Down the block and around the corner from here there’s a collection of buildings with the words “Center for the Medical Arts” emblazoned on a beige, waist-high sign in the parking lot. The Center for the Medical Arts contains the usual collection of medical-type establishments which no doubt provide the finest in medical-type care to those in medical-type need. From the size of the place, I’d wager that hundreds of professionals show up every morning and save gallons of lives; indeed, I have no problem with the Center itself, as they’re probably doing a great job in there. My simmering beef is with the sign. Medical arts? No thanks, Pablo; the last thing I want to discover when I go to the proctologist is that he’s just entered his Blue Period.
I suspect it’s worded that way because some marketing jackass felt that the word “art” is more accessible to a general public that is excited by art, frightened by science, and unwilling to draw a distinction between the two; after all, a lot of people think they understand art, but very few people give half a hammered eukaryote about science, and some hold it in active contempt. Here’s a very broad crash course for those who’ve never learned that words — and, as such, ideas — are not so many meaningless puffs of air to be blown about at their whim and subjective assertion; art makes life enjoyable, science makes life possible. (Though not everything that makes life enjoyable can be called art. Close to it, maybe, but not quite.)
And Danced the Skies
The debate about whether video games can be considered art is as ridiculous the debate between the merits of Coke vs. Pepsi, great taste vs. less filling, and David Lee vs. Sammy; the only people who claim that games cannot possibly be art are those who have not identified their standards regarding the definition of art, which I shall do forthwith:
Art = Applied Science (“hey, a burnt pointy stick!”) + Speculative Thought (“hmm, I think…bison.”) x Universally Applicable Abstraction (“the bison is such an integral aspect of the Paleolithic Experience that I, Thak Remington, shall strive to recreate one or several on that wall”). That’s where the debate should end, but it doesn’t; people get hung up on the “is it or isn’t it” thing when they don’t know what it is that they’re trying to define.
As an example, I’ve spent more than three hundred hours in Terraria over the course of the last year or so. It’s a spectacular game, full of everything that makes me salivate like one of Ivan’s bitches, but it’s not art by any selective definition of the word because it lacks that one crucial attribute, which is the universally applicable abstraction. Similar to a theme, the universally applicable abstraction is the thing that would make Gurk Warhol stroll into Thak Remington’s digs three generations later and exclaim, “by Jove, the bison is a fine and integral aspect of the Paleolithic Experience!” Terraria is an immense collection of very satisfying mechanics, but it does not have the elusive UAA, and that’s just fine with me; the classification of a game as “art” or “not-art” has no bearing on my enjoyment of it. Sometimes it’s fun just to dig up dirt and chop monsters into tiny bits. Or get your ass kicked over and over and yet over again by a large, laser-spitting column of ambulatory spooge.
When a video game uses artistic elements such as an appealing visual style, well-drawn textures, emotional music, and a cinematic presentation without stating a universally applicable abstraction, it is not art. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is, or how satisfying its gameplay is, or how fun it is; a well-wrought skill — like painting or writing — devoid of a deeper connection to some specific aspect of what it means to be alive, can produce a good book, or a beautiful painting, or even a video game that is a blast to play, but which cannot be art. Why? Because beauty alone is not sufficient to redeem the intellectually or emotionally mundane.
The fact that BioShock Infinite is a beautiful game is not the cause of its artistic merit. Neither is the fact that BioShock Infinite is fun to play, or that it improves on the original in every facet of its design, from its magic system (Vigors) to its combat, to its companion character. BioShock Infinite is not art because it allows you to make moral choices throughout the course of the story, or because it drops you into the action and then gets the holy blessed wonderful hell out of your way, without using any of the increasingly conventional button-mashing or intrusive cutscenes that remove you from the gameplay and bug the ever-lovin’ pee out of you. And me.
In the case of BioShock Infinite, as in the case with film, it is the story that elevates it into the realm of art; BioShock Infinite employs a masterful technical skill in telling a deep and personal tale that transcends the standard save-the-world, stride-into-the-sunset melodrama found in most games; indeed, it makes saving the world an incidental, secondary concern to the survival of the two characters about whom you come to care deeply over the course of the game — Elizabeth, the companion, and Booker, the man sent to rescue her from the floating city of Columbia. It tells a story of redemption, forgiveness, courage, and determination, without once holding any of these virtues in contempt by mocking them with exaggeration, or sneering at them through the use of undercutting humor. As a result, it’s a game that takes itself, and you, very seriously, and it does so without out an ounce of pretension (which, as everyone knows, is worth a pound of curare).
The Long, Delirious, Burning Blue
It’s easy to praise a game to the bicuspids and raise expectations beyond an attainable threshold, so for the sake of parity I’ll outline some of the things that BioShock Infinite does quite horribly:
It does not stop the gameplay to show you every new enemy that you encounter, which would allow you to rest your hands, and maybe run off to the kitchen for a bag of Cool Ranch Flavored Doritos and a bottle of Code Red.
It lets you see where you’re going at all times. Every once in a while it would be nice to go completely fucking blind and then die, you know?
It doesn’t let you waggle the controller to reload your weapon. What is this, 1999?
It does not use quicktime events, which add to the verisimilitude of a game by making you as tired as the player character looks.
You can’t turn off the Vita Chambe…oh, wait. Never mind.
It tells its story primarily through audio logs and in-game events, which prevents you from honing your reading skills while playing.
The main character is named
Booger Booker, but there are no books in the game. This is what’s known in the vernacular of the American Consumer as a ripoff. (See above.)
Upon your character’s death, you don’t get to replay the entire level as punishment for your inadequacy as a gamer. This means that you’re actually getting much less game than you think, because you’re not constantly repeating sections that you’ve already cleared. (Remember when a game would punch you in the gonads when you failed? Good times…) Again, see above: ripoff.
Where Never Lark or Even Eagle Flew
It’s a rare occasion that I finish a game, then start right back over from the beginning to find everything that I missed the first time through, but that’s exactly what I did with BioShock Infinite — I’m glad to admit that it’s not the game that I thought it would be, which was “more of the same, only less of it.”
Instead, and in every aspect of consideration, BioShock Infinite is more of the same, plus so very much more.