Epic Life: The Big Break of BioShock 3: Humanism of the Walkthrough, or, What happens when the prisoner doesn’t notice he’s been freed
So is it still humanities if the player, invited to interrogate the méconnaissance that constitutes the epistemology of what s/he perceives as interactivity, says “Meh”? It seems hard to deny that the vast majority of players of BioShock have never thought about the Death-Disarm sequence as a critique of their ideologically-inflected subject-positions in the culture that their playing BioShock helps to constitute.
In my last post I made a strong and complicated claim: As reading and producing recorded performances of works that illuminate those works’ cultural effects constituted Renaissance humanism, so playing BioShock and producing recorded performances that help others get more out of the game constitutes a modern humanism. Those old recorded performances were the traditional philological activity of producing better texts, the traditional historical activity of producing better descriptions of the events of the past, and the traditional philosophical activity of applying the wisdom of the past to the needs of the present; these new recorded performances are walkththroughs, game-guides, and game-play videos, not to mention a mass of forum-posts that, if printed, might turn the earth into a gravity well.
The glory of Renaissance humanism was and is that those who engage in its practices tend to be transformed by them. (As usual, it’s worth noting parenthetically that that was also the glory of the avant la lettre classical humanism after which the Renaissance humanists patterned their work–indeed, that’s what Plato’s Republic is about.) Humanists, whether calling themselves that or simply reading a lot of old stuff without bothering to apply such a pretentious moniker, tend to think more broadly, and describe their lives and their cultures more thickly. In turn, their descriptions influence others to read, and to describe. Literature, history, and philosophy emerge more distinctly, and play a greater part in civilization. We get things like republics, and intellectual revolutions, and enlightenments, and what have you.
In my last post I noted a particular turn of phrase in the BioShock walkthrough by Jason Nimer: “Andrew Ryan is quite possibly the easiest boss in the entire history of video games.” Although that walkthrough can and should be taken as illustrating that players don’t care about the epistemological problem of the Death-Disarm sequence, Nimer’s will to historical comparison seems to me a humanistic gesture that, in its very triviality, proves my point beyond a shadow of a doubt: in this purely functional genre of the walkthrough, the player’s attention is drawn to the tradition of practomimetic performance of which his or her own performance is a part.
Now that easiness noted by Nimer is the basis of the epistemological critique I have suggested constitutes BioShock‘s invitation to the prisoner of the cave to rise and look around. The easiness of Andrew Ryan as boss arises in his demonstrating to the player the illusion of the interactivity through which the player has constituted his or her performance both in BioShock and in every other game s/he has ever played. Andrew Ryan explains that the player’s character–and thus the player, too–are puppets: it is easy to kill him because he illustrates his point by commanding the player-character–and thus the player, too–to kill him.
Nimer’s walkthrough is a humanistic reading.
But if a player doesn’t even think to him or herself “This guy is the easiest boss in the entire history of video games”? If s/he fails, seemingly, even to engage in the slightest bit of such humanistic analysis?
I contend that that failure is only an apparent one, because the very functionality of the walkthrough genre, as exemplified in Nimer’s specimen of it, expresses nothing other than a record of the on-the-fly analysis engaged in by everyone who plays the game. The player gets his or her character to Ryan’s office with the expectation that there’s going to be a boss-battle. Even if s/he is playing his or her very first video game, BioShock itself has led the player through several conventional boss-battles already, at the ends of the game’s previous sections. The difference between those boss-battles (and, if the player is an experienced player) and every other boss-battle s/he’s played, adds an analytic element to the player’s performance of that moment that enacts, in embryo, the same humanistic reading Nimer makes in his walkthrough.
I’ll close this part of my argument with the observation that the walkthrough is nothing but a commentary, really, and that from the beginning commentaries have been the hallmark of humanistic endeavor, whether Plato’s commentary on Parmenides in the dialogue that bears the latter’s name or Poggio Bracciolini‘s commentaries on classical authors in his letters. A commentary is in every case an annotated record of a playthrough–whether a playthrough of Parmenides, of Cicero, or of BioShock. The intent is to help others get the most out of their own performances, extending and deepening the great chain of practomime and breathing new life into old bones and tired rulesets, just as humanists have done from the start.
Next time: BioShock and Journey might do that, but what about Call of Duty and Super Mario Bros.?