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What the Story of Two Women and a Cheating Bastard Says About Video Games as Literature

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Alex Russell

You are a real bastard.

Well, you are when you’re Vincent Brooks in Catherine, a 2011 multi-platform release that shocked the video game world. It’s a unique part-puzzle part-simulation game based on the morality of choice and what people do when no one is watching.

You play Vincent, a 30-something guy drifting through both life and an aimless relationship with a woman named Katherine. Katherine wants to get married and start a life, Vincent wants to avoid making any big decisions. Katherine wants to have long lunch dates about the future, Vincent wants to get drunk with his friends at the corner tap.

Depending on how stereotypical your life is, this may be hitting pretty close to home.

The story unfolds through cinematics where you watch Vincent and Katherine try to reach an understanding on various issues. It feels very real, even if the relationship itself feels flimsy. People really are scared to commit. In most narratives this would be where there would need to be a discussion of gender roles, but dear Vince has to be the nervous manchild here, because of what happens when he goes to sleep.

When Vincent sleeps he is forced to climb towers. These play out as incredibly hard puzzle elements which start unforgiving and somehow get even more brutal as the game goes on. Vincent must climb to escape something he fears — always something Katherine mentioned during the day — and reach the top of the tower to run away rather than facing adulthood, children, marriage, or whatever it may be that night. A good example: one is a horrific, monstrous baby that knows Vincent is the father.

It’s a strange game. Every night ends in the same bar, where Vincent recaps his day with Katherine to his buddies who are also in various states of arrested development. It gets extra complicated when Vincent wakes up with a (younger, blonder) woman also named Catherine, spelled with a C. Everything goes full cliche with the entrance of a younger temptress, but the world of Catherine the game needs these cliches to make choice seem as stark as possible.

It’s important to note that both Catherine and Katherine are full characters, and Vincent’s actions constantly reveal him to be a dipshit. “Competent woman/incompetent man” is a stock relationship in a lot of forms of narrative, but Catherine is interested in more complex interactions. If Vincent’s choices make him act like an asshole to either woman, that woman will respond in a full way. Neither of their lives revolve around Vincent, and even though the story plays out through his eyes, it isn’t a story of two damsels hoping that their prince will pick them.

Every decision made in the game influences a meter that tilts between good and evil. If you’re connected online, the game also tells you what percentage of people around the world made the same choice. This allows for a certain molding of Vincent – he can either accept Katherine and all of the joys that come with adulthood, or he can hide in youth with Catherine and escape for a little longer. The meter is clear which is the “good” choice, and to borrow a line one of the monsters you escape from screams at you: take responsibility.

These choices influence the ending. There are nine options, which mostly follow the traditional Dungeons and Dragons school of morality: neutral good, lawful good, chaotic evil, etc. Can a game with multiple endings still be literature? It’s a fair criticism that there isn’t “one” story since you can end up in a multitude of different situations with Katherine and Catherine. Without giving it away, though the game has nine endings it has but one lesson. There are variations, but the game constantly reminds you that escaping your future is only temporary. Not taking the phone call from Katherine because you think she has bad news only delays it. You have to deal with the people in your life – including yourself. Even if a sadistic otherworldly being won’t throw you in a tower with a bunch of sheep to enact metaphors every night as you fight for your life, the bell will still find a way to toll for thee.

It’s a solid narrative that is shaped by the world it exists in. It feels very Japanese at times, but it generally just feels like a world we’ve all definitely been in before. It also “reads” well because all of the gameplay is separate from the narrative structure in the bar. It’s a nice companion piece to the type of literature that people read when they first realize they aren’t a teenager. Catherine is the story of someone’s 20s. It’s about realizing that interactions with other people matter — to others and to ourselves — and it tells the tale of what happens when that falls by the wayside as well as anything could.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Destructoid

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Video Games as Literature and The Ending a Different Kind of Story: BioShock Infinite’s Final Episode

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Alex Russell

[Editor’s note: There are very, very light BioShock and BioShock Infinite spoilers in this. Nothing specific is given away, but if you’re the sort of person that wouldn’t want to know who won the war in Gone with the Wind, be warned.]

Albert Einstein said “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” His point is that whatever weapons evolve out of the nuclear age are going to be so destructive that they will reset the entirety of technology. His point is that whatever comes next will be huge, because what’s here is already huge.

He meant that in a bad way, of course, but it opens up discussions of the meaning of “progress” in the development of weapons. There’s a similar discussion (though one of much less importance) about “art” with regard to progress. Were the best stories told in oral tradition? Is typing a novel rather than physically writing it on paper so removed from the page that it can never be as good? Is digital visual art still art?

It’s a big thing to say something “isn’t art.” Robert Ebert famously said that video games weren’t, and that made a lot of people angry. A younger version of myself was disappointed that such a great man could make such a statement. Now, I suppose that art is subjective. People came at a film genius and demanded he love something else just like film. What did anyone expect? He can’t be entirely blamed for that one.

Art aside (that’s another debate), video games are definitely stories. The story may be as simple as saving the Princess (capital P, because you know the one) or it may be as complex as the dawn of an empire (or an Age of some, say). They can be well-told or not, good-looking or not, and positive or not. They are as complex — though definitely not on a percentage basis, don’t misunderstand me — as any other way to tell a story, and one of the largest, most ambitious tales to tell in video games just came to an end.

With BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea‘s second-and-final episode’s release yesterday, the story of Rapture and Columbia and of Booker and Elizabeth is over. Ken Levine, the director behind the BioShock series, shut down his studio after the downloadable episode was finished. He released nearly all of the staff that made the games and effectively relinquished control of the BioShock brand. It’s rare in the world of games that a story is done,  but this one is done.

If you didn’t play the games, I can offer a simple summary. Very light spoilers follow, and you’re free to read as ‘thpoilers’ in your head, if you like. In the 1950s world of BioShock, an Ayn Rand-inspired businessman named Andrew Ryan sets up an undersea city called Rapture and establishes himself as a larger-than-life icon of the new paradise for people who are tired of government and welfare. He exiles the first charismatic figure to rise up against him and sinks a portion of his underwater city to throw rebels and dissidents into a watery prison. In BioShock Infinite (the third game, but the second that is really necessary for the main story) a religious zealot named Father Comstock rules Columbia, a city in the clouds above Rapture. Columbia is designed as a neo-America for the early 1900s, including “racial purity” among its supposedly vaunted ideals.

The settings provide unique storytelling opportunities, but they are designed as mirrors on purpose. In both, people asked for and received isolation. In both, people believed that a fresh start in a new community would allow for a better society – and in both they were wrong.

The final episode is a five-to-six hour (depending on how slowly you go) final attempt to bind the two settings together. Infinite — an extremely popular choice for “Game of the Year” from much of the gaming journalism world — ended with an important part of Columbia sinking from the sky into Rapture. Now that the final episode is over, it’s fascinating to see just how much of this was all planned when BioShock originally debuted seven years ago. This was meant to be a continuous story, and the final episode takes you all the way back to the start of BioShock.

There is a ton to praise about these games, but what people keep saying — when they say anything negative — is that too much combat breaks up the story. People want to get to the next big reveal. I touched on this when I talked about Gone Home, a game that is entirely story, earlier this year. The final episode dumps combat almost entirely and rewards you for ducking through the shadows. Since it’s played in flashback, this offers your character a lot of chances to sit in air ducts and shadows and watch the previously untold parts of the story you already know.

This style of narrative is as important as what’s being said, and the stealthy run-through-the-shadows effect really supports it well. In the previous game you played as a brash private eye who ran into situations guns blazing. Now you’re forced into a more agile role — the wily, brilliant, and sassy Elizabeth — and the gameplay adjusts to match.

It’s certainly sacrilege to a lot of people, but one of the best “books” I’ve “read” this year is one I played with a controller in my hand. That certainly won’t be true forever — the game came out yesterday, and the effect of recently-consumed culture is obviously inflated — but it’s more than a rebuttal to the opinion of Roger Ebert at this point. Arguing if games are a narrative isn’t the argument anymore – it’s if, in some ways, they’re the best one we’ve got.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Wiki