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Video Games and the Post Modern Novel – “A man chooses, a slave obeys”.
As phenomenon, games and post modernism both arose around the same time. Post modernism is certainly tied strongly to the rise of technology, with the relatively new mediums of television and film allowing all kinds of new ways to play with the relationship of author and consumer that previously belonged only to the novel. It is a natural development, then, to go from the book, to the film and, in only the last two decades; to a newer medium and arguably the most post-modern, video games. Why is it the most post modern? Because the ‘reader’ is literally in control. Not only is the author dead, he’s handed you his manuscript with a note saying ‘go nuts’. In this interactive, editable world where the faces of models can be airbrushed to perfection with a few clicks of a mouse and we can choose who gets kicked out of a simulated share house, in which the reader is not passive as with films and books, but active players who interact with, change and edit the narrative as it occurs, surely games can be considered to be at the pinnacle of the post-modern art form.
Now if you cringe at the idea of calling games art: I completely understand, but please bear with me; perhaps by the end of this I’ll have changed your mind.
Quite possibly the most post-modern game out there, Bioshock is as much blockbuster action as it is a self-referencing commentary on video games. It deliberately deconstructs this myth of interactivity and choice I mentioned earlier and suggests that, instead of you playing the game, it has been playing with you. Before I can explore this further, some plot will have to be explained. Spoilers.
Bioshock is set in an alternate 1960 in a fictional dystopian, underwater city called Rapture. Rapture was conceived by former socialist businessman Andrew Ryan, who wanted to create a state to escape the increasingly oppressive political, economic and religious authorities he faced on the surface. During Rapture’s construction the accidental discovery of ADAM is made; a stem cell harvested from an unknown species of sea slugs. This leads to genetic research and eventually to the citizens of Rapture gaining superhuman powers from plasmids, a substance that rewrites genetic code. As the years passed, tensions rise between man called Andrew Ryan and another party, and in their 1959 civil war breaks out, causing Rapture to fall into decay. Without the regular production of ADAM, the people must quit cold turkey, which gradually sends them insane. This is the world that you, as the player, are introduced to.
You play as Jack, the story’s protagonist, and start the game on a plane, which soon crashes into the ocean. Surviving the crash, you find the entrance to Rapture. The citizens have turned into roaming psychopaths and the place has sprung more than a few leaks. But you soon gain a friend in the form of Atlas, an Irishman who gives you directions via a radio. He fulfils that classic dual video game role of tutor and plot driver, telling you where to go and what to do.
From the very start of the game you are propelled forward by Atlas. He guides Jack along and you do what he tells you, under the illusion that you are doing so of your own free will. You wander about Rapture, battling the drug-muddled people (called Splicers) and eventually encounter the man behind it all, Andrew Ryan. He is the sanest person Jack has met so far, dressing well and presenting a calm demeanour. Ryan reveals that Jack is a genetic creation, only two years old but engineered to mature extremely rapidly. He has been programmed to obey any order that is prefaced by the words “would you kindly?”. Suddenly every choice you’ve made as a player while playing the game is cast in a different light. Every time Atlas has asked you to go somewhere or do something, he has used that exact phrase. For the entire time you’ve been playing, you haven’t been a faceless hero, just a pawn controlled by Atlas in order to achieve his own goals. Which turns out to be Ryan’s death.
Ryan, wanting to face death on his own terms, asks Jack calmly: “Would you kindly… kill?” and for the first time the control is taken out of the players hands, the action is instead shown in a cutscene. You watch helplessly as Jack beats Ryan to death with a golf club. This scene is shocking not just visually and in terms of narrative, but also because of the gut-wrenching feeling of helplessness it forces on the player. There is nothing they can do to stop this.
This is not intended to jar with the freedom previously enjoyed for the first part of the game, but instead to help the player feel the exact same way Jack would have felt. Jack has followed Atlas’ instructions due to the mind control conditioning; we as the player have followed Atlas’ instructions because Bioshock is a video game and we understand that we need to follow the instructions to proceed.
This climax is how Bioshock manages to make the most important comment yet made on video games: Players do not have a choice; the experience of playing a game is just as controlled and linear as any other medium. Games are just better at presenting the illusion of choice. Just like Jack is a mind-controlled puppet, when we play games, any game, we are being forced into following a certain path.
Say you’re in a game. You’re in your room; there are windows and an open door. If the room is empty except for a big red button with “press to open door” written on it, you will then conclude that for the game to progress, you must press it and go through the door. You could choose to run around in circles, jump up and down or just curl up in the corner and cry, but it wouldn’t change the fact that without acting, the game becomes a stagnant world. You are compelled to walk through the door.
The idea of compulsion and addiction is certainly one common in post-modern works, and Bioshock is no exception. As I’ve said, for the majority of the game Jack is being mentally compelled by the code phrase, just as we the player are compelled to progress through the game, to see what’s next, which can also become an addiction. Then there are the menacing Splicers, who are literally addicted to a substance that has destroyed their lives.
Another of the hallmarks of post-modernism is the blurring of the high and low brow cultures of art. As video games have never been considered high art, the fact that Bioshock vies for intellectual consideration is certainly another reason to see it as post-modern. Games often have the stigma of being mindless entertainment, where nothing is learnt and the consumer blocks out reality. While this is true in some cases, for every aspect of the game that is designed purely for entertainment in Bioshock, there is another that is insightful and mentally stimulating. For example, the Splicers are an enemy like any other and are an obstacle that must be overcome through traditional, entertaining game play i.e. shooting things. But there is also the option to wait and listen to them as they mutter crazily to themselves, oblivious to your imminent attack. At one stage you see a woman leaning over a pram, singing affectionately. When you get a bit closer you can see that she is in fact singing to a handgun. They’re not just monsters; they’re everyday men and women driven mad by the horrors of their situation.
Then of course there is the mind control element, which serves both as an absurd plot twist, and the linchpin for the game’s commentary on the video game medium and the illusion of choice. Bioshock manages to shift from entertainment to art seamlessly. Almost as if it’s daring someone to come along and try to draw a line dividing what should be analysed and what shouldn’t. Just like post modernism, Bioshock defies categorisation.
Just as there are books about books and films about films, Bioshock is a video game about video games; quite possibly the first of its kind. It comments on its own medium in a way that no book or film can. It is ironic that the games most profound and famous moment, in which you watch Jack kill Ryan, is delivered in a cinematic, but nevertheless its success lies in the fact that it could not be achieved in anything other than a video game.
This post was submitted by Darcy Tranter-Cook.