I’ve never played the original BioShock and I haven’t gotten past the first Big Sister in BioShock 2, but I can’t wait to get my hands on the new BioShock Infinite game coming out in late 2012.
I’m excited because I’m so drawn to the game’s graphical style. Unlike most western developers who constantly chase after the ultimate realism in videogames, Irrational Games’s Creative Director, Ken Levine, is steering BioShock Infinite into a whole new art direction.
The world in BioShock Infinite is vibrant and detailed but with a comic-book influence, in a way similar to a stylized cartoon in high definition. The characters, in particular the mysterious character Elizabeth, have exaggerated human features.
In an interview with Gamers With Jobs last year, Ken Levine explained that:
A movie uses photorealism quite often because it’s free. We don’t get a cost benefit for being photorealistic, it’s the same reason Pixar’s not photorealistic, you just end up creepy… There’s no need to be photorealistic and I think it’s kind of a cop out. I’d much rather play a game that’s stylized.
I love that. It’s not that I don’t appreciate realistic graphics in videogames, far from it, but I don’t think as gamers we should limit ourselves to a singular style of art.
Videogames are fundamentally different when comparing to other art forms, such as writing or photography, because there’s this constant need to be on the cutting edge of technology. Even when it comes to moviemaking where it’s socially acceptable to make no-frill romantic comedies, it’s often considered to be a sacrilege to create a videogame with outdated graphics. Can you imagine Mass Effect 3 with blocky textures from the Nintendo 64 era?
That’s why game designers tend to chase toward art styles that replicate reality. That way, they can show off their latest and greatest achievements by bragging about the quantitative, technical side of art. They start talking the game’s ability to run in 60 frames per second or the computer’s system requirement in order to replicate such reality smoothly. Realism is also something consumers are most familiar with, and why it’s a safety net for most game publishers.
But because of that, it becomes a risk for game designers to implement anything other than realistic graphics because that’s all consumers are familiar with. It would be like how the music industry would only focus on Pop because consumers are only exposed to Lady Gaga.
The thing is, artists shouldn’t produce art that are solely conformed by consumers’ expectations. Instead, artists should create things that represent their creativity, even if they happen to challenge consumers’ perceptions of what art should be. Otherwise, paintings would never move past Impressionism and music would still be consisted of four independent movements.
Just imagine games such as Animal Crossing, Borderlands, No More Heroes, or The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker without their distinctive art styles. Imagine if Anime characters are drawn with proportional human features, or if all of Pixar’s famous characters were created with ultra realism in mind. They may still be mind blowing, but in exchange they would’ve lost the sense of magic they are now known for.
BioShock Infinite is exciting partly because its art style is refreshing and it stands out from many of the videogames in the market today. Unlike the latest installments of Uncharted, Call of Duty, or Gears of War where I have clear ideas of what the final products may look like, I haven’t seen enough of BioShock Infinite to really know where (and how) Ken Levine will ultimately take us in the colorful, yet collapsing, air-city of Columbia. And that’s a good thing.
It’s a leap of faith, but one I’m happy to take. I’m intrigued from what I’ve seen so far to learning more about the game, even if Elizabeth does look like a character from Bratz.