BioShock: Infinite Part 2

I’m not quite done with the game yet. I think I will be by the end of the week. I’m debating whether to play it again straight away. One of the problems with any game that has side quests or hidden items (In Infinite’s case, those items include voxophones, sightseeing events, infusions, and code books) is that looking for those items distracts from the story. The voxophones and sightseeing actually adds background to the plot, but looking for them means time that I’m not pursuing the main objectives, which means that every so often I have to remind myself what I’m supposed to be doing.

To be sure, Infinite does a better job with this than, say, Skyrim, where 100 hours can be spent on side quests and the main story only takes about 15 hours. But in Skyrim (and the other Elder Scrolls or Fallout games) the main story isn’t really the main thing. Wandering and exploration is. I guess the better comparison would be to say that Infinite does a better job than the first BioShock game. Playing the first BioShock often felt like going back and forth from room to room, place to place, looking for items and powerups. With Infinite, you’re always a part of the main story, even when you are looking for things. I knew that they had improved this when I realized that Infinite had no mini-map. It’s impossible to get lost in Infinite, which means that you feel like you’re always moving the story forward.

Still, I can’t help but think that if there were NO side items, Infinite would be even better. If I could keep all the items I found for my second playthrough (maybe I can? I don’t know. Some games do that) I think I would love playing the game even more. No wondering if I need to be looking for something, no superfluous exploration. Just the main story, moving forward like a movie. That’s why I think I’d like to play the game again right away, because I wouldn’t be worrying if I miss side items, because I’ve already heard/seen them. Anyway, I’ve got a lot more to say about BioShock, but I’m waiting until I finish it.


BioShock: Infinite Part 1

So I’m playing through BioShock: Infinite right now with the intensity of a man who knows exactly what his impending fatherhood means for his video games hobby. And I’m enjoying it. A lot. In fact, at the moment I have the sneaking suspicion that this might end up being one of my favorite games of all time. I’m only 45 minutes in.

Apparently some people have a problem with the forced baptism at the beginning of the game. I’m not sure I understand their complaint, especially given all the killing that the BioShock games expect you to do. It seems to me that if you don’t mind incinerating people, or calling upon a murder of crows to come and… well, murder them,  then getting dunked in a pool of water would be the least of your concerns.

The people making the biggest stink about this are apparently Christians. As a Christian myself, I have to wonder whether this is the only video game they have ever played. Our faith doesn’t exactly emerge as the hero in too many games (I’m pretty sure that Final Fantasy Tactics suggests that the apostles were all demons from another dimension. Yeah.). Besides, as creepy as the faith of Columbia’s (Infinite’s floating city) residents is, parts of it aren’t that far off from the sort of faith that came out of the Third Great Awakening. Actually, the baptism scene reminded me of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? The problem the game suggests is (again, I’m only 45 minutes in) that faith has been paired with Nativism. This was a real problem for Christianity at the turn of the 20th century. It still is, in some respects.

Anyway, I’ll post more about the game as I get further in, but I’ve already experienced (and perpetrated) a great deal of violence. The baptism was creepy, but if that’s what bothers you about BioShock: Infinite, you might need to reevaluate some things.

Gogol, Vodka, and Questions That Don’t Need to Be Asked

So I’m in the middle of reading The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, translated by the always wonderful husband and wife translation team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This being Russian literature (well, Gogol was Ukrainian, but I’m well-aware that only I care about that piece of information) it is… unique. I was reading the short story “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt” (the phrase “brevity is the soul of wit” never made it to Russia) and a line caught my eye.

Ivan is having dinner at the house of his neighbor, Grigory. While they are talking, Grigory’s elderly mother comes into the room and is introduced to Ivan. She asks him if he has had any vodka to drink yet, which irritates her son. Grigory says:

“Who asks a guest whether he’s had a drink? Just keep offering, and whether [he’s] drunk or not is [his] business.”

Here is the strange connection I made in my brain: I rarely like being asked the question, “What is Jesus doing in your life?” It’s like asking me if I’ve had anything to drink yet. Maybe I have, maybe not. Maybe Jesus has done some great things in my life lately, maybe it’s been a dry spell. But let’s face it: it’s never ok to admit you’re in a dry spell. Why, Jesus is just sitting there waiting to throw open Heaven’s storehouses of blessings!

What I would much prefer is to be offered a drink; i.e. tell me what God is doing in your life and let me respond to that. If I have had some similar experiences, I will be prompted to share them as well. If I’ve been having a rough time, I’ll be encouraged by your words. No awkwardness, no guilt, no Jesus-jukes (well, maybe a couple of Jesus-jukes).

So instead of asking me what I’ve had to drink, just offer me a cup of what you’re having.

Why I Read Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games

So here is my post on modern/contemporary fiction and why I read it. To be frank, it has taken me so long to post this because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to talk about. I wasn’t really interested in giving a list of the best new fiction to read and I wasn’t interested in talking up the virtues of new fiction in general. I don’t love new fiction the way I love the classics. So instead, I’d rather talk about how I choose which new books to read.

I mean, you just cannot read everything new that comes out . Dozens of books are released each week and while most of them are not worth your – or anyone else’s – time, how are you supposed to find the good ones in the crowd? I worked for nearly 10 years at Barnes & Noble and thus had a unique vantage point into the buying habits of customers. And one thing I learned is to check out books that everyone is looking for, even if the subject wasn’t particularly interesting to me. I wanted to know what the buzz was about so that I could make better recommendations to customers and because I just wanted to find a good book. I was surprised at how often I found new fiction that I, 1) thoroughly enjoyed and 2) would never have picked up on my own.

So that, for example, is why I picked up the first Harry Potter book years ago in the Summer of 2003. It was the height of the Harry Potter mania and I just had to know why everyone was so crazy about these books! And I enjoyed them. A lot. Had my curiosity not gotten the better of me, I would have missed out on one of the most enjoyable reading experiences in recent memory.

A few years later, I took a chance on another series and read Twilight. Um, less enjoyable. I sort of realized about halfway through that not being a teenage girl was seriously hampering my ability to enjoy anything I was reading. Yet I don’t regret reading the book, because at least I understood what in the world all those teenage girls (and a creepily-high number of middle-aged women) were talking about.

I’ve discovered quite a lot of books this way, including George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori trilogy, The Hunger Games, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, the extraordinary works of Eiji Yoshikawa (his Musashi is one of the most extraordinary books of the 20th century), and many others.

The most recent books I’ve picked up to satisfy my curiosity have been The Hunger Games trilogy. I was a bit hesitant to try another “Teen” series after… you know, that Twilight thing. But I really enjoyed the first book! I’m not sure I believe the author when she claims that her story was not influenced by Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale and writing an entire trilogy was clearly out of her realm of ability (at least for now) but the first book in the trilogy was quite good.

So in other words, I read whatever new fiction I am curious about. I think that really is the best way to choose books in general – read what you want to read. Unless you really enjoy it, don’t waste time trying to find the perfect book. Try new books, try books that you think you might not enjoy but are curious about all the same. You’ll find some duds but you will also find books and authors that you will love and never would have found without taking a chance.

What are some recent books you’ve enjoyed? I’d be interested to read your comments because, hey, I’m always looking for a new book to read.

Because I’m Usually So Prompt….

Working on my post about modern fiction. Or contemporary fiction is probably a better way to say it. Although from nearly 10 years of working at Barnes & Noble I can tell you that no one actually cares about that distinction.

Cowards Within

David Brooks published an article in the New York Times yesterday about the Penn State scandal – you can read it HERE. I think he is spot on.

I’ve been thinking about Mark McQueary the last few days and I think I’ve changed my mind about something. The story is that McQueary allegedly walked in on Sandusky as he was raping a young boy – and then walked right back out. He told his father, told school officials, told Joe Paterno, and that was it. Naturally, most people are outraged and disgusted by the fact that McQueary walked away, instead of running over and rescuing the boy. One writer declared that he would take the boy in his arms and tell him “I am here. You are safe.” While a warm embrace from a stranger strikes me as the last thing a rape victim needs, I get what he means.

Every man I have seen write about Mark McQueary has been universal in their condemnation of his actions – and they should be. Yet every one of them has been equally certain that, presented with the same circumstances, they would have reacted differently. Of course we would all expect as much of any decent person. The problem is that as David Brooks notes, people who know for sure how they would act in a hypothetical situation routinely contradict themselves when placed in a similar real-life situation.

I think there is another reason that men are especially repulsed by what McQueary did, and why they are so eager to say that they would have done differently. Men are protectors; or at least, they are supposed to be. When we see a man fail so utterly to protect the helpless, we are filled with anger: this is not how things are supposed to be. So there is that side of things, because we implicitly know how men are supposed to act.

But when men declare publicly that they would act differently, I think that they are going beyond simply saying how men in general should act. I believe that the greatest fear of every man is this: that deep down, he is a coward. All men, whether they would acknowledge it or not, secretly fear that when placed into circumstances that are dangerous, or difficult, they will fail. Not fail to succeed, but fail to act as they should.

Let’s say that you go back in time and find 25 year-old Mark McQueary. The incident in the showers is still a few years away, but you ask him what he would do should he find himself in that “hypothetical” situation. I guarantee you that if you told him that he would walk away, he would deny it, become furious at the very suggestion. Yet what he actually did tells us who he truly is.

And the greatest fear of most, if not all men, is that when it comes down to it, their true self will be revealed as cowardly.

It is certainly my greatest fear. I want to believe that I would do the right thing, the brave thing in every situation. The truth is that I do not know. I want to believe with every part of me that I would have saved that boy from Sandusky – but the truth is that I have often failed to protect the helpless. Yes, there have been times when I have stood up and protected them and though none of my failures reach the magnitude of McQueary’s, the dozens of small, seemingly insignificant failures make me wonder which side of me would prevail in those moments that matter most.

The truth is, that courage must be practiced every day, and in all things. It is not enough to know what is right, it is not even enough to want to do right. I can make all the declarations I want – there is still a coward within, and my fight is with him and not Mark McQueary.

Well When You Put It That Way…

I was reading a story on The Atlantic Wire about comic book legend Frank Miller’s opinion of Occupy Wall Street (FYI: he’s not a fan) when I noticed a link for another short article with an irresistible title: “How Much Eugenics Are We Willing To Tolerate?” So I read it. It’s very short; here’s the link if you would like to read it as well:

The article is quite remarkable. What amazes me is the writer’s apparent ability to ignore what he is really saying. Or maybe he knows exactly what he is saying – I’m not sure which is more disturbing.

The first line of the article reads: “A new prenatal test for Down Syndrome arrives, and with it, the possible end of the condition.” Well, that sounds just great – an end to Down Syndrome! I assumed the prenatal tests might enable doctors to more effectively treat the condition, though that didn’t seem to make much sense. What else could the writer mean?

As it turns out, the writer means exactly what he says – well, almost says. The article claims that 92% of mothers who find out that their baby will be born with Down Syndrome choose to abort. Thus, if we catch all cases of the disease, we can, as the writer so delicately puts it, “eradicate Down Syndrome.” Except that he doesn’t mean eradicate the condition, so much as he means eradicate those who are afflicted by it.

Let’s not quibble over terms, though. If you want to make an omelet, you have to eradicate a few eggs.

It’s a pretty contemptible suggestion, which begs the question: if we’re really serious about ending Down Syndrome, why stop with the unborn? Just think: we could end Down Syndrome tomorrow, if we were really serious about it. If unborn children with Down Syndrome shouldn’t be allowed to live, why in the world should children or adults with the condition be treated any differently? Why should they receive special treatment just because they had the misfortune to survive the womb?

And why stop with Down Syndrome? Frankly, I think we all need to dream a little bit bigger. Imagine: the end of AIDS is within our reach! Prenatal testing can help us find out which babies would be born with the condition and then we can, you know, just make sure they aren’t. And let’s not get all wobbly in the knees now that we’ve made it this far; let’s face it – the mentally ill and physically deformed cramp our style. If we can’t figure out a way to cure them, then obviously the next best thing is to “end [their] condition,” to modify the article’s delightful phrase. Just think: a world without disease and deformity (though we’ll still fight to make the death penatly illegal, natch.) and all because we realized what the real problem is: those pesky Down Syndrome babies.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard arguments like this. The virtues of aborting children who possess, ahem, flaws has been discussed for years. If the children will have a terrible quality of life, the logic runs, then shouldn’t we simply prevent their suffering? Yet this is the first time I have seen abortion advocated as a way to fight disease in general.

Only God can grant a person the right to life. Any child growing in the womb has been given that right, just as much as any adult. I realize that view has implications for the morality of the death penalty, which is pertinent to this discussion. If you oppose the death penalty, if you fight for the rights of convicted (rightly or wrongly) criminals, then I would certainly expect you to fight for the rights of the unborn as well – if criminals have the right to life, how can it be denied to unborn children? If you favor the death penalty, then you presumably believe that there are certain acts that cause a person to forfeit their right to life. Yet the unborn have certainly committed no such acts.

In any case, if any human life is sacred then all human life is sacred. If inherited disease disqualifies an unborn person from possessing the right to life, then it is a very short step to deciding that adults with debilitating disease are also disqualified.

Call it whatever you want – fighting disease through selective abortion is simply murdering the people we don’t think deserve life as much as we do. Sounds to me like the final solution to all our problems.