Sunday, 7 April 2013

Bioshock: A Series Of Opinions

So I've decided to make a series of posts about certain blockbuster and highly influential games and essentially it's going to be a bit of a rant (hence the title), so bear with me but I hope to actually say something worthwhile at the same time. This time: BIOSHOCK.

All screenshots are from the demo, for reasons

I'm discussing the first Bioshock game here, I haven't played the second one or the new Skyoshock: Infinite, so I can't speak for anything they do. I might get around to playing them at some point in the nebulous future, but given that I have so many games to play and so much to write about, I can't see that happening any time soon.

"No encounter plays the same way twice. No two gamers will ever play the same way."

The thing that people remember about Bioshock is the setting and the story. The big opening for the game is quite exceptional (at least the first time, and perhaps also for a second to see the little references it makes). The preview images and interviews told me to expect a fantastical underwater city, one that had undergone a massive catastrophe due to warring factions and mad science. For the most part, it certainly delivered this (even if it didn't live up to the "spiritual successor" tag related to System Shock 2, but that's a discussion for another time).

No Gods or Kings, Only Man.

What the setting does best is set up the story. Everything you see and hear is building the background of the narrative, telling you the motivations of the characters you hear from and eventually meet. It's a way of building up the world in a way that the game can't necessarily show you, and to avoid lengthy monologuing by the main non-player characters. It also helps to justify the game mechanics, although it doesn't quite do that so well in my opinion. After all the main thrust of the catastrophe is that overloading plasmids/tonics causes you to become violently insane, but of course the player character can use them with no consequence (I can't remember if there's a reason for this, I expect it's something to do with the nature of the character you play).

Anyway, while I enjoyed the general setting, I wasn't keen on the plot or the mechanics, and the one thing in particular I took offence to was the linearity. Your first notable action (apart from moving and looking around), is to jam a huge needle into your arm, and inject yourself with a strange glowing liquid for no discernible reason (except that there is absolutely nothing else to do, nothing else to interact with, no means of exit).

That is a HUGE syringe.

Pausing there, I'd just like to refer back to the previews, so we can see where things began:

Gamespot: "We're pleased to bring you the first official details on BioShock, a new game that will attempt to further the open-ended, emergent gameplay of the [System Shock series] by offering even more choices for players to creatively interact with the world around them and to solve the challenges that face them

1up: "One of the game's themes is "choice" and this is no more evident than when encountering the Big Daddy/Little Sister duo."

IGN: "BioShock is primarily a first-person RPG with guns, Irrational has designed the game from the ground up to make sure it's not a straight run-and-gun game." & "As Joe explained it, "It's all about choice, and we're giving the players as much choice as we possibly can.""

Where to begin? Well, it's fair to say the game changed significantly between the early previews and the final product. The amount of choice, RPG elements and so on were reduced seemingly at every stage until the game was released. You could argue that this was done to streamline the game, or "dumb it down" or whatever and that's not really interesting to me right now. What I find particularly interesting is the constant references to choice that are made in the previews, and indeed in the reviews and interviews about the game. That those choices became reduced to situational choice with regard to particular encounters (destroy or hack, kill or cure) doesn't really matter in the end. From a gameplay point-of-view, these choices just make the game slightly easier or more difficult, depending on your style of play (it's generally not a particularly challenging game, especially at the normal difficulty settings, and I say this as someone who is generally terrible at shooters).

So to return to our initial predicament, from the previews I had assumed (wrongly) that there was some level of choice involved in what sort of character you were (like in an RPG). I thought I would be able to choose between guns, plasmids or a mixture of the two (see System Shock 2 for such a system). But right from the outset I felt linearity being forced upon me, a distinct lack of choice. This would continue: even the situational choices such as how to approach groups of enemies or Big Daddies boiled down to what plasmids and guns I had available.

Your first sighting of a Little Sister (left) and Big Daddy (right), in a cut-scene

Exploring the environment was interesting, but constantly interrupted by dull repetitive combat. Listening to the audio-logs was good, but I found that I had to find a place to hide and listen to them. There were too many interruptions otherwise, and those that were part of a series could sometimes be too easily missed, creating a disjointed experience.

Plasmids: it's essentially magic really, when you get down to it.

The main choice of the game was to save or kill the Little Sisters. This is barely a choice at all, since you get almost identical benefits for both methods, it doesn't have much of an effect on gameplay and only gives you a slightly different ending video. The only reason you'd choose the "kill" option is curiosity, and even then if you want to see an alternative ending video these days there's always Youtube or similar.
Correction, perhaps this is you first look at a Big Daddy but it looks more like a welding robot.

This is the point where we reach the real crux of the game, and if you think I'm going to start to talk about objectivism you've got this game entirely backwards. The political elements of this game are mere window dressing, the real focus of the game's narrative which is enforced through gameplay is choice, and the lack of it. Your character is revealed to be a mere stooge, with the trigger phrase "Would you kindly..." being used to control your every action. This was the point where I really lost all interest in the game. They essentially were saying to the player that this game was massively limited and linear, and that it's all okay because it's part of the plot! At the turning point of the game, you (as the player character) are forced to attack Andrew Ryan with a golf club as he is shouting "A man chooses, a slave obeys".

Andrew Ryan: Seen here in better days, before he had a golf club wrapped around his skull.

You have absolutely no control over this sequence. No way to prevent it, no way to save Ryan. He hands you the golf club, even though he has no need to, and tells you to attack him. Moments earlier, he demonstrates his ability to control you and yet he taunts you with both his words and his own death to prove that you cannot break free of the control you are under.

All of my suspension of disbelief for the game and it's world evaporated in this scene. This point could have been a real choice for the player, who at this moment still wouldn't know who to trust. The big choice of the game could have been the choice between being the man who chooses, or the slave that obeys (Choosing between Ryan or "Atlas"). Instead, the game chooses for you. Ryan, and by extension the game itself, taunts you for following orders. It is calling out the player for following the linear path, but in this instance the only alternative is to quit the game, so it feels rather hollow.

After this, the game goes downhill somewhat. It is revealed who is controlling you, and you eventually become released from your mental bonds in order to track him down and destroy him. However, the game still remains linear. Your only choice remains the non-choice of the Little Sisters. I felt like they had wasted so much potential. The game world had been so carefully crafted, with all it's little details and yet it was all for nothing. Just a linear shooter with some interesting mechanics and a twist plot that wouldn't even live up to a M. Night Shyamalan film.

The final nail in it's coffin is the awful boss fight, something which is a hangover from arcade games. I get that people like a big showy finish to a game, but there has to be a better way than a giant bullet-sponge. I just felt disappointed after finishing it, and other than for taking screenshots for this article there's no reason why I'd bother playing through it ever again. How it ever got those dizzyingly high scores I won't ever quite be able to comprehend (although the user scores give a far more accurate picture).

The final third could have been improved drastically in my opinion if the player had regained full control after killing Ryan, and have been left to choose what to do in the final act without any interaction over the radio from Atlas/Fontaine/Tenembaum/whoever. You would then have the choice to kill Fontaine, save the Little Sisters, or just try to escape on your own. The game could have become open at that point, to give a much-needed contrast to the enforced linearity of the earlier sections. This contrast would have made the game far more interesting to me, and would have made that linearity, that "Would you kindly..." all make a bit more sense.

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