When it comes to video games, there are good games and there are great games.
The good games provide entertainment. They are challenging but not unfair. They show you a hint of what is possible and then push you on to incrementally discover the joy of the player mechanics and the choreograph of simple components that give rise to complex interactions.
The great games, on the other hand, tell a story. They are the true masters of the medium. For them, gameplay is not just a fun diversion but the essence of reality presented in radically new forms. What we receive from them is not a primeval sense of achievement at having accomplished a task whose primary meaning is a function of the time we spend on it, but a different, artistic and insightful take on the deeper questions of our past, present and future.
In that, it can be said that a great game is merely literature, but literature in its broadest sense because written words alone are not how games convey their meanings. A great game, like any other work of literature, has the capacity to inspire the mind and touch the soul, but it does so in its own wondrous ways.
Without a doubt, Bioshock Infinite is widely acknowledged to be a great game. I personally would take a step further and say that it is a great work of literature–perhaps one of the greatest.
[pullquote]A great game, like any other work of literature, has the capacity to inspire the mind and touch the soul, but it does so in its own wondrous ways.[/pullquote]
When I finished the game the first time, I felt a tinge of sadness. It was the moment when I realized that, of all the games I have played and will play, none will ever allow me to relive the magical feeling of experiencing Bioshock Infinite for the first time. It was a breath-taking journey packed with such style, meaning and charisma; a work of art that forms new mental connections in your brain and encourages the mind to engage the world from new perspectives. Its nonlinear storytelling is so brilliantly appropriate for the story it sets out to tell, and the amount of thought and effort put in by Ken Levine and the team is simply astounding. The music, the visuals, the historical satire, they all come together in an extremely tight and cohesive package that, like the enduring works of Pixar, tells you with confidence that it was truly a labor of pure undiluted love. Bioshock Infinite set a new bar for what is achievable by video games as a form of literature.
Upon further thought, my sadness evolved into a more profound melancholy. Having convinced myself that Bioshock Infinite is a classic that deserves to be recognized like the ilk of Shakespeare and the Greek epics, I am pessimistic about the future of its rightful legacy. I wonder if video game as a medium has the longevity to give Bioshock Infinite its due recognition. My heart wants to say yes, but my brain says no.
A poem from a thousand years ago is still a poem today. A song from the 60s is still a song today. Tastes and sensibilities may change and fashion comes and goes, but there is a timeless quality to a piece of written literature or a painting, because their modes of consumption have stayed fairly consistent throughout human civilization. We might read novels on iPads now, but the fundamental form of the presentation has remained essentially untouched.
[pullquote align=”right”]We might read novels on iPads now, but the fundamental form of the presentation has remained essentially untouched.[/pullquote]
Herein lies the problem, for a video game today will most definitely not be a video game half a century from now. There will be immersive virtual reality environments that completely alters the relationship between the player and the game. Graphical fidelity and animation techniques will reach new heights and unlock new possibilities. A game of the future will be much more of a complete sensory experience and be evaluated on those merits.
But much more important than the sensory experience is the ephemeral nature of gameplay. It is hard to imagine most people enjoying the mechanics of Bioshock Infinite in that future of unbounded possibilities, and a game that is not enjoyable when played is a knife without an edge. The story can very much be timeless but telling it right hinges on an appreciation for the actual gameplay. The game whose gameplay has become irrelevant has lost all its natural advantages over other non-interactive forms of media.
[pullquote]The game whose gameplay has become irrelevant has lost all its natural advantages over other non-interactive forms of media.[/pullquote]
An analogy can be made between video games and movies. Black and white and silent movies have clearly been relegated to a niche role. The greatest movies being made today that will be classics of the future do not intentionally limit themselves in those ways, except for the rare cases where the limitation is a deliberate part of the message. But even though a black and white movie is visually different from a movie with modern cinematography, it is not a fundamentally different or inferior experience. The mode of interaction remains a passive viewing session, as it has always been. Movies of the past can always be relatable to movies of the future.
Even after the perfection of virtual reality, one can imagine people enjoying a regular 2D movie on a virtual cinema screen and finding relevance in old movies beyond an intellectual curiosity for the past. I find it hard to believe the same for video games. Perhaps people will watch playthrough videos of old games to get a sense of the stories, but it will never be quite the same without the interactivity. The gameplay will become stale and that will be the death blow.
In my mind, the modern video game is a medium in transition. In another decade or two, there will never again be a moment in time when people can appreciate a game like Bioshock Infinite and all that it offers. The reliance of the storytelling on the gameplay is both the reason for its brilliance and the ultimate cause of its inevitable obsolescence. It burns bright but brief.
Perhaps one day the medium will finally reach maturity and arrive at a more stable form. Then, a spiritual successor to Bioshock Infinite can find the audience and legacy that it so richly deserves.
In the meantime, there will always be connoisseurs of the outdated and unfashionable, but Bioshock Infinite will be classical but not a classic. In a way, this is both sad and beautiful. For those gamers out there alive today who possess the right context and priors to experience the game in its full present glory, do it and be party to this transient beauty–a sublime work of art made for our changing times.