This past Halloween I decided to invest in a bottle of blended wine and a game that had mounds of dust collected upon it, BioShock. I had always wanted to play it and had it not for broad plot points being spoiled and over-hyped fanboys echoing the zeitgeist, I would have taken on this epic much sooner. Be that as it may, this is my tale and it has taken me almost two weeks to formulate some form of a coherent opinion. I really liked BioShock [add me to the list]. From the Ayn Rand references to the allusions of governments past and present, BioShock is one of few games I’ve played where I finally understood the need for this current generation of consoles. The experience(s) found in BioShock instill a benchmark that is rarely pushed. A game that points out the foibles of man may have unintentionally pointed out the missteps of its own genre.
In any generation of games there is a mechanic or a hook that familiarizes the player with the games of that time. The music of Super Mario Bros. 3 combined with its graphical prowess marked a mastery of the NES hardware. In BioShock we see something quite odd — unmatched water effects, small little items hidden behind well designed 1950-style pin-up posters. We see character in the environment before another human is introduced. Playing the game now, after I’ve played a Call of Duty and God of War kind of scares me.
A game this good should be released after we’ve stumbled over tropes of gaming period pieces. This 1947 set underwater world of Rapture is the first time I’ve appreciated steampunk design. In a time when steampunk is a hot commodity in many facets of art design in general, BioShock’s art design team applies this look exquisitely simply because the look applies to the world. It makes since for gears, pulleys, and pumps to be the veins of a world thriving off of water pressure and steam energy.
Oh, then there’s the game. Your character, a crash, a beacon of hope. The gamer is given very little as a means of quietly teaching you how to navigate the controls without having a garish tutorial of text clouding the experience. The Metroid method of dropping a character in a world and letting the mouse find its way through the maze has never looked like such an evolved mechanic until now. Your hands have a weird look to them. Giving the player that option of imagining themselves inhabiting a body as opposed to moving around a pawn piece to the next cutscene.
As you try and decipher why radio contact is strangely easy to make within the world of Rapture, but nowhere else you notice that you are not the only inhabitant. A new form of horror is knowing that people are watching your every step and your voiceless character acts as a Pavlovian dog to their whims.
Entering your first dilapidated room, you hear whispers echo to your left of men and women arguing. There are monstrously loud pounding footsteps, but you can’t tell from what direction. You just know they are closer than you’d like. Finally, stereo surround sound being put to good use. This is BioShock’s sound design, small violins playing in the background while a jukebox skips a popular tune from the late 40s. I wondered how they got the rights to play such songs, then it occurred to me that the songs may be public domain by now — another benefit of the setting of Rapture.
Using the environment, you see that BioShock was once a bastion of hope for a people fed up with the direction America was headed. Andrew Ryan was a leader now vilified by the people. You don’t know why, but seeing mold on floors and the occasional leak, you begin to piece together how such a Utopian society fell prey to the ills of man.
This society was sophisticated, they enjoyed the finer things like wine, whiskey, classical concertos, and theater. Portraits of actor, Sander Cohen, are sprinkled throughout the world. He must have amassed a popularity similar to Leonardo DiCaprio. BioShock’s manner of hinting to the gamer you too could be a part of this, then you meet your first crazed maniac [splicer] babbling about Atom and plasmids. Suddenly, you are apart of this world of Rapture and not in the grand Utopian vision the shadowy Andrew Ryan had no doubt plotted.
BioShock turns your typical first-person shooter controls into the use of your hands. The left trigger controls the plasmids and your left hand. The right trigger falls to your weaponry and melee attacks of your right hand. This is where the barrier of entry of this generation of consoles takes a toll. The world of Rapture is disorienting and quite horrifying in moments, but if you are not well-versed in first-person shooters embarking on this journey may require a partner. I had a friend who only wanted to watch me play the game, because picking up the controller and figuring out when to use plasmids and how to hack devices is a daunting enough task when you’re not dodging splicer attacks and avoiding Ryan’s security cameras.
Since I am playing this game knowing of a sequel and a third story in the works, I’m surprised at how quickly I got invested in the characters. There is not a voice acting ensemble that rivals that of BioShock. This game has gone far and beyond what is necessary for sculpting a science-fiction horror that thrives on subtle drama. When the game introduces your first fight with a Big Daddy and why they protect the Little Sisters, you have that Shadow of the Colossus moment [depending on psyche of the player]. You want to get out of this terrible situation, but you need to make the decision of whom to kill in order to advance.
Every corridor and dark corner is filled with peril. The lighting effects reveal the shadow of a Houdini splicer chasing after a Little Sister. Your plasmids and guns force you to make tactical decisions as to how you should conquer the foe. Then the decision of saving a Little Sister or harvesting her Adam comes into play of how the game will end for you and what kind of player have you decided to become.
I only wish that the controls were more responsive when switching from, and attacking with the selected plasmids. There are moments when you enter a room filled with splicers and Big Daddies, if you have accidentally triggered an event then expect your new friend Atlas to give you advice in your ear as well. With all this stimulation, its quite easy for the audio to become muddled with overlapping vocal nonsense. Because Rapture is so dense and all of the cut scenes take place in-game, there are moments when you may enter a room and become trapped because the person you were supposed to kill escaped.
However, my biggest gripe with BioShock is the save system. Though I do wish games allowed the player to save where ever they want when ever they want. If you don’t want to be sent back to the start of a level you want to save as often as you can. Its the only part of the game that makes it feel antiquated in a negative sense.
BioShock is a rich experience. Every room has a tale and more than likely a secret you can uncover. The recorded tapes strewn about the world give a kind of retroactive development to the characters and this hidden world you inhabit. BioShock is a game with characters as opposed to pixellated three dimensional models being voiced by an un-enthused actors. Though the very end of the game is a crime against humanity [sorry, but it really is bad, believe the hype] the journey to your abridged cutscene is where the meat of the art exist.
There are so many ways to play BioShock. You can be a scavenger of a player, trying your best to avoid enemies and security. You can play defensive, but that requires a moderate amount of hacking acumen. There is nothing sweeter than luring a group of splicers in a room of newly hacked gun turrets. You can even make a Big Daddy your friend with the use of certain plasmids.
Because this game is a one of a kind experience, it pains me that it came so early in this generation. In one sense, games like BioShock need sequels and clones in order to further experiment with story telling and designs of this nature. On the other hand, BioShock shines as a magnum opus for lead designer Ken Levine, because you can only have a ‘BioShock-like’ experience once. This Utopian world of Rapture mimics the gaming world succinctly because when we find a good thing, we can’t help but butcher it. What’s a worse fate? If BioShock had gone unrecognized by the mainstream and the development team’s effort hadn’t seen a proper reward? Or subjected to be a slave to 2K and forced to peel sequel after sequel off of such well developed skin?
I give BioShock …
The “Image Of Impending Doom” Award
via The Brog
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