Games and Books

Something I wrote during the Summer:

I recently finished Bioshock: Rapture.

My short review is that the book did a good job rehashing what was scatteringly told across the two games. Being able to picture Rapture while reading was a treat because it is a real, immersive, detailed place– which I think is what made the games so renowned (not the shooting, gameplay, main story, or faux morality features). While the plot is like a dystopian novel on steroids (ADAM), the ideological and genetic themes make it unique, and interesting to read how they shape Rapture’s rise and fall. I was particularly struck by the sad, sad nature of Rapture, seeing how everyone within it is doomed to die, to have their free will stripped away, to turn on one another, to watch their utopia and ideals fail, to see their children and friends turned into monsters, to feel hopelessly trapped.

I was left wondering why I felt an emotional connection to the book but not the game. When playing Bioshock for the first time, I hardly noticed how gruesome and disturbing it was, but while reading the book I was cringing and really feeling for the people stuck in the city. For example: The founders of an underwater utopia stroll with their children through a dimly lit hydroponic garden, flanked by armed bodyguards, everyone looking on when a mutated, bloody, naked woman is split in half by a moaning cyborg to protect a brainwashed little girl as she happily cheers while stabbing a syringe into a corpse to drink its blood.

WTF? Putting aside my run on sentence, this is only a shock value, superficial vignette, void of the emotional response of the characters and of the history that led up to the event. Try narrating what happens and why it happens when playing a game; it’ll sound pretty screwed up. When we play we don’t seem to notice, even though we see all of this happening first hand, even though we participate in it. These ideas are not new, and they are exactly the ones people use when proclaiming videogames promote undesirable behavior. I don’t really want to address that though, and anyway its validity revolves around carryover from games to reality, whose proof or disproof is less dependent on rambling and more on experimentation.

So why was the book more moving than the game? By design, games do not allow the player to think normally; this is both a conscious decision and a product of how we interact with them. In terms of media, videogames are unique in that they present the consumer with not just an informational one-way world to explore, but a dynamic, interactive experience in which the player learns. The player is integrated into a new world with new rules, which they learn and eventually master. If these rules demand inconsequentially killing others to keep yourself alive, you can bet the player will do that. The immersion is made all the more potent because games physically bond the player to their character, and the morality of the “real world” is lost in all the action. It wasn’t until I read the book, in terms of my own reality, that I realized the severity of the situation.

Unlike videogames, which bring players to new worlds, books bring new worlds to the reader. This is because the story takes place within the reader’s mind, and the two are inseparable. This also means that the reader will constantly compare their own reality to that of the book, making descriptions like the one above more shocking.  A more general storytelling element is that books have a much higher tendency of fleshing out characters and creating a layered plot, increasing the reader’s investment in the story than videogames, which increase the player’s investment in the physical world via coherent gameplay.

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