And by “recent” I mean “I played it recently”, not that these are recent games. ‘Cause I’m busy, and sometimes it takes me awhile to get around to things. Spoiler warning on all of these, so I’ll put them behind a cut, but these are all old games anyway, so my guess is that nobody really cares about spoilers anymore.
Mirror’s Edge: Yeah, yeah, it took me this long to get around to it. Shuddup.
I like this game a lot, and want to love it. In theory it’s got many of the things I want to see in a game: a woman of color as protagonist, multiple engaging characters who are women and/or PoC, really innovative gameplay. But the story’s weak, and that made me gradually lose interest in it. (I’ve stopped about halfway through. Might eventually resume, but I’m not feeling compelled.) I have no reason to care about our protagonist, or her sister, or these rebels-for-no-particular-reason against… I don’t know, society? It’s all a bit nebulous. And I need a reason to keep at this game, because it’s hard. Only so many times I can fall to my horrible, bone-crushing death before something more engaging, or at least more soothing, starts to look preferrable. So after an intial WHOA, this game ultimately rated a meh on the Nora Scale ™.
Bioshock Infinite: I initially resisted this game — though I’ve enjoyed the previous two Bioshocks — because of its premise: instead of the Randian underwater city of Rapture, we were due to visit the Klansian* airborne city of Columbia, where we would have no choice but to play a stalwart lantern-jawed white guy (featured prominently in the cover art holding his big, long gun) who would have to rescue an improbably-proportioned ingenue who for some reason would toss you guns but never bother to wield one herself. I just… for fuck’s sake. Why would I want to play a game like that for fun? It sounded like a bigass bucket of fail waiting to dump itself.
But friends insisted it was AWESOME!!1! and that it dealt with the racism and sexism in complex ways, so I finally gave B:I a try. Gah, I’m gonna have to go have some talks with those friends.
Here’s the thing. If you’re going to build a game world, or any story world, around the concept that Racism Is Bad… great. Glad to see it. Doesn’t get done enough. But in the process, you cannot play the false equivalency card — Racism is Bad but so is fighting back against it — and have a moral leg to stand on. The problem with the false equivalency in this situation is that you’re essentially arguing for maintaining the racist status quo… but being really, really sorry about doing so. Which is as useful as balls on a cow.
So our protagonist for this game is Mr. Booker DeWitt, a thug-for-hire who eventually turns out to be the same person as Comstock the Prophet, founder and ruler of Columbia, the aforementioned airborne city-state. In Columbia the racial hierarchy is post-Reconstruction Jim Crow with an extra helping of fascism; posters exhort (white) citizens to beware the brown hordes, non-white prisoners are funnelled up to the city from Georgia chain-gangs and New York slums in de facto slavery, and Abraham Lincoln is depicted everywhere as Satan. DeWitt, as Comstock, eventually plans to impose this racial hierarchy on the whole world by force. However, DeWitt/Comstock is apparently part Indian (nation is never mentioned) himself. He looks white enough to fool the good citizens of Columbia, but he feels the “deficit” of his non-whiteness enough that his whole life has been built around the effort of “proving himself white” through violent racism. These include slaughtering Lakota women and children at Wounded Knee, working for the Pinkerton agency and helping to beat down union organizers (many of whom in those days were black, Chinese, and Irish), and eventually, as Comstock, founding a genocidal apartheid state that will destroy the world. As DeWitt, he’s really, really sorry about all that he’s done… but he never stops doing it.
Remember, tho’, this is our hero. Meanwhile one of our antagonists is Daisy Fitzroy, a black woman leading the “Vox Populi” rebellion against Columbia’s revolting power hierarchy. Daisy and her folks have got plenty of reasons to be angry. However, the game pushes this a step further and makes her not just righteously angry but nonsensically so. At one point she grabs and threatens to shoot an unarmed white child in the head. Why? No clear reason. Prejudice against (non-Irish; note this is in the days when the Irish were not white) white people, the game implies. She’s not really fighting for freedom, it’s suggested, just to put her own people at the top of the same old problematic hierarchy.
Thus we have a game which vilifies racism… by making two characters of color** the biggest racists of all.
Granted — nobody comes out of a Bioshock game smelling like a rose. But these depictions represent choices the game’s developers made, and those choices send very clear messages about their beliefs. It’s clear they consider people of color at least partially to blame for the system of racism, and it’s clear they think getting angry about racism is just as bad as being racist. It’s also clear that they believe intention trumps action. We’re supposed to empathize with DeWitt’s regret, and maybe not notice that he spends the second half of the game slaughtering his way through faceless, gibbering, barely-human brown hordes.
My guess is that the developers’ intent was to be “fair”, and to introduce some kind of complexity to the story beyond the usual hero=good, antagonists=evil construction. They probably wanted to create some ethical nuance, leave room for moral debate.
The gameplay’s amazing, though. If you don’t think deeply about it — ever — I suppose it could be fun, for some.
asdfjkl; This is the best game series EVAR that’s it that’s the review. What, you want more? ::sigh:: Fiiiine.
How do I love this trilogy; let me count the ways. Well, OK, I hated ME1, and could only bring myself to play it after skipping ahead to ME2 and falling in love with the universe. (What did I hate about ME1? Every Mako mission. The thin-as-paper characterization and the awful combat controls. That. Fucking. Mako.) But I loved the complex storyline, dead-end plots and all (dark energy? whut?). I loved the characters — yeah, all of them, though some could’ve used better writing. I loved the voice acting, though Jennifer Hale beats the pants off Mark Meer; sorry, mShep fans. I loved that the entire third game was basically an ending, as complexified and drawn-out as a book can never get; you could take as much time as you needed to say goodbye to the characters and universe, and you could do it as sorrowfully or joyfully as you needed to, especially via the Citadel DLC (highly recommended, BTW). I loved that there were women and people of color everywhere — in the background and foreground alike — and I loved that I could make my protagonist another one if I chose. I even loved the combat (by the second game), and I hate shooters.
There were of course some flaws. The worldbuilding has the usual SFF issues — e.g., for a global military, the Alliance sure seems awfully North American in its structure and culture. The asari could have been a brilliant idea, as a monogendered species capable of “mating” with anyone, but in actual practice they were just Blue Space Babes. And I hated that their presence apparently prevented the game’s designers from including a logical number of non-male members of every species. (My headcanon is that the volus, the batarians, the vorcha, and the hanar — none of whom even mentioned the existence of other genders IIRC — are also monogendered, presenting as male or agendered. That makes the asari more palatable to me.) I wasn’t fond of some of the character details — Jack and the magical healing cock, Kaidan’s latent sexism that appears only when he’s romanced by a female PC, Jacob’s utterly stereotypical backstory and romance (see previous link for that too). The “endings debate” is basically a nonissue for me; as I said, I consider the whole game to be the trilogy’s end, not merely the red/blue/green options that so many players get incomprehensibly upset about, and I thought the whole thing was brilliant. (Incidentally, I prefer blue.)
But these are tolerable flaws given that the game gets so much else right. Hell, part of my problem with Bioshock Infinite is probably that I started it right after finishing an ME3 playthrough. That made the limitations and glaring logic flaws of B:I stand out more.
So, that’s what I’ve been up to for stress relief, lately. Next on the menu: Dragon Age: Inquisition. Already got it reserved, of course. And I am so excited.
* That is totally a word. I’m a writer and I said so.
** It’s never clear whether DeWitt self-identifies as white, Indian, or something else. His heritage is known and discussed by other characters, however.