Artful Vs. Pretentious Game Design or: Why I Don’t Like Many Critical Darlings

*Article partially inspired by Very Very Gaming’s recent write-up on Braid*

Limbo

Games like the Bioshock series, as well as indie darlings like Limbo and Braid all have one thing in common…

…They are all boring as Hell.

Okay, perhaps I should elaborate a bit. Each of these games, as well as many others that have been inspired in their wake in both the indie and mainstream gaming scenes, are all considered to be part of the “artistic” side of gaming, due to their emphasis on aspects like story and atmosphere over “fun.” They’re games that are tailor-made to push the question of “are video games art?” and often receive praise for the massive inputs of their creators over studios, with many people hailing these creators as the video game equivalents of auteurs.

But let’s take a moment to really think about that statement. Who’s to say video games weren’t always art? Just because they were originally created with “fun” in mind, does that really make them unartistic by nature?

"Infinitely more fun, engaging and creative than Limbo could ever be. And thus, it's a better example of video games as art, too."
“Infinitely more fun, engaging and creative than Limbo could ever be. And thus, it’s a better example of video games as art, too.”

It’s all too easy to argue that games like Super Mario World and Tetris, which never even attempt to be anything more than great games, are actually far greater artistic achievements than any ham-fisted Bioshock or Braid ever were. Both Mario World and Tetris, while maybe void of storytelling, are rich and deep in creativity. More specifically, a kind of creativity that is unique to the video game medium. Every stage in Mario World tries something new with the platforming genre, while Tetris is a simple formula that is never the same twice.

By comparison, it’s all-too easy to say that Bioshock simply has a lot of cinematics with a rather pedestrian attempt at social commentaries padded on to disguise what is otherwise a by-the-books first-person shooter. Similarly, Limbo is a platformer so empty in gameplay and content, that claiming it to be a game where all you do is go right wouldn’t be an inaccurate statement, and the only reason it’s remembered is because it throws some stylized visuals and atmosphere on top to compensate for its lack of anything else.

Point being, games like Super Mario World and Tetris have timelessly proven what video games, and video games alone, are capable of, whereas something like Bioshock (most specifically, Bioshock Infinite) and Limbo are rather inept in their own medium, and simply decorate what little they have with “themes” and “artsiness,” which only ends up making those attributes feel shoehorned and meaningless.

What of these so-called “video game auteurs?” Ken Levine, creator of Bioshock, and Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, are often seen as artistic visionaries in the video game medium. But why, exactly? For the simple reason that they have more creative control over their projects, more or less. While having such input and influence on one’s creations is something any creator strives for, it also doesn’t innately make everything they touch a work of genius. This may be an unpopular statement in this day and age, but big studios are very much capable of creating art. While it may be easier for personal artistry to shine through when a creation is helmed by an individual, that doesn’t necessarily make them innately superior on an artistic level (after all, when George Lucas had full control of Star Wars, we ended up with the prequels. Disney gave us The Force Awakens).

I am very much in support of the Andy Warhol view that the desire to make money off of one’s art doesn’t demean its value as art. If anything, I’d have more respect for someone who creates something and has a desire of making money off of it, than some pretentious hipster who gives the same, generic “I’m not in it for the money” spiel whose work oozes with self-righteousness.

Long story short, it’s not only possible for a big budget, major studio game to be art, but they’ve actually accomplished this feat countless times through the decades. Often times, they did it without needing to tout their own horns.

"Braid is basically what would happen if Mario gave up fun and decided to start looking down his nose at people, all while having a stick up his ass."
“Braid is basically what would happen if Mario gave up fun and decided to start looking down his nose at people, all while having a stick up his ass.”

Jonathan Blow, for example, is always quick to speak about why games “need to be something more,” and yet is quick to make blanket statements like “I don’t play Japanese games anymore.” or refers to games like Farmville as being “inherently evil.” Basically, it’s the same kind of hypocritical, self-indulgent jargon you always here from such pseudo-artists. They love talking about their own work as artistic intellectuals, and then write off differing works with ignorant blanket statements and name-calling. I can’t remember ever hearing of Shigeru Miyamoto or Will Wright giving themselves such pats on the back.

"I'm only disappointed that the critics bought into this hook, line and sinker."
“I’m only disappointed that the critics bought into this hook, line and sinker.”

Then we have Ken Levine, a man who loves implementing social commentaries into his games, but does so about as effectively as a college freshman in his first week of a political science course. The allegories are so blatant they can hardly be called allegories at all (Gee, d’ya think the dude named Andrew Ryan is like, referencing Ayn Rand?), and his themes often have prominent contradictions (Bioshock Infinite can’t give itself enough praise for pointing out the ugliness of prejudice…and then showcases a blatant prejudice against the religious… so I guess open-mindedness only goes so far). The point is people will hail the likes of Ken Levin as artistic geniuses simply because the themes are attempted, but it seems like no one ever stops to actually analyses how effectively (or should I say ineffectively) they are implemented. Just because the man has a voice and puts it in his games doesn’t mean it’s worth listening to.

The major problem here is that there has been a growing mentality that these kind of games are art, and games that may only aim to be “fun” or “creative” are not. It’s starting to grow into something much worse, with some people even having the mindset that any game that emphasizes entertainment and gameplay is inherently bad, and that only these  pretentious “artsy” games are good. It’s a similar mindset to what some film critics and film award committees have, where they’ll only praise/award the works that conveniently pander to their preferred styles and ideals.

What makes this all the more concerning (should I say depressing?) is that, for the longest time, video games were seemingly immune to such things. Because of the unique nature of video games as a medium, no one used to care about how much plot was in Mario or what social commentaries games were carrying. There were still plenty of games with complex plots, and games with themes and commentaries, but they coexisted within the realms of “fun” and “entertainment.” No one wanted games to be anything more than fun, but when they had other attributes, it was seen as a bonus, not the sole requirement.

This put video games in a very unique spot that made it one of the few mediums that could be appreciated for its artistry and enjoyed for its fun factor. Perhaps the only other medium to prominently showcase this combination is animated cinema (most other films choose a side between artsy and entertaining, whereas animated films seem more readily able to be both). But while animated films continue to keep a hold of that combination, it seems like video games are becoming more willing to abandon it in favor of pandering to the “artistic” crowd.

"Undertale tells a meaningful story while also being a fun game that isn't afraid of being weird, silly and immature. You're doing it right!"
“Undertale tells a meaningful story while also being a fun game that isn’t afraid of being weird, silly and immature. You’re doing it right!”

It’s still very much possible for artsy games to still be great games, with the likes of Undertale and Papers, Please proving that indie games can be genuinely rich from an artistic level and engaging from a gameplay standpoint, and titles like Shadow of the Colossus being able to tell stories as only a video game can, while still being a fun game to play. But then we have this increasing wave of developers who, like Jonathan Blow, claim that “video games don’t need to be fun,” which really just seems like a convenient way for them to justify the lack of actual game design in their titles. Perhaps a game doesn’t need to be immediately “fun” on the surface, but it should definitely be engaging to play. No amount of atmosphere, story or social commentary can entice me to pick up a controller if the game itself is flat-out boring.

Would we rather see video games continue to go down a similar path to animated films, which can create works that are unique to their medium, can be both fun and artful, and that we all remember? Or would we prefer them to go the route of the Oscar-bait/arthouse film, which might give a few pretentious snobs something to yammer about for a few minutes, and then have no lasting appeal or value?

Video games have always been art, but the more they try to prove that they’ve “become” art, the more they lose the things that made them art to begin with.

Bioshock Infinite Review

Bioshock Infinite

It seems as the idea of video games as an art form continues to grow in prominence, many developers are determined to prove the legitimacy of the claim. Oftentimes they are successful in showing the artistic capabilities of the medium. In other instances, developers seem like they’re trying too hard to prove the maturity of game designs, to the point that the end results simultaneously feel both desperate to prove themselves and overly confident in their own abilities. Bioshock Infinite falls into the latter category.

Bioshock Infinite abandons the undersea world of Rapture from the previous installments in favor of a city in the clouds called Columbia. The hero is Booker, a man sent to Columbia to rescue a woman named Elizabeth to ‘repay a debt.’ But rescuing Elizabeth won’t be so easy, as she’s being held captive by one Zachary Hale Comstock – a religious zealot who serves as Columbia’s ‘Founding Father’ – and Comstock’s mechanical pet, Songbird, who keeps personal watch over Elizabeth.

What starts as a simple rescue mission quickly unfolds into something bigger. There are twists and turns aplenty, and social commentaries that are so overt and insistent on themselves that they diminish whatever intrigue they might otherwise have had.

Bioshock InfiniteColumbia serves as a commentary to some of the shadier aspects of American history. Set in an alternate 1912, Columbia’s fancy carnivals and idealistic nature serve as a thin guise for a haven of prejudice and racism. The people of Columbia demonize Abraham Lincoln for ‘leading America astray,’ while Comstock uses religion as a means to keep his people under his thumb.

In more capable hands, the game’s themes may have reverberated more strongly. As it is, it’s all a great deal ham-fisted. Never once does Bioshock Infinite attempt subtlety, its commentaries come off more like cartoonish vilifications than contemplative observations. In a more satirical game this sheer overtness might work, but for a game that takes itself so seriously it all comes off as overly simplistic and conveniently one-dimensional (and in some instances, hypocritical). Bioshock Infinite thinks itself artistically rich, but the narrative feels more like something written in haste by a first year political science student than something truly thought-provoking.

The gameplay is similarly uninspired, following in its predecessors’ footsteps without feeling the need to better them. When it boils down to it, Bioshock Infinite is an incredibly straightforward first-person shooter. You still get your run-of-the-mill weaponry, which are thankfully complimented by some magic spells (referred to as ‘Vigors.’ Though they don’t exactly reinvent what the original Bioshock crafted either). Sure, Booker’s movements and sense of control work just fine, but considering this same setup has been done by countless other games, why wouldn’t they?

The problem isn’t that Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay is broken by any means. It’s just that, for a game that exudes such monumental pride for itself, its gameplay has very little creativity that it can boast as its own.

Elizabeth’s inclusion has been lauded for her contribution to gameplay as well as story. But Elizabeth’s actions feel superfluous, really. She carries objects, picks locks, and performs other such standard actions that the player character can normally do themselves in other titles of the genre. Her AI is at least reliable most of the time, but she’s hardly a game-changer.

Bioshock InfiniteCredit must be given where it’s due, however, and if Bioshock Infinite can rightfully be proud of any of its attributes, it’s in its world design. Columbia is a striking place, not for the preachy self-importance, but for its structure and atmosphere. Columbia is a world of strewn about islands in the sky, yet it feels like a complete place. It’s sinister and terrifying, with mechanical monstrosities that evoke some genuine dread. Columbia effectively recreates a time period while simultaneously creating a time.

It’s all the more disappointing then, that the game and the story involved in Bioshock Infinite don’t share in the genius of Columbia’s design. The world can create moods, but the plot feels the need to scream its intentions at the player, and the gameplay merely settles for the status quo.

The attempted artistry of Bioshock Infinite comes off as forced. It’s as though Bioshock Infinite is constantly telling the players that every next moment will be the new greatest moment they’ve seen in a video game. It’s so sure of itself and yet so bland in execution that the entire experience ends up an overall forgettable affair. There isn’t a moment that doesn’t insist on itself, yet there’s rarely a moment that feels truly inspired, whether as a video game or as a narrative.

There are certainly worse games than Bioshock Infinite out there. There are a great deal of better ones as well. But you’d be hard pressed to find any game in any genre that loved itself even half as much as this.

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