Monday, August 6, 2012

Bioshock Sucks

More like Bio-Suck, amirite

Nah, just kidding. Bioshock is a brilliantly fun game that delivers an experience unlike any other. However, it is also a game that gets tossed around as an example of "art in video games" and that needs to stop. Bioshock is not great art. While lots of fun to play, artistically it's barely above the average summer tentpole film. Bioshock is a game with a lot of interesting ideas, but it is held down by its game mechanics.

The mechanics of a video game are the tools the developers give the player that allow them to explore and interact with the world of a game in a specific way. They are as important to video games as camera movement and editing is to movies. The ability of the player to interact with the narrative and change it is the main thing that defines video games as an art form, and Bioshock gets it wrong. It is in theory a game about choice and the illusion of choice, a game that analyzes and deconstructs the pure Randian view of capitalism. And what do you spend 99% of the game doing?

Dancing! No, wait, that's not it...

You run around a maze killing things and collecting other things. It's exactly the same thing you do in Modern Warfare, in Gears of War, and in Goldeneye 64. The game mechanics do nothing to further the overall themes. You could maybe argue that the gameplay sort of reinforces the theme of the illusion of choice especially when you consider the big twist near the end; however, I think you would be reading intent where there is none. While the big twist sorta kinda recontextualizes everything that came before it, it really isn't the main focus of the game. Instead, the main focus of the game, aka the thing that you spend the whole game doing, is running around shooting dudes and then maybe setting them on fire.

If we're being honest, always setting them on fire

Now, let's go back to the things Bioshock does well, because it does those things very, very well. First, there's the opening of the game. I honestly believe that the Bioshock has the greatest beginning in video game history (well, maybe second greatest). It perfectly conveys the story in a way that only video games can. You start out in the middle of an airplane wreckage in the middle of the ocean. No idea who you are or why you're here. There is a conveniently placed tower right next to your crash site (a little too convenient, you will later realize). You go inside and discover a room full of capitalist imagery. This is your first exposure to the world of Bioshock: mysterious, grand, and spooky. Then you wander down to the bathosphere (what else can you do?), which takes you underwater. After a brilliant speech that introduces Ayn Rand - I mean Andrew Ryan and all of his ideals, the world of Rapture is revealed to you in all of its glory. Its pretty amazing stuff, but something seems off.

Then all your greatest fears are realized when you find yourself trapped inside the sub while it is attacked by some hand-hooked monstrosity. You wonder if there is something you should be doing to save yourself, but really, there is nothing you can do. Fortunately, a soothing voice reassures you and encourages you to step outside. I don't think any person playing this game has ever not hesitated at this point. Then you find yourself in a slowly flooding waking nightmare armed only with a wrench. It's fucking terrifying and humbling, in a way that only video games can be (the main character of a horror movie will never die in the opening scene, but the main character of a video game - aka you - totally could).

And then the game goes and gives you a gun. Then it gives you a bunch more guns, and superpowers, and suddenly its not so scary anymore because there's nothing the game can throw at you that you can't instantly obliterate. And nothing of any real consequence happens until you get to Ryan's house, but you take the most roundabout way to get there (I don't really count the bit where Atlas's family dies as "something of consequence" because you never see them and it's not like anyone thought you could escape and the game would end). This is why the game fails; it is really only interested in its narrative and themes at the beginning and at the twist near the end.

Why is there never a "resolve issues diplomatically" button?
Speaking of the twist, I'm going to be honest, it is fairly brilliant critique of the very nature of linear game design, no argument there. That moment is the only other moment in the entire game that trancends the action-horror genre. It also lasts about 5- 10 minutes of the total gameplay time; if you are going evaluate a game on its artistic merits, you must evaluate the game on a whole, not just one or two cool parts. Citizen Kane is amazing because every single part of that film is amazing, not just one or two scenes. Also important is the fact that the rest of the game after the twist pretty much robs it of all its meaning. You're still running through a maze doing stuff because a voice tells you to, only now you realize that you're doing it because this is a linear game and the level designers didn't want to model the entire city of Rapture. Then it ends with your standard Video Game Boss Fight (lots of health! Obviously telegraphed attacks!).

This can only end well.

The other thing Bioshock does well is its production design. This is where all of those big ideas about Ayn Rand and capitalism comes from. This is also how the story of Rapture is truly told (the voice tapes you find don't really count because they're lazy storytelling and nowhere near as effective). As you explore the world of the game, little details will catch your eye and flesh out the story in subtle and effective ways. An empty baby carriage here; a bloody handprint there. Of course, all this subtlety is lost in the frenetic running and gunning; you don't really notice all the little details when you're mowing down mutants with a tommy gun.

Flying Steampunk Robots are easily the least controversial tenet of Objectivism

In the end, Bioshock is a good game, Bioshock is a fun game, but Bioshock is not a great game. It suffers from the same issues as every other game with high aspirations, namely emphasizing Fun and Action over good interactive storytelling. It should be praised for what it does right and critiqued for what it does wrong. It is an important step on the path to true artistic value for games, but we are not there yet.

Also: The less said about the stupid "moral choice" system the better. For some reason the only two choices  video games like to give you are Obviously Good and Obviously Evil (just like in real life!), and it's pointless and irritating. Besides, even if you do save all the little sisters you still end up with enough Adam to turn you into the most powerful person in Rapture. Not really a "difficult choice."

1 comment:

  1. Bioshock is like Inception. It's better than Halo/Transformers, but it's certainly no Braid/2001.