Art vs Bioshock vs Roger Ebert

The first masterpiece of the medium, or just a helluva ride?
2K Games

If Roger Ebert thinks that beating a dead body's skull in with a pipe wrench for five minutes isn't art, then he desperately needs to make the rounds at a fringe festival.

Let me back up.

Recently, in a debate with Clive Barker, Roger Ebert proclaimed that video games are not art, nor could they ever be. The reason he gave for this statement was the implicit attribute of all gaming — from Space Invaders to Mass Effect, Doom to Bioshock: interactivity. Choice limits artistic expression, he said, because it allows the viewer to deviate from the intended message of the artist. Basically, if you're looking at a Van Eyck, you can't will Giovanni Arnolfini to bash his wife's head in with a lamp if you’re in “that kind of mood,” as you could with a game. Not surprisingly, the Internet gaming community exploded in a mix of vitriol, bemusement and stupidity like only a group of agoraphobic nerds can.

Despite being an unforgivably geeky, longtime gamer, I agreed with Ebert. No matter how well-crafted the story, no matter how slick the presentation, it's tough to slap an “art” label on something that allows — let's face it — a group of sex-deprived caffeine addicts to take the creative reins.

Then Bioshock happened. Finally, nerds had a flag to rally around. “If Bioshock isn't art, then art is worse off for it,” said Jerry Holikins in a recent post on his popular Penny Arcade website-comic. For a single, glimmering, glorious moment, it looked as if he might have actually been right.

Bioshock is an amazing experience, let alone a video game. It takes place in 1960, in an underwater city called “Rapture,” founded shortly after the Second World War by an industrialist with a very Ayn Rand-objectivist outlook on politics, economics, etc. He selected the very best that humanity had to offer and let them live in a place where they would be free from the constraints of morality and censorship, where they'd be able to fully reap the rewards of their talent. At some point between the founding of Rapture and the beginning of the game, one of the scientists created a form of genetic modification (called “Splicing”) that gave people what amounts to magic powers (“Plasmids”), and the deregulated economy allowed them to become commonplace. Like any society based on a utopian model, it collapses into civil war. Plasmids were weaponized, and their use became tantamount to drug addiction. The player character is ostensibly the sole survivor of a plane crash who happens upon a mysterious lighthouse some months after the war. The lighthouse, of course, takes him into the ravaged, leaking depths of Rapture, where he arms himself with the first heavy object he comes across — a pipe wrench.

The former residents of Rapture still roam its halls, most of them desperately in search of ADAM, a substance that allows them to further rewrite their genetic code and “splice” in new attributes. Sadly, the only source of ADAM left in Rapture is found in little girls with sea slugs grafted into their bellies, that — in a neat little bit of sci-fi voodoo — allows them to produce vast amounts of ADAM, but also robs them of their humanity. The catch is that the player also needs ADAM to gain new powers and survive the game's increasing challenges, and the best way to get it is to harvest it from the girls — which, of course, kills them. The other option is to safely remove the parasite within them and draw the power up directly from it, but this yields a considerably smaller boon. The only reason not to harvest the girls is to feel better about yourself, really.

From the premise and mechanics alone, the game's intelligence is obvious, and the setting is only further fleshed out by the art team's research into art deco styling and attention to detail. Though all of this might make it an excellent game, there's still little to suggest that it's anything more than that. But then we come to the story.

As sharp as they can sometimes be, stories in video games are ultimately little more than an excuse to move the player from one orgy of violence to the next. What elevates Bioshock is its consciousness of its medium, its acceptance that, yes, it is only there to move you between different episodes of Skull Versus Pipe Wrench Mania.

Bioshock forces players to examine the way they interact with games — why do you complete the objectives laid out before you? At once, the player is forced to identify with the protagonist in a very intimate way, but also to divorce themselves from him entirely, realizing that they were implicit in that person's manipulation, that they were acting as the instrument of the malevolent will driving the action. Up until that point, the player is the key phrase. Suddenly, your earlier decision to harvest or save the little girls is painted very differently. It's the only thing in the story that you — as a player, not an actor in the narrative — really had any choice over, and your consequence-free, virtual world decision now carries some real world weight.

Herein lies the game's genius. By making the player an active participant in the narrative on a number of levels, it poses a number of legitimately concerning philosophical questions about morality and the power of choice. If this is true, and I'm not just a complete nutter who has spent way too much time alone in a basement, how is this not art?

Well, it's close. Certainly, I was drawn to a very specific conclusion in a deliberate way as per Ebert's stipulation. The problem is that the message isn't the point. Sure, it's there, and poignant as it is, it's an afterthought. The point of Bioshock is the point of every first-person shooter game — to run around a fantastic environment murdering interesting creatures in the most brutal ways my depraved little mind can construct. If I want to, I can, indeed, bash a corpse's face with a pipe wrench for five minutes, giggling all the while. If that's what I choose to spend my time in Rapture doing, then that is the point of the game, and — sorry performance artists — there's no fucking message in that.

Clever as it is, Bioshock ultimately subverts its transcendence by, well, being a video game. Ken Levine (the game's creative director) said himself that the story was the last thing he wrote because “Games aren't about story. Games are about game play.” Until games are being made with the sole purpose of expression, they simply can't be art. They can be artistic, artful even, but they are — by their very nature — made with no other purpose but to make money. In fairness, though, that's how film started out, too.

Levine may well be the Buster Keaton of video games, but he isn't quite their Ingmar Bergman. Bioshock isn't a work of art, but it is easily the greatest first person shooter ever made. For where we are right now, why can't that be enough?

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