An Ill-Advised Editorial on Bioshock

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bioshock.png Some might take issue with a review of a game written by someone who hasn't played it. Especially when the game is as monumental as Bioshock. But if all bloggers restrained themselves from offering opinion simply because they didn't know what they were talking about, well, it would be a much smaller blogosphere. And I suppose I'm no different from the rest of them.

Although I've had some things to say about the game for some time, I'm particularly inspired to write this now in response to Jamie Antonisse's spoiler-free Bioshock review written earlier this week. All I've played of the game is the demo, but based on that experience, reading a range of posts and articles on the subject, and my conversations with other gamers (including Jamie) working their way through it, I feel like I've gotten a fair sense of the story and gameplay. Without the benefit of actually playing the thing, I may fall on the crutch of revealing the twists and turns of the plot. Readers beware, here may be spoilers.

I shared Jamie's initial disappointment with the linearly militaristic structure of the game. Bioshock seems to follow a traditional given-path philosophy of level design, where the player is presented with a bounded path through space that must be followed to the end. Along the way, the player encounters obstacles that block progress along the path, which must be overcome in order to continue. Typically, and in Bioshock it seems almost exclusively, these obstacles are enemies that have to be destroyed. What Bioshock does well is allow the player a lot of choice with respect to how those enemies are destroyed. What it fails to do is give the player significant alternatives to killing the enemies that bar the path, or deviate from the path.

Not that this is a bad thing; precisely this sort of given-path level design is historically and currently the industry standard for making games. But the context surrounding this particular game led me to expect more, particularly in the areas of player choice and narrative, where it received particular praise. And by making this sort of structural choice, the game necessarily limits player choice to specific domains: weapons systems and combat tactics. Don't get me wrong, it may handle player choice within these specific domains extremely well. I just can't help feeling confined by the small bounded space in which I can act freely.

I'm omitting a major game element here, and it's the one that gets the most press: the Little Sisters. Little Sisters pose a different sort of obstacle to the player, and offer the the opportunity to make a moral choice rather than a tactical one. Narratively speaking, this is much more interesting, especially if the player is aware of the all-or-nothing nature of the choice. The internal, emotional process of making a decision, above and beyond coming up with a solution to a short-term problem, is at the heart of what interactive media can offer the art of storytelling. Bioshock certainly captures this, and does it in a way that beautifully echoes the overarching objectivist themes. But again, the game's use of this choice mechanic is quite limited: disparate instances in which the player is asked to make essentially the same decision. And the consequences of this decision on the plot are disappointingly shallow, only seriously impacting the ending cinematic.

I will speak primarily about the plot and ignore some other aspects of the storytelling, since plot is an integral part of the narrative and also the most accessible to me without having played the game through. The plot is certainly rich and compelling, but not what I expected from a game that was marked as a milestone for story in games. It's chock full of twists and revelations, but these are of the same class of story elements that games have been drawing from for years. My personal love of overwrought science-fiction aside, I think it's telling how little of this sort of thing is found in the great works of other media.

So my fundamental question is, why has Bioshock been singled out to receive these accolades? Not that it isn't deserving of honors, but is it more deserving than other games? To what extent does it truly break new ground? It seems to me that other games have done more to push the envelope in areas such as designing game mechanics around player choice, incorporating agency and morality, painting a rich backdrop, and telling a compelling story. One thing that Bioshock does remarkably well is atmosphere; perhaps that's the key. The art direction for this game is awe inspiring, and certainly contributes to the way the story is told. This is a point on which Bioshock excels, and if that is the source of all its praise, then it's well deserved.

Still, I for one can't help but be a little disappointed by this modern masterwork of interactive media. It's hardly the revolution of emotion and story in games that was promised. So many of the key elements - a city full of crazed, violent survivors; an amnesic protagonist unwittingly fulfilling his destiny; the mentor's betrayal; epic battles against armor-plated behemoths; mind control - seem to be archetypes plucked from stories and genres that employ them specifically to fill out an otherwise ridiculously thin plot. I've been waiting for the advent of the character-driven drama in games, for story based around the interpersonal conflicts arising from the individual and sympathetic fears, desires, anxieties, and compulsions of the characters. Bioshock, for all that it does well, does not deliver that.

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