Monster Fun. But Is It Art?

By Mike Musgrove
Saturday, September 15, 2007

On a recent Saturday morning, I headed over to the house of Pulitzer Prize-winning Post book columnist Michael Dirda with an Xbox 360 under my arm. I plugged the device into his TV, showed him how to turn on the console and vanished. My assignment for Dirda was to try a new game called BioShock.

BioShock, a sci-fi "shooter" game set in 1960, is something of a phenomenon in the video game world right now. Released last month, it's the most critically acclaimed video game to ever appear on the Xbox 360, according to Metacritic, a site that tracks reviews.

Dirda's not exactly a video game guy, as you might expect of someone who spends his time writing books about the pleasures of reading; the last game he tried to play was Myst, more than a decade ago. But he is a sci-fi fan and an open-minded fellow, and I was curious whether BioShock's story would be compelling enough to draw him in.

Video game fans sometimes like to argue that this medium is the world's next great art form, but there never seems to be an abundance of titles that provide any confidence that games are working their way out of the cultural ghetto. BioShock, an action-packed title that also has some serious underlying themes, seems as if it could help make the argument that games could be regarded as a "serious" art form able to comment on the human condition, and all that stuff.

The game takes place in an underwater city called Rapture, built by an industrialist who wanted to escape the U.S. government and build his own utopian society. After a power struggle, there was a war of sorts; now the corridors of this city are empty except for a few violent, crazy, genetically modified souls who babble senselessly and attack anybody who comes along. Jack, the game's protagonist, stumbles into this destroyed city after surviving a plane crash that leaves him shivering at its entrance with nowhere else to go.

The whole thing feels as if somebody took an Ayn Rand novel and generated something in the format of a scary shooter game -- complete with flourishes from films and books such as "Blade Runner," "The Shining" and "Frankenstein." Players can piece together the mystery of Rapture's history by listening to audio diaries strewn around the place, or they can just partake of the game's more visceral thrills by blasting away the monsters.

When I checked back a couple of weeks later, Dirda had only played a few levels of the game, though his 16-year-old son, Nate, had already worked through it in its entirety and pronounced it the best video game of this genre he'd ever played.

Dirda, who is 58, admired the game's visuals and said that he found the story line "gripping" and that he could easily see himself getting hooked. The only problem was that his few hours with BioShock didn't change his basic lack of familiarity with how to handle a game controller.

"Here's where I keep getting killed," he said after we loaded his most recent saved game. He'd made it to Neptune's Bounty, an early level in the game, and was getting murdered onscreen by one of the game's monsters. "I've got a first-aid kit, but I haven't figured out how to use it."

For anybody who has acquired a habit for the game, hitting the first-aid button requires as much conscious thought as blinking an eye. Without realizing it, I'd undermined the experiment somewhat by not putting the game on the "easy" level, where he could have spent more time taking in the game's story and less time grappling with the mechanics.

Dirda, to use his word, doesn't know the "rhetoric" of video games. Me: I've spent so much time playing video games over the years that I'd forgotten people aren't born instinctively knowing how to "circlestrafe" a monster.

For what it's worth, Dirda liked the parts of the game he was able to survive and seemed to enjoy kicking around the ideas presented in its introduction and early levels while tossing out theories about how the story would progress. The game prompted comparisons, from Homer's "Odyssey" to "Die Hard 2."

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