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Friday, September 24, 2021

The Aggie Arcade

Videogame Education

Friends who know me well understand that my passion for video games extends beyond the simple pleasures of analog button presses and virtual feedback. I see the entire industry as a means of expression in the same way that great novels, albums or films speak to wide-ranging audiences.

I’m sure there are plenty of individuals out there who share my sentiment, but I’ve also had encounters in which people lightheartedly scoff at such a notion. I must admit, it’s hard to hop on board with my philosophy when the latest trailer for Gears of War: Judgment blares from the television. I’m sure it’s a fine game, but I can only take so much gunfire and explosions!

But every now and then a game comes along that reaffirms my faith in the industry’s growth, and last week that game was BioShock Infinite. That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of things like gunfire — this is entertainment product we’re talking about — but the heavy themes and messages the game carries rival many of the novels I’ve read here at UC Davis as an English major.

One needs to only go back six years to the original BioShock to understand how the series represents a step in a unique direction for the entire medium. The central narrative foundation in that game is Objectivism — you know, the controversial philosophy featured heavily in Ayn Rand novels like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Imagine marketing that to the gaming public: “Hey everyone, come play this new release in which one of the core tenants is Ayn Rand’s philosophy on life!”

Obviously the marketing was not handled in such a way, but many people bought BioShock and fans like myself picked apart the game’s themes of morality and Orwellian authoritative control. As someone who enjoys analyzing literary works on a deeper level, it was like a match made in heaven.

Then BioShock Infinite came out last week and managed to recapture the magic yet again. This time developer Irrational Games pushes the envelope even further with Columbia, a utopian city in the sky that strives for purity and beckons to the call of Father Comstock, a religious zealot who keeps a stranglehold on the isolated city’s citizens.

Over the course of the game’s 12+ hour campaign, players are introduced to a world in which ideas of patriotism and choice are completely flipped on their heads. Columbia is a place in which the history books treat George Washington like a god and label Abraham Lincoln as a devil — let’s just say his emancipation of the slaves did little to aid Comstock’s view of a “pure” city, in which African Americans are denigrated and given no voice.

The game eventually ends with a mind-blowing conclusion that I wouldn’t dare ruin for anyone, but I will say that it partially calls on concepts one might be more inclined to find discussed in a science class. English, history, science … BioShock Infinite might as well be introduced to our campus’ GE requirements.

In all seriousness, the way in which BioShock Infinite tackles controversial subjects such as religion and racism speaks to the entire video game industry’s ability to handle emotionally taxing themes in a mature and thoughtful way. None have done it quite as well as Infinite, but with the next console generation on the horizon, I cannot help but feel that more developers will take similar narrative risks in an attempt to push the medium forward.

Who knows, maybe 10 or 20 years from now there will be a class at UC Davis in which students analyze and discuss the narrative merits of games like BioShock Infinite. I’ll keep my schedule open if the school needs to fill that professor vacancy.

ANTHONY LABELLA can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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