Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gaming, Faith, and America's Demons

I've been waiting for a while for one particular game.  Dropping sixty bucks for a bit of amiable pastime is just not something I do, so when I buy, I go used...and I'm patient.  The experience will be the same six months after release as it would be new.  So why hurry?

Some games, though, are harder to wait for, and the one I started earlier this week was a particular test of my patience.  The game: Bioshock Infinite.

I'd played through portions of the original Bioshock, which was a brilliant, thought-provoking, and intelligent game.  That game was set in an underwater city called "Rapture," the creation of a John Galt-like figure.  In fact, the entire game was a riff on the premise underlying Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, laying out the fun-fest would ultimately result from a community based entirely on the premise of unfettered self-absorbed egoism.  Wretched, bloodstained dystopia, in other words.

It was a dark, bleak game, so unrelentingly unpleasant that after about eight hours of play I had to step away from it.  As much as I respected the vision and design of the game, Rapture just wasn't a place I wanted to spend time.  Sort of like Atlas Shrugged, actually.  Lord, but that book was a waste of life.

Bioshock Infinite is different.  It's equally dystopian, but the demons it surfaces are very different ones.  The vision of Bioshock Infinite is of a realm of seemngly idyllic perfection, a glorious city in the clouds called Columbia.   It's gorgeous, radiantly beautiful, so much so much so that those first moments when you step into the city leave you amazed.  

It is also, as you soon discover, utterly monstrous.  Columbia is ruled by a mad prophet, the psychotic Father Comstock.  This is particularly fun for me, given that it's an old family name...the side of the family that produced a whole bunch of Baptist preachers, as I recall.  Heck, he even sort of looks like me.  

Without going into too much detail, Columbia presents us with an alternate past where the triple demons of American hypernationalism, religious zealotry, and racism have been given the keys to the car.  It's like the 1904 World's Fair in Hell, a lilywhited sepulcher in bustles and flags and straw hats, masking is rot and death within.

I'm only about ten hours in, but the story arc reminds me that gaming has the potential to be powerful and affecting social commentary.  Yes, it's disturbing.  It's not a game for kids.  But unlike the hopeless, cynical, and exploitative character of games like the recent Grand Theft Auto, Bioshock retains a moral core.  Violence feels violent, which means it feels wrong.  Your character clearly struggles with his use of force.  As does Elizabeth, the young woman around whom the whole narrative revolves.  She's sympathetic and well wrought, appealing without being sexualized, and is refreshingly competent without seeming like an action figure caricature.

It is purposeful storytelling, a carefully crafted tale that illustrates how even such seemingly positive things as faith, patriotism, and pride in heritage have their shadow sides.  In fact, it comes across as classically prophetic, using the medium of interactive storytelling to force gamers to confront the darkest spirits of the American collective subconscious.  

Plus, it's a major riff on multiverse cosmology, the full ramifications of which I'll have to wait 'till the end of the game to experience.  Faith, politics, and the multiverse, all woven into one game?  

Lord have mercy, it's like the game was made for me.