Why is everybody criticizing BioShock Infinite these days?
The recent release of BioShock: The Collection has been an opportunity for many people to experience the weird glory of BioShock, its sequel, and BioShock Infinite for the first time. It’s a fortuitous event for a lot of reasons, but I’m particularly grateful for these re-releases because there’s a strange effect that happens in the world when a BioShock appears: criticism happens.
The vast majority of writing about games happens in relation to two events: the anticipation of a game’s release, and the immediate hangover of that game’s appearance in the world. In the realm of the former, we have interviews, features, and exclusive documents announcing what occurred in the press demos for these games. The latter is composed of (more) interviews, reviews, and thinkpieces about very particular slices of those games. Outside of these two time periods, longform written opinions about games tend to wither and die outside of very specific outlets.
I’m not outlining this circuit to demonize it. Games writing is almost totally related to the release of products, and even the most interesting products eventually lose their sheen for target audiences.
There’s something about BioShock that draws longform thoughts from players on a longer timeline than other games. What we call “videogame criticism” is a combination of a lot of different things: it’s design analysis, it’s reporting how a game made you feel, it’s literary criticism, it’s aesthetic categorization, and it’s letting your mind unspool at length while trying to be in conversation with an object.
BioShock games do something to the player that makes them want to engage in this kind of behavior. It could be that the franchise has always been heavily invested in signaling that it is about something bigger. The Randian Objectivism of the first game, the Collectivist purging of the second, and the social intolerance of the third were all as on-the-nose as possible, and they all seem to make people feel very comfortable about jumping off the edge and into telling the world what they think about them.
Clint Hocking created “ludonarrative dissonance” in response to BioShock. Dozens and dozens of people wrote pieces picking at the smallest details and the broadest themes in the game. The release of Infinite caused both myself (in the first week) and Chris Suelletrop (a few months later) to collect volumes of critical articles, podcasts, and videos about the game. BioShocks induce critical glossolalia, an uncontrollable urge to speak out about how they experienced a game.
For the most part, videogame criticism is removed from the wax-and-wane cycle of the enthusiast press. People take their time with criticism. They take strange angles. Back in 2012, Brendan Keogh wrote a fairly comprehensive piece for the New Statesman where he outlined all of the different routes that critics have taken to addressing the objects they’ve focused in on. The breadth is wide.
Something interesting happened with the release of The Collection that hasn’t, as far as my memory goes, happened before. Without spoiling anything, Infinite has a plot where an oppressed population is shown to be as brutally violent and oppressive as the group that had kept them down this whole time. When Infinite was released, many people wrote eloquent pieces about how that presented a very unfair picture of oppressed peoples, how it showed no empathy for the oppressed, and how that equivocation let oppressors off the hook for anything and everything they did. Less a backlash and more a critical conversation, it seemed like every person I knew had a deep take on how Infinite presented its world to the player.
That wasn’t the case for the vast majority of people, though. Despite how wide the critical response to Infinite was, it was still only a drop in the bucket of words dedicated to talking about that game, what it was like, and how players could interact with it. The world felt flooded with critical takes, and yet in reality I know that it wasn’t.
When “hot takes” on BioShock: The Collection started to appear, lots of them reiterating criticism that I had seen years ago on original release, I also saw a parallel event. Quite a few people were tweeted into my timeline with a variation on this sentiment: “no one criticized Infinite when it was originally released!” It’s the kind of statement that feels very close to this one: “these hipsters hate everything now!” It’s a rhetorical position wholly centered on reaction, but it’s very powerful. It makes it seem like the critics are appearing from nowhere, and that their position is ridiculous in its novelty. It makes critique seem like it is nothing more than a positioning to make the critic seem cool.
It’s easy to react negatively to this, but I think that this is yet more of the impossibly strange power of the BioShock games. They generate, for good reasons and bad, critical responses. And despite reaching all the way to The New York Times, there are still lots of people who never came into contact with them. There were still people that this burst of thought did not reach. And now, years later, they’re hearing it. Their reaction isn’t the most exciting, but that’s missing the most important part of me: they heard it.
That’s a small move, and some might say it isn’t one at all, but despite the hollering about Infinite that happened three years ago, they didn’t hear about it. And now, in this smaller yelp of relinks and new pieces, they’re becoming aware of what they weren’t before. To me, that means that this weird thing we do called “criticism” is having an actual effect. It means that it is moving through channels, hitting the average gamer, and impacting the world in a positive way. I think that partially has to do with the success of some writerly critics translating them into the world of academia, larger publications, and the industry at large. I think it also has to do with video criticism of games becoming well-represented in the world through the work of Chris Franklin, Noah Caldwell-Gervais, or the Extra Credits group.
But I also think the dispersal of games criticism into the wider world has to do with saturation. Some people know about it, and people who want to know more about their games, or interrogate them more deeply, have realized that they can find others who are delving the depths of these mechanics, worlds, and characters. People know that they can look for criticism now. They’re seeking it out, or at least finding it in passing, and that’s much different from the grinding friction that accompanied criticism five years ago. Despite the dangers of using the word "progress", it’s progress. It’s a world where criticism is slightly more ubiquitous than it was before.