With the advent and accessibility of digital computing, we stand at the forefront of an entirely new age of media and expression. Three-dimensional realities, fashioned in the imagination, can now appear in wondrous detail at the fingertips of a skilled creator with a laptop. Research in human-computer interaction has brought this technology to the consumer – opportunities to immerse our eyes and ears entirely in virtual reality headsets. Technology rages on faster than creatives can fashion it.
At the nexus of new media, the interdisciplinary production of interactive entertainment has been the first of the age to fall into the recognition of artistic expression. This was not always the case. Video games began humbly as recreational diversions: tactile, quick, simple, and highly entertaining. One of the first waves of the video game as it is known today began undersea, in the fictional dystopia of Rapture. Bioshock, the winner of nearly a dozen Game of the Year awards, was the product of a painstaking effort to create an experience that would challenge the genre – and it succeeded.
The narrative assembled by the writers of Irrational Games was not something unique to the category of dystopian fiction by any means. The plot drew strong themes from Randian philosophy, motifs of objectivism and questions of free will in the face of chaos. Complex narratives were an entirely new concept to video games, and in crafting a challenging story around the world of Bioshock, they raised the standard for video games to come.
These are facts easily found on the back of a box – but they play into what some might argue is the most illuminating perspective on video games. In the right hands (both creator and player), interactive entertainment can be a uniquely immersive way of experiencing an idea. Using Bioshock as an example, examining the motif of free will is interesting.
While wrapped in the pretense of recreation, the fun of playing Bioshock quickly intertwines with challenging ideas and moral decisions. Thrust into this crumbling undersea world, the player character is faced with a series of challenges in an attempt to rescue his ally. Level after level, shooting match after shooting match, the game carries on as most games do, slowly providing more detail to the story. It’s only at the very climax that Bioshocks story makes it’s striking blow: a twisting reveal that the player has in fact been misled and has been responsible for destruction and evil.
It’s in that moment that video game players were, for the first time ever, forced to truly feel out what was going on. In the uncertainty, the formulaic paradigm of playing a game began to fade, and the player’s emotions were brought into the equation. In this special place, the immersion of a well-made video game becomes a greater canvas for expression. If we can continue to fill this space with ideas as powerful as the ones that made Bioshock so successful, the opportunities will continue to expand.
Since then, the industry has seen war shooters denouncing violence and save-the-princess games that portray the savior as the villain, games on immigration, games about baby-proofing apartments, etc. We’re surely privileged to have watched the rise of these unique examples of 21st century expression, as they soon become a standard choice of entertainment for the upcoming generation.
BioShock. 2K Games, 2007. Video game.