Games Are Not Art

An examination of the link between Video Games and Art

Category: Bioshock

Burial at Sea and Necessary Connections

As I have argued before, the denouement of Bioshock Infinite gives us a lopsided connection between it and Bioshock: either Infinite tries to piggy-back on its predecessor’s emphasis on moral choice in order to hide the fact that it is conceptually underweight, or it needlessly diminishes a particular adventure by submerging the importance of Bioshock’s moral choices into its own concern with a choice-less superposition, where all options are true and not true at the same time. Yet, surprisingly, Episode Two of Burial at Sea provides the necessary connection between these two games by creating a link that does justice to the concerns of both.

There is no real way to distill the complicated and interconnected Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, and both parts of Burial at Sea into one pithy picture, but the thematic spine that holds these games together is the relationship between the child and the parent. The hero/villain dynamics in all of these games are comprised almost entirely of parent/child pairs (Ryan and Fontaine against Jack, Elizabeth against Booker/Comstock), while the central injustice in all these works feature the misappropriation and exploitation of young girls (the commoditized Little Sisters, and Elizabeth’s own purchase). Granted, these are not exact parallels: Jack’s is the more straightforward story of son against father, while Booker’s position as Elizabeth’s father inverts the trope even as they both struggle against her father and his double, Comstock. But it is sufficient for this argument to note merely that both stories are driven by the conflict between the parent and the child.

In Episode Two we come upon Elizabeth’s mediating presence. Chronologically speaking, Burial At Sea firmly establishes the in-universe order of the games’ narrative: first comes Bioshock Infinite, then Burial at Sea, which in turn sets up the events of the original Bioshock. Both bookends serve to establish the games’ overall momentum: Elizabeth is freed, and frees herself, from a father who would use her as a tool; similarly, Jack is freed from the control of his biological father, Ryan, and his father-figure, Fontaine – quoth the latter: “you were the closest thing I ever had to a son.” But in Burial at Sea we see the way in which the emancipated Elizabeth grows into her own by, at first, repeating the exploitative pattern established by her father, as when she uses Sally to murder the final iteration of Comstock. Episode Two, however, focuses on her attempt to repent of this abuse by being a better person than her father, ultimately sacrificing herself to rescue that same Little Sister.

Unfortunately, the depiction of this growth is not without problems, as Stephanie Jenning’s piece on the problematic sexual politics of Burial at Sea lays out. While this piece is a little uncharitable in its treatment of the DLC’s narrative – I would argue that the plot, though intentionally left vague to the player as a way of allowing the player to connect with Elizabeth’s own sudden ignorance, is nevertheless deftly mapped out – the correlation between Elizabeth’s empowerment and sexualisation is troubling. Similarly, Burial at Sea does not make Infinite’s other problems magically disappear. Daisy Fitzroy is not suddenly transformed into a beneficent martyr by the fact that her Old Testament desire to visit the sins of the father on the son was merely a ruse designed to empower Elizabeth; as Jennings points out, this shift basically reads as follows: “Elizabeth’s development is most important. Daisy isn’t as important.” Nor does the depiction of the Vox Populi in Burial defuse the games’ false equivalency between the violence of a revolutionary uprising, and the violence of the system they are reacting against – we merely encounter the same old violent, unapproachable Vox from the previous game. These are the same problems Infinite faced, and the attempts to address these concerns further muddy the mixture.

But there is more to Burial at Sea than the failure to fix the totality of flaws in Infinite. In Episode Two, before we learn that Elizabeth’s first stop in Rapture was a pornography dispensary, the player is taken through a private school (what other type could there possibly be in Rapture?) that inculcates in its students a ‘competitive’ spirit. That this parallels Soldier’s Field, the section in Columbia dedicated to instilling in its children an appropriately martial and nationalistic spirit, is an intentional parallel: Rapture, like Columbia, takes care to instil the ‘correct’ ideology in its next generation. On the surface, this does not seem too sinister – after all, we raise the next generation to believe in the things we find value in. But, when placed in the context of other exploitative facets of the society – Elizabeth and the Little Sisters – the educational systems of both cities seems less beneficent and more predatory: Rapture, like Columbia, “values children, not childhood.”

In a similar vein, the episode takes great care to establish another parallel between Elizabeth and the Little Sisters, and their twinned commodification. In contrast to Ryan the Lion’s message of solipsistic self-reliance and the combative mindset of Soldier’s Field, the young Elizabeth, with the innocent intuition of a child, plucks the thorn from the lion’s paw and reattaches Songbird’s breathing tube, thereby establishing a protective connection between the two. The spirit of this moment is repeated in Suchong’s clinic, where she encourages the Little Sisters to resuscitate the Big Daddy with an injection of their own ADAM. But both instances depend not on the alleviation of pain by the removal of a metaphorical thorn, but rather the insertion of that – in the Sisters’ case, literal – thorn: Songbird depends on whatever mix of chemicals Fink’s canister gives him, while the Big Daddy is slave to the biological alterations Suchong has imposed upon him. Both of these moments of juvenile kindness are only ameliorations to the cruel confines the system places upon its drones, and they represent the episode’s attempt to cement the parallels between Rapture and Columbia, and between Bioshock Infinite and Bioshock.

While I do not buy the broader cultural trope that defines children as essentially good, when set against the nationalistic vainglory that Columbia instils and the Hobbesian dynamic of “all against all” that Rapture teaches, these small, concrete instances of naked goodwill are striking. Though their existence cannot hope to address or overthrow Comstock or Ryan – indeed, quite the opposite, as they are what help these perverted polities run – these minute, naked instances of innocent charity represent a defiance of the system that both scorns such sentiments while nevertheless relying upon their existence to function. Neither Fink nor Suchong could have come up with this method for imprinting the guardian onto its subject, and yet it is the catalyst they both desperately need for their projects to succeed.

I focus on these two examples because they outline the arc of the second episode of Burial at Sea: the previously exploited Elizabeth breaks the cycle of abuse her father has participated in. The first episode portrays Elizabeth as heir to her father’s means as she uses little Sally as a way of finishing her trans-dimensional patricide. The scene with the boiler is the logical extent of the many little references that place her firmly as her father’s daughter – for example, when Booker finally finds the mask they need to enter Sander Cohen’s soirée, he compliments her, “You’ve got a bit of the grafter in you.” She responds by establishing herself as her father’s daughter: “For that you can thank my father. He was a man comfortable in a variety of roles.” But the second episode demonstrates her refusal of this heritage. On an immediate level, she rebukes her past decision and decides to break with the family tradition – not only does she sacrifice herself for a child, but she willingly gives up her great inheritance: her reality-altering powers and practical omniscience. When she had the ability to see all the paths that lay before her, she knew the ending of the story along with the fact that it would end with her death; this sacrifice is no less momentous because the player takes control as she comes to, ignorant and precognitively blind. To put it simply, in the first episode she introduces herself as “Ms. Comstock,” while in the second her name is merely “Elizabeth.”

Sally’s own name hints at her redemptive status. While the name ‘Sally’ is a version of Sarah (similar to how ‘Molly’ comes from ‘Mary,’ or ‘Harry’ from ‘Henry’), the name is also a diminutive familiar to mob movies: ‘Sally’ from the Italian ‘Salvatore.’ The tacit link between Sally and salvation implies that saving Sally is Elizabeth’s own moral salvation, the act that will at once free her from her family’s history of exploitation while also serving as amends for her own adoption of that practice at the end of Episode One. But her actions also position her in a parental role as, from one perspective, she is imitating another pattern: that performed by children abused by their own parents, who now seek to do better in her own right. From another angle, then, in caring for Sally, Elizabeth is forced to sacrifice part of her own identity (her unique position as an omniscient, dimension-hopping demigod) for the sake of this child, much as the more mundane examples sacrifice parts of their own selves in becoming parents.

In one of the audio diaries, Rosalind Lutece monologues over the exact kind of sacrifice that Elizabeth performs:

Our current state of being – or lack thereof – has left my brother… unfulfilled. The biological urge to leave one’s mark is strong. And it is not an impossibility. We could instantiate ourselves back in Columbia. Return to an old life, for the possibility of creating new. But… we died in that world. Returning would mean giving up part of us. Ourselves. We’d become flesh and all that it is heir to. The mysteries of the universe would become, once again, mysteries.

Leaving aside the particular factors of Rosalind’s musings (Would it count as incest? Masturbation?), the inclusion of this audio diary in Episode Two makes it clear that the parental theme in Burial at Sea is the episode’s spine, as she is discussing the precise sacrifice that Elizabeth makes, while making concrete the parental theme that has been present, thus far, only latent within the narrative. But at the same time, Rosalind’s concern establishes a binary between an absolute metaphysical power and the comparatively mundane concerns of normal life. She cannot pursue her grand quest for the meaning of everything and at the same time be a mother – and though my phrasing seems to touch upon the contemporary debate of whether women can have it all (i.e., a family and a career), I do not think that this debate is immediately relevant to Episode Two. Rather, the binary is more aptly constructed as the choice between the preternatural and the mundane.

Enter, surprisingly, H. P. Lovecraft, and his illustrative character Randolph Carter. In “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” Carter dreams of a beautiful city three times, and then ventures into a fantastic fantasy world to pursue the titular city as it hangs mystically, tantalizingly in the twilight distance. He chases this dream across fantastic landscapes, converses with gods, and even transcends the real as he falls towards his final destination, watching from a superhuman position the grand scale of cosmic time unfold itself:

Then in the slow creeping course of eternity the utmost cycle of the cosmos churned itself into another futile completion, and all things became again as they were unreckoned kalpas before. Matter and light were born anew as space once had known them; and comets, suns and worlds sprang flaming into life, though nothing survived to tell that they had been and gone, been and gone, always and always, back to no first beginning.

At last he finds that the city he has spent so long searching for is really “the fair New England world that had wrought him”:

“For know you, that your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth… the glory of Boston’s hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset; of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily… this loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets; and to find that marble parapet with curious urns and carven rail, and descend at last those endless balustraded steps to the city of broad squares and prismatic fountains, you need only to turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood.”

I cite “Dream-Quest” because it outlines precisely what I mean when I talk about the dichotomy between the preternatural and the mundane in Episode Two of Burial at Sea. Carter is put in a superhuman position, a place of power that removes him from the conventional business of mankind. Carter ventures across a dreamlike landscape, full of mysterious names and strange meetings; he even goes so far as to leap from a nightmarish steed and fall into a place outside of time, before the vision collapses and he wakes up in his Bostonian bed. In essence, he falls from the magical to the mundane, and finds in the latter his proper place. Carter cannot have both the fantastic and the familiar: he must choose one or the other. But the very point of his quest has been to find that magical city of his dreams, the glory and enchantment that he had once experienced in his youth, the sense of wonder and joy that tinge our best moments. But this sensation is incompatible with the transhuman; it is only in returning to the natural that he is able to find what he was looking for. Granted, this is not a strict binary – it is only through the supernatural that Carter is able to return to the natural – but the idea that these positions are incompatible stands.

Elizabeth’s story has a similar arc. At the end of Infinite, she is thrust into the preternatural role of an omniscient, almost-omnipotent dimensional vagabond. Her position is described as a quantum superposition, where mutually contradictory ideas of place and power are all equally true. But this is the place of the transhuman, and not the human. As Rosalind’s audio diary shows, by taking up their finite, biological position, the Lutece twins would “become flesh and all that it is heir to,” in both its mortal and reproductive right. Their superposition would collapse into a single, fragile state. But Elizabeth is able to choose this path because her very human desire to save Sally is incompatible with her preternatural state. Like Carter, she must choose between the mundane and the magical; like Carter, she chooses the former.

The necessary connection between Bioshock Infinite and Bioshock proper that Burial at Sea provides lies in the narrative’s collapse from the infinitely various vista that the ending of Infinite presents to the particular story that is Bioshock. Before the canonical realignment that is Episode Two, Infinite seemed to outline Bioshock as simply one of the million permutations of a narrative constant, “There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city,” thereby rendering irrelevant the original’s emphasis on the importance of moral choices over narrative choices. But Elizabeth’s sacrifice of, at first, her power and, then, her life for the sake of one specific girl links both games’ themes of parenthood: she lays the groundwork for Sally’s freedom knowing that doing so means her own death. One of Daisy Fitzroy’s audio diaries in Episode Two that ponders this very dilemma:

What’s the price you’re willing to pay so that others may live free from the yoke? DeWitt knew the price, and paid it willingly. And I sense what the Lutece twins will one day ask a’ me. So far, their counsel has served me well – served the revolution well. If a bullet takes me, so be it. But to offer myself up as a lamb? When I come to my garden of Gethsemane, will I play my role willingly… or will I burn the place down to the roots?

The game subtly establishes, through the voice of Booker, that Elizabeth knew the story’s outcome before it started, and yet she committed to its fulfillment despite foreknowing the cost. Like Randolph Carter, she attains her goal through her preternatural powers, but that same goal’s achievement comes at the cost of the preternatural. At the same time, that goal is a clear break with her family’s history: rather than imitating her father (either DeWitt or Comstock) by sacrificing the child for her own sake, she sacrifices herself for the child’s sake. And in doing so, she re-establishes Bioshock’s main point: even when narrative decisions do not matter (either because of a subtle system of control, or because the simultaneous existence and achievement of all possible narratives renders narrative choice as significant as a single grain of sand on an infinite beach), moral choices do matter.

Discussing Kevin Levine’s work tends to demand a kind of mazy prose. Put another way, the intercessory Episode Two takes up Infinite’s invocation of many-worlds theory and a superpositional narrative and carefully collapses its impossibly vast implications into the more intimate story of Bioshock. Throughout Elizabeth’s arc in Burial at Sea, we see her approach the model her own father(s) have set for her, and then reject it in the most profound manner possible, thereby foreshadowing the parallel choice Jack faces and the implications of Bioshock’s ‘good’ ending. It delineates the two Bioshocks as separate works, undoing the conceptual piggybacking that Infinite tries to pull with its predecessor, while nevertheless making clear the narrative and thematic links between the two games.

That is not to say that everything is hunky-dory, and here I will throw in one problematic point: by demonstrating that the good ending to Bioshock is the ‘right’ one, Episode Two once again de-emphasizes Bioshock’s moral choices, this time by asserting the primacy of one over the other. The choices made on the part of Jack reflect how the player reacts to Ryan’s idea of noble selfishness: do you harvest the Little Sisters, recognizing that “all that matters to me is me,” or do you save them, thereby rejecting Ryan’s model in favour of one that relies upon the ethics of selflessness? The fact of the moral choice system is made all the more important given the game’s emphasis on the player’s narrative impotence, which outright states that even when we are confined by the illusion of narrative choice we can nevertheless still make moral ones. By sweeping one of these options under the rug, Episode Two of Burial at Sea carves away a significant aspect of the original Bioshock in favour of the neat daisy chain of Bioshock Infinite, Burial at Sea, and then Bioshock. It is disappointing to see how the best of the bunch is continually hampered in favour of its conceptually weaker sibling.

But this point is no more damning than the rest of Episode Two’s problems. When viewed in the best light, Elizabeth’s story serves to connect the two games in a manner satisfying to both of their concerns. Even though this connection follows Infinite’s interest in promoting itself at the expense of Bioshock’s own heft, Episode Two shows a care for the original Bioshock’s message that repairs the thematic damage it does to the original model. Yes, there are nevertheless problems with the whole work, but there is still much to be praised in this complicated and inspired story.

Bioshock Infinite and Unnecessary Connections

For a Tear is an Intellectual thing” – William Blake, Jerusalem


Bioshock Infinite, like its predecessor Bioshock – we’ll not be talking about the vapid interpolation that is Bioshock 2 – toys with our concept of narrative and mechanical linearity. This much is apparent in both the game’s plot twist, and in the many reviews of the game written back in March and early April. As has been discussed before, the artificiality of the central mechanic of the entire shooter genre – start here, go there, kill things along the way – is made devastatingly clear in the first game when the control the player thought he or she had is shown to be nothing but an illusion. But, controversially, after being brought up for air, the player plunges back into a willing suspension of disbelief, and the narrative rolls along its rails towards the confrontation with Fontaigne.

It is fair to say that Ken Levine has damned himself with his own previous success, in that whatever he produced after Bioshock would be judged, fairly or not, in relation to that game. And so he produced a game very similar to Bioshock, from combat mechanics to narrative structure. And of course critics picked up on this similitude – see John Teti’s review of the game for an example of this kind: “is BioShock fated to be a series of sparkling Disneylands, ad infinitum? – and used this not as a condemnation of the game per se, but as a sobering element in their treatment of the game’s ending. And yet I can’t but feel that, in noting the similarity between the two games, these critics have their order reversed. While it is not out of the realm of possibility that Irrational Studios set out to create a game, and in the process made something similar to Bioshock, my suspicion (and this is merely supposition) is that Levine conceived of the ending first – specifically, perhaps, the triptych “There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city.” – or at least had the idea for a game that dealt with linearity and repetition in a similar manner to Bioshock, and then worked backwards. Again, the facticity of the idea is merely supposition – and yet the thematic implications of this emphasis on repetition and linearity are integral to the game’s sense of itself. 

Bioshock Infinite is self-reflective when it comes to its status as a piece of narrative fiction, insofar as it seems to be actively mimicking the process of storytelling. Take, for example, the very beginning of the story – though only once you’ve played it through, and are able to comprehend the full reality of Booker’s situation. Thrust into a new world, as Rosalind Lutece puts it, “The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist.” That is, the mind will create a narrative out of either whole cloth or fragmented and initially disparate details in order to situate itself in a new context. Simply put, the mind, upon passing through a tear, creates a story to tell to itself. It’s an echo of the twist in the original Bioshock, where the snapshots and their fragmentary, implied narrative is revealed to merely the artifice of two scientists and a con-man. Before the meeting with Ryan, the player will take details like the note, the present, and the sudden flashes of a farmhouse and a family and draw the lines between them to create a pattern. Regardless of how your suspicions develop as you play the game the act of story-creation is present, even if only subconsciously.

There are other similarities – the similar combinatory combat mechanics of Vigors/Adam and weapons – which reinforce the grander parallels: parallel worlds, parallel games, parallel stories. But at the same time, there are elements in Bioshock Infinite which go beyond a ‘separate-but-equal’ comparison and reveal the way in which the game piggy-backs on the previous one. Almost all the main characters – Songbird, Comstock, and Booker – die by water in a more-than-tacit reference to Rapture. In this vein, the force of the ending is dependant on the game’s predecessor for both its evocative quality and in order to ease the player into understanding the particulars of how the game uses the many-worlds interpretation. This piggy-backing continues into more thematic territory. The grand reveal that Elizabeth is Booker’s daughter evokes Bioshock‘s concern with the appropriation of the family. Though Comstock is not Ryan – who uses familial labels as a combination of advertising and propaganda – the prophet’s understanding of family as a basis for political and religious control engages with the same kind of perversion of the ideal.

But this is not to reduce Bioshock Infinite to Bioshock – to be fair, the former has elements the latter lacks. The exploration of Finkton, and the associated parsing of oppression and revolution is hardly to be seen as a retreading of the story of Atlas and his group in Bioshock. My own take on this part of the game is to view it as a portrayal of the complicity between political, religious, and social authority in societal control. It’s an old theme, and goes as far back as William Blake and his poem “The Chimney Sweeper,” in which the titular boy’s parents have “gone to praise God & his Priest & King / Who make up a heaven of our misery.” For lack of a better word, the Finkton chapter’s concern with this archetype is adapted to fit early-twentieth century racial prejudices, as opposed to the orchestrated tyranny of Ryan’s philosopher-king:

I told you, Comstock – you sell ’em paradise, and the customers expect cherubs for every chore! No menials in God’s kingdom! Well, I’ve a man in Georgia who’ll lease us as many Negro convicts as you can board! Why, you can say they’re simple souls, in penance for rising above their station. Whatever eases your conscience, I suppose.

Here we get the added necessity of a city built upon suffering for the sake of creating a religious utopia. Amusingly, Blake fits in here, too: “Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor[.]” My point here has not been to analyze a particular segment of the game, or to talk about Blake and Bioshock. I am simply trying to avoid the argument that Bioshock Infinite is merely derivative of Bioshock. It does and has much that the previous game does not. But, at the same time, it is dependent on the previous game for a crutch.

The effect of the narrative twist in Bioshock still resonates like the tolling of some great bell. Take, for example, this article from Gameological. Sam Barsanti’s thesis is, simply put, that the game’s ending – though, I would argue, we could include the game after Ryan’s death as a segment of precisely what he is talking about – reinforces the theme of the illusion of choice. However, one of the comments pointed argued that, even when this reinforcement is accounted for, the ending is still unsatisfying:

My only critique of this is that the only choice you really have, when it comes down to it, is turning off the console and refusing to play the game. After the Andrew Ryan twist (which is brilliant, without a doubt), the game doesn’t allow you to exercise your newfound knowledge in any way…there’s no actual mechanism by which it matters. That’s the ending’s failure, I think: You’re given a powerful new way of viewing the game, and no way to apply it.

Though I’ve given my own take on the ending (which hardly needs to be repeated), the point here is that the implications of the original Bioshock remain contentious six years after it first came out. There is a depth of critical and argumentative ammunition centered around the way in which the player’s lack of choice has been revealed to them – a lack made especially powerful by the binary moral-choice system built into the game. 

Bioshock Infinite does something similar – but in such an unsatisfying way – though it is only able to do so because of its reliance on the original game. As with Bioshock, there are instances of choice: do you choose the cage or the bird? When buying a ticket, do you ask questions or shoot first? But in Bioshock, these are moral choices, complete with all the weight and baggage that adjective entails. Regardless of the implications of the binary terms (are they effective, are they meaningful, are they cliché, etc.), they have a real effect in terms of gameplay, thematic value, and, at the end of the game, the narrative. But in Bioshock Infinite, these choices are merely concerned with the narrative – were you foolishly polite, and did you thus play the rest of the game with a bandaged Booker? What about Elizabeth’s choker?

That’s not to say there is no grand, compelling point to be made by giving players the illusion of choice. When, on another voxophone, Rosalind Lutece invokes King Lear, a point about a deterministic chronology is being made:

My brother has presented me with an ultimatum: if we do not send the girl back from whence we brought her, he and I must part. Where he sees an empty page, I see King Lear. But he is my brother, so I shall play my part, knowing it shall all end in tears.

While the invocation of Lear – a play about a man who sends away his daughter – is appropriate on a referential level, it goes farther by touching on the superposition of a text. When we open a book, the entire story is, in a sense, already complete as it has already been written – “It happens all the same,” says Elizabeth amidst the infinite lighthouses, “Because it does. Because it has. Because it will.” But it isn’t so for the reader, who is literally starting on page one and knows nothing about what is to come. To quote the Luteces, “It’s all a matter of perspective.” But, whether alive or dead, the cat is still in the box. The narrative exists, whether it is being started or finished; faced with a predestined plot, the characters have no real agency or will. Hence, this Lutece quote becomes another way in which the game signals its self-consciousness regarding its status as a narrative work, while stirring in a bit of Schrödinger for good measure.

But for all that predestination can give the game, choice becomes problematic when Bioshock Infinite is yoked to Bioshock. Whereas in the first game, all choices save moral ones are rendered illusory, in this game all choices are pointless. Especially so, since agency is removed from the player and given to Booker at the one point in the narrative where we are freed from the plot’s control: after Comstock and Songbird are dead, after Elizabeth is restored, and when the player is freed from the tyranny of each tear’s narrative. Up until this point, the plot has been driven by different goals: get the girl, get to Monument Island, escape with the girl, find the Shock Jockey at the Hall of Heroes, find the girl again, find the Vox Populi’s gunsmith, get to Comstock house, find the girl again, kill Comstock, and destroy Monument Island. When all these are accomplished, what is left? A complete renunciation of narrative choice: Booker chooses to die, as Elizabeth puts it, “Before the choice is made” to become either Booker or Comstock. But the freedom to make this decision is removed from the player.

What does it mean when a game at once repudiates choice while tying itself thematically to a game that emphasizes the permanence of our ability to make moral choices? If the choices in Bioshock Infinite are meant to be meaningless in the face of a deterministic universe, then why involve a game whose illusion of choice is related to the specific deception both Jack and the player are subject to, and not to a greater, metaphysical understanding of the universe’s momentum? Indeed, why spoil Bioshock‘s thematic coherence by turning it into “another ocean,” where events transpire differently than in that of Infinite? From the perspective of Bioshock, such an appropriation turns the events of the first game into a variation of the narrative of Bioshock Infinite – and then I can’t but view this new refashioning as merely pointing out the lackluster way in which Infinite treats the mechanisms of choice in contrast to its forbearer. Put another way, I can’t enjoy the connection when viewed from either perspective: if I compare Bioshock with Infinite, the attempt to link the two games thematically reduces the first; if I compare Infinite with Bioshock, the game appears to simply piggy-back onto its predecessor, hoping to hide the fact that it’s underweight when it comes to an examination of free will.

I recognize that this thesis is only tenable if you take my previous treatment of Bioshock for granted. I also recognize that this essay can come across as confusing. Put broadly, I find the link between the two Bioshocks that Infinite creates to be damaging to both games; the mazey specifics of the argument lie above. By no means does this make Bioshock Infinite a “bad game” – it’s simply a glaring flaw, like a long and lengthy crack along the side of a full-length mirror. The mirror may still function, and indeed be beautiful, but it’s an imperfect mirror regardless.

And, as a self-recriminatory post-script, it turns out I was incorrect about the lyrical treatment of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in my previous post. As Ben Kuchera pointed out a year-and-a-half ago, the version Elizabeth sings is the original version of the song. While I don’t think that such a reveal damages my argument in any substantive way (the song doesn’t become a purposed reminder, but the point it makes still comes across so long as the “is there” is still present), it is humbling to have your incorrect assumptions brought to light – to see a flaw, running horizontally across your work.

Games Are Not Art


“For me, a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” – Vladimir Nabokov

When we, as gamers, are faced with this claim, there is a tendency to close ranks, and – beyond the regular fallacies of debate – point towards the logic of trends and patterns. We argue that the medium is on its way to an art form by virtue of some providential design, imitating the trajectory of cinema and, going even farther back, the novel. We assert that there are a few games that can be considered art. We even provide lists: Bioshock, Journey, The Path, Shadow of the Colossus, and, lately, Spec Ops: The Line. Then we bring up the emotional response: the fairy-tale loneliness of Wander’s journey, along with the sense of sacrilege that comes with the end of each colossus; the profound sense of shock when Ryan destroys Arcadia; the dark double-audience of Konrad’s “You’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not: a hero.” Fine.

To my mind, the only valid argument is that last litany of examples – and yet we do them injustice by simply tossing their names out there, as though the artistry of these games were self-evident. The truth is that we can never know anything concretely unless first we narrow our scope sufficiently. We can never prove anything, save for using individual pieces of evidence. The general is useless; the particular is essential. It is only when we have the single and singular points of data that we can draw a graph. When we list of specific games, we only take the first step.

Let’s use Bioshock as an example. Why is Bioshock a work of art? Certainly, there are critical complexities that raise it above the crowd of vapid power fantasies, that being the touted critique of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. Certainly there are dramatic moments in the narrative that demonstrate the disconnect between objectivism and morality – the chief example being that brilliant moment in Arcadia, where Ryan tells the player of a forest he once owned. But so what? It’s not as though these features are inherently artistic.

Let’s back up a bit. How am I defining art to begin with? Look to the first epigraph.

Firstly, Film Critic Hulk’s (aside: he is one of most enthusiastic, intelligent, articulate, and all-around brilliant critics around) definition rightly emphasizes the notion that the cohesiveness of the themes at play in a work make it art. For an example, let’s look at Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. While the book has something of a tarnished reputation in common culture, what cements its claim as a work of art is the final arc, where the little details that have been seeded throughout the rest of the book come to bloom. They are mostly predicated on a betrayal of common expectations: for an “immoral” novel, there are no crude turns of phrase or four letter words; the foreshadowed murder the protagonist commits is not that of Lolita – and this despite the references to the opera Carmen, the doggerel pop song, the repeated mention that the protagonist is currently on trial for homicide, and so forth – but rather that of a character who is cryptically referenced throughout narrative; the fact that the book is, at its heart, a (twisted) love story is only cemented with any real believability in both the final scene with Lolita, and in the last, lovely lines of the novel: “I am dreaming of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” The doubling of details and the deception of the reader are further linked to the book’s meditation on the nature of art, which itself reaches an apotheosis in the narrator’s desperate hope that his story might reach such heights. By briefly and insufficiently summarizing different themes in the novel, I am trying to show the way in which they feed into one another and support their mutual development. There are other details, such as the beauty of Humbert’s prose, but these are of secondary importance unless they are shown to seamlessly slide into cohesion with their fellows. It is this rich complexity that gives the work a claim to the status of art.

To tie this bit back to Bioshock, we can ask whether the game presents any instances of thematic cohesiveness. Indeed, we can find hints thereof in one of the most dramatic points of the game, where Andrew Ryan reveals the puppet-master’s strings, and says “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” The story’s narrative is revealed to have been completely out of our hands from Atlas’ first “Would you kindly…” In this fashion, the player is shown to be a slave to both Fontaine’s thirst for power, and to the very structure of a linear first-person shooter. Indeed, our enslavement to the game doesn’t end when the curtain’s pulled aside, as we are forced to continue on a linear path to end Fontaine’s rule over Rapture. Certainly, it’s a dramatic moment, and it adds a level of depth to an already thematically complicated shooter. But at the same time as this theme of enslavement is revealed and expounded, the other side of Ryan’s statement remains fairly hidden. After all, the player has had one choice that is presented repeatedly throughout the game: do you harvest or save the Little Sisters?

The dictum “A man chooses; A slave obeys” is transformed when we consider its application to the moral choices we make while playing the game. For all the flack dichotomous, black-versus-white moral choice mechanics receive, its absolute nature is appropriate in a game where the nuancing of ones choice matters less than the fact of its existence. We can choose to save these little girls, or we can be ruthless in the quest to unseat Ryan. Regardless of the justification, the fact of the choice is important, as the game thereby presents the notion that, regardless of your state, you can always choose to do the right thing. Narratively, we are enslaved; ethically, we can always choose to do right.

Of course, this detail neatly fits into the rest of the game’s thematic concerns. Regarding Andrew Ryan’s Objectivism, it points out a rather large blind spot – he is ostensibly forced into increasing his control over the city via increased legislation, capital punishment, and, finally, via a subversion of free will all because he thinks he has no choice. He passes the moral event horizon simply because it is necessary, and that the ends justify the means. In this way, his own choices mirror the players when they’re faced with the little girl crying over poor Mr. Bubbles: do you do what is unconscionable for an immediate and obvious benefit, or do you do what is right, despite its relative difficulty? Ryan cannot think in those terms, as he relies on a philosophy where what is good for the self is good for all: “In the end, all that matters to me is me. And all that matters to you is you. It is the nature of things.” To take this point to the game’s end, this is why the two endings have you either becoming a new Ryan as you take Rapture, or abandoning that city for the sake of a family. The (ideally) selfless love of a parent is anathema to the self-love of Ryan. Depending on your choices, you either adopt Ryan’s philosophy, or you chose a more ethical one.

Furthermore, the ending reinforces what I would argue is the intellectual and moral opposition to Ryan’s objectivist morality: the morality of the family. That families are an ever-present element in the narrative of Bioshock is a critical point. The player’s relationship with Atlas begins as the latter begs the former to help his family escape from Rapture. Among the many audio diaries are those of Mariska, which all detail the horrors that have befallen her daughter:

“The minute we came here, Masha started screaming, “Mama! Mama! What is that? What is that?” I thought she was having some kind of seizure and then I realized – trees. Trees! Never saw one before, thought they were monsters. Oh, Sammy, maybe we never should have come to this place.”

Similarly and equally conspicuously are those of Anya in Hephaestus, whose attempted assassination of Ryan is fueled by the transmutation of her daughter into a little sister: “And my girl is gone, worse than gone, one of those things. So am I an assassin? Well, only one way to find out.” Even the names of the ever-present Little Sisters and Big Daddys reinforce the familial theme, though the perversion of these names is a particularly transparent bit of ironic advertising.

Finally, we have the way in which Fontaine and Ryan relate to the player: they cast themselves as his father. In the same breath as Ryan tacitly acknowledges you as his own – he calls the player “my child” right before they come face to face – he names you a slave and treats you as a dog. To him, a child is property. Meanwhile, Fontaine acknowledges that “you were the closest thing I ever had to a son.” But, in his last lines, he tells the player just what that means to him:

I had you built! I sent you topside! I called you back, showed you what you was, what you was capable of! Even that life you thought you had, that was something I dreamed up and had tattooed inside your head. Now, if you don’t call that family, I don’t know what is.”

For both men, families represent different people they can control. For Ryan, his son is simply a literal part of his greater selfhood; for Fontaine, his adopted son is a tool in the long con.

The ending – the good ending, at least – represents the triumph of familial morality over Ryan’s objectivist morality. Here are Tenenbaum’s lines:

They offered you the city, and you refused it. And what did you do instead? What I have come to expect of you – you saved them. You gave them the one thing that was stolen from them – a chance – a chance to learn, to find love, to live. And, in the end, what was your reward? You never said, but I think I know – a family.”

Note the language: the player saves and gives, thereby becoming a father. The selfless morality of the family, where the parents give all they can to their children, then becomes the ideological – and more importantly, moral – opposition to Ryan’s objectivism.

But this grand struggle between two ideologies is boiled down to a simple choice: when faced with a little girl, do you save or harvest her?

Here we get to my second epigraph: “For me, a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” Now, I don’t think I’m misrepresenting Nabokov’s definition of art by describing it as substantive in nature. That is, it has the technical ingenuity of execution or conception (as with piano playing or painting). Or it is beautiful. Or it reinforces some moral point without being moralizing. Or any other positive-sounding point. By substantive, I am fumbling about for a pithy phrase that expresses meaningfulness, which is equally vague. I am trying to touch the finger that pluck at our hearts, to feel the wind that moves our souls, or other such maudlin poetic phrasings.

Let’s try an example, and focus on the idea of morality as an example of this substantive imperative. By morality, I do not mean that art must have a moral (wretched things), or that the more positive elements and archetypes must triumph over their negative ilk (i.e., the good guy wins at the end of the story). By the moral imperative, I mean that the work must engage with questions of morality on a satisfactory and thematically consistent level. In Lolita, the last part of the book is dedicated to the narrator’s moral awakening, which evokes a series of plangent responses to an act that can never be atoned for. In Blood Meridian, you have the spectre of morality present only by way of its absence in the face of the diabolic and dionysian Judge (grammatically, amorality and immorality are understood only by the relation of their respective prefixes to the root word). In Bioshock, you have the entire gameplay function of choice linked to a greater thematic, and more importantly, moral function within the work. It’s one thing to create a complicated series of wheels-within-wheels for the sake of the design; it’s far better to make this design have a substantive point. A purpose. That being that, even if you do not choose morally, the option is nevertheless always there.

Does this all mean Bioshock counts as art? My first thought is to look back on my two qualifications, and say “yes.” But that sounds suspiciously like ticking off a list, thereby making the whole definitional process a binary one. And that kind of criticism is transparently abhorrent, and it makes my two qualifications or descriptions absolute prescriptions of the worst, most inchoate sort. Instead, I’ve merely fixated on a few details to try and orient an argument for one facet of thematic consistency. I haven’t even begun to consider how the mechanics of the First Person Shooter genre or the sui generis retro character of Rapture support or undermine my thesis. But the smallness of my own examination demonstrates nicely the breadth of the question at hand, and its impossibility in addressing it in any real sense in a single essay.

So here’s the point to my writing: while video games are not art, just as novels, films, or whatever generalized title you give your medium are not art, certain games deserve to have their claim to that title examined. I think the question “is Bioshock art?” then is poorly worded. A better formulation would be, “does Bioshock have a claim to the title of art?” My answer is “so far, so good.” But that’s not a definitive yes.

But this question, and criticism in general, is not meant to be a rhetorical monologue. Ideally, it is dialogic in form and function as well. And, for the most part, the question is also frustratingly unanswerable with any absolute certainty – hence the provocative title. But we’ll see how we do as we go along.