Sunday, January 31, 2016

Bioshock review

Warning - this review will contain spoilers for the storyline of the original Bioshock.

    This is a review which I file under, "no one in the world needs because everyone has already made up their mind but I feel like talking about." Bioshock was a game which debuted in 2007 and took the console world by storm. It was less impressive to PC gamers because it was, deliberately, a adaptation of System Shock's gameplay and atmosphere to a new IP. If you don't own System Shock then do System Shock with the numbers filed off. It was praised for its intelligent game design, its enjoyable gameplay, amazing setting, and analysis of a real-life philosophy. I come to both give Bioshock its due as well as point out its serious flaws.

    And there are many flaws.

    The premise of the video game is built around lulling you into a sense of complacency and then pulling the rug out from under you. You, the nameless protagonist of the game, are on board a plane in what appears to be the 1960s. Your plane crash-lands into the middle of the ocean and you miraculously survive. Traveling to a lighthouse, you discover a submersible which takes you to the underwater city of Rapture.

Rapture remains one of the most memorable locations in video games.
    Rapture was a city built by misanthropic billionaire Andrew Ryan on the principles of Objectivism. Scientists would be unrestrained by ethics, everyone would pull their own weight, and religion would be abandoned. Much like the communism it very much had its roots in but reverses the values of, Objectivism as envisioned by Ayn Rand was a Utopian system. However, in this reality, it lead to widespread social stratification and Depression followed by a revolution sponsored by a man named Atlas. Except, it involved sea-life derived drugs which provided superpowers.

    To completely spoil the ending of the game, it turns out you're actually Andrew Ryan's son created from his D.N.A and artificially accelerated to adulthood. Atlas, really a gangster named Vic Fontaine, has brainwashed you to obey his orders as long as he uses the words "Would you kindly?" A point is made of video game players' tendency to do whatever questgivers tell them to do as it's explained you have no choice in murdering hundreds of people for Atlas. The fact you only find this out after you, the player, have murdered hundreds of people for no other reason than a guy told you to do is part of the humor.

    Eventually, you kill Andrew Ryan, regain your free will, and then go to kill Atlas despite the fact I would have been entirely content to let him become ruler of a dead city. If you haven't murdered a bunch of children (more on that later), you get a happy ending where you build a family. If you have, you become ruler of Rapture and plan to conquer the surface with nukes.

Andrew Ryan is a compelling character. Intelligent, charismatic, and shockingly petty.
    One of the odder things about Bioshock which is a leftover from System Shock is the existence of Plasmids that work like a combination of Mutant Growth Hormone from Marvel comics and crystal meth. Users can shoot fire, lightning, and (I kid you not) swarms of bees from their hands. Virtually the entire city of Rapture has become addicted to plasmids and they've degenerated into psychotic mutant spree killers called Splicers. You, however, are just fine despite your use of plasmids and are only killing every single person you encounter because they're bad.

    Anyone notice the disconnect there?

    In simple terms, Bioshock is a shooter and a very good one. Rapture is an amazingly evocative location with its majestic underwater beauty, art deco building designs, and leaking tunnels. It's a good design of storytelling and gameplay integration as the various recordings you find around the city provide you with the tale of Rapture without bogging you down too much. There's also plenty of visual storytelling elements which show just how crazy things have gotten like encountered a man crucified for smuggling Bibles.

Remember, it's only murder when they do it.
You're totally sane despite injecting yourself with murder drugs.
    The bosses of the game come in one of two flavors. The less interesting ones are, ironically, the most humanized ones. There's a collection of various Rapture citizens who have maintained more personality than others like a psychotic plastic surgeon and a murderous sculptor but the bosses everyone remembers are the Big Daddies.

    Big Daddies are huge armored diving suits filled with brainwashed humans who have been conditioned to protect the Little Sisters. Little Sisters are the creepy children who have been genetically-altered to produce Adam, the stuff that powers Plasmids, that you have the option to murder them for.

    This, noticeably, is the only "choice" you make in a video game which is all about the lack of choice in video games. A lot of game reviewers touted the option as being about whether you would show your humanity as an altruist or whether or not you'd give into your basic selfish urges. You know, despite this is literally one of the most binary good vs. evil choices of all time.

    This turns out to have been very frustrating to designer Ken Levine because it's actually a PARODY of choices in video games. One of the fun things I found out about the game was Ken Levine wanted to do a story about the ridiculousness of choices in video games since he considered them horrible impediments to storytelling. Which, of course, is why the fact the game is about you being a mind-controlled flesh golem.

Oh, sweet child, if you only so full of sweet delicious ADAM like a little girl pinata.
    Ken's publishers, in a fit of completely unintentional irony, insisted he put a choice system in the game anyway. So, he put the most ridiculous binary, "kill a little girl or save a little girl" inside. Later, when he had more freedom, Ken Levine would create Bioshock: Infinite which is even more about lack of choice in video game narratives. Honestly, I'm on the publishers' side here.

    While I understand good storytelling requires you to be deterministic in character behavior and personality, if you're doing a game about the illusion of choice then you had better well put in a choice once you regain your free-will. The fact Ken Levine is absolutely fascinated with the issue of choice in video games also is the least interesting part of the narrative to me. I'm much more intrigued by the class struggle between Rapture's upper crust and lower castes that is entirely set dressing as I understand it.

    The critique of Objectivism is effective even if it's only fairly obvious and explains why, to me, the system is flawed to anyone who subjects it to the slightest bit of critical analysis. If you create a system which rewards selfishness and punishes selflessness then you're going to have a system where no one is remotely interested in supporting the system versus their own selfish gain. As the game nicely illustrates, "So who cleans the toilets in Rapture?" In a healthy economic society, someone who knows they'll be able to afford food, shelter, and clothing.

The Big Daddies are awesome. I accept no disagreement.
    In Rapture, the poor are looked down upon for being poor despite the upper-crust gaming the system--as they always do. The concept of enlightened self-interest doesn't exist in Rapture with predictable results as the idea of unions, organized labor, and so on are anathema to Rapture's leadership despite the fact they're part of any system which would actually bargain for labor. Because, of course, the system isn't really for equality but to make the rich richer and feel good about themselves.

    Likewise, you can't make a society based on freedom and expect it to remain firmly under your control like the good little snow-globe you envisioned it as. None of this matters when you're shooting Splicers in the face, of course. It's also a lesson reserved for jerkass CEOs and politicians who probably don't play many shooters.

    In conclusion, Bioshock is a fun game. It's a game which is more style over substance in my opinion, though. There's a lot of intelligent ideas and world-building but I'm sorry to say they sort of came about by happy accident than through intent. It's critique of Objectivism is the most important part of the story but it's more interested in talking about the disconnect between publisher and player. This isn't their fault but it's like attending a play of Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead and being more interested in its presentation of Denmark economic models. Still, I'm going to be good to its score because I had an immense amount of fun playing it and happy accidents are still good.



  1. Ah Bioshock, one of those games when I was younger was and it still is one of my favourite games of all times. For a number of reasons like the plot, the characters (Ryan still is one of my favourite villains in a game for a number of reasons, from being fascinating in general, hell the game ironically got me interested in objectivism in the first place, despite the game pointing out it's flaws in the first place, as you mentioned about someone has to clean the toilets). What made Ryan work for me was how often he was in your ear sporting lines and having a huge presence, like how Tenpenny was often in your face and ear in San Andreas. These are the best type of villains for me in gaming.

    Though that was because some bits of objectivism appealed to my libertarian and ancho capitalist views I had and do hold onto some even now.

    Rapture is still one of gaming's best locations created, the world building in the game, audio recording showing what it was like to live there, the characters who inhabited it having personalities and different reasons for being there. Sander Cohen is still in my mind the best nutcase in gaming. That Ken and his team have never been able to get away from it, hence why the sequels came back to it again and again.

    Doesn't help that Ken repeated himself a lot in Infinite, though like Bioshock he seems to be extremism in anything is bad as the main message.

    The scene with Ryan face to face was so well built up and so layered with tension, emotional feelings to finally meeting the man in person that few games aim for, but never achieve.

    Frank fontaine while less interesting, his scheme as atlas was definitely one I could respect on repeat playthrough's.

    Ken Levine is one of my favourite game makers of all time, even if as you pointed out his issue with choices in games is a bit flawed when he doesn't actually offer any alternatives to the issue.

    Though his interview on game informer a few months back was very interesting and he had a great quote on writing interesting characters that I have kept on my quotes list.

    “I think there is a feeling of wanting to see character types rather than characters,” “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you write a ‘positive gay character?’ In the abstract, that’s a very odd request, not because there aren’t positive gay people out there. It’s because nobody is wholly positive or wholly negative. And that’s also not what makes somebody interesting. Being strong and positive is not what makes people interesting. It can be part of what makes somebody interesting, but that to me is creating a one-dimensional character, that’s only recognizable by their strengths, or only recognizable by the fact that they are black, or by the fact that they are Jewish. As a writer, that doesn’t seem like a terrific path to creating interesting characters.”

    Another great review Charles overall, you thinking of doing one for Bioshock 2?

    1. Andrew Ryan, of course, isn't a villain and that is one of the more clever bits of storytelling in the story. He's a complete asshole who kidnaps children and proceeds to turn them into monsters as well as being the chief architect of Rapture's misery but he has nothing against you. You're actually the villain who is coming to murder him and that's a rather amusing twist on the subject. I do agree about his huge presence, though, and liken it to Handsome Jack's in Borderlands 2.

      Honestly, Frank Fontaine never really worked all that well for me because I'm honestly not sure why he felt the need to suddenly pick up the Villain Ball. There's no reason for him to betray the player character at this point or engage in sudden massive dog-kicking. He's won and only by choosing to try to dispose of them and antagonize them further does he lose his position.

      I will note, of course, that the game doesn't present a wholly antithetical view of Objectivism as Andrew Ryan's failure begins only when he starts casting aside his own beliefs. Andrew Ryan bans free-trade with the surface because he doesn't want to be discovered, he bans religion which is against the spirit of Objectivism but would fall under personal freedoms, and he confiscates Frank Fontaine's businesses because he doesn't want to be anyone but the richest man in Rapture.
      In short, Rapture was a ego trip for Andrew Ryan and the moment he was expected to live by the rules of everyone else was the moment he abandoned that. A pity you didn't get the chance to point that out to him.

      And I intend to do Bioshock 2 but I need time to actually play it. I have purchased a copy, though.

  2. This is one of my favorite games of all time. Its story, gameplay, and aesthetic are all some of my favorites.

    I'd argue the story isn't necessarily anti-objectivist, largely because it's also a narrative about escaping altruistic servitude (in the objectivist sense). Even the moral choice about the little sisters involves saving people from a life of altruistic servitude for the mutual benefit of yourself and them.

    1. As I just mentioned above, it's notable that Andrew Ryan's Utopia only completely collapsed when he started disobeying his own philosophy's tenants. Andrew Ryan couldn't accept anyone deviating from Objectivist principles or, worse, being better at them than himself. Atlas is, until he begins his mob rule, actually better at being a businessman than Ryan himself. Which, of course, spoils Rapture for him. I do think the work nicely encapsulates the problems with Objectivism in practice, though, and an inflexibility of thinking. Rapture would have trudged along if it had opened itself to trade, freedom of religion, and reform for the benefit of the angry masses but--of course, it wouldn't be the Rapture Ryan wanted anymore.