Game Pile: Bioshock

One of the challenges I face in writing this blog is the twofold grapple of relevancy with interest. There is no way I can make it as a professional videogame reviewer – I can’t buy new games regularly enough to give cutting edge decisions, and time is a big deal in the gaming community. It takes all of a week or two for a game’s character to be established, then cemented, and unless I’m going to defy convention and tell you that X is surprisingly good, now that everything’s settled down or that X is surprisingly bad despite it getting awards, nothing I have to say is of interest. Nobody needs to hear me tell you that Bioshock was fantastic, and yet, there it is in my game pile, waiting for me to speak my mind. Yet, I had planned to do exactly that and even now I look at myself and wonder what exactly I had in mind with that.

First, an insight into how the Game Pile gets handled. I started out by sitting down with my videogame collection on Steam and using that list to create a quick draft in WordPress’ neato dashboard thing for each game I wanted to talk about, with the appropriate category tag. The games I chose for this templating exercise fell into three categories:

  • Cheap indie games that someone with my largesse can afford to purchase personally, and therefore help smearing my yearly christmas and birthday money from my grandmother thin enough to last the whole year like the last sliver of butter’s herculean attempts to coat the inner surface of a whole sandwich.
  • Triple-A titles that have thanks to Steam lunacy and the natural degradation of time, fallen down into single-digit dollar cost. I like to talk about these titles because some of them are properly good at what they’re trying to do, and conversely because it’s nice to bust out a big pair of boots and give something a proper kicking. If any game is going to genuinely suck, in my experience, it’s a triple A game – posibly because the more people you involve in a project, the greater your odds of adding a complete moron to a position of authority.
  • Old games. Not ‘a year old,’ but more ‘ten to twenty years old.’ Sometimes I like to imagine myself as a serious adult analysing videogames like a form of art and all that, but really it’s mostly that just as a grown man I’m probably trying to convince myself that all that youth spent playing videogames has some fundamental memetic value, some ideas and storytelling tools that I can take with me into other forms of art while I try and make some positive impact to the world at large.

I’m not even sure I really write reviews per se. I like to analyse games in ways that most other reviewers I know don’t, with an eye towards character, storytelling and a coherent experience, but it’s not like I have an advanced degree in cleverness or anything. I’m just a fan of the medium with a lot of experience with a variety of games – some of which are extinct, now, and we generally know why. If you ever wonder why I call myself an opinionated asshole, it’s because I really feel that’s the highest title I’ve earned with all of this writing. Obnoxious it may be to grab people and say ‘read what I have to say,’ without some form of legitimisation from either money or entertainment value, but that obnoxiousness is all I have, and so wear it I must. Stil, I feel that this level of examination of my favourite medium is a form of fun, and keeps my fingers moving on the keys, two things that I want in my life.

Second, as I’m sure you’re all aware with the way I spell colour and swear, I’m an Australian, living in Australia. Our internet service providers, which work through the enormous beast of APNIC have been grappling with technical limitations for years now, resulting in a generally-accepted state where internet access has quotas. If you exceed your quota, you still have access, but not at the higher speed and throughput of an ADSL2 connection. This may be a technical limit (like our national application of NAT), or it may be just an accepted part of the market where Australians don’t mind being cornholed over the IT industry (like the cost of software), but no matter the origin of this process, it can mean that some months, I can spend as much as the last week unable to reasonably download any multi-gig software, stream any video or do most of what people consider ‘fun’ on the internet. Since I’d already reached a conclusion point in the Steam games I have installed (Borderlands, Saints Row The Third, Fallout: New Vegas), I didn’t play a lot of videogames, or even think about them much them, meaning my work on the game pile stagnated, to be technical.

Third, System Shock 2 was released from its highly dubious debtor’s prison, which prompted a few friends, in real life, to ask me just why people – including me – froth so much about this piece of news. Why, exactly, should anyone invested in modern-day gaming care at all about System Shock 2?

Well, Bioshock, that’s why.

Bioshock, for those amongst you who don’t remember it, was a first-person perspective shooter set in a sequence of setpiece environments connected by fairly linear tunnels, where the protaganist, an inventory-free mute acquired ammunition through vending machines and food from the floor. It had a weapon upgrade system, about five different types of enemy to shoot, and all of it took place in a single city full of recorded logs that you had to pick up and listen to to gain any kind of context for what the fuck was going on, had a lousy moral choice system and a terrible final boss. And pipe dream.

It was also deeply atmospheric, full of fleshed out, interesting characters, wove its exposition in with the narrative, in some cases quite heartbreaking, and authentic down to its soles in everything it wanted to do. You could not find a single square inch of Bioshock that was not as Bioshock as it possibly could be, even in places where that wouldn’t make the faintest bit of damn sense. It’s been called steampunk, but that’s really not appropriate – it’s deco-punk, trying to evoke the 20s’ to 50s’ period of America, with its chromed and deliberately minimalist, modern form of expression and without the lurking feeling of war on the horizon. The style of the game is important, both because it’s very fresh and because it brings new pieces of visual storytelling.

One of the challenges videogames have always grappled with is an illusion of freedom. As far back as Commander Keen and Captain Comic, game developers have had to have some mechanism to clamp down on player freedom, and the best of those methods are those that fit in the context of the greater world. As games have become bigger and player actions have become more widespread, that feeling of freedom is harder to achieve, because the boundaries of the player have to be just as real. For big free-roaming games like Fallout 3, it’s nightmarish to make the whole of the Mojave wasteland’s boundaries reasonable, and in one case a character carrying multiple payloads of heavy explosives can be stopped, forever, thanks to a chainlink fence only slightly taller than oneself. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, this boundary effect was achieved by putting barbed wire on the surfaces you weren’t meant to grapple onto, or just putting it out on an island in the middle of fucking nowhere.

Boundaries are good things. Boundaries let you direct the player, and directing the experience is part of the point of storytelling in this medium. They also can be used to enhance certain emotions – Doom was very good about using feelings of claustrophobia in some areas, with tight mazes barely the size of the player character, full of flickering lights and transluscent enemies. At the same time, Doom very rarely tried to show you anything larger than say, the backyard of a house, and also never tried to put you through any story deeper than a teaspoon. When the time came to put a greater context to a player character’s actions, and to tell a story, those boundaries need to be a bit better thought out. In System Shock, you were on a space station. In System Shock 2, you were on the Rickenbacker, and in both of those contexts, any time you got to a window, to see the outside of the boundaries the game had used, you were treated to the vast, lonely terror of space*, which has the nice side effect of casting a player’s own actions as insignificant in stark comparison to the universe so vast and indifferent that we don’t have words for it. Furthermore, the player has to then find a specialised tool for getting out, rather than just a door – adding another way in which the story can guide the player towards a goal. Bioshock had the same concern, and that led to the decision to set the story underwater – and that then led to all the wonderful use of water and pressure as both components of greater imagery, and also lets the visuals dwell on the pants-shitting terror that come from just being underwater.

Oh, you didn’t notice? All the ideals in Rapture fell apart under pressure, and the city, itself, exists under extraordinary pressure. Doomed from the start, one might say.

The genetic heritage of Bioshock doesn’t stop with its deliberate environmental design choices. There’s other things that could be considered deliberate homage and others that could be considered laziness, like the horde of enemies that are basically just incredibly fucked up humans, or the way that your first, ammo-free weapon is a wrench, but to do a blow-by-blow of the games side by side would be meaningless. What is, in my opinion, the far more valuable thing is to look at the similarities and recognise that Bioshock is a translation of the first game to a different setting, adding polish and changing the style, to tell a different-but-similar story with different characters. In the same way almost every story follows one of three or four basic formulae, Bioshock follows the path first blazed by System Shock 2, and in its echoing of those ideas comes across some genuinely interesting story ideas. Without delving into story spoilers, there’s an aspect of your character in System Shock 2 that makes you uniquely insulated from an antagonist’s near-omnipotence; with an antagonist who was not omnipotent, to create that same feeling of uncomfortable closeness, Bioshock instead made a story decision that gave both the game’s serious antagonists a very close connection to you. Similar, but different – and it’s given a very real, tangible feeling in the second half of the game.

Another aspect is that Bioshock addressed two major problems that System Shock 2 had. The first was how the difficulty started north of Eve Online and spun all the dials upwards as you went through the game, with a paradoxic condition where the longer you played, and the more areas you opened, resources became scarcer. Part of this was that enemies didn’t just go away – there were always more places for them to come from, so there was never a true sense of completion – and weapon degradation kept you cycling from weapon type to weapon type, trying to play paper-rock-scissors but only when you had enough rocks to deal with an encoming scissor horde, and otherwise squealing and running as hard as you could in another direction until you found a door you could slam and a quiet corner in which you could suck your thumb. Bioshock rights this for the first play through, and if you make the challenge of never using the revitalisation chambers, can still be quite challenging, though it’s kind enough to not respawn enemies behind you all the time. Instead, it limits this malarkey to when you’ve just picked up a key item.

The other problem System Shock 2 had was that it was entirely possible, DXHR style, to play the game entirely incorrectly. You could actually upgrade and plan and expend resources in such a way that you’d wind up sitting in front of a vending machine, or a door, waiting for the flesh-eating beetles to crawl out of the ductwork and flense you, since there wasn’t any way to actually proceed any more. This is a failing in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and it was a failing in System Shock 2, a failing that Bioshock was kind enough to not fuck up.

Cutting into Bioshock, we can look back, into the game’s history, and forwards to the game’s future, a task that will steel us for when I finally get Windows Live ID working again and we can indulge the same set of tools upon the quivering frame of Bishock 2.

* Yes. I know. Shut up. Not everyone’s played it.

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