L/N Review: Bioshock
"In real life, there is no such thing as a gradual descent from civilization to savagery. There is a crash -- and no recovery, only the long, drawn-out agony of chaos, helplessness and random death, on a mass scale."
-- "The Anti-Industrial Revolution", Ayn Rand
Bioshock is a video game about such a collapse, and for those familiar with the game, the irony of beginning my review with such a quote from Ayn Rand will surely not be lost. For Bioshock is about the collapse of a pseudo-Objectivist utopia called Rapture, established on the bottom of the sea by one Andrew Ryan(notice the similitude). The player is thrust headlong into the chaos -- for the crash is already well under way at the start of the game -- when his plane plunges into the sea near Rapture's aquatic entrance.
The opening segment of Bioshock does a fantastic job of introducing Rapture and it's ego maniacal founder. As the player is taken down into the city in a submersible, a loudspeaker drones:
I'm Andrew Ryan and I'm here to ask you a question:
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?
No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor.
No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God.
No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone.
I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I
chose the impossible. I chose ... Rapture.
And indeed, Rapture is something magnificent. It is perhaps the best realized setting in video game history. The attention to detail lavished upon every aspect of the place is unparalleled, from the characters, to the music, to the numerous pieces of pop art and advertisements, to the general depiction of tragedy. Even better is the way that Rapture is presented to the player for the player to explore, but only if he so chooses. In Bioshock, the setting is the narrative, and it is up to the player to immerse himself in it. Yes, objectives are conveyed to the player through radio conversations, but hardly anything else is pushed at the player. The majority of what the player learns about Rapture will be through discovered voice diaries and the player's own keen eye for details.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Rapture is who lives there. Or perhaps more insightful is who doesn't live there. Rapture was created as a place where the greatest of mankind could strive without the artificial limits imposed by government and religion. But who does the player find there besides thugs, a stripper, some engineers necessary for Rapture's infrastructure, and a few brilliant but unstable scientists and artists? There were certainly some talented individuals that came to rapture -- most of which the player has to kill -- but a place like Rapture is destined to attract only the most ambitious or the naive. Many commenters have described Bioshock as a critique of Objectivism, but really it is a critique of all utopias and the human vices which cause them to fail.
Unfortunately, the narrative has very little impact on the actual gameplay. Unlike in Bioshock's spiritual ancestor System Shock, the player doesn't actually need to understand exactly what happened in Rapture. Nothing that the player learns can significantly impact his chances of success. Perhaps there are some clues to the locations of hidden stashes of useful items, but nothing significant stands out. This seems to be an intentional design goal, given the developer's stated ambition of creating a straightforward first person shooter that anyone can complete. It is clear that they didn't want anyone to ever get lost or become stuck in a certain area, and requiring players to pay attention to environmental clues just wouldn't be compatible with that goal. By default, there is even a smart little on-screen arrow which guides the player to each sequential objective. The decision to make the game completable by as wide an audience as possible was one that had consequences for almost every aspect of the game's design.
Bioshock also aims to be a game about morality. Bioshock's narrative themes deliver on this promise with its tales of human fallibility and the dangers of ideological extremism. Bioshock, however, doesn't really deliver on its key moral decision as hyped by numerous pre-release interviews. This decision, for those who weren't already aware, amounts to whether the player should harvest, and thus kill, or rescue the genetically engineered Little Sisters. It is here that the design goal of creating an easy to finish game conflicts with a narrative goal. Essentially, the developers needed to liberate the moral decision from gameplay consequences so that choosing the harder road of doing the right thing didn't actually make the game harder. The moral choice would carry so much more weight if the player were legitimately tempted by the prospect of the power to be gained from harvesting the Little Sisters. In fact, the hint of an unspecified reward for rescuing them pushes the curious player in the opposite direction.
Although lacking in puzzle solving and exploration, Bioshock is a well-executed shooter in terms of its basic mechanics. The weapons feel weighty and the action is suitably kinetic. The player also has quite a few options, including special powers called plasmids, a variety of weapons and ammo, passive status boosts in the form of gene tonics, a camera to "research" opponents with, and the ability to hack mechanical devices like security cameras, gun turrets, etc. Bioshock is not a game, however, which really requires the player to use more than a few techniques. Each weapon may be upgraded separately in such a way that they are all viable. With regard to plasmids, most major encounter areas are home to pools of water and conspicuous oil slicks so that players favoring either electricity or fire attacks are both accommodated. There are even ammo types which can serve as a substitute for plasmids if the player prefers gun play. So the player is free to use whatever methods he likes, but at the expense of ever feeling clever more than once or twice for making use of the obvious environmental aids.
The photography and hacking subgames are fraught with their own, more serious problems. In the case of photography, it just doesn't make any sense and doesn't lend itself to deductive reasoning. All players would probably like to easily bypass those security cameras, which can be done by taking enough pictures of them, but under what logic would it make sense for the player to even try this? The player is only told that researching enemies by taking their picture will increase the amount of damage done to them, which makes little enough sense as it is. The hacking minigame is even worse because it is harder to ignore, not very challenging, and incredibly tedious after the thirtieth or fortieth time.
The greatest flaw in Bioshock's gameplay, however, is the vita chambers, respawn points where the player instantly regenerates after dying. The player can immediately jump back into the action without having to reload a saved game. The consequences of failure are thus dramatically reduced, making ammunition the most important resource to conserve instead of the player's own life and limbs. Once the player realizes that firing a grenade and missing is a fate worse than death, kamikaze tactics ensue. The vita chambers also seriously inhibit the negative reinforcement necessary to push the player to improve his skill with the game. Will the player learn from mistakes that lead to his death? Will he explore the wealth of options available to him if it isn't necessary to achieve success?
Bioshock's lack of consequences for death also diminish the game's climactic battles with the Big Daddies. The leviathans take so much effort -- and ammunition -- to bring down that it is here that the player is really likely to use those kamikaze tactics. What should be a thrilling battle becomes a tedious war of attrition. One must wonder if the incredible resilience of the Big Daddies is a direct result of attempting to create an epic battle in an environment where death is no obstacle.
Bioshock is a wonderfully immersive experience. Everyone with an interest in games needs to experience Rapture, just to see what the medium is capable of in terms of writing, setting, and narrative. Unfortunately, after playing the game for 10+ hours, the player's experience will likely be marred by the developer's desire to ensure that everyone will finish the game. The end result is that one impediment to completion, difficulty, is merely replaced by another... boredom.
Bioshock rolls a
For an explanation of my L/N scoring system, read my posts on the theory and the implementation.