The Power Of: Bioshock
(Welcome to day two of our “The Power Of” series. Written by our Schmamer Adam Douglas, he takes a look at the most important game for his artistic career: Bioshock. And maybe spends a little too much time talking about a certain music star…)
I don’t think enough artists look at their art.
Now don’t get me wrong. We watch it and we watch it regularly. We laugh with the audience, nod at the sharp scenes, and just jerk off all over that brilliant monologue (or twelve). It’s great to observe your art, and one of the (very) few real benefits of committing yourself to creating.
But, still, we never really look at it. For so long we’re so immersed in the minutiae of construction: making sure this line fits here, seeing if that verb is the strongest there is, comparing metaphors, etc. And once that’s done and there’s a product, we’re too busy patting ourselves on the back to examine our output. And in doing so, we’re actually destroying through creating. Or, at least, impeding.
Ready the laugh cannons. Aim. Fire.
The concept of looking at your art was introduced to me by Lady Gaga.
Say what you will about the woman, she’s a leading figure in popular music and culture, and, most likely, will be remembered as an icon. Is there anything about her music that’s particularly groundbreaking? Not really. Is she a flawless beauty? Nope. Isn’t her name just a rip off from a Queen song? You betcha.
Butcha know what? She is one unapologetically crazy bitch. And, because of that, we are fascinated. The unknown was the first and shall be the last great motivator of humanity. Gaga is unplottable. From her appearance, to her subject matter, to her style (go listen to Poker Face and then You and I and tell me you would’ve known it’s the same broad), to even her name. It seems she won’t stop surprising us. And I wonder if she even could. She acknowledged that she tried the traditional ap
proach to music, but it wasn’t until she really started looking at how she was doing it that she got any traction.
Now, two questions: 1. What the fuck does that have anything to do with gaming? And 2. Where are my pants?
I’m gonna do my favorite thing and make it all about me. When Gaga talked about art she mentioned that you more or less will not succeed until you find a completely new way to look at yourself. This is an act of discovery, and great art should always reveal something. Essentially, you must surprise your audience…with truth. With something they may already have known but not quite realized. Your prism is your own: theatre, music, painting, porn, whatever. But the intention is all the same. Aristotle said the same thing, but he did it under the assumption that you’re doing this perfectly straight out of the gate, which few
do. Also, he never wrote as catchy a tune as Bad Romance. That we know of, at least.
Gaga seemed to understand that art was a journey, and most start out on rough roads. Specifically: we make a lot of shit for a really long time. Shit and shit and shit. It’s a smelly business art. But never forget: the best fertilizer always has been buckets and buckets of poo. Some artists just get used to the smell and continue along their shitty streets. But then there are others who take the shit from before, only this time try to plant something new out of it. And while it may not grow, there’s at least an attempt.
Gaming? Right, right.
So I read this quote, and start to wonder if I really was looking at my art. Being the responsible young man that I was, I said fuck it all who gives a rat’s dick and decided to play video games instead.
And so I descended, deep beneath the depths, to an abandoned aquatic Mount Olympus known simply as Rapture.
And when I breathed fresh air again, I was happy to have shed my skin and left it beneath the waves.
Everything you’ve read about BioShock is true. Yes, it may be the best FPS (so far) of all time. Yes, it has a balls-exploding mind-fuck halfway through.
Yes, the last ten minutes aren’t the best. Yes, you really can zoom through with super powered up ElectroBolt and Shotgun. Yes, hacking sucks harder than a hooker on Valentine’s Day. Yes, it’s terrifying.
Yes, it’s a masterpiece. Yes, it’s overrated. Yes, it’s underrated.
One way or another it is unforgettable.
And it taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve ever received in my artistic career.
I will refrain from spoiling as much as I can, but go play this game now if you haven’t. Beg, borrow, steal, murder, EAT BABIES ONE THOUSAND BABIES ONE THOUSAND CHINESE BABIES, whatever you must do to play this game. Now. Stop reading this horseshit. Atlas is waiting.
Back? Good. Here’s the lesson: The best art should completely shatter your sense of trust.
Which BioShock does sublimely.
Long story short: the game turns many core gaming concepts completely on their head and leaves you feeling like the controller in your hands is a slimy, evil manipulator seemingly trying to rewire your sense of morality. You’re unnerved.
Remember the first time you recognized that you had committed wrong as a child?
It’s beautiful. And (in the true sense of the word) terrible.
As is all the best art.
And you learn and learn and learn. Whether you want to or not.
Ken Levine and the team behind BioShock could have very easily just created a stylized, mood-drenched FPS adventure and probably still made a million jillion dollars (Resident who?). Instead, they took parts that so many (including…themselves) had built so many beautiful homes with, and instead decided there were new ways to live.
Risky. Scary. Foolish.
But when it works, we always move forward in time.
The games held in such high reverence for their artistic merit of this generation: Braid, Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead, and others can all trace roots to BioShock.
And, yes, before you start typity-typing away, I know other games attempted techniques that BioShock did (including Levine’s own System Shock) before we ever met Andrew Ryan, but none of them were as polished as BioShock’s, and none certainly reached the (much deserved) critical heights of the title.
So, another gamer polishing the knob of BioShock? Next thing you know people will start bitching that Madden should switch to a DLC format only and Nintendo fanboys will try to make thoroughly researched comparisons between Mario and Christ. What’s new?
Well…BioShock came along at a very critical time in my artistic life. Things weren’t working as well with my playwriting as I wanted, but I couldn’t identify the issue. My dialogue was sharp, my jokes hitting, and my stories had beginnings middles and ends. It was all very satisfactory.
But also very…factory.
But I didn’t know that this was a bad thing.
It’s hard to teach art since it is, by definition, always abstract. There are always tips and tricks, but at the end of the day, no matter what ANYONE says, NEVER any rules. And, if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, well…
They probably have never really looked at their art.
BioShock was the first example where I recognized someone practicing the wisdom of the House of Ga. It was a clear (without being obvious) and brilliant (without being pretentious) lesson in how looking at art can not only be done, but what effect it can have. It showed esoteric understanding of storytelling, while also recognizing why stories are told.
It showed us a piece of art, leading us to believe that we were simply witnessing another Platonically ideal digital statue, but then rapidly repositioned us, forcing to take on a new perspective not caring at all if we were ready or not. And we learned all about ourselves along the way.
For me, it took a heady bit of advice and made it make sense. After that my plays shifted themes and execution tremendously. I wanted that effect in every word I put to paper. Lofty dream, I know, but I’ve had, undeniably, the most success in my artistic career because of it.
BioShock is not my favorite game. Not even my favorite FPS (throw a rock at Valve and whatever it hits probably wins).
But it’s been the most important game I’ve ever played.
In terms of how it affected my perception and my artistic hand it was…yeah, there’s a pun a’comin’, folks…a game changer.
In art I now trust nothing. I question everything. I’m endlessly suspicious and dangerously conspiratorially minded. And it’s the healthiest artistic mindset I’ve ever had.
Now, would you kindly stop reading this, go play it, and then start taking a look around?
PS. Still no idea where my pants are.