'Bioshock Infinite': A First-Person Shooter, A Tragic Play : All Tech Considered BioShock Infinite uses a mix of history and fantasy to create a world dominated by a racist fundamentalist Christian cult. The latest installment in the video game series drew praise from critics as proof that games could be more than just computer graphics. Can the genre really reach the heights of great art?
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'Bioshock Infinite': A First-Person Shooter, A Tragic Play

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'Bioshock Infinite': A First-Person Shooter, A Tragic Play

'Bioshock Infinite': A First-Person Shooter, A Tragic Play

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/175911265/175956387" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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There's a genre of really popular video games called first-person shooters. They're pretty basic - you shoot to kill zombies, soldiers, aliens, or any other variation of the enemy.

Most people wouldn't call that art. But Ken Levine, the creator of a game called "BioShock Infinite," says he's taking first-person shooters to a new level. NPR's Laura Sydell has that story.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Ken Levine is trying to blow up the limits of first-person shooters. Back in 2007, in the first installment of "BioShock," Levine created a world based on Ayn Rand's individualist philosophy and let it play out. This time, Levine has turned a game into an Aristotelian tragedy, and used the model of great tragic heroes.

KEN LEVINE: Whether it's, you know, Hamlet or Oedipus, there's a notion of greatness to them, and a notion of what - you know, would have, could have. And what's so painful about them is how wrong they went, and how right they could have gone.

SYDELL: In "BioShock Infinite," you are Booker DeWitt, a jaded detective whose life has already taken a tragic turn. The year is 1912. Two mysterious people have brought you by rowboat, in the pouring rain, to an empty lighthouse on an island off the coast of Maine.


SYDELL: As you make your way up the inside steps, there are portents of what's to come: religious music, signs like "Of Thy Sins Shall I Wash Thee," along with your ornery reaction.


SYDELL: At the top of the lighthouse steps is a chair. You strap yourself in, and you're transported.


SYDELL: This moves "BioShock Infinite" along to what Aristotle considered the most important element of tragedy: plot. You are getting paid to rescue someone.

LEVINE: You've made an arrangement with some very shady figures to go to this city of Columbia, this - you know, in this alternate 1912, this floating city; and find this woman Elizabeth, whose been in prison there since she was a little girl, and break her out and bring her back to New York.

SYDELL: It's a first-person shooter, but the killing doesn't start yet. Aristotle also says that a plot should have complexity.

When Booker arrives at Columbia, the city in the clouds, he spends an hour just exploring its quaint, turn-of-the-century buildings. People seem to peacefully meander along the sidewalks, stopping at shops and cafes. But everything is laden with clues of a darker story that will bring this floating city to Earth. There are a lot of preachers, and statues of historical American leaders.

LEVINE: And this city is run by a prophet figure who created a new religion that worships the Founding Fathers of the United States, a mixture of Christianity and - sort of founder worship.

SYDELL: But what makes this different from a tragic play is that you aren't just watching Hamlet - or, rather, DeWitt.

LEVINE: You are him. So we have lots of clue - you know, we think clever ways of sort of clueing you into who you are and what your mission is, and what your purpose in life is.

SYDELL: In "Hamlet," the audience watches the prince struggle with the implications of taking violent action. In "BioShock Infinite," you struggle with it. In one scene, you're directed towards a raffle in front of a stage. You take a baseball with a number.


SYDELL: You win. The curtain opens and reveals the prize.


SYDELL: You're offered the chance to be the first to throw a baseball at a captive, interracial couple.

LEVINE: You can choose to throw the ball at the couple, or you can choose to throw the ball at the announcer who's egging you on.

SYDELL: However, if you throw the ball at the announcer, you will be revealed as a traitor. And it may compromise your mission to find Elizabeth.

LEVINE: It's an ode to human nature and where we've come as a society. I've never seen somebody choose to throw the ball at the couple.

SYDELL: But when you get ready to throw at the announcer, the battle begins. And after all, Aristotle considers spectacle an element of tragedy.


SYDELL: All of this fighting means something bigger, says gaming critic Evan Narcisse, who writes for the site kotaku.com.

EVAN NARCISSE: All that serves to get you to the end, which doesn't have a score attached to it. You're playing to push these characters along a path because you become interested in these characters, you embody these characters; and then you want to find out where their story ends.

SYDELL: And since this is a tragedy, it doesn't end well for Booker DeWitt or Elizabeth. Choices made long ago come back to haunt them. Everything we encountered early in the game comes together - the worship of America's founders, the religious zealotry, the racism, and DeWitt's inability to believe in redemption.

NARCISSE: It did resonate. You know, you wonder about the people you meet in the game, and what happens to them as a result of your actions - or a result of your inaction. It has something to say about how people treat each other.

SYDELL: And Narcisse says "BioShock Infinite" has one of the most important elements of a tragedy - catharsis, that moment at the end which Aristotle says evokes pity and fear, and brings about an emotional transformation and release.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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