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.
I 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.
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.
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.