Are video games like BioShock Infinite the ‘Trojan Horse’ of future media?
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While listening to Ken Levine (creative director and co-founder of Irrational Games) and Scott Steinberg (video game analyst and CEO of TechSavvy Global) talk about BioShock Infinite of NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook on April 2nd, they mentioned “gameplay as narrative.” As you play as the protagonist Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite, Irrational immerses you into the world to a point where your own personality begins to merge with Booker. The bond you establish with Elizabeth becomes your own, even if it isn’t mechanically unique. She’s not just your trope damsel in distress who needs to be rescued from the monster at the top of a tower; she is your partner, and as the story develops, she loses naïve innocence. Elizabeth has her own opinions, reacts to how you treat people, has goals, and responds to the environment, just as a real person might. As Booker and the player, you sympathize with Elizabeth along the way and become motivated beyond the original mission to “bring us the girl, wipe away the dept.” Levine even comments that Elizabeth is the most powerful character in the game.
The story of Booker, Elizabeth and Columbia hits the historical heart notes, as well. The majority of Infinite takes place during 1912 -- a time specifically selected by the Irrational team due to it not being overly romanticized in literature, being revolutionary in technology, and for having extreme racism. When a game rewards the player with a baseball to throw at a racially diverse couple as the prize for winning a raffle early in the game, you know there is going to be a fair share of racism to follow. BioShock Infinite uses racism in a historically accurate way for the times, which makes the environment more believable, instead of doing it simply for shock value. As with all BioShock games, the ambiance is a dangerous character, and racism is one of Columbia’s many ‘charming’ traits.
As a geek, it can be assumed I have geeky friends. It may not be at a Big Bang Theory level, but I’d be lying if I said there has never been drinking followed by talks of quantum mechanics and string theory in the past. I’m still not comfortable with the concept of something becoming longer the moment you measure it -- it down right freaks me out. As per previous BioShock titles, a whole lot of literature and science went into the plot and creation of Columbia. During the NPR interview, Ken Levine mentioned that Irrational talked with MIT professors to make the science close to realistic. Sure the literary influence in BioShock Infinite may not be as obvious as Ayn Rand’s text Atlas Shrugged or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with the previous games, but the level of massive research is definitely still present. It’s impossible to ignore Erik Larson’s The Devil In The White City’s influence, which Levine admitted his team read and found amazing for the time setting.
Through a blend of narrative, gameplay, action, science and history, BioShock Infinite appeals to a large audience of people. During the NPR interview, a caller mentioned they were going to get a gaming system for the sole purpose of playing this game. I’ve even had non-gamer friends have the desire to pick this up just to hear what they hype is about. Sure, 1999 Mode will challenge dedicated gamers, but on the easiest setting even non-gamers can enjoy the story while blowing through the action sequences. I’ve even heard two cases of significant others, in the GameZone office alone, demanding to watch gameplay due to getting drawn into the plot and desiring to know the final outcome. This shows that the unique exploration aspect of video games can be spread to voyeurs and not just the player.
The ability to draw in both gamers and non-gamers to take interest in BioShock Infinite is what Scott Steinberg referred to as the ‘Trojan Horse’ in the NPR interview. The action and cover art of the game is purposely designed to draw in the action/shooter/FPS crowd. The Trojan Horse analogy comes into play with this crowd picking up the title for one reason and then being surprised once they become completely immersed into the narrative of a game they didn’t think they’d normally be interested in. I’d personally love to know how many people have picked up the first two BioShock games for the first time after playing Infinite, and how many people have Googled anything to do with quantum physics over the last week?
The title of the NPR On Point discussion was “BioShock Infinite and the Future of Gaming.” If Levine’s masterpiece is the direction video games are heading, or even the bar that has been cast, what does this mean for future of all forms of media? Books and movies are not going anywhere, but have they plateaued due to limitations with narrative and their linear platform? Will video games only gain more steam and continue to push the boundaries of what potential media can manifest? Is BioShock Infinite a lone example or the pathway for the future of gaming? People have been reading novels for over a thousand years, and they’ve been watching film for a century; is interactive and explorative storytelling the next major medium in the lineage of media potential? Hopefully, yes. BioShock Infinite is by no means the first or only video game to ever do this, just the most recent and one of the best at it. As gaming becomes less niche and more mainstream, a broader audience will be introduced and new forms of narrative will be invented to surpass their predecessors.
Historian, teacher, writer, gamer, cheat master, and tech guru: follow on Twitter @AndrewC_GZ