Bioshock Infinite, JRPGs, and Good Criticism

Bioshock Infinite Columbia

So now that a consensus was reached, it appears Bioshock Infinite’s lofty MetaCritic score does not reflect true public opinion on the game – well, at least according to people who write about video games, anyway! From the multiple used copies I saw at GameStop today, I imagine that’s the case, but who can really know? I am basing my opinion entirely on anecdote and the Internet, apparently!

Whether seen as a facile attempt to confront racism or a time-traveling story with a Disney Princess that makes no sense, you’ll find a huge diversity of opinions regarding the game’s ambitions. That’s not to mention the rather tortured attempt to critique religion in only the barest of terms. Apparently, people love it for being derivative as a game yet taking risks in terms of its story-telling – or just simply being enjoyable, like we all imagined video games should, even with its flaws. Or, as Tim Rogers might say of it after an exhaustive treatise on the game’s successes and failures:

In short, Bioshock Infinite makes me sad. Bioshock Infinite makes me sad that I’m not offered the choice of a dozen more games like it every year. I want so many games this big, and this weird, and this stuffed full of stuff. I want this game to be successful. No matter how stupid I ultimately decided it was, I want it to succeed, so that we can start breaking the cycle of every triple-A game being about some super-boring regular dudes on earth fighting in a desert or a jungle. I want to go weird places with weird people — in real life and in videogames. I know it’s cool for “people like me” to hate Bioshock Infinite unconditionally, because that’d be the opposite of what everyone else is doing, though I arrive at the end of this critique genuinely conflicted.

I sincerely love that a game as visually and thematically dense as Bioshock Infinite exists. I admire that it aspires to narrative significance, among other games which cannot graduate beyond “shoot all the guys”. It refreshes me to, for once, experience a triple-A game behind which I constantly feel the presence of an author — not a committee, not a focus group: an author. I am weirdly flattered to no end that this sort of experience has grown up into the sort of interactive electronic entertainment corporations will pay Two Hundred Million Dollars for. As Clint Hocking said many years ago, of Bioshock, this sort of experience proves that games really are something. Hocking theorized that the game which “is to Bioshock as Bioshock is to System Shock 2″ will be the “Citizen Kane” of games. That game is definitely not Bioshock Infinite, and even though I did not precisely walk away “liking” Bioshock Infinite, I can say with conviction that it is a landmark game, in that it proved to me that intelligent life does in fact exist in a yet-unexplored — though quite nearby — region of videogame history.

I agree! I’m glad Bioshock exists, if only to placate a specific audience that I don’t consider myself a part. However, isn’t it interesting that we give Bioshock a pass for its mediocre qualities overall? I find that surprising, given the current attitude towards Japanese development as “dead”, “outdated” and “not with the times”. Apparently, good intentions from people that speak the same language and share your worldview works wonders when it comes to how we evaluate said products. If it feels foreign or doesn’t appeal to my Western story-telling sensibilities, then it must be bad. Right?

Let me be the eternal contrarian, just for the sake of argument. I just don’t get these games with heavy narratives or attempts to make me “feel” a particular way. Whether due to upbringing (as a conservative Baptist who learned that what he “thought” was always more important than what he “felt”) or philosophical/religious/theological convictions, I find myself playing games that people find undeniably derivative from a story-telling perspective, yet innovate and continually entertain with their pointlessly complicated mechanics (if you fit in the Phil Fish-school of thought, anyway).

Take my love of JRPGs, for example. I suppose you could define them as a “guilty pleasures”, but I believe the media we like comes from somewhere, right? I enjoy watching Michael Bay movies because I can appreciate them for what they are – explosions for two and a half hours. I can accept that, and also praise his cinematography which allows him to make crazy action discernable to a general audience. Just read some of these Criterion Collection essays on The Rock and Armageddon and you may find yourself reconsidering reality’s construction for actually liking a Michael Bay film.

If there’s anything that Christianity teaches, it is that there’s good in everything, and that we must find this good. Take 1 Timothy 4, describing it in the context of asceticism for its own sake and not God:

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.

This refers to the things God creates directly, but it’s not too far a logical leap to deduce that this refers to sub-creations as well – things that human beings create. God finds it in us and makes it prominent; so we, too, find ways to redeem what surrounds us in our circumstances, including various entertainment media. In that sense, I just love Japanese game design, and I will not apologize for it; there’s something of great depth and meaning here, and I believe we in the Western world tend to miss it simply due to our post-modern, ironic, hipsterized and rational/materialist sensibilities.

With that incredibly long and seemingly unrelated premise out of the way, let me now explain my love of Namco-Bandai’s Tales series! People do not like Tales games for one reason or another. Much like a Call of Duty or Madden installment, so too do Tales games find an annual release (if not in America, than certainly in Japan). They take the same stock anime trope character, place them into a newly developed medieval-with-a-dash-of-steampunk-technology (or aliens. Or ancient races, etc.) world and let them run wild with the most generic and predictable plot you could imagine. In the case of Tales of Graces, there’s tons of political maneuvering and betrayals that would find a perfect home in any textbook – boring for most audiences, but I eat this stuff up.

The games always find their way into my heart, mostly because Tales complements their generic plot with characters you might actually like. Because of the length of the journies taken, you find out a lot about these people, spend time with them, perhaps even hate them for embodying some anime stereotype (self-loathing hot-blooded teenager who overthinks his decisions, anyone) or telling rather than showing their feelings, but I simply don’t care. They’re funny, they’re enjoyable, and a weird sort of rapport develops between the party members. It’s like watching a long-running television series – you get attached after 30 hours of seeing these people go through various trials and tragedies, all said. The tone’s always story-book light, and the comedy comes into play more than you’d imagine.

Tales of Graces F Battle

Of course, we’re only hitting the surface here, as Tales games live or die on one thing: the battle system. And boy, is it a good one. Starting with the first game, Tales of Phantasia, they always use what they call the Linear Action Battle System, which creates a fancy sounding acronym for real-time combat. Think fighting game-lite and you’re half way there; think multitasking, exposing enemy weaknesses, defending your healers, setting up proper ally AI so they don’t kill themselves, and things get a lot more complicated.

Perhaps you’ve read many reviews which call the games “easy” – well, why not kick up the difficulty a notch and see if you know what’s actually happening. At higher difficulties, the game forces you to pay attention to everything. Certain bosses will kill your outright unless you know how to stun them, break their shield, or know how to separate them from your healers (which, unlike most MMOs, they will target directly and efficiently). It’s pretty amazing to play an intense boss fight for five minutes, only to falter at the very end due to a mistake on your part. That’s exhilarating and frightening at the same times, and that’s what I love about it. That you might actually connect with the characters on the level of their struggle only adds to the immersion.

You need teamwork and the power of friendship (how cliched does that sound) to defeat your foes and win the day, exactly what the narrative shoves into your ears at any waking moment. It doesn’t hurt that Tales games became the de facto defintion of “good, clean fun” in a video game world increasingly in love with the dark, grimy, and gritty. Bright colors and wonderful sights abound, and it’s a delight just to walk around at time and take in the view.

As I’ve said before: JRPGs tell simple stories with big meaning. Tales games represent the very definition of said games, in both their good and bad qualities. What does this mean for game criticism? Well, we need to stop criticizing them for what they should be and criticize them for what they are. Tales games, and my other guilty pleasures, fit in one hole while indie games with Westernized meanings fit into their hole. So, too, does the big AAA budget game with a complex narrative and failed ambitions. Neither one or the other retains some high ground, but each has its place in the grand scheme and fills a hole in the market. I don’t personally like many Western games, nor do I think they represent the greater qualities of the medium well, but telling them their games suck?

How will this solve the problem? Japanese games, let’s admit, were always made for Japanese people; some of us got with the program, others found that games from their own cultural context suited them fine, thank you very much. Though a few games transcended the typical stereotypes (mostly Nintendo titles, from my reckoning), many of the Japanese games released now don’t attempt to appeal to anyone but their own demographics in a very specific market. It’s weird to think this way, but not everything came about due to an appeal to Americans – crazy, I know! It shouldn’t surprise you that Tales of Graces F received critical acclaim in Japan, while it received a middling to fair response from critics here (again, from major publications – IGN didn’t even bother to finish the game and give it a score, which makes me sad). Taste develops, surely, but it is conditioned by our environment and our culture in more ways than one.

Criticism requires an understanding of what it is, where it came from, its history, and where it can improve. Bad criticism consists of redefining the thing you don’t like according to your specifications – i.e., a strawman – and then attacking it as if it were your actual target. That’s where I see the current problem with Japanese games judged on their “artistic merits” in a way unflattering to their construction. Some academic somewhere surely made this evaluative judgment of an art-form when trying to make a cultural leap to criticizing foreign works – it just doesn’t work until we’re all in agreement with the terms in play.

Either that or I’m just a sentimental buffoon. There’s a strawman for you! So that’s my say about that.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.