This article echoes a lot of what I’m feeling about BioShock Infinite, after only a few hours of playing, and also my wife’s experience.
Possible minor SPOILERS, but, uh, who’s reading this anyhow?
Last night, I was playing BioShock Infinite and had really only just begun the game, at which point there’s a set piece that does about 3 things in quick succession. Prior to that you’re walking around in a world of beauty and quaintness (though, reading about it for months ahead of time you know it’s a whitewashed and ugly world — and yes, I get that everything that happens after this quick set piece is MEANT to be shocking, but…)
1) You’re met with a choice to actively take part in a racist culture OR immediately alienate yourself from the people around you. (I chose option b, so have no idea what happens if you play along…though I suspect it doesn’t affect the plot itself much, as the crowd turns against you for something not specific to the choice itself.)
2) You become armed and almost immediately brutally kill several policemen with a handheld spinning hook/blade device
3) You’re on a rampage of killing and mayhem.
Big deal. It’s an FPS at it’s core. I get that. It’s the SHOCK that my wife felt, watching me, and that I felt. We were literally oohing and aaahing a minute before at the beautiful city in the clouds (both ‘in game’ and as a piece of creative work technically), and then boom — uncomfortable racist moment followed by blood.
It was the most legitimately shocking moment I’ve had in a while, particularly in a major title. My wife actually had to leave the room.
When my wife came back we talked about it a little. One of her questions was “Did you not do [action that sides me with the racists] because I was here?” To which i honestly answered “No.” I made the choice it matters to me when playing a game that I (chuckle now) role play the character as I see them AND as I want to be. It matters HOW I play it. So I made a choice to do the ‘good’ thing (in game), and in that sense was playing the game. Then I had that choice abruptly removed. I had to kill. Well, kill or have it be the shortest game in the world. (Very WOPR: “The only winning move is not to play.”) I should do that and post it as the shortest playthrough video — the one where you’re a pacifist.
The suddenness of the violence is probably very deliberate. However, the fact that from that point on it’s a blood fest (or bullet fest) for at least the hour or two of play any deliberate “You’re part of this violence” effect is quickly defanged: The game (the rules, the experience, the etc.) make it NECESSARY to take part in the violence. There’s no real ambiguity about it… this isn’t Dishonored* so there’s no choice, except whether to use the pistol, machine gun or spinny blade thing that’s probably got a name… That said, shortly after this there’s a screen prompt about not ALWAYS shooting first, and few non-hostile NPCs reveal themselves. The NPC interaction in the game (so far) is so limited however that it doesn’t FEEL like it makes a difference. The NPCs I haven’t killed are essentially furniture.
While playing and after, have a nagging feeling… that calling something like this a game is troubling… so in that sense it’s making me think a LOT about games in general (video). When did most games become about killing?
There’s a lot of story going on here, and I’m sure it’ll be neatly (or not so neatly) wrapped up in the overall narrative — there’s clues to this within other set pieces, one involving a coin toss, and the vignettes that seem to be pointing to a dream state, the recurring male and female chorus etc… but it’s asking a lot of the player to just go along at this point. Like a Tarantino film, I’m wondering “Does the profanity, violence and transgressive language add up to something in the end?”. With Tarantino, I’ve had that answer be “Yes” enough times to go along with it. With the BioShock designers, I’ve still got reservations. Simply because I haven’t seen them pull it off yet. BioShock had a much more simplistic set of choices, and the baddies were deranged and maniacal or no longer human (or were they?). In Infinite, they’re the upholders of a really ugly set of beliefs and practices, but one so much closer to reality in some crazy way that it feel uncomfortable. I would totally defend my family or myself to the death against zombies, alien predators or lunatic consumers of gene-altering patent medicines, but someone with a contemptible world view and who’s job it is to keep the city that shares that view safe? I’d probably try some rational conversation first.
All that said, wherever it’s going, it’s ambitious and I can get with that.
So I will just go along for the ride. For now.
* The game I had played prior to BioShock Infinite was Dishonored, and I deliberately chose to avoid killing. (I think I killed maybe 5 people in the game — one of whom was the torturer so I don’t feel to heated up about it. Most of the others were accidentally dropping someone I’d knocked out from too high up or something and couldn’t be bothered to restart the level…) So that’s played heavily, i’m sure, into my feelings… I just spent a significant amount of my game play time prior to this trying really hard to not kill, and now playing a game where the choice is removed in most cases feels, well, weird…
Truthfully, Davies post is explicitly him throwing some ideas out there trying to jumpstart an article for Wired. But I wanna focus on something that jumped out at me reading it, around his notion of the lack of futureness. Because I think that’s something that Gibson touches on in Zero History, which to me is a book about, as much as a work of fiction can be about anything, authenticity. So maybe not so much a lack of futureness but a lack of interest in futureness.
I mean, just look at the title. If something has no history or more accurately is at the start of its history, (the zeroth index to get all programmery for a sec), it has also no marks of ownership, no credentials, no provenance. To borrow directly from the moment in the book where Milgram is observing a couple of tourists in new clothes, no patination.
So to me the renewed focus on the worn, the old, the analog (i.e.; the cafes with blackboards Davies mentions) is about patination, and leaving our own traces. It’s not that there’s no futureness, it’s that we’re having a reaction to it. Our way of knowing about our world was by our immediate senses. A pair of jeans that were faded and worn indicated that, well, they’d been well worn, and the level of wear and tear and a still pant-like garment indicated that those were some strong jeans. They could hold up. They were good pants. Now y’never know. They were probably bought pre-worn, faded and washed, (again, this to me is 1/2 the point of the novel) bestowing on the wearer a semblance of a) having really good jeans and more importantly b) living a life that was out there getting your jeans all beat to shit.
Same goes for our ‘things’. If you’re upgrading an iPhone every two years, you’re really just cashing in (aside from the utility) on the iPhone cachet of being a good device. There’s nothing there that says you’re a person who really uses the thing in any meaningful way. In fact it’s arguable that most people don’t need half the functionality of the iPhone. Until they get one, at which point they change themselves to be iPhone users… which is the complete flip flop of the other relationship.
And there is no history to an iPhone. Without sitting down and showing someone the apps you’ve installed, the texts you’ve sent, etc, it’s just the same as everyone elses. Usually fairly well preserved and identical aside from the case to every other one. Which is why I told a friend who had a minor crack in the screen of her’s to just leave it as is. It still works, and it shows that she owns the phone, it is a little bit of patination.
So we’re left with things that increasingly show no signs of our passing, from zero to the nth index of our days. A valid response to this is to let them patinate, enjoy the patination. Seek things which age and chip and show signs of our use. That we were fucking here. That someone’s hand was probably scraped and burnt and there were caustic chemicals and high temperatures used to make it. Blackboards with ghosts of yesterdays menus, hand crafted leather goggles with brass fittings, home cast percentile dices cufflinks. Whatever.
It dovetails with the Maker movement nicely too: technology in our time. Not cosmic time. Not tiny tiny computer flip-flop time. OUR time. Our time, which we pass through or make or whatnot. Our time to spend how we choose and which only exists as what we remember. We live in the past as we plan for the future. It’s by looking back on our passage that we can correct, improve, amend, grow a sense of who we are. We don’t exist in the future. Now, we can blindly go in search of strange signifiers of experience (preworn jeans?) or get a nice crisp pair of our own and see what they end up looking like in a year..