2K Games revealed the box art for BioShock Infinite this morning and the verdict on it was swift and disapproving.
"You have a game involving floating islands, mechanical creatures of all shapes and sizes, the existance of realityshifting and timebending magic and sky-ziplines," said Redditor Gregar in a thread almost unanimous in its disappointment. "And the best you can come up with is a Generic, Grizzled, White Protagonist that you can't even see, because it's First Person, holding a generic shotgun over his shoulder."
"Bioshock has always been the antithesis of games with this generic look (Call of Duty, lookin' you square in the fuckin' face)," said another commenter, on the game's Facebook page. "Kinda disappointing to see they've embraced that."
"As the female character is one of the main reasons I'm intrigued by this game, I kind of wish they'd put her on the box art, too," reasoned Kotaku reader RetroGamer.
Our friends at DualShockers pointed out the same lack of Elizabeth. "Why did they ask Max Payne for their cover?" inquired Kotaku reader GaoGaiGar, if rhetorically. "Starring Nathan Drake?" said Reddit's DR_oberts.
And then there's this:
Dark-haired white guy? Check. Gun? Check. Fire? Check. Yup, that's definitely a videogame cover. #BioshockInfinite— Dylan Duarte (@dylanduarte) December 1, 2012
The best you can say for the cover art of BioShock Infinite is that it is bland. The worst you can say is that it is cliché, fitting the worst cover-art trope of them all—chin-down, eyes-up, as the video comedy troupe Mega64 absolutely nailed in this video back in September. And it's nowhere near as imaginative or as evocative as what comic-book artist Alex Garner drew earlier this year (featured above), even if that followed a similar magazine-cover design published by Game Informer more than two years ago.
Why should this matter? As a writer or a gamer, I'm not personally concerned with 2K Games' success in marketing the game. If it picks a terrible cover for a fantastic game, it won't affect my enjoyment or my appraisal of what's on the disc.
But as this site's sports writer, I view cover subjects in a completely different light. The athlete on the cover of Madden, of FIFA, of NBA 2K, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, NCAA or, next year, MLB The Show is a relevant news topic. Fans get into arguments over this all the time.
This March I asked Anthony Stevenson, the marketing director for Madden NFL, why a cover matters, especially as games move to digital distribution.
"When we look back, five years from now, even at Madden NFL 12, it's going to be a snapshot of where the NFL universe was at that time," Stevenson reasoned.
He's right. Madden NFL 12 was a disappointment in the series and Peyton Hillis, of all players, was one of its worst cover subjects, in terms of individual fame and performance, ever. Though Hillis was chosen in a popularity contest, he represented an era "with fantasy football in its prime," as "a player who won a lot of leagues for a lot of people." He represents more of a snapshot of his game, in its time, than whatever the hell this is that 2K just released.
Conversely, if BioShock Infinite's cover is an accurate snapshot of what this game is on the day of release, then its devoted fans are right to suspect what's inside is corrupted by mass marketing and movie-hero FPS clichés. I don't believe that will be the case, but this is the face of one of a few games coming next year that will release to high artistic expectation.
Whether or not BioShock Infinite's cover should feature the game's protagonist or its main adversary, this cover tells me nothing about what sets BioShock Infinite apart from all other games involving a hero with a gun.
The disappointed reaction is not that this cover takes no risks, it's that it sends the message the game isn't going to take risks, either. No one wants to hear that. No one wants to see it. either.