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.
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: