I’m not really in the business of doing “reviews” here per se, but I have been thinking I need to say something about Bioshock, the long-awaited first-person shooter from 2K Games (once known as Irrational). Jerry “Tycho” Holkins offered Bioshock alongside two of my own personal favorite games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus by Team Ico, as evidence that games can be Art. Meanwhile, forums and blog comments have been hosting debates over whether the game actually lives up to the promise of “choice” that many credit it with.
I played through twice, once for each ending. And now I’m going to write about it, but there will probably be some spoilers. Mostly I plan to explain how certain mechanics conflicted with the plot or overall game experience, but I do need to discuss the implications of a major plot twist in slightly more detail (though I’ll try to talk around the details of that plot twist with as much vagueness as I can muster). Ultimately, I think that playing and discussing Bioshock gets at some interesting questions about narrative gaming more generally.
I have far more to say about Bioshock in the way of criticism than in the way of praise, but that’s mostly because praise is boring and criticism is interesting. So let me say outright that this is, in my opinion, the best narrative first-person shooter I have ever played. The graphics are impressiveâ€”more inevitable than innovative, but still worthy of note. The sense of setting and atmosphere, of being in a detailed place that feels so real (and so beautiful, and so creepy), is breathtaking. The enemies’ AI is generally excellent; one of the best features, in my opinion, is seeing how they react to one another. I stumble over my words in explaining what I love about this game.
But is Bioshock “Art”? The term’s so vague as to be useless, but I suppose I can say this: I enjoyed it far more than most FPS games, but I felt far less emotionally invested in the story than I do in most half-decent movies. It still feels too often like more of a game than a story, for a few reasons.
The Implications of Choices
The first issue is one of choice. As some have argued, the choice of whether to “rescue” or “harvest” little girls (for the “Adam” within them, the currency to buy super powers) doesn’t always really feel like a choice at all. It’s more of a “cost-benefit analysis” in what will yield the best reward, measured in resources more than in story outcomes (link via Kotaku). Before the last cut scene of the game, you only see implications on the characters and story once, in a scene where you encounter several rescued little sisters and their reaction to you depends on your previous actions.
Frankly, this was not the biggest impediment to my enjoyment of the story, at least not the first time through. That time, I generally did feel like I was making the conscious choice to be a good guy, and the events in the story felt like they fit with my choices. As Splinter Cell games have taught me (especially Double Agent), it really does feel kind of awkward and bad to just play a jerk if I’m actively engaged with the storyâ€”as opposed to, say, experimenting with the game mechanics just to see what the programmers would register as me “killing” an enemy. (Dropping an unconscious guy into six inches of water? Yes.) I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
However, commenters on the previously linked article seemed to approach the game differently from how I did on their first time through. Some of them killed the Little Sisters for the more immediate bonus: They were more concerned with winning than with the characters, which is why I say it worked more like a game than a story for some. This has interesting implications: Is it possible that some people willfully approach videogames more like a game, disengaging themselves from the characters so they can achieve the goal that interests them more, while others willfully approach videogames like a story? Even my own reflection, noted above, on testing the limits of Splinter Cell, implies that this may be so.
The problem for me with Bioshock, however, is that playing as a “bad” guy was not nearly as satisfying in terms of story or gameplay rewards. On my second time playing through the game, I was determined to harvest every Little Sister to see the alternate ending. Much to my surprise, I found that rescuing them had yielded significantly better rewards if you’re patient enough to wait an extra fifteen minutes or so. Plus, harvesting them didn’t really affect the story significantly from what you see when you’re a good guy, which made certain supporting characters’ actions completely unbelievable. Knowing the alternative to my choice kind of ruined any cost-benefit analysis I could make, both in terms of story and in terms of gameplay. Generally, that’s not a big deal to meâ€”one of my favorite games, Shadow of the Colossus, works because it offers so little choiceâ€”but for a game that is hyped on choice being a major mechanic, it fell flat on a second play-through.
Meaningful Actions, Meaningful Themes
The issue of choice (that’s not really much of a choice) leads me to the second, and far more glaring, problem with Bioshock‘s story. (And this section is the most likely to have spoilers, so skip it if you’re nervous.) Beating Bioshock the first time through made me realize something disappointing: In the end, Bioshock is just an FPS, standing in contrast to how Shadow of the Colossus is not just a puzzle game.
The first half of Bioshock drops a lot of bread crumbs leading up to a major plot twist and some revealing facts. The way they’re presented kind of demands some degree of reflection on how games work as stories. You are made to wonder: Why don’t I ever question what went on with my character before the game started? Why do I let other characters talk me through a linear narrative? Why am I willing to kill?
These are some pretty big questions that make sense to ask in games in a way that wouldn’t really work as well in other storytelling media. And if these questions sound familiar, you’ve probably played Shadow of the Colossus. The whole game reflects an attempt to change the way games are played. You don’t spend most of the game fighting pointless enemies; you skip right to the epic battle every time, with time in between only to take in the scenery and reflect on your actions. You don’t keep hunting colossi after the big plot reveal at the end; for the last few scenes of the game, you have new goals, with entirely new rules.
The problem is that Bioshock doesn’t really address the big questions it introduces in its gameplay after posing them. Perhaps the major plot twist marks the point at which you’d be forgiven for your past harvesting of Little Sisters, given a chance to redeem yourself by rescuing the rest; I suppose this could be one way that the big reveal changes the way you approach the game. Otherwise, though, you still spend the rest of the game following orders from an off-screen voice, killing people as you progress through a linear narrative. In fact, the rest of the game feels even more like a game, as the enemies get significantly harder (forcing you to focus more attention on fighting and resource management), and the culmination comes not with some great moment of character interaction (like the plot twist itself), but with a pretty standard “boss fight.”
Granted, because the big reveal in Shadow of the Colossus gets saved for the very end, you only have to deal with the implications for a few moments of gameplay. I’m not sure how Bioshock could have responded better to its own implications. I think it would have helped, though, if my time spent playing the game had been less devoted to getting into thematically pointless fights with strangers.
In Bioshock, the most interesting parts of the gameâ€”dealing with creepy little girls, fighting dancers in a madman’s art project, and a particularly unnerving cut scene with the ruler of an undersea cityâ€”are padded with random encounters with violent denizens of Rapture. Yes, yes, I know that’s the point of an FPS. That’s my point. The traditional point of this genre of gaming runs in conflict with experiencing the story. My second time through, I allocated much more of my attention and resources to hacking security cameras, drones, and gun turrets just so that the game would handle more of the pointless fighting for me. (It worked decently well.) I didn’t enjoy the stupid hacking minigames; I did them because they were shorter and less intrusive than fights.
And lest you think I’m exaggerating at how much pointless fighting was the point of the game, check out this interview with a couple guys who worked on Bioshock (link via Joystiq). As they explain, test audiences hated the early Bioshock. “We hadn’t found the game yet,” one explains. “What part of it is fun, what’s compelling, what keeps me moving along and wanting to kill more splicers” (emphasis mine). The way they conceptualized progression through the game was as a process of moving from one fight to the next.
But I didn’t want to keep moving along to kill more splicersâ€”I had to. Every once in a while there would be some neat fight that really takes advantage of the atmosphere, like the one that felt like a dance noted above. But mostly, I found myself wishing that those zany splicers were just one more part of the atmosphere: raving lunatics in the background who I could pick a fight with or who occasionally had a beef with me, but who wouldn’t go out of their way to keep me from from the good stuffâ€”from the colossi, as it were.
Does this mean that Shadow of the Colossus is the pinnacle of narrative gaming achievement? No. It has its flaws, and I’d be disappointed if it’s the best the medium were capable of. I need to keep returning to this comparison, however, because there’s really nothing else like it that I know of right now. It’s like walking into a comic shop in the late 1980s and telling the owner that you really want something like Maus, or even just some book-length genre fiction that’s as intelligent as Watchmen or Dark Knight Returnsâ€”but it’s the late 1980s, so there’s really nothing else like them yet. Wait ten more years, I guess. As Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw says in his Escapist review of Bioshock, “Which is not to say that it’s bad, just shallower than advertised.”
Commonly Used Storytelling Devices (Which Don’t Really Work)
The above section describes my biggest complaint about Bioshock. Playing the game does make apparent, however, some other frustrating conventions about storytelling in video games, particularly with regard to character interaction, revealing plot points, and death.
I’ve already noted that the splicers would have been more interesting as characters if they weren’t always trying to murder you. Aside from them, there aren’t many people in the game you interact with face-to-face. And, when you think about it, this is pretty common to narrative games outside of the roleplaying game genre. Bioshock feels like it goes to great lengths to actively avoid interaction, though: Most characters speak to you through a radio, at a distance, or from behind a mask of some sort, so you don’t have to see the lip sync. (I vaguely remember the lip sync of in the plot twist scene described above as being quite good, while the lip syncâ€”or maybe just the appearance overallâ€”of the final “boss” looked kind of silly.) I realize that the game gets much more complex when you add in face-to-face interaction, but the emphasis on hearing over seeing the characters made for a noticeably awkward narrative experience at times, at least from my perspective.
This emphasis on audio storytelling is further carried by the “diaries” scattered around the city. This is based on a pretty common convention, too; in Splinter Cell games, for example, you frequently find computer terminals and “data sticks” in satchels that flesh out the background of the fictional world and its characters a bit more. Bioshock leans on this technique far more, however, occasionally to the detriment of understanding (and perhaps even believing) the game’s plot. I actually rather enjoyed getting a more detailed picture of the background of this world through the words of its inhabitants, but the careful placement of the recordings struck me as unbelievable within the context of the game world.
In other words, I suppose, it completely destroyed my “suspension of disbelief” when I found a machine the size of a small purse with a 30-second personal recording left in a public place. Who on earth goes home to record their innermost secrets, puts such a short message on a relatively large machine, leaves that machine someplace else, and then makes several other such recordings to scatter around the city? I can come up with in-game explanations for this (e.g., splicers ransacked people’s houses and scattered recordings about, and maybe the recording times were short because this was before the invention of the cassette). The easiest explanation occurs to me first, though, bugging me while I’m playing, and that’s the explanation that it’s easier for developers to deliver story tidbits this way than in the traditional means of narrative storytellingâ€””show, don’t tell,” just like they teach you in writing class as a kid. Like shielding a character’s face during conversation, this technique foregrounds (rather than hides) the fact that games aren’t yet nearly as sophisticated as other visual media at plot and character development.
Moreover, some relevant plot points are stored on those recordings, and I never did find every one. The first time through, this meant that I was actually left feeling like there were some major plot holes. For example, the Vita Chambersâ€”basically, booths you’d instantaneously resurrect in when killedâ€”were a great mechanic for keeping the narrative going, but a distracting plot device in a city where you’re the only one who comes back from the dead. As I found out my second time through, this does have an in-game explanation, but I missed the relevant diary that explained it (or maybe I just couldn’t understand it the first time over the muffled recording, or couldn’t follow the poorly-synchronized subtitles).
This brings me to my final point, for now, about how Bioshock handles the traditional conventions of storytelling in games. It is one of very few action-oriented games that actually recognizes that letting the protagonist die can be a narrative disruption. The Vita Chamber is supposed to be a corrective to thisâ€””It keeps you in the game,” one developer explains in the video interview noted earlier. What’s more, the deaths actually occur in the context of the narrative: If you punched a guy in the face before you got killed, he’ll still be injured next time you see him.
I enjoyed this mechanic. I hate redoing the exact same scene over and over again in games, or pausing after every vexing challenge to manually save my game. By the same token, the Vita Chambers still do feel like a band-aid over the larger problem of protagonist death in games. For most (or all) of the game, I am still wondering why I’m the only one coming back to life. Even after I find out, I wonder why my corpse disappears and how it is I get to keep all my guns. And, when a Vita Chamber is nearby, death is a momentary annoyance; it makes plenty of sense to just keep smacking a guy and let him kill you so you can step back into the battle feeling refreshed, again and again. I suppose I find brief, meaningless deaths in narrative games preferable to frequent, frustrating deaths (to say nothing of downright terrifying and fetishized death scenes, as in Resident Evil 4â€”but those too were frustrating because of the saving system). Both approaches, however, still seem representative of video games’ failure to grapple with real narrative problems without falling back on old conventions that hinder involvement with a story.
I am somewhat concerned that this post will make it seem as if I didn’t enjoy Bioshock, or that I think it’s a bad game. I did enjoy it, and it’s quite good. But I have to disagree somewhat with the Slashdot comment that when we have criticisms about games like Bioshock, we should “put it all to the side.” A former GameSpot writer, this commenter admits that they would “lean” scores higher for games like Bioshock in the hopes of increasing sales and thus encouraging similar development in the industry. “We NEED to support games like this,” the commenter writes, “otherwise it’s back to horrific Madden clones and movie-licensed drek.”
This is quite analogous to what Tom Spurgeon calls the “team comics” mentality among comic book fans. I don’t share all of Tom’s conclusions about what this mentality means for fans personally, as he suggests it simply makes fans into tools of the industry. And, in fact, I do think it makes a lot of sense to support games like Bioshock in the interest of seeing more thoughtful games in the future. But, like Tom, I dislike how “support” translates into “not criticize.” Fan “support” of this kind will guarantee a Bioshock II, but I’d rather see something new, evenâ€”eventuallyâ€”something that won’t let the standard conventions of video games limit what it can do.