There are two video-game industries. The first is the blockbuster industry, in which games cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to create and expect to reap millions of sales at $60 a pop in return. These blockbuster games, often called “AAA” or “triple-A” games in the industry, are typically violent, take about 8 to 12 hours to play though, and feature cinematic storytelling in the style of Michael Bay or John Woo. The other video-game industry takes everything else.
For many people, the blockbuster game industry is the entirety of the game industry. This is the industry of Call Of Duty, selling ten million copies, or Halo, or Gears of War, or Assassin's Creed, or basically any game with an advertising budget built to coat the airwaves with commercials. Their dominance over the zeitgeist can be a problem, to the point where game critic Andrew Vanden Bossche recently wrote a “Case for Never Talking About AAA Games.” The blockbuster game can often be a slick, soulless experience, where high production values and a twisty story mask an experience more “exhausting,” as Vanden Bossche notes astutely, than meaningful.
Yet there are a few blockbusters that try to be better than their image. This spring's two biggest games, BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider, both attempt to say something about free will, violence, and human nature, in addition to being two of the most technically proficient games ever produced. Both come with pedigree as well: BioShock Infinite is the successor to the original BioShock, perhaps the most acclaimed game of the past decade, while Tomb Raider is a reboot of the classic game series and Angelina Jolie-starring hit movies. Both games' successes, and failures, spring from their blockbuster status.
BioShock Infinite drapes itself in symbols of seriousness from the beginning. It needs to, if it wants to be a worthy successor to the original BioShock. That game—which created one of the most fascinating and creepy environments in game history—was set during the 1960s in an underwater city named Rapture, built by an industrialist set on creating a Randian utopia—which predictably collapsed into violence and insanity. BioShock Infinite has a comparably fascinating premise; it's set in 1912 on a floating, independent city of airships called Columbia, built aesthetically around the White City of the 1893 World's Fair, and built conceptually on post-Civil War racism.
Columbia is by far the best part of BioShock Infinite. Its visual depiction of institutionalized racism manages to seem both ridiculously over-the-top as well as entirely appropriate for the early 20th century, which is no small feat. There are propaganda posters of “mammies” and “sambos” and public speakers blaring announcements that glorify “the white man.” What makes it especially interesting is that Columbia has also enshrined an American political religion. When you arrive in the city, the first action you have to take is to allow your character to be baptized (which caused some controversy). This is immediately followed by the sight of immense statues of Founders Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson holding a Sword, a Key, and a Scroll, symbols of their place within the religion. In the game's best section, you journey through a museum named the Hall Of Heroes, which depicts the Boxer Rebellion and “Battle” of Wounded Knee as the white man defending his people against the ravenous hordes of Chinese or Lakota. The overtly artificial propaganda ends up having an odd, repulsive kind of beauty to it.
But BioShock Infinite isn't just a setting, which is a pity, as its visual and especially sound design are among the best to appear in a video game. The game is forced to serve two other masters, neither of which aid in its intelligent attempts to examine racist history. First, as a blockbuster game, it's an action-packed “first-person shooter,” a genre of game in which you play through your character's eyes (hence “first person”) and never see your character's face. The gun the character holds—and the time spent firing it at enemies—becomes your prime method of interaction with the world.
There's nothing inherently wrong with violent games on the ethics front, but as academic and critic Michael Abbott noted in a conversation about BioShock's violence, it can limit the story’s impact: “The game's story isn't really about shooting at all, but the player's lived story is, and that collision is hard to overcome.” The dissonance created by that “collision” is one of the core problems of would-be intelligent blockbuster games.
Here is the core paradox of BioShock Infinite: As a blockbuster, it has the money to create a technically astounding world. In order to get that sweet, sweet money, it has to be about shooting or stabbing people.
The second major problem with BioShock Infinite cannot be laid at the feet of market forces. Its story, as seen and heard through dialogue and action, turns into a Doctor Who-style adventure of time travel and alternate dimensions. This sci-fi stuff starts being used in place of interesting political discussions. The most egregious example of this sci-fi side step involves the Vox Populi, a rebellious organization of underclass and oppressed races. Part of the way into the game, your character gets recruited to help this seemingly left-wing revolutionary oriented organization and is immediately skeptical of the Vox, without any particular evidence. “Only difference between [the two leaders] is how they spell their name,” he mutters at one point.
He's later proved right when you step into an alternate dimension where the Vox are more powerful, rebelling, and slaughtering rich white folk indiscriminately. BioShock Infinite seems to want to make the complex point that power will corrupt even the most idealistic and justified revolutionaries. But by using “By the hammer of Thor, It was TIME TRAVEL!” as a storytelling crush, it skips the interesting part of that story. In the end, they’re only making the superficial, frustrating point that the oppressors and oppressed are morally equivalent.
The conflict between the apparent depth of the setting combined with the relative superficiality of the story and player actions has led to a great debate about Infinite's quality and its politics. A quick glance at its Metacritic page indicates almost stellar initial reviews. The phrase “Citizen Kane” is thrown around.
A second wave of critics found the game’s dissonance off-putting. Dan Golding, writing for ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) savages the game, “BioShock Infinite seeks not to make any meaningful statement about history or racism or America, but instead seeks to use an aesthetics of ‘racism’ and ‘history’ as a barrier to point to and claim importance."11 Golding isn't necessarily wrong here, but I do think that the game's aesthetic representations and reminders of racism and white power are useful and resonant, even if the text of the plot doesn't follow through on them well enough. BioShock Infinite is one of the oddest great games I've ever played, possessed of a dazzling set of all the components required to make a classic but for the inconvenient, occasionally frustrating fact that they're all at war with one another.
There are challenges facing blockbuster games beyond the artistic difficulty of writing an intelligent story in an action-packed thrill ride. The business model behind them, of investing millions of dollars in gambles to sell millions of copies, leads to occasional absurdities. Not long after BioShock Infinite's release, its publisher sent out a delighted press release claiming that it had sold 3.7 million copies. At $60 or so apiece, those seem like sales worth celebrating.
Yet the experience of the recent Tomb Raider demonstrates otherwise. By any rational metric, it appears to have been a success. It sold 3.4 million copies in its first month, virtually the same amount as BioShock Infinite, yet was declared a failure by its publisher, Square Enix. Perhaps the publisher was deluding itself, perhaps it had invested too much money in Tomb Raider, or perhaps it was supposed to cover for previous sales failures. Regardless, 3.4 million in a month being considered a failure baffled many in the industry, especially coming relatively soon after other high-profile, millions-selling “failures.” For Tomb Raider, there was never any reason to expect it to sell Call Of Duty numbers—in fact, given the game industry's supposed bias against female main characters, its success should have been celebrated.
The fact that Lara Croft is a woman is at the heart of what makes the new Tomb Raider so interesting. The game is one of the entertainment industry's favorite types of properties: the “gritty reboot.” It's the story of recent graduate Lara Croft on her first major adventure as an archaeologist. Something goes wrong, and she's forced to learn how to survive on an isolated island while being chased by a murderous cult.
“Survival” is the overall theme of Tomb Raider, and when the game can maintain focus on that, it's fantastic. In the first few hours, you control Lara as she, and you, learn how to navigate a dangerous world by the usual running, jumping, solving puzzles, and fleeing enemies. Lara feels human here, gasping desperately for breath, making courageous decisions, and dealing with an increasingly damaged body. It culminates in a search for food, where you guide her through a forest, trying to hunt deer with a bow. Hit it with a non-lethal arrow, and the deer will run through the woods almost randomly, crying piteously. Finish it off, and a cutscene will play with Lara wincing and apologizing as she cuts into it to fend off starvation.
For those first few glorious hours, Tomb Raider appears to have solved the dissonance issue which faces blockbuster games like it and BioShock Infinite: how can a game built on constant action and violence say anything intelligent? Tomb Raider succeeds by becoming about the violence itself. It becomes brutal instead of merely violent. The brutality can trigger some astonishing emotional responses.22 The high point of this comes when Lara and her friends are captured by the cultists, who are clearly going to start killing them. One of them grabs Lara and will choke her to death unless the player presses certain buttons at the right time, in which case she squirms away, grabs his pistol, and shoots him. The scene is powerful because Lara is a woman, tiny, apparently helpless in a dangerous man's grasp. For game writer Rhea Monique, the scene was immensely liberating: “It didn’t hold any punches, but it didn’t need to. It was raw. It was accurate. And it affected me in a way years of therapy never did. It healed me in a way that no one’s physical comfort, words, and condolences could ever do.”
It doesn't last, unfortunately. Perhaps it can't last. Lara grabs her bow, picks up a few guns as she comes across them, and Tomb Raider quickly becomes a more action-oriented game. After her initial escape, killing the first attacker and handful of others, she has a quick chat with her mentor: “I had to kill some of them.” “That can't have been easy.” “It was scary just how easy it was.” Not long after that, she has an automatic rifle, and she's clearing out rooms with a dozen enemies, just like any other blockbuster game hero. Tomb Raider never turns into a bad game. But it loses its affecting brutality in favor of conventional violence.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Tomb Raider and BioShock Infinite, it is this: the rigid form of the action blockbuster game is inimical to themes of emotional or intellectual power. The blockbuster can make the attempt, and it can succeed in bits and pieces, but maintaining a tight, tense action-packed thrill ride seems to become the dominant force of the game no matter what. The increasing importance of non-blockbuster games, like the massively successful The Walking Dead, an examination of ethics in a post-apocalyptic world, or award-winner Journey with its meditation on faith, point to a different kind of video-game industry. Given the volatility of a business model for which 3.5 million copies sold can be both failing and successful, trying to attach depth to a blockbuster seems risky. BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider should both be lauded for being willing to take that risk, even if it only demonstrates the impossibility of the thematically smart, successful blockbuster video game. Microsoft, Sony, and several other game publishers will likely be throwing money at game developers to create prestigious blockbusters for the impending releases of their next generation of Xbox and PlayStation consoles coming later this year. But without a dramatic and unlikely rethinking of the core form of the blockbuster, huge-budget game, they're almost certainly going to remain action-packed combat games with the occasional stab at meaning.
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