PC Games as “Art” — Seeking Relevance in Rapture

I’d like to divulge a long-kept secret: majoring in English gives you superpowers. Specifically, while studying English in the capacity of literary criticism and theory, you develop a heightened sense of perception regarding media of all sorts. It’s essentially like Superman’s X-ray vision, except instead of seeing through any solid material you gain the ability to punch right through all the smoke and mirrors (and loads of straight-up bullshit, too) that human beings like to swirl around whatever ideas they’re trying to communicate to you. Like, for example, when a political candidate decries an account of her personal life as sexist (which is true) and degrading (also true), an English major is immediately aware of what she’s trying to draw your attention away from: that a) she is sexist, herself, against her own gender and if elected would enact policies accordingly, and b) she is a raging, unabashed hypocrite.

This is exactly what happens every time I use terms like “social norms” and “cultural narrative.”

I know that’s probably obvious to most human beings with functioning gray matter, but it’s just an example. Anyway, like all superhuman abilities, these lightning-quick powers of inductive reasoning come with a weakness: we cannot communicate anything about our conclusions without also informing everybody why they should care about what we’re saying. Think of it as analogous to DC’s Billy Batson, who can’t utilize his superpowers as Captain Marvel unless he shouts “SHAZAM!” The difference is that English majors just take a lot longer to say the magic word(s). Or… paragraphs. Or thesis papers. (Incidentally, English majors are also akin to the Green Lantern in that they require extended periods to recharge their abilities. Coffee generally accelerates this process considerably.)

What I’m getting at is the idea of social or cultural relevance. Like any medium, video games are chock full of examples that have little or nothing to do with real life. Some of the most fun games ever made are on that list (Super Mario Bros., anyone?), so I want to make sure we cut off any connection between quality and relevance straight away. Relevance ≠ quality. Got it? Some games, on the other hand, feature socio-cultural commentary in spades, and it’s one of those we’re talking about today.

Once upon a time, an incredibly rich and powerful American business magnate decided to found a self-contained city far beyond the reaches of the various political and cultural influences which he perceived as oppressive and limiting to his success as an individual. He assumed that, given a society completely unrestricted by laws or regulations and populated by the most intelligent, innovative, and ambitious minds in the world, he could create “a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small” — a place where the elites of the world could roam free of obligations and restrictions which they regarded as beneath them.

Yes, I did quote Andrew Ryan just now, and that paragraph mostly describes the setting of 2007’s BioShock by 2K Games, but I could also have been referring at various points to any one of these places or people as well. Even now, in the 21st century, free-market capitalism still reigns as the undeniably dominant cultural narrative (SHAZAM!) — so dominant, in fact, that anyone daring to suggest that it may be time to devise a more functional and less hazardous economic system is immediately vilified as anti-American and a dirty, dirty, probably bearded Marxist (nevermind whether they actually are either of those things). Want proof? Check this out.

Truer words…

It’s a singular source of pleasure for the gamer in me, then, when a game developer extrapolates on unrestrained capitalism (informed by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism) and really runs with it. Plenty of different media are dabbling in post-apocalyptic sorts of narratives the last few years, but few employ an economic collapse as their cause. Rapture’s economy, inherently limited by its location at the bottom of the sea, could not sustain both the rapid accumulation of wealth by its top handful of elites and severe shortages of a product (ADAM) for which the demand increases exponentially. Sound familiar? We could replace any of the details in that last sentence and be talking about a real society (e.g., “America’s economy, inherently limited by its location on Earth…)

We talked about Deus Ex last time, and how it invokes the player’s moral prerogative to communicate its ideas. These two games’ philosophies intersect quite frequently, but where Deus Ex is complicated and cerebral, BioShock is visceral and brutally honest. In the former you rub elbows with the ruling class of the dystopian society; in the latter, you are knee-deep in the suffering and despair that Andrew Ryan’s selfish and naive worldview has created. The gaudy, opulent flagship of capitalism has sunk (pun intended) and the player must tread through human flotsam to escape to the surface — where, by the way, everything is virtually the same (minus Splicers and Big Daddies).

Let’s talk about those Big Daddies in an metaphorical sense for a moment. They protect the Little Sisters, who are the driving force of Rapture’s ADAM economy (and are controlled by the ruling elite), but they can also be seen performing repairs throughout the city, typically fixing leaks and other threats from the surrounding ocean. In other words, they maintain the status quo; they embody all of the laws and policies and regulations and taxes and so on of a government hell-bent on retaining its grasp on the society. Subsequently, we can read the Little Sisters as the all-but-invincible corporate entities that produce the society’s critical resources (without which the society crumbles — petroleum allegory, anyone?). While the Sisters are functionally invincible to physical attack, they are vulnerable after their attendant Big Daddy has been put down (violently). The most critical facet to recognize in this reading is that the Big Daddies defend the society’s corporate interests, not the civilian population as a whole.

Big Daddy = Big Brother

Plasmids are the end result of ADAM; they fundamentally alter the abilities of the user. Running with our capitalist allegory, three of these plasmids seem particularly relevant in that they might represent what the average person living in the society gains from dependency on ADAM or, in our allegory, on petroleum. “Electro Bolt” can represent the electricity (or just plain raw energy) that oil and other fossil fuels provide us, which is critical to basically every sphere of our society; “Incinerate!” can stand in for the use of combustibles to produce, transport, maintain and replace all of the commodities that a capitalist society values so highly; “Winter Blast” for the ability to refrigerate, or perhaps more broadly, preserve those commodities beyond what would otherwise be their normal cycle of usefulness. Again, all of these abilities are dependent upon the continued supply of the original resource, the demand for which is ever increasing.

So what’s the result of this sort of interpretation of 2K’s masterpiece? Is it an indictment of capitalism? An argument for collectivism? (Nope — see BioShock 2.) I think the underlying assertion of the game is little more than that human beings can wreak some serious havoc with their greed and their selfish desires. After all, the primary goal of a video game is to entertain and, perhaps more than any other medium, if a game can’t entertain then it’s not going to get anything else across to its audiences, either. But the game is asserting at least one other thing — that an economy entirely dependent upon a single resource for all of its (increasingly ostentatious) needs and desires is, at any given time, little more than a hair’s breadth away from collapse.

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