Warning: Contains Spoilers

The marriage of gameplay and narrative marks the pinnacle of video game design. Interactivity is after all the defining feature of the genre. By creating a seamless union, a game truly merits the title “Art”. Hence, the brilliance of Shadow of the Colossus in which the player must tightly grip the controls while the character grasps for dear life. Bioshock also strives to transcend the genre, but in the end falls short of that promise, mired by uninspired repetitive gameplay.

Bioshock immerses the player via worldbuilding, the game’s selling point. After an absolutely sublime introduction involving a plane crash, your character, Jack, enters Rapture, an underwater society founded upon the principles of Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged”. The first glimpse of the art deco city doesn’t fail to astonish, but needless to say, it’s not exactly a utopia down there. Jack has stumbled upon a city divided by civil war and overrun by monsters. His only hope: the guidance of Atlas, the rebel leader…

Unfortunately, the early levels are nothing to write home about. They consist of fetch quests and battles against mutants and cyborgs while audio logs unveil the back story. There’s some element of moral choice regarding the little sisters, but the choice doesn’t really impact gameplay. Whether you save them or kill them, the result is the same. It also doesn’t help that a single weapon works for all enemies, removing all need for strategy. In the end, the routine gets tedious.

Even the worldbuilding loses its sheen. Take the vending machines. Am I supposed to believe that a dictator trying to throttle a rebellion would allow ammo to be sold on every street corner? Come on! Such things, though minor, ruin the illusion and force the player out of the immersion. For a game like Bioshock with dull and repetitive combat, this is fatal. Instead of exploring an underwater city, I was navigating labyrinthine video game levels.

At some point, I started wondering “Why?” Why the hell was the game forcing Jack (and myself) to photograph dead bodies for a psychopathic artist, for instance? Why was I still playing Bioshock when I longed for the open world quests of Fallout 3. Then, Andrew Ryan reveals Jack has not been acting on his free will at all. Lecturing him on his status as a slave, Ryan growls “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” All this time, I via the character, Jack, had been acting the part of a slave, mindlessly obeying every command the game supplied, fetching like a dog. Now, I thought, it’s time to choose.

Nope. The fetch quests resume, and the game concludes with a laughable boss battle and a ridiculous good and evil cinematic concerning the little sisters. Had Bioshock concluded with Ryan’s scene or introduced actual choice, it would have transcended its genre. It would have been the ultimate satire on video games and linearity. Alas, Bioshock misses its own point.

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Book III opens to God consulting with his son, Jesus about the upcoming “Fall of Man”. Being omniscient, God knows what Satan is up to and the end result, but he decides not to interfere and justifies this decision with a lecture on free will. (I have a problem with this doctrine of obedience that is so fundamental to Christianity. I find it impossible to reconcile obedience to love. A doctrine John Milton, I feel, struggles with too, especially as it concerns the politics of his day.) At this point, the poem devolves into metaphysics and legalese.

“But yet all is not done; man disobeying,
Disloyal breaks his fealty, and sins
Against the high supremacy of Heav’n,
Affecting Godhead, and so losing all,
To expiate his treason hath naught left,
But to destruction sacred and devote,
He with his whole posterity must die,
Die he or Justice must; unless for him
Some other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.” [III: 203-212]

The theology of these lines is hard to interpret, but it almost seems as if there’s some greater law and God is only acting as the judge, albeit a judge who always makes the just decision. God apparently cannot ignore this “greater law” hinted at in the poem, less he disrupt the order of the universe. There’s a strange sense of competing mythologies in Paradise Lost. On the one hand, Christianity has the “God created everything!” approach. On the other hand, classical mythology says that the universe arose out of Chaos from which the gods and the world spontaneously? emerged. I certainly see an uneasy tension between these philosophies.

Back to the narrative, God is willing to return man to grace, if someone else would ‘take the fall’ for them, and takes the offer to his angels only to be received with non-enthusiasm. “Well don’t everybody speak up at once.” I half expected God to quip, because, wow angels, your devotion towards humanity is really touching. The crickets were deafening compared to your clamorous response, or non-response I should say. Luckily Jesus, being the incarnation of love, intercedes on humanity’s behalf.

“His words here ended, but his meek aspéct
Silent yet spake, and breathed immortal love
To mortal men, above which only shone
Filial obedience: as a sacrifice
Glad to be offered, he attends the will
Of his great Father.” [III: 266-271]

But his speech seems to deflate at the end (at least for me) because the son effectively concludes with “Besides, I’m immortal so it’s not like I’m actually going to die for real, right Dad? And while I’m at it I might as well kill Death too.” Cue the round of applause.

Meanwhile, Satan arrives on Earth at the borders of Eden. He’s having trouble finding his way so he stops and ask for directions from the angel, Uriel. Uriel’s not exactly the brightest crayon in the box. I know, I know, Satan’s in disguise, but still, God has just given this huge speech about how humanity is going to succumb to sin, and Uriel thinks nothing of it when some strange guy comes asking about Paradise because he’s so desperate to witness God’s creation. Uriel, you done goofed.

Satan, while the angels try to find him after realizing their mistake, stumbles upon Adam and Eve, and dare I say it, falls in love. He almost regrets the sin he will lead the pair to, but necessity and the expansion of his empire call for the deed. Nonetheless Satan consoles himself with the thought that mankind will come live with him in Hell.

“Hell shall unfold,
To entertain you two, her widest gates,
And send forth all her kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous offspring” [IV: 381-385]

Huh. Satan has a point, I suppose. Earth is overpopulated as it is. Could you imagine Eden? In all seriousness, Milton dwells for some time on life and love in the Garden of Eden. First of all, Adam and Eve perform labor on their garden, rather than idle the time away. A sense of purpose appears to be one thing that sets Man apart from animals. This book abounds with descriptions of flower, tree, and animal life.

Naturally, the relationship between Adam and Eve is examined at length. For one thing, they had really good sex. This seems like a silly thing to bring up, but sex is a significant facet of their marriage, as it is for most marriages. Though Milton is careful to make the distinction between true heartfelt love vs the lustful sort. However, his contemporaries and even modern day Christians to be honest view sex as an impure, shameful act that didn’t occur in this perfect setting. Milton argues that sex in the right context is a beautiful act that definitely would have occurred in Eden. However, the doctrine of obedience returns in a very troubling form: Eden’s submission to Adam. Based on Milton’s tone, I doubt he views this imbalance positively. However, it remains as foreshadowing at this point in the epic.

Overall, Books III & IV examined the nature of love whereas Books I & II concerned themselves with hope and despair.

Paradise Lost - CoverParadise Lost by John Milton

Edited by John Leonard

Heaven has won the celestial war, and triumphing over Satan, God in all his might has cast the fallen angel and his followers down to Hell. So begins Milton’s great epic, Paradise Lost. You would think in this retelling of Genesis that Milton would start from the beginning with the creation of heaven and earth or perhaps with God’s first words, “Let there be light.” He doesn’t. The tale begins in the midst of utter darkness and despair.

Our “Hero” is Satan, because honestly, it’s boring to read about good people living in paradise. As humans, we revel in imperfection and flawed characters, and Satan just so happens to fit the bill. Who cares if he’s evil incarnate? Evil has its virtues after all. By casting Satan as the protagonist of this story, Milton makes a fascinating and troubling artistic choice. What does it mean to root for the devil, the enemy of mankind?

In Book I of Paradise Lost, the reader encounters Satan who, having been utterly vanquished by the Almighty, finds himself in the midst of Hell and eternal torment. Although in great pain, the devil manages to raise himself out of the depths of despair, and with his strength and courage manages to rally his fellow demons to endure. It is impossible not to sympathize with him, for in this moment he shows qualities that speak to the best of humanity. Satan will not let “tyranny” [II: 59] keep him down; he will find a glimmer of hope so as to keep existing, to keep living. Unfortunately for the race of man, his great hope is our ruin. If Satan cannot defeat God then he can at least spite the deity and uphold his pride in spite of the danger to his very existence.

“But I should ill become this throne, O Peers,
And this imperial sov’reignty, adorned
With splendour, armed with power, if aught proposed
And judged of public moment, in the shape
Of difficulty or danger could deter
Me from attempting.” [II 445-450]

Pride, being Satan’s defining quality, places him square in the tradition of the Ancient Greek and Roman epics. Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneus, each and every one of the demigods, see pride and renown to be the sought after prize. Milton himself has no little pride stating that his poem “with no middle flight intends to soar / Above th’Aonian mount” [I:14-15]; he, thus, has created a striking amalgamation of the mythic and biblical worlds.

There are also allusions to the real world of politics and power play embedded in the epic. The rebellion of Satan against God is coached in the language of civil war, monarchy, and freedom. Such language grounds this ethereal, unworldly tale firmly on terra firma. Take the following lines:

“For so the popular vote
Inclines, here to continue, and build up here
A growing empire; doubtless; while we dream,
And know not that the King of Heav’n hath doomed
This place our dungeon, not our safe retreat
Beyond his potent arm, to live exempt
From Heav’n’s high jurisdiction, in new league
Banded against his throne, but to remain
In strictest bondage, though thus far removed,
Under th’inevitable curb, reserved
His captive multitude:” [II: 313-323]

As an American, the words zing with accusation. For the demons claim to be on the side of freedom and democracy, while God and his angels are portrayed as cruel tyrants. Milton, in making such a comparison, invites comment upon the England of his own time. The English Civil War (1642-1651) in which the Monarchy and Parliament battled for control of the land, influenced much of Milton’s perspective. Ironically, Milton turned against the monarchy in favor of a Republican form of government, which sheds an interesting light upon Paradise Lost, for God is the embodiment of the monarchy that rules by force, and Satan is the embodiment of meritocracy. So we as readers must ask who in the poem is the villain? Is it Satan or God?

It’s no wonder Milton was considered a heretic.

I spy them looming nigh, glimmering gray
With approaching night. Oh how pernicious
Those cold orbs gleam! All eightfold, malicious
and bright. “My dear,” they sickly sweet do pray,
“Come out, don’t hide. We merely wish to play
With you. Do you think us so suspicious?
Truly, we are not so very vicious
Though some, it’s true, our fangs would scare away.

I find that I inexorably cling
To words so honey sweet, and I, like flies
Entrapped, or like the moth, poor little thing,
To fatal lamplight drawn, consumed by dreams.
Of dreams defying death that voice implies,
But wait! I wake, and fantasy it seems.

Within a dismal, dreary forest, a large pond, one amongst many, blocks the path. My character cannot swim; he stands hesitantly at the water’s edge hoping to spot a way across. Bodies, children’s bodies, float in the water. It’s a grotesque scene, but my character is quite the utilitarian. The bodies would serve as excellent floatation devices. Just as the boy makes the leap, he witnesses another child staggering towards the pond. Right before his very eyes, the other child stumbles into the murky water and drowns. For no apparent reason.

Scenarios such as the one above define the game, LIMBO. Set in a cruel, cold world abounding with monsters and death traps, LIMBO is the stuff of nightmares. Most other games present death as an innocuous hiccup, “Oh, you’ve run out of energy. Here’s a cutscene of your character fainting.” This game is different. Get caught in a trap, and you’ll witness a most pleasant scene of your little character getting stabbed, beheaded, dismembered, minced, electrocuted, crushed, drowned… whatever you can imagine. You cannot escape. And then, there’s the spider…

People will frequently allude to LIMBO when the topic of ”Videogames as Art” emerges. Certainly, the aesthetic design with its black and white color palette, muted grays, and misty whites warrants such commendation. There’s an almost dreamy, otherworldly quality to the game. The soundtrack too with its subtle monotone and striking notes at just the right moments creates a most eerie atmosphere. Sound effects certainly contribute. You can hear the boy’s every step as he navigates first the forest and then an industrial world. His desperate pants seem to echo in your ears. But I believe the gameplay itself designates LIMBO as a work of art.

In one particular level, I got caught in a trap where the first pressure plate is a safe zone but the second activates a trap. Not much farther along, I encountered a trio of young boys with poison darts. They pursued me as I backtracked all the way to the aforementioned pressure plates. I watched, gleefully, as my pursuers were crushed in the trap that I had succumbed to only seconds before. It was a sort of vindictive delight.

Then, I paused. Why would I be feeling such things? This emotion wasn’t the catharsis of completing a puzzle. It was more a smug acknowledgement that, yes, I had fallen for that very trap, but now I could wield that knowledge against those who would seek to hurt me. I had wondered about the boys that I had encountered. Who were they? What were they doing here? Why were they attacking me? They made it personal. And so they had to die. Not many games can bring at emotions like these.

This interaction with other beings in the first half of the game leads me to deem it a masterpiece. Unfortunately the second half didn’t impress me. Sure, the puzzles involving spinning rooms and gravity buttons were rather interesting, but something was lacking. They were just complicated puzzles, nothing more. (Time-based to boot, which I hate. There is nothing more frustrating than having to repeat a level because you jumped a fraction of a second too late.) The enemies reside only in the beginning; the second half subjects the character to inorganic obstacles. Rather disappointing. In addition, some elements of the puzzles didn’t seem that well integrated. For instance, in an early level you must retrieve a bear trap placed on the limb of a tree.

I did enjoy some of the extra elements after completing the game. Hunting for the “Easter eggs,” in this case literal eggs, allowed me to explore this 2D world even deeper. I still have yet to find the last one, which only appears after completing the game with less than five deaths, but I’m getting there. After all, there’s no point in dying.

LIMBO by Playdead

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