, players will piece together evidence, bit by bit, to figure out how this crazy world came to be.

There are certainly better ways to spend one's time. Read a book. Go jogging. Knit. Churn butter. Watch a good movie. But sophisticated games like BioShock are becoming more and more like good films.  And so, I will be one of the likely few historians ready to play this when it comes out in February. 

Now, let's see if we can get a historian of the Gilded Age and Prog Era to tell us what he/she thinks!


Christopher said...

Good stuff, Randall. My brothers-in-law are big fans of BioShock. I'll have to pay more attention next time they're playing.

Also, in case you missed it, Michael Hattem posted some thoughts on Assassin's Creed 3 over at the Junto blog last week:

Randall said...

Thanks for that link. Will have to take a look at it. Interesting to see historians weigh in on video games. They've been reviewing, talking about movies, tv shows, and novels for ages.

hcr said...

This is cool! I haven't played a video game ever, because way back in the Dark Ages, I wasted an entire day (like, 12 straight hours) playing Brick Breaker. I realized that I couldn't handle the addictive aspect of games and have shunned all of them since.

But this does raise an important issue for all historians, I think. It strikes me that getting out of our usual cocoons is really healthy, giving us new ways to look at the world. I got obsessed at one point with romance novels. Couldn't stop reading them. I finally had a eureka moment when I realized that they used the structure I needed for a book on which I was struggling. Once I figured that out, I never read another, but they were instrumental in helping me to structure a very difficult book.

So I say, don't apologize for whatever you're absorbing-- it's all feeding something in your head!

Randall said...

I think you're right about that, Heather. We do draw inspiration from a variety of sources. I've been reading quite a few novels in the last year. The writing is so admirable!