BioShock Infinite's unrealistic leap toward videogame progress

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.

Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite
Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite

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acceptable to make no-frill romantic comedies, it’s often considered to be a sacrilege to create a videogame with outdated graphics.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.

Legend of Zelda Wind Waker
Can you imagine Wind Waker any other way?

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.

Should I give in to an increasingly shooter-based gaming future?

I have this problem when it comes to playing shooters: I may be the worst player in the world when it comes to titles that rely on aiming and accuracy.

My hands just don’t know what to do. To be more specific, the years have trained my right thumb to press face buttons to execute the perfect Hadoken in Street Fighter 2 or summon Shiva in Final Fantasy 7. Button mashing and stat-tracking have always been the bread and butter of my gaming credentials.

Menu screen of Final Fantasy VII
This is what I'm used to

Thanks to Super Smash Bros. Melee, I chose the Nintendo GameCube over the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox as my console of choice during college. Since there were very few role-playing games available for that system, I had to adapt to action-based fare like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Metroid Prime. It was a big transition from menu-driven RPGs to titles that require quick hand-eye coordination, but it was manageable, and I eventually became quite adept thanks largely to Nintendo’s innovative Z-Targeting system.

While it’s one thing to use the right analog stick to manipulate a camera, it’s another to depend on it for pinpoint headshot accuracy. I simply can’t do it. Like an old dog, it’s difficult for me to learn a new trick when my right thumb is so accustomed to pressing buttons. That’s why I’ve always avoided anything involving aiming and shooting as best I can.

But something happened in the past several years. Not only are there fewer and fewer traditional RPGs, but more and more games are increasingly adapting aiming and shooting as their primary gameplay element. Instant classics like Mass Effect and Fallout 3 are technically in the role-playing genre, but their shooter-based gameplay has kept me away for years.

The same could be said for the action-adventure genre: I was awesome at Batman: Arkham Asylum and Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time, but for me, Infamous was an utterly hopeless endeavor — an action game that had melee options, but focused primarily on accuracy and shooting. I eventually finished it, but not without letting go of my pride and setting the difficulty to easy. Ugh, I’m still ashamed.

Infamous is an open-world action-adventure that features aiming and shooting as a primary focus

I understand that a big part of the changeover has to do with the fact that technology now allows us to experience instant inputs that result in direct consequences. Developers no longer have to rely on heavy text or a four-minute Guardian Force summon to present an epic sense of scale. Now, everything can be done in real time.

No one was more excited than me when Nintendo unveiled the original Wii. Like a late-night infomercial, I wondered if this could be the product that would change my life forever and allow me to play shooters. And for the first time, I was a complete badass at Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition — games I had no chance in finishing if it wasn’t for the intuitive motion control. It’s an unfortunate reality, however, that developers never took full advantage of the console.

It’s not that I don’t like the concept of shooters. I’m just hesitant to see more and more games moving toward core design concept that I’m not sure everyone has a knack (or a desire) for. As I see this trend grow bigger every year, it’s quickly becoming a sink-or-swim issue for me.

Should I stick to the few remaining traditional role-playing and action-adventure games and risk missing out on the majority of medium’s best experiences? Or should I face the reality that shooters are the new standard and suck it up, even if it means toning down the difficulty to easy and retrying the same mission 50 times?

Update: This post has since been featured on the front page at Bitmob.com!

Why I heart gaming

tl;dr – The reason why I love gaming isn’t really about games but the fact that it brings people together + crosses boundaries.

I guess it’s only fair to start my first post here on something I’ve always felt very passionate about — videogames. Every time I read a story on why people love videogames on the information superhighway Internet, they would usually mention how the NES during their childhood pretty much singlehandedly changed their lives. From Mario to Zelda to Metroid, there’s always one hero or heroine (surprised!) that seem to define their childhood.

Well, I guess I was a late bloomer.
Continue reading “Why I heart gaming”