Games are art now!

15 Apr

So I was going to wait until TLF put up my two-parter commentary on Bioshock Infinite (sometime in the next week or two) to post most of this, but today Gamasutra just posted a piece that essentially forced my typing hand. Adrian Chmielarz writes about “How Bioshock Infinite Revolutionized Video Games,” but the piece should have added “…and Game Criticism” to the end of its title. Because, really, it has.

First, I have seen more complex and thoughtful reviews and criticisms of this game than I have pretty much anything else to come out in the last few years (I’m not including the explosion surrounding the ending to Mass Effect 3, because, quite frankly, most of that wasn’t terribly thoughtful). Infinite has been garnering attention (and not all of it positive) even before its cover art debacle, but much of that attention has raised serious, critical questions about both the game industry and the gaming community, and has also gone a long way to decisively make the point that games are now art.

Chmielarz says that

I’ve played the game and felt the urge to write about its issues even when I was just five minutes in. Then I’ve played it to the end. The breathtaking finale helped a bit, but the game suffered from so many issues that the ending wasn’t able to wash away the bitter taste in my mouth. Let’s just say that instead of feeling like writing another blog post, I felt like writing a book.

But that’s the key here.

And he’s right. People are writing about Infinite because it is art. It’s complex, and flawed, and beautiful, and messy, and ART. Most good art garners both praise and rage. Most good art forces people to ask difficult questions and consider what it is about the piece that either makes them love it or hate it or feel (as in my case here) a mixture of awe and disappointment.

And there have been a lot of people who felt, like Chmielarz, compelled to write about the game. Patricia Hernandez wrote that “An Effin’ AI in Bioshock Infinite is More of a Human Than I Am”; Leigh Alexander wrote “‘Now is the Best Time’: A Critique of Bioshock Infinite; Kevin Wong wrote “Bioshock Infinite is a Metacommentary on Game Narrative”; and Todd Harper, a friend of mine in industry academia, wrote “Infinite Regress,” which responds to some of these.

Chmielarz has a longer list than I do, but his focuses mostly on the problems that people see with Infinite, many of which I happen to think are on to something:

But it wasn’t a question of finding some obscure, random nerd rage posts. Critical articles and posts were popping up in all kinds of high profile places: from NeoGAF through Kotaku to to Gamasutra. Hell, it was not longer just about the gaming scene: even the infamous Hulk Critic stepped in.

It was no longer a child crying out, “But the emperor isn’t wearing anything at all!”. It was a crowd.

Thomas Grip, the lead designer behind Amnesia performed an autopsy. Brainy Gamer has realized it’s the end of an era. Daniel Goldin disagreed with the message. There are three paragraph reviews, heck, even one paragraph ones that expose the core problems with the game. There’s even a short Interactive Fiction game that can teach us more game design than many books. And no, Elizabeth is not the best sidekick ever.

Chmielarz says that “Infinite has revolutionized games” because of this response, but it’s also revolutionized the way people are willing and able to talk about games. It’s a leader in the industry, along with the entire development team at Irrational games, because it refuses to be limited by things like time, space, or expectations. And all the criticism of the game is actually more of a testament to what it has done well than what it has failed to do, since if it really were a terrible game, no one would care about its flaws.

Because, when you get down to it, Infinite has done well. It received a 95 on Metacritic. It’s visually gorgeous. People love it, and people love to hate it. And all this is happening because Infinite very quietly but very firmly has just demonstrated, beyond anyone’s ability to doubt it, that videogames are art. No one can watch or play Infinite, love it or hate it, and think that it isn’t art.