What Games Are: Bioshock Infinite and that old ‘pew pew pew’ feeling

What Games Are

Playing mouse-and-keyboard games is something I really can’t do any more. About 13 years ago I injured my back and shoulders – a case of overenthusiastic yoga – and developed a sciatica-like condition in my hands and arms. It comes and goes, mostly depending on strain and how often I get to an osteopath. But when I hold my fingers like a cat perched over my WASD, I later regret it.

But sometimes I give it a go anyway, because a game comes out that I think is worth risking it for. Recently, it was BioShock Infinite, a game that my Twitter feed raved about for a week. I installed a Windows partition on my Mac just to play it.

And what a marvel it was to behold. It ran at full resolution on my Retina-enabled screen (an incredible 2,880×1,800 for those keeping score) and it was so beautiful that it was the kind of game that made me stop and look at raindrops. The sort of view that onomatopoeia would call ‘lush’. I drank it in, wandered through the streets, watching whole buildings bob up and down among the clouds.

It felt like that first time I stared out over the landscape of Phobos when playing Doom 19 years ago, or New York in Deus Ex, or Wake Island in Battlefield 1942. That old feeling of walking through a world seen through a screen three feet from your face (it’s not quite the same as on console and TV), drinking it in, getting scared, peeking around corners and wondering how much ammunition you have left.

Yet as a recent immigrant to the US, I find myself thinking on the phrase, “You can never go home.” I’ve moved country twice, once from Dublin to London for over ten years; more recently (by dint of the Green Card lottery) to Seattle. I miss both cities equally and consider both my home. But you can’t ever go back, not really.

When you do it’s different, but also the same. The different bits weird you out and the samey bits irritate you endlessly. And that’s also how I feel playing BioShock. The nostalgia of its beauty kind of weirds me out a little, with bloom upon bloom. Meanwhile, the valence of interaction with the world is decidedly in the negative.

That experience of walking up to videogame characters that inertly repeat stock phrases at you. That business of endlessly searching bodies and stealing every pfennig you find. That sensation of walking through a digital Madame Tussauds and finding weapon-vending machines and upgrade powers that make little sense. That realisation that it may look glorious, but really the depth of the fiction is no greater than was that of Rise Of The Triads and its priest porridge health pickups.

And once realisation dawns, the question that arises is whether the frame (the mechanics, etc) is any good, because that’s all there really is. As high-definition tropes reveal themselves to be much the same as the tropes of yesteryear, it comes down to whether the old ‘pew pew pew’ of shooting gameplay is worth doing. It’s all right. Enough to pass the time.

Aside from wrist pains, my problem is that I’ve seen this all before. Although I try, I find that I cannot go back to a time when I used to have the ability to believe more easily, and was more tolerant of the bugs, breaks, sops and cheesy nods to necessity in games. Where I might have considered the breakability of the system in an Elder Scrolls game something to be ignored in 1995, in 2013 it jarred me.

And it’s not just shooters where I find my expectations changing. I find roleplaying games awfully bombastic – and this from a guy who was a D&D fiend into his mid-20s. I find racing games very so-so. I find several of the newly minted ‘zine’ style of interactive artwork perhaps a little less interesting than I might have two decades ago, because their messages are rather obvious.

I believe in games, but I find that the games of my youth no longer interest me. For the younger generation, no doubt what it is playing all feels so very significant right now. Yet for me, I find that as I grow older I become more and more fascinated by elegance, robustness and coherence. I want games about the simple interaction leading to extended fun and delight, delivered with artistry.

I’m talking about games like Rez and Journey, iPad games like Triple Town and contained games like Papers, Please. I’m talking about what I’ve often called ‘thauma’, a sense of coherent believability that goes beyond immersion or flow. I’m talking about wanting to play in the leanest of worlds with the most wonderful mechanics, and finding joy in small things.

There is power in playing and a numinous sense unique to games that arises from knowing that a world might exist beyond its physical boundaries. There is incalculable depth of meaning to be derived from the simplest action as long as it is robust. As long as the frame does not become apparent quickly.

The old ‘pew pew pew’ is probably better kept in the nostalgia file. As I grow older, I find my continued love affair with games-as-art goes in new directions. There is magic in those digital worlds we make, for all ages, and that magic is often surprising in how much it does with so little.