4/05/2013

This is Oppression? What would Bioshock Infinite be without Gunplay?

The new Bioshock game had one of the most refreshing openings I've ever played.  I went about half an hour without hurting anybody or seeing anybody hurt!  That might be a record for an M rated game!

Jokes aside,  Bioshock Infinite was definitely stimulating and explored a lot of narrative territory, bringing in multiple influences from unexpected directions.  I would never expect a videogame tying the multiverse theory popular in DC and Marvel Comics as well as Star Trek to combine with an odd Steampunk patriot worshiping neo-Mormon society and finally garnish it's narrative with the icky parts of Oldboy.

Infinite's violence, though, reaches the notorious level that most M-Rated games strive for.  Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku wrote on the intense, insane quantity of violence in the game, commenting that even Cliff Bleszinski felt the game went too far.  The overall reaction is not that the violence is too much for a video game, but that it might be wrong for this particular game.  I'm inclined to agree; I think that violence is necessary for the story in this game, but I don't think that it's necessary for the mechanics, or that the gunplay or Vigor powers add to the narrative in any substantial way.

The Floating islands of Columbia are ruled by a religious fanatic and Prophet named Zachary Comstock. He leads a fascist regime that favors whites and rules over people of color or immigrants (such as the Irish).  To maintain control, he employs a military and a police force.  In most video games, that means that these guys are essentially storm troopers;  Cannon fodder for the player to mow down.  Bioshock Infinite decided to step in line with this convention, despite how it willingly challenges and subverts others.  I think that this subverts it's narrative.  Instead of displaying violence against the player, and having them inflict it in turn, a fascist society only needs to threaten violent action as well as display punishment when necessary.  A gun is an absolutely dangerous weapon, but it doesn't need to be used to kill or even maim someone in order to be effective.  
Fighting back and being able to kill these flunkies with guns and outrageous powers, despite being effective in most games, isn't realistic.  The realistic portrayal of police and soldiers with guns oppressing the lower class and taking on those they deem vagabonds would still make the world feel dangerous.  If you've already played Bioshock Infinite, then you know that the greatest moments of tension are not when you're in a firefight.  The greatest moments of tension are against the threats you do not fight; when you're instructed to throw a baseball at an interracial couple and when Songbird attacks Monument Island while you're inside are two of the most dramatic moments in the game. There's also great bits where you just take in the scenery and the environment tells the story.

If the guns and the inflicted and over-the-top violence was left on the cutting room floor, would that make Infinite a better game?  I'm not sure it would still be a game by the classic Chris Crawford definitions, but by the popular "Piece of Digital interactive entertainment" definition then yes, I believe so.  The Walking Dead season 1 was arguably the best recieved game last year and it all focused on it's narrative and the relationship between Lee and Clemintine, his adopted ward.  It was purely puzzles with a few quick time events.  The rest was well designed narrative, and all choices in that game were made to progress the story.  Many players will play a Final Fantasy game only to push the story forward rather than for the mechanics of a random encounter. Many will sneer at the idea of removing mechanics, but how many players are out there that only play games for the gunplay?  How many only play for the story?  I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of Infinite's players were more concerned with the story than the gunplay.

So is such a game marketable?  I can't say for certain because there isn't a lot of data on these sorts of games.  Heavy Rain sold about 2 million units, which for a console exclusive isn't a whole lot given it's budget.  L.A. Noire could have been this, but decided to veer in too many directions.  Many adventure games were following this path, but fell out of popularity at the end of the last century.  There's not a lot of reason to think that games without gameplay can be sold.  I  think that there's a growing group of players who want to explore gamings narrativescape.  Indie games and kickstarter have already sparked that flame.  Why not big budget gaming?  I think it can happen, and that it's going to get big before this decade closes.

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