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Jesse Singal

A new era for video games

(2k Games/Kevin Dicesare/Globe Staff Illustration)
By Jesse Singal
February 10, 2010

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‘I AM Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question.’’ The man’s voice is haughty, knowing. But it’s also strangely hypnotic. “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No,’ says the man in Washington, ‘it belongs to the poor.’ ‘No,’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘it belongs to God.’ ‘No,’ says the man in Moscow, ‘it belongs to everyone.’ I rejected those answers.’’

Ryan sounds like he could be any Cold-War-era conservative, or perhaps a disciple of Ayn Rand. As it turns out, he’s the villain of the video game BioShock. You first hear his voice as you descend in a submarine toward the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, where Ryan has built Rapture, a staggering Art Deco city. He envisioned it, he says, as a place “where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small!’’

Ryan’s statement of principle comes with an offer: “And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.’’ But even before you exit the submarine , it becomes clear that Ryan’s libertarian utopia lies in ruins, overrun by its crazed denizens.

BioShock garnered universal acclaim when it was released in 2007, and for good reason: it is a terrifying first-person shooter set in an astounding environment, and it demands a fair amount of tactical prowess.

But, if you have some level of familiarity with the source material, the game also serves as a critique of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy (Andrew Ryan, Ayn Rand - get it?), a brand of libertarianism in which altruism is weakness and the story of modern society is told as a conflict between productive, hard-working industrialists and the countless nattering parasites (the government, organized religion, advocates for the poor) seeking to leech off of their brilliance and initiative.

BioShock’s sequel came out yesterday, and along with two other recent releases, it proves that we have entered the era of the artful video game. BioShock 2, Mass Effect 2, and Heavy Rain show that video games now deserve to be treated with as much respect - and are worthy of as much critical analysis - as most other forms of pop culture.

At their core, they’re still games. You can blast your way through BioShock II or Mass Effect II if you wish, ignoring the political and aesthetic accouterments that set them apart from their predecessors. It would be like watching “The Sopranos’’ as merely an entertaining mafioso epic. But the players who race through these games, like the folks who burn through “Sopranos’’ DVDs without fully taking note of, say, the line of genetic misfortune that connects Tony to his father and to his son, are missing out.

There’s depth here if you want it: Mass Effect 2, like the original, is a soaring space opera that marries Hollywood-level production values (Martin Sheen and other actors lend their voices to the sequel) with questions about politics, galactic-level “foreign policy,’’ and technology. In BioShock 2, the villain is a collectivist who has seized control of Rapture, proving that the game’s designers are equal-opportunity critics of utopian political philosophies. In all these games, the player makes moral choices that affect the story down the road.

But the most radical - and riskiest - of the crop is Heavy Rain, out later this month. It is a noirish, story-driven title that will be closer to an interactive movie than a traditional video game. Unlike other games, in which death is just a temporary setback, Heavy Rain’s developers have said the game’s intricate storyline will subtly - and in some cases brutally - trace the impact of sudden loss on its cast. “This game isn’t about challenges or counting points,’’ the founder of Heavy Rain’s development studio said in an interview. “It’s really about the journey, so the idea is that you shape the story as it unfolds.’’

These games prove that as the technology and budgets at the disposal of game designers have shot upward, so too have their ambitions. This can only be a good thing for pop culture, and the guardians of taste can no longer draw an impenetrable line between art that we watch or listen to and art that we play.

Jesse Singal is a frequent contributor to the Globe opinion pages. He can be reached at jsingal@globe.com.