This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: religion and/or theology in games. We have a great bunch of articles lined up, from the very personal to the deeply theoretical, from both regular OntoGeek contributors and several guest writers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on specific articles and the month as a whole – comment freely and e‑mail us at email@example.com!
BioShock Infinite and the little Baptist church I went to on Sunday have relatively little in common, save that they both came along exactly when I needed them.
Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything.
I met the pastor in the airport on my way back from PAX East, while we were waiting for our delayed flight to sort itself out. We spoke for maybe ten minutes before they started boarding the flight, and since we seemed to get along pretty well, I decided to visit her church the following Sunday, which happened to be Easter.
The service was not particularly polished. The church meets in the sanctuary of a funeral home in midtown Savannah, and including the pastor and her husband, Easter Sunday drew a crowd of thirty-one people. The pianist was not quite up to the task of the hymns, and there wasn’t a choir – instead, one of the little old ladies from the congregation stood up next to the pastor and tunelessly hummed along. The special music consisted of the pianist and her two younger sisters, perhaps 10 and 12, singing along with a CD; the pianist had a wonderful voice which was mostly overshadowed by her younger sisters singing with vim and vigor and not a whole lot of regard for pitch. The man running the little soundboard looked as though he’d never seen it before, and the sermon was pleasant if not particularly memorable.
By rights, the service should have been full of awkward silence and shuffling in my seat. Instead, it was the nicest and most meaningful church service I’ve gone to in a very long time.
BioShock Infinite is not a perfect videogame. In fact, Infinite is kind of a mess. Its brand of science fiction has more in common with Donnie Darko than, say, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and if that sounded scornful, I meant it to. Its grand political message more or less boils down to “Hey, so, racism is bad, and I guess power corrupts or something.” The leader of the populist resistance undergoes a character arc I might charitably describe as “truncated,” but which would be more accurately described as “nonsense.” The game’s Big Twist can be seen from space, and while the ending is sure to provoke a lot of goatee-stroking from freshman philosophy majors, I’m not convinced it makes the slightest bit of sense. The combat is almost certainly too violent for the kind of story the game is trying to tell.
By rights, I should be making fun of this videogame. Instead, I enjoyed it immensely.
The church service was wonderful not because of the actual things that happened, which were often hurried and clumsy. It was wonderful because it was clear to all present that there was a real community here, however small, and that everyone who was there wanted to be there. There’s no doubt in my mind but that that pastor loves that church. Everyone there made me feel tremendously welcome, even though it would have been really easy to look askance at the only white guy in the room. There was a real sense of love and togetherness there which transcended the quality of the music or the profundity of the sermon. This was a Real Place, with Real People, and it reminded me of the value of a communal worship service. It reminded me that however important it is to try to get your doctrine straight, it’s just as important to get together with other Christians and remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.
I don’t know what it was like to work on BioShock Infinite. I imagine it was stressful, since the game went through I‑don’t-know-how-many-revisions over the course of six years. There are still a few vestigial things floating around in the finished product. But I do know that I can’t stay too mad at Infinite, even though I might otherwise like to, because it feels like somebody loved it.
The game has a tremendous amount of polish and attention to detail. There are little touches everywhere that probably don’t add that much to the game as a whole, but reminded me that a group of real human beings got together and spent years of their lives working on this thing I was playing. AAA games, even the good ones, have a tendency to feel as though they were spat out on a conveyor belt, trying unevenly to juggle the threefold needs of entertainment, art and profit. It’s easy for the love to get filed off in the rush and the panic to make sure A) it works and B) is done on time and C) is at least kinda fun to play. There isn’t often time for that extra coat of polish.
I don’t have any illusions about whether or not 2K and Irrational hope to make a lot of money from Infinite. It cost more money to make than I will ever see in my entire life. But then there’s the moment when Booker finds a guitar and, if you want to, he plays a few chords and Elizabeth sings a beautiful hymn.
And there’s the way Elizabeth throws you extra supplies in combat, and the tragic wailing of Songbird, and the beautiful, vibrant color palette, all purples and oranges and blues. There’s the skyrails and the Handymen and the way Elizabeth reacts when you brutally eviscerate somebody with your skyhook. There’s all the wonderful arrangements of anachronistic music everywhere, and suddenly, for once in my life, I can quit being critical, can quit worrying about whether or not it’s “the best” or “as good as it could be,” and I’m just having a good time, flying around on rails on a magic, floating, city, guns blazing at the badguys and hearing a goofy-but-still-kinda-heartwarming-and-occasionally-scary story about time travel and Many Worlds and goodness-knows-what-other-nonsense, and I’m smiling even as I know it doesn’t exactly hold together.
It’s the same reason I can’t stay mad at Fez, even though it’s self-indulgent and preposterous and oh-my-effing-goodness-is-that-a-QR-code. Because the whole time you can just see Phil Fish watching over your shoulder, hoping you’re having a good time, and you become suddenly aware of how many sleepless nights this game caused, and it’s impossible not to smile.
I am a very critical person, by nature. I like taking games and books and movies apart and figuring out how they work and how they (often) don’t work. I worry about the sorts of things we say and do in churches – how they can push people away from the Love of Christ simply because we’re afraid. I am frequently frustrated by the game industry’s willingness to accept mediocre and crummy games and exalt them on high. I get frustrated when I sense a lack of intellectual rigor in the Church – I think many of the “debates” between Christianity and science boil down to simple ignorance more than any incompatibility between the two, and I’m probably oversensitive to Christians saying dumb things in public.
So it’s easy for me to forget why I do these things – why I care about the church when it often only causes me grief, and why I care about not just videogames in general, but big-budget pop-culture games in particular when they have a tendency to royally piss me off. I get discouraged and cynical, retreat to ivory towers and echo chambers where everything is neat and everybody agrees with me and any mistakes are my own fault.
I think BioShock Infinite could have been a much better game, and I have no idea if that little church is going to end up being the right place for me. But I can’t bring myself to be critical right now. People loved that game, and people love that church, and for once, that’s enough for me.