In Scotland there’s something we call “Scottish Cringe”. I think the term originated in Australia, with “Australian Cringe”. It refers to something called a “cultural cringe”. Wikipedia describes Cultural Cringe like this: “Cultural cringe, in cultural studies and social anthropology, is an internalized inferiority complex which causes people in a country to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries… is often linked with the display of anti-intellectual attitudes towards thinkers, scientists and artists who originate from a colonial or post-colonial nation.”
I’m a firm believer in the notion of a Cultural Cringe. It is something we have an issue with in Scotland, and as someone who works in the TV industry and does most of my work with a Scottish mindset and in a Scottish accent, it’s something that frustrates and challenges me.
But recently I’ve noticed a Cultural Cringe within gaming too. A Gaming Cringe, let’s call it. We’ve always been a little bit shy about talking about games in intellectual terms, haven’t we? When I was making the online show Consolevania some years ago, I would regularly apologise in advance for any “high-brow analysis” by saying “If you’ll let me put my wank-hat on for a minute…” It became a little bit of a catch-phrase in the show, and I’m ashamed of that today. I’m annoyed that I apologised. At the time, I just didn’t want anybody thinking I was getting all high-falutin’ about videogames.
When Kieron Gillen proposed his manifesto for New Games Journalism, I lampooned it within the show. Not because I thought it was a bad idea. Far from it. I lampooned it because I thought it would lead bad writers to write some awful arty-farty prose about games. Which would be embarrassing, yeah? I’m ashamed of that too. I think I was cringing.
I would like to think that I’m free of the cringe now. I’m in awe of some of the stuff I’m witnessing within games. All I care about these days is championing it all. Just this year I’ve been excited by Gone Home – a game set in the 90s that sees the player explore a family home to learn things about a character, a sister, a young woman. It’s the kind of experience that only a game can provide, and it has incredible depth. It’s like an emotional time machine, and I can’t wait to play it some more. And then there is Bioshock Infinite.
I was moved to write this by seeing people criticise Bioshock Infinite for its violence. I think that reaction is staggering. Just staggering. I’ve argued against videogame violence for years (and often felt like I was completely on my own). I’ve stood by and watched as game after game got a free pass for extreme violence. And that’s fine. I understand that people sometimes want their video nasties. But to target Bioshock Infinite seems more like a cringe than a valid criticism to me. Let me explain.
If there is any game that can justify its violence, it is Bioshock Infinite. It is a story about a violent man, and about the violence within society. It’s a story about extreme beauty, and extreme ugliness. It’s also saying a lot about videogames, and as it delivers its story and themes, it does it through patterns and behavioural codes that we all understand. The violence isn’t only justified by character, story or themes. It’s justified by the language of game mechanics that the game is using.
What games can’t justify their use of extreme violence? Almost everything else. And yet I haven’t seen commentators call all those other games out. Why wasn’t Gears of War widely taken to task for gruesome violence? Why wasn’t Modern Warfare 2? Was it because those games didn’t aspire to be anything other than silly old videogames? Was it because those games knew their place?
This extract is from the Kotaku piece by Kirk Hamilton (a fine writer, incidentally) that kicked off much of this debate: “BioShock Infinite is in many ways so, so close to being That Game, the one we can show to our non-gamer friends and say “See? Look at this! It is so awesome! Check out the story! It’s like LOST! How neat is this?” But it’s not That Game, because it’s so hilariously, egregiously violent that a large number of people will never give it a chance.”
We should be celebrating Bioshock Infinite for telling an incredibly daring story and dealing with incredibly mature themes within our favourite form, and doing it honestly. Instead, some of us are cringing. “They’re telling this story in big-budget violent FPS form? Couldn’t they have done it in interactive fictiony arthouse form, where only a few of us might see it?” It’s a cringe. A wide-spread cringe. I recognise it because I’ve been there. Are we really going to get all “Ugh. It still acts like a videogame!” about it? Please tell me we’re not going down that path.
Could The Godfather have been That Film, had it not featured characters being cut to ribbons by machine gun fire and bullets through eye sockets? Could Reservoir Dogs have been That Film had it not shown an ear being cut off? Could Preacher have been That Comic had it not been, y’know, gruesomely violent all the fucking time?
Bioshock Infinite has dared to dream the big dream inside the big AAA game. A creator stepped up the plate. Now we face the test. Is our videogame culture an inferior one? I don’t think it is. Not anymore. Let’s not cringe about it. We’re finally moving forward. We need balls enough to be proud about it.
If you’ve played Bioshock Infinite, read on. If you haven’t, go no further. Go and play it, and then feel compelled to write something of your own about it.
Spoilers follow. Last warning.