Video games are a staple of culture, regardless of what Roger Ebert thought (RIP). The joke is that parents let TV raise their kids, but my generation was raised by Nintendo (or Sega), and the current generation is raised by the spectre of Steve Jobs. These relationships are two way streets as well; video games are coming of age along with us, and it is extremely satisfying to experience a game done right in all its facets. I just finished the newest game in this category: Bioshock Infinite, and it knocked my figurative socks off. (because Merriam-Webster’s website buried this general definition) defines art as the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. In his piece, Ebert uses Plato’s definition of art, the imitation of nature, but he goes on to say that art “improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision,” and that it is a matter of taste. Clearly he never met Ken Levine. Ebert chose to see beauty expressed through the lens of cinema, and sadly did not take the time to find “more than ordinary significance” in the Bioshocks and the Mass Effects and the Fallouts of the world. The saddest part is that he probably would have enjoyed it.

Video game reviews like to deal in technical aspects like graphics and gameplay mechanics, but trying that with something as poignant as Bioshock is a bit like forming an opinion on a novel based on its grammar and spelling accuracy. “The margins were consistent throughout, but the font made the letter G look weird.” Things like that. But video game reviews tend that way because there has never been much substance above that. I think that is what makes it hard for gamers like myself to synthesize these ideas from a video game and put them into words. (Or it could be that I just don’t write a lot.)

BioShock Infinite takes place on the steampunk...

BioShock Infinite takes place on the steampunk air-city of Columbia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Experiencing the story of Booker DeWitt and the flying city of Columbia through any other medium would not evoke the same reaction. I am convinced of that much. Sure, on paper, you could still form your own ideas about his motivations and your own relationship with Elizabeth. One could picture an actor swinging on sky lines, catching ammo cartridges from an actress on the big screen (see footnote). But it would not match the immersion of Infinite.

That is what great games offer: total sensory immersion into a world, at an unprecedented level. You don’t just read about it, and you don’t just watch someone act it out in front of a green screen. You explore as you see fit, you make the decisions, and you suffer the consequences. And I am only referring to single-player games here, because adding other human-controlled elements makes this another conversation entirely. One can find a deeply personal, touching and gratifying experience with buttons and joysticks and keyboards in hand, and it makes me happy to live in this brave new world.

TL;DR Two thumbs way, way up.

(Footnote: I’m thinking maybe Jon Hamm playing Booker, Zooey Deschanel as Elizabeth, Anthony Hopkins as Comstock, Tilda Swinton as Lutece.)

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  1. jdh5153 says:

    Interesting. Bioshock was great. I wouldn’t put it on the same level as classic literature or film, but for video games it was a great experience.