The digital graphics involved in making a video game employ all the traditional forms of art: shape, color, design, lighting, style, sound, and music. Think about it: the formal aesthetic principles used by and expressed through video games are exactly the same as those used in other more traditional artistic mediums: images, conceptual art, film, poetry, and music. Can we seriously and consistently entertain the idea that video games, as a medium, cannot be art? Take Bioshock, a survival horror first-person shooter video game designed by Ken Levine and developed by 2k Boston. The game plays off of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged: led by Andrew Ryan, industrialists, artists, and scientists have retreated from the world and built Rapture, a dystopian city at the bottom of the Atlantic. When the game begins, however, the city and its citizens have been corrupted by their own arrogance, as genetically manipulated splicers creep through the corridors and hallways of Rapture. It seems like all humanity has been lost, and it is the player's objective to kill Andrew Ryan and escape Rapture.
Early in the game the player-characer confronts Big Daddies and Little Sisters. The juxtaposition of the Little Sister, a cute little girl, with her monstrous protector is at once surprising, strange, and beautiful. It is here that we see the art of Bioshock first emerge. Players are confronted with rescuing the Little Sister or harvesting her; if you harvest her, you get double the ADAM, which enhances you abilities and makes you stronger. The obvious, rational choice to make is harvesting the, and Atlas, the leader of the revolution in the city, assures you the girl's are not human. He says: "Somebody went and turned a sweet baby girl into a monster. Whatever you thought about right and wrong on the surface, well that don't count for much down in Rapture." The choice seems obvious, as a gamer. But the choice, of course, is made harder by the Little Sister herself, who repeatedly calls you an "angel."
Think about it: in Shakespeare's plays, the characters elicit our sympathy and pity and other emotional responses, but they are always passive emotions because we are not actually involved in the fiction. Bioshock choreographs scenes in which we play a central role, and hence, the emotions are directed towards ourselves, feeling either good or bad about what we do. What is so uncanny about this is that the self-directed emotions challenge our ability to play the game rationally. We allow "monsters" to defend themselves through appeals to our emotions. We experience emotions in the game in a new and suprising way, that itself is in dialogue with past works of art. The Big Daddies evoke fearfulness, the Little Sisters sympathy.
Each character and scene is designed to challenge our rationality and our emotions, as the game forces us to be active participants rather than distant observers. And the moral consequences of Little Sisters has barely been touched on yet. Notice that in most games, characters that elicit the sympathy and psychological response that Little Sisters do are completely absent. In fact, in most games, innocent women, children, and the elderly are usually not found. But in Bioshock, all are characters that force the players to make moral deliberations and reflections, which are themselves offset by their rational need to survive and escape and their emotional commitments. What is art, if not a fiction that explores all these aesthetic and philosophical elements and performs them in the viewer?
P.S.: I'm a big fan of the Bioshock series. Keep up the great work Mr. Levine!
Kemo D. 7