By now, I think everyone knows that the new Sim City is a flaming car wreck, the gaming equivalent of Ishtar or Hudson Hawk, the kind of misfire that raises serious questions about its corporate creator and the entire industry.
But it’s only one of many so-called “AAA” titles in gaming in the last year to raise those questions. Even products that appear successful or well-regarded document the consistent aesthetic underperformance of the most expensive, lavishly produced work the gaming industry is selling–and I think that underperformance is in turn severely limiting the potential commercial and cultural impact of games. AAA titles are increasingly easy for everyone outside of a small, almost entirely male, subculture to ignore. The only games that really matter to the culture as a whole right now are either independent products like Minecraft or light “casual games” that are mostly played on mobile platforms. (A further symptom of the cluelessness of the industry is that many developers therefore conclude that it’s the platform, not the game itself, that consumers prefer, so just move it into mobile, whatever “it” might be.)
Two examples of failures that the gaming subculture has anointed as successes: Far Cry 3 and Bioshock Infinite.
Far Cry 3 is ostensibly an “open world” game, a form that at its best is one of the most powerfully distinctive ways that a digital game can be unlike any other modern media text or performance. It’s a very hard form to produce, demanding a huge amount of content, a lot of QA testing, and flexible, responsive AI scripting. Small wonder that most studios steer clear of the form, or falsely claim to have done it.
Far Cry 3‘s first problem is just that: it’s not really an open world. The player can in theory linger wherever he wants and do what he wants. But then it turns out that there’s a whole set of hidden “gates” throughout the gameworld that require the player to progress through the plot, to watch the cutscenes, to do what’s required of them by the developer. In a genuine open world, the player can go almost anywhere or do almost anything and progress the narrative at her discretion, which might open up a few new locations or new content, but as a supplement to the general environment rather than one more step in a linear sequence.
Progressing through the content wouldn’t be so bad in Far Cry 3 if the content weren’t so bad. And here we hit the second problem that is far more general to the industry: that the writing is not only for a very particular subculture of very particular men, it is largely BY that same subculture. Far Cry 3 is an almost laughably bad pastiche of racialized cliches: it makes Cameron’s Avatar seem like the most sophisticated postmodern rethinking of those tropes by comparison. What is worse both in narrative and gameplay terms is that the player is forced into inhabiting the subject position of one of those cliches. Rather than playing a cipher who simply witnesses and traverses the setting or a specific character who has an alienated or sideways relation to the gameworld, you have to be a character whose arc goes from “spoiled wealthy white American frat boy” to “low-rent dudebro version of John McClane killing dark-skinned drug dealers and bandits on a tropical island” to “white messiah saving natives”. You have to listen to “yourself” saying painfully stupid things throughout the entire game while saving painfully stupid friends. Perhaps worst of all for an allegedly open-world game, your character is frequently forced to do dumb things: walk into traps and trust the untrustworthy. (Plus you end up in QTEs for a number of key plot resolutions, which is like adding a extra turd to the shit sundae.) Far Cry 3 wants to be Grand Theft Auto but no one making it had an ear for the Rockstar aesthetic: all of the “interesting” people your character deals with make GTA IV‘s Roman Bellic seem like a soothing, well-balanced presence by comparison. The only people who could possibly enjoy Far Cry 3 for its diegetic elements are the narrow demographic that wrote the game and that identify with the protagonist.
What especially annoys me (and quite a few other commenters on digital games) is that the head writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, shrugs all the criticism of the narrative and content off because he claims it’s all meant to be stupid. Yes, a graduate of the English Department at Yale University is deploying the argument that he is subverting racist tropes by making them so enragingly stupid that they force players into a Brechtian relation with the game’s text, alienating them from the narrative “skin” lying over the gameplay structure. Or alternatively, that the game’s content seems racist because he’s forcing you to consume that content through the perspective of the young naively racist protagonist and therefore force a confrontation with his subjectivity. If there’s anything that this argument makes me have Brechtian feelings towards, it’s whatever body of cultural theory Yohalem thinks he’s deploying in good faith to make this bad faith apologia for a clumsy example of what’s wrong with a lot of AAA games.
In contrast, Bioshock Infinite has a very well-imagined and literate conceptual and visual setting, which has led a ton of middlebrow game critics to raid the thesaurus looking for sufficient quantities of superlatives. Middlebrow criticism of popular genres and forms, particularly geeky ones, is always poised with a certain undertone of desperation to try and convince mainstream cultural critics that they too are dealing with art, or at least the potential for art.
The problem with Bioshock Infinite, which takes place in a alternate-history version of an early 20th Century American experiment in communal living, in this case a city in the sky defined by racial purity and evangelical Christianity, isn’t much of a game. It’s described as a first-person shooter by most critics, but it’s largely a visually and narratively sophisticated reprise of an almost-dead genre of game, the “adventure game”, whose best-known example even today is the game Myst. Much of Bioshock Infinite consists of wandering in static environments clicking on objects to find out whether they will give you objects or money that you can use later or objects which provide more narrative details about the gameworld and the situation. This experience is periodically interrupted by combat setpieces where your character dispatches small squads of local law enforcers and by periodic dialogues with your companion Elizabeth, who is the other keystone to the eventual resolution of the plot. (The first being your own character.)
But just as Far Cry 3 forces you to endure your character’s cluelessness, Bioshock Infinite creates a very strange hybrid point-of-view and locks you into it. Your character knows things you do not know: about his past, about his motivations, about the events that set the game’s story in motion. Small details are revealed at first through environment and through your character’s occasional mutterings, then later by Elizabeth’s comments on you and your situation (and your subvocalized responses). But this creates a constant bizarre and uncomfortable tension: you are controlling the actions of a character who treats some of what you regard as novel or mysterious as expected or known, or who is blase and indifferent about some of what you (the player) find interesting, engaging or infuriating about the world of Columbia (the flying city).
Moreover, the gameworld only looks like it is three-dimensional. Like its two predecessors, Bioshock Infinite is the quintessential “roller-coaster ride”: there is almost nothing that actually turns on your choices or actions as a player, almost every environment can only be traversed in one way even if it looks like there are multiple pathways through it. You can choose how you want to kill your enemies–shoot them, burn them, rip them up with a whirling saw. You can choose whether to look at all the extra narrative content provided–none of it is needed to progress, but since it’s the game’s major virtue, why skip it? You can sort of choose whether to click on every barrel or crate to gather ammunition and food, but in normal mode, you could skip that and make it through easily enough. Otherwise you are herded through the experience of the game like a cow through one of Temple Grandin’s soothing kill chutes. If you die, nothing really happens, it’s not more than a momentary inconvenience. You can’t jump off Columbia even if you try. You can’t go in most of the storefronts or buildings. You can’t talk to people, just listen to their speak their one line of prerecorded atmospheric dialog. It is absolutely the essence of being on something like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Disneyland. You stay inside the car, the environment swings around and beeps and bloops and moves and that’s it.
The consumer-side question Bioshock Infinite ends up posing is: why spend $50 to watch a 3-hour animated film that has some very good art design, one fairly engaging if rather stock supporting character, an interesting underlying setting, a “trick ending” straight out of the M. Night Shyamalan school of scriptwriting, and repetitively staged intervals of interactivity that very nearly amount to the 21st Century version of a William Castle cinematic gimmick? The distinctive affordances of the medium go largely unused, and there is little point to experiencing the game more than once.
At least Bioshock Infinite has an imaginative soul inside of it, unlike Far Cry 3. But it shows again how culture industries routinely miss the mark, not just or even mostly about artistic aspiration but about economic potential of the forms, genres and technologies that they supposedly mobilize to such fearsomely profitable effect. It may be that Bioshock Infinite or Far Cry 3 will make money for their producers, but the inefficiency of the relation between input and output in their cases ought to give anyone with an investment interest in the future of digital games serious pause. Particularly because the number of Sim Cities, unquestionable disasters, is also rather hard to ignore. Consumers don’t necessarily prefer casual games, mobile games or games like Minecraft because they don’t like long, intricate games that take advantage of the medium’s distinctiveness. They just don’t want to waste their time and money on games that were written for 16-year old boys who spend most of their time texting misanthropic comments to other teenagers or on games that don’t really have any “game-like” qualities.