Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Bioshock Paradigm

Sounds like a Bourne novel title, doesn't it? Not that. Some years ago, John Lanchester published an essay about video games called ‘Is It Art?’ London Review of Books, 1 Jan 2009]. It’s an essay that deserves to be better known than it is. Lanchester considers gaming intelligently as a sort of invisible seismic shift in culture, and one of the things he's good on is the difficulty of most video games. Here he is on Ken Levine's 2K Boston/2K Australia game Bioshock, which he likes a great deal:
As a video game, BioShock fully subscribes to the conventions of the medium, and if you as a non-gamer were to pick it up and give it a try, it is these you would probably notice most. Not just the conventions of which buttons and levers you press to move about the world of the game (annoying and hard to recollect as these often are) and not just the in-game mechanics, such as the ‘plasmids’ which you have to inject to give your character the powers he needs, or the tapes which are conveniently left around for you to discover and play back to hear the story of Rapture; but also the whole package of conventions and codes and how-tos which become second nature to video-game players, but which strike non-gamers as arbitrary and confining and a little bit stupid. Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all – and it’s not by accident, either. One of the most common complaints regular gamers make in reviewing new offerings is that they are too easy. (It would be nice if a little bit of that leaked over into the book world.)
In the spirit of that sentiment, I say: often, science fiction and Fantasy is too easy. As to why this should be—why, that is, the same fans who actively prize ‘difficulty’ in their video games spurn it as they might spurn a rabid dog when it crops up in their novels and short stories—well, that’s a profound and unsettling question. From time to time I had a go at addressing it when I reviewed, and occasionally on this blog too. At the very least, one of the aesthetic crotchets that informed my own reviewing was a preference for the difficult over the easy. An active valorization of the friction of the best art, not despite the fact that I was reviewing SFF but precisely because of it. The problem with Realism, it seems to me, is that it is almost inevitably superficial. But the problem with the metaphorical modes of fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, 'magic realism' and the like, is almost that they are too deep.


Chris said...

One of the things about difficulty in a videogame is that you can choose your own setting. This might mean less time to complete, more guards to sneak past, more monsters to fight, less health and so on.

In the absence of Kindle versions that allow you to automatically set all adjectives to be normal/obscure/recondite, I can recommend replicating the Nightmare difficulty setting of videogames by reading War and Peace in one sitting, seven hours, while absolutely stinko.

Archie Valparaiso said...

One convention that I'm tiring of is the "end boss", which is just the "one-on-one showdown with the evil mastermind" at the end of any sub-Bond movie. For all the supposed multiplot options that gaming is supposed to allow the player, it's now become as predictable as the most obvious, potboiling, linear fiction.

Even Portal 2, the concept, gameplay and many details of which I loved, had to go and end with that badass end-boss scene. When I got to it, I gave up and just watched a walkthrough of it on YouTube instead. It saved time.

Or am I just being old again?

nostalgebraist said...

I think a difference between the two cases, though, is that "difficulty" in books often comes in the form of violating expectations -- the text is hard to read because it breaks the assumptions you made coming into it, and when you give up those assumptions you lose reading efficiency -- while games can be difficult while also being very regular and predictable, simply by requiring great mental or physical dexterity.

I remember someone once writing about a very difficult old arcade game: "whenever you died, you knew exactly why you died, and you felt guilty about it, rather than angry at the game." This was presented as praise. So I think, even among enthusiasts of difficult video games, there's a sense that a hard game should be hard but fair -- it should build on itself in a predictable fashion, it shouldn't just sling weird challenges at you out of nowhere. When you die, you should feel like it was your fault, for failing to see the writing on the wall.

And I think it's harder to achieve that "hard but fair" feel in written texts. If you have enough of a handle on what a text is doing to "know exactly why you died," so to speak, then (in the terms of this metaphor) maybe you didn't really "die" at all. That is, to encounter difficulty in reading a text may inherently also involve the kind of experience of confusion that feels "unfair" to the video game fan.

Some dude said...

When you win in a video game you know that you have won, and it is satisfying. With other fiction you don’t know if you won. That is to say, if a book has some hidden metaphorical meaning, you can’t know for sure if you have found the right meaning. You’re just making a guess. So that is probably why it is less satisfactory to a lot of people.

(A couple of exceptions is Agatha Christie types murder mysteries, where the reader know if he guessed the killer, and Scary Movie type parody comedies where the viewer knows if he recognize the things being parodied.)

I guess a way to make the hidden metaphorical message satisfying is to write at the end of the book what it is. There’s could be bit of text that say “Now dear reader, can you guess what this book was really about? Take your time to think about it, then turn the book outside down to see if you were right.” Then you turn the book and it says “This was all a metaphor for the holocaust.”

Some dude said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Roberts Project said...

"Kindle versions that allow you to automatically set all adjectives to be normal/obscure/recondite"

This is a brilliant idea!

I think I was trying to get at notions of pleasure, rather than specific formal or other parallels between books and games. In a gaming context, difficulty is perceived as pleasurable; in a literary one, as a turn-off.