BioShock Infinite Becomes My Perfect Exemplum on How to Unnecessarily Narrow Your Audience

Ever since I discovered that my school library had a small stock of Choose Your Own Adventure books, I have craved the experience of interactive adventures.

Stephen King has expressed his belief that writing is a form of telepathy. That he can think something, write it down, and that you can read it and hear his words a million miles away or a hundred years after he’s dead. As an enthusiastic writer and reader of fiction, I’ve always appreciated this view and cherished  how the written word has changed my life for the better.

When this sort of mental collaboration, this sharing of ideas and thoughts, takes place in real time, the experience gets even better. When I fully discovered pen and paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, I melded the real time storytelling with my experiences in improv theater. Ever since, my very favorite pastime has always been a good roleplaying game with friends old or new. There’s always something wildly unpredictable about it, a sense of freedom that can’t be found anywhere else. Many of these shared story experiences have stayed with me and affected me as deeply as any book of fiction I’ve ever read.

But sometimes you want to experience a story on your own terms. You want to experience that telepathy in solitude, but perhaps you still long for that interactivity, the ability to influence the story. Computer and video game RPGs seemed like the perfect marriage of experiencing a story at your own pace and still having a hand in its outcome.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic PC box coverI positively loved the RPGs I played in high school. I still remember some of the adventures I had in Baldur’s Gate II and Knights of the Old Republic. I didn’t just listen to the stories and interact with characters, I explored worlds and took risks that were my choice to take. Years later I convinced my wife to try Knights of the Old Republic and she loved it.

In recent years, however, the gaming industry has consistently let me down. More and more RPG properties have moved to the Massively Multiplayer Online model of gaming, something that doesn’t interest me at all because I find the stories bland and impersonal, not to mention the business model sickens me (that’s an entirely different article). In the middle of this blizzard of MMOs, the developers of my two favorite RPG games announced a new title: Dragon Age: Origins. Early articles discussed the game’s breakthrough story lines, gameplay, and choices. I was really excited about that game.

The first official trailer I came across for Dragon Age was titled :”Sex and Violence.”

Unnecessarily Cutting Me Out with Breasts and Blood

I was crushed. As I grew older and matured, so did the genre of video games that I loved, and not in a good way. As the 2000s rolled on and the video game generation grew up, the battle cry of developers became, “Video games aren’t just for kids anymore.” In my opinion, they seem to have painfully over-corrected into forgetting that there’s a whole population of people who want to enjoy games that aren’t all bright colors and kid’s pop, but also don’t want to jump straight into the seething cesspit of adult content. “Gritty” became the byword of the day.

In 2004 I stopped playing games rated M for Mature. I was working at blockbuster and every week, every week, someone came in with their pre-teen child to rent Grand Theft Auto, a series that teaches the player that if you make your character sleep with a prostitute, you can get your money back by killing her afterward. This was the same summer that the Playboy video game came out, tramp stamped with that little M in the corner. I decided to boycott M games from that time on, five years before I even had a child of my own to worry about.

In recent years, I sat despondent as a cavalcade of blockbuster games went by: Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Skyrim, BioShock. I could experience their critically acclaimed stories and expansive worlds only if I was willing to wade knee-deep in gore, get flashed with pixelated nudity, and have my ears warmed with the kind of prurient bad language I wish I had left behind in high school. Sex and violence have always existed in fiction but they don’t have a place in every story and I’m still dismayed that developers and marketers somehow find them so necessary in the stories they want to tell.

Official cover art for Bioshock Infinite.jpg

Now comes BioShock Infinite and finally I feel like my own opinions are being echoed in the
mainstream. I’ve always known there were others who shared my opinion, maybe even the silent majority of gamers, but arguments against excessive violence and the sexual objectification of women seem to have always been shrugged off or marginalized with arguments that, “We know our audience and that’s who we’re making games for.”

I don’t know if I can call it an outcry, but there are certainly a lot of people talking about the violence in BioShock Infinite and how it detracts from the beauty of the world and the emotional poignancy of the story. People who love the game are asking, “Do I really need to make all of these heads explode while I try to discover the truth about my characters and the world?”

While I’ve read that there isn’t an incredible amount of explicit sexual content in BioShock Infinite, the creator’s response to early online reaction about the game’s artwork is illuminating. One of the main characters, an attractive young woman named Elizabeth, is depicted in a corset-like dress with a low cut top. Much of the early chatter about the game centered on this character’s breasts. Creator Kevin Levine expressed dismay over this focus on relegating his painstakingly nuanced character to sexual object status. He laments about how much time he spent getting the emotion in her eyes just right and how he hardly gave a thought to the low cut top.

Exactly.

He didn’t think about how distracting it would be to have an attractive woman in a low cut top. He couldn’t believe how focused people were on it, either in praise or complaint. I guess this proves he doesn’t know his audience as well as he thought. This latter story highlights my question: If something distracts from the main elements of the game, why include it? Does anyone recommend a game to a friend based on how much cleavage it contains? If people do, they have to be just a tiny slice of the buying population that is in some inexplicable way being catered to. It’s mind boggling.

So I’ll stick BioShock Infinite up on my mental shelf of stories I would love to have experienced, if only game creators hadn’t cut me out by unnecessarily narrowing their audience.

 

 

That Horn Honking Jerk —or— Time for Some Introspection

Today, on my way to work, a large truck pulled into a left turn in front of me. It wasn’t even particularly close, but to make sure that he understood my virulent disapproval of his vehicular maneuver, I laid on the horn. My erstwhile nemesis immediately laid on his own horn and made no hurries to get out of my lane. In less than fifteen seconds, I was on my way, no worse for the wear.

Something, I’m not sure what, made me think about that incident a little later. I thought about how it makes me feel when somebody honks their horn in my direction when I’ve managed to pull some minor blunder behind the wheel. I get all flushed and frustrated. I crinkle up my face on one side and mutter epithets. For the rest of the drive I’m grouchy and hyper-vigilant of the jerk drivers around me. So I got to thinking about how quick I was to lay on my own horn and I had to ask myself,

“When did I become that guy?”

It’s time for some introspection. The answer to the question, “When should I bother to introspect?” is “Whenever you ask yourself that question.”

I don’t think I’m as patient as I used to be. I know I’m not as patient as I used to be. Not quite as easy going. I can offer all sorts of excuses, but those don’t generally get you anywhere with yourself, or rather, they shouldn’t. So somewhere along the line, for whatever reason, I decided that it was to the benefit of society to subject other drivers to educational blasts from my horn. I’m sure that my subconscious believes that a horn honk from me is as good as a Drivers Ed course and that the target of my aural assault becomes a better driver as a result. These things are probably not true. Probably.

As I said before, with the incident today I was in no imminent peril of death or injury and I was delayed less than fifteen seconds. With a little more patience I could have continued my day with a better attitude and lower blood pressure.

One of my favorite books for learning about the teachings of Jesus Christ is called Preach My Gospel. This book defines patience as: “…the capacity to endure delay, trouble, opposition, or suffering without becoming angry, frustrated, or anxious. It is the ability to do God’s will and accept His timing.”

Ouch.

I’m pretty sure that God has at no time willed me to direct sermons at vehicular sinners with my horn of righteousness.

I’m also pretty sure that I can work on my level of patience and that it would, in fact, make the world a better place. I’ll start by not being so quick with the horn.

Good ideas make me miserable.

It’s no secret that humans like to put things in boxes, literally as well as figuratively. There’s a sense of control that I think most humans crave and labeling something, giving it a name and definition, puts it into a neat little box that our brain has an easier time handling.

The particular box or label I’m writing about right now is that we have a tendency to label times of our life as “stages” or “phases,” as if we can quantify the events and growth that goes on between two points in time. Obviously life is a lot messier than we often give it credit for and a lot more complex than our labels would have us believe at first glance. Again, none of this will be particularly revelatory.

The point that I’m driving at is that I could say that I’m at a certain stage of life right now. I work full-time, support a young and growing family, chip away at a degree that seems ever less important, squeeze in some writing here and there, and generally try to remain happy about it all. The chief difficulty at this stage of life is that nearly every drop of my most precious commodity, time, is being sucked up the moment it becomes available.

While my body remains busy with all of these responsibilities, and travelling to and from them, my mind is often free to wander. And wander it does, at an incredible rate. In fact, it’s rather more correct to say that it’s free to spin, like a disc drive where the laser jumps frantically from track to track. The result is that I’m positively full of ideas. Ideas for stories, games, artwork, projects, hobbies, talents, plans a million other things. I’m filling up notebooks every month with doodles, outlines, and notes.

The reason that these ideas sometimes make me miserable, is that I have very little time to actually bring them into reality. In a single day I can end up plotting an entire novel but somewhere in the back of my head is the snickering imp who reminds me it’ll be years before I can even spew the roughest draft onto screen or paper.

This could get me very down if I let it, and it sometimes has. But there’s undeniably a bright side to it as well. I just have to turn my brain into a pressure cooker.

On the good side, the fact that my time is at such a premium means that I’ll only select the best ideas, the ideas that I’m most excited about or that I think have the best chance of success, to turn into reality with my precious creative time. I can flip through those notebooks and computer files until I land on something and say “That’s it. That’s what I should be working on right now.”

The other ideas get to hang out in the background, and yes, I do forget some of them, but for the most part they get to roll around inside my head, chipping the edges off of each other, sometimes combining into something better, sometimes fading into oblivion. My wealth of ideas grows as I grow, maturing with my accumulating experience.

Like just about everything in life, which it annoys me to constantly re-learn, it’s all a matter of perspective.