a review of BioShock
a videogame developed by 2k boston
and published by 2k games
for the microsoft xbox 360 computer entertainment machine
text by tim rogers
If you imagine for a moment that all of the emails I received between last November and today asking me the eternal question “Why don’t you have cancer?” didn’t exist, that would leave an overwhelming majority of emails asking me why I haven’t reviewed BioShock yet, with runner-up email topics being when I’m going to review BioShock, or if there’s some reason I am blatantly ignoring BioShock. I imagine that a good percentage of those of you sending me such emails are genuinely confused, because you know deep in your bones that reviewing BioShock is something I need to do as a “critic” of videogames. The rest of you are probably sneering in anticipation of some belly-laugh worthy one-liner smackdowns. You probably have a bottle of brandy in your cupboard, and your best snifter polished and at the ready. I’d like to say that I will make sure your brandies do not go to waste. Though a small part of me (definitely not my brain!) is a little hesitant, because I just plain don’t like BioShock enough to tear it a new butt-hole, and I don’t hate it enough to pretend I love it. It’s just kind of . . . there.
Here we are, anyway, with today’s installment of the Action Button Fashionably Late Review:
Oh, the critics screamed themselves red-eyed, they did. Though we must be careful when we call the game-review-writing masses “critics” — a vast majority of them really just got into the habit of writing about the games “industry” so they could get free passes to E3, where they could get free, XXXL, radical, awesome black T-shirts with centered, capitalized company names in sans-serif font. This was before that sort of thing was even ironic. I saw a hip kid at a party the other night wearing a T-shirt that said “T-Shirt” in the middle of the chest, in Arial font, for example. I don’t want to name names (though by the end of this paragraph I might end up doing just that) — just believe me when I say that the majority of “game critics” have really poor taste regarding pretty much anything that qualifies as entertainment. The first time I met Chris Kohler, for example, I learned that he’s actually not pretending when he says his favorite band is Fleetwood Mac! For stuff’s sake, that guy gets paid a robust salary by WIRED, of all people, to blog about videogames!
And, according to Game Set Watch, “he’s the best mainstream commentator on digital download matters right now”. We are so screwed, my fellow gamer-kinds!
Here at Action Button Dot Net, we listen exclusively to music like this, or this, or sometimes this (when we’re having awesome 2P co-op sex). So you can bet your bottom dollar that we’re not going to be fooled by something just because it has Django Reinhardt in it.
For the record, Django Reinhardt is more of a father to me than Jesus ever was, and I grew up Catholic. I sat and listened to his recordings in dumbstruck silence for probably more hours of my young life than I spent trying to perfect a play-through of both quests of the original Zelda. I didn’t realize that the man was able to make such beautiful, complicated music with just two complete fingers until many years later, when I saw the Woody Allen film “Sweet and Lowdown”. There; I’ve just succeeded in mentioning Woody Allen in a videogame review. This will likely get me more emails asking me why I don’t have cancer, though hey, so be it. What I’m trying to prove here, perhaps a little snidely, is that I have interests outside videogames, interests in things like other forms of entertainment. I might even mention that I enjoy swimming and weightlifting. Might as well! Now I’ll step back, put my toes on the other side of the line, and say that I liked Japanese hardcore music before I played Jet Set Radio. What I’m trying to say is that videogames are not necessarily a poor introduction to culture as they are a weird one. There’s really no insight to be gained from this statement of opinion; I’m just throwing it out there. I find it weird that some people are suddenly pretending to have always been deeply interested in Art Deco, the literary works of Ayn Rand, and the expert guitarring of Django Reinhardt just because of a videogame. It’s like, at this point, with so much qualified culture in your videogame, it doesn’t even need to be “good“.
Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s “Beyond the Sea” is a timeless, objectively brilliant piece of music; its inclusion in the opening of BioShock is a no-brainer in almost every sense of the word: obviously, this is the kind of music that would play over the PA at the supermarkets of choice of elite artists and urban refugee philosophers in an alternate-reality 1950-something. On the other hand, it is also a “no-brainer” because this is a game about a community beneath the sea; hours into BioShock, which soon proves to be little more than a videogame, the possibility that the people in charge of music selection might have been confusing it with that song from “The Little Mermaid” becomes strikingly relevant.
What I’m saying is that BioShock is a pretty shell.
This game is not a masterpiece — it is the bare minimum. Its attention to detail with regard to its atmosphere and its narrative is not, in and of itself, a glorious feast: it is the very least we should expect from now on.
I have said before that “Each work of expression humankind creates will sit at the bottom of a gazed-down-upon canyon for centuries to come, as messages from the past.” BioShock will, I’m afraid, for the futuristic alien-robots that eventually come to earth to sift through the nuclear wreckage, most likely be virtually indistinguishable from those 1990s short-film monsterpieces about dudes driving a mine cart into a volcano full of dinosaurs, where the theater chairs tilted left and right and fans blew your hair back and eyes dry.
To explain it simply, without re-referencing the game’s core wallpaper themettes of Ayn Rand, Art Deco, and beautiful triumphant jazz music, here is a description of BioShock‘s story: a man is flying over the ocean in a plane. The plane crashes. He survives. He swims toward a monolithic structure. He goes inside. Without questioning why, he boards a deep-sea-diving vessel, and finds himself in an underwater “utopia” built years before by scholars, artists, and philosophers who found the then-modern society not suited to their ideals. Upon entering the city, he discovers it has been destroyed, and is currently teeming with drugged-out brain-thirsty genetic psycho-freaks. A man contacts the hero via short-wave radio, and offers guidance. He wants the hero to save his family, and himself, and help the last few sane survivors of this nightmare get to the surface and go back to the society that they had once seen fit to leave.
Of course, between point A and point B, there’s going to be a whole lot of psycho-freak smashing. “That sounds good”, says the entertainment connoisseur. “That sounds plausible”, says the literati. “That sounds hecking bad-butt“, says the gamer.
Unfortunately, the cracks in BioShock‘s facade start to show themselves sooner rather than later. Most pointedly, the hero is a boring, nameless, voiceless dunce. He speaks one line at the beginning of the story, and then undergoes a vow of word-silence (grunts only) for the duration of the tale. There are thousands of people, no doubt, capable of constructing arguments that seem convincing to themselves, who can defend the nameless silent protagonist in a videogame, though it just doesn’t cut it for me anymore: if you’re going to build a rich atmosphere, if you’re going to try to tell a story, you’re probably going to need more than just “a character” — you’ll need an interesting character. Even Grand Theft Auto started giving the hero a voice and a personality after Grand Theft Auto III, and that game’s main goal was presumably just to let the player mess around and live out stupid fantasies involving casino roofs, rocket launchers, city buses, and digital law enforcement.
Say what you will about the silent protagonist thing: we can all at least agree that the hero in this game is a bit weird. He will eat potato chips that might be a year old immediately upon finding pulling them out of a garbage can in a city full of genetic freak-out zompeople; where hypodermic needles are as “daily-routine” for the citizens as a cup of coffee, you’d think that the basic idea of “this place is a filthy bio-hazard” would at least be on the tip of one’s subconscious when one finds food in a waste receptacle.
He’s also the type of guy to have a tattoo of a chain on his left wrist (“Maybe he was in prison?” the thirteen-year-old gamers wonder, and feel like geniuses), and make a medium-pitched grunting sound once every twenty times he jumps. I’m no expert in Hard Dudes, though I imagine that a man crawling on his stomach through a knee-high sewer hole would probably stop repeatedly and nonchalantly smacking his wrench against the palm of his free hand every few seconds. Not so with our hero.
Also, judging by the various sounds he makes when eating food, I have to say he would never be allowed in my house. (Or within fifty feet of my house. (I have Dog Ears. (While we’re on the subject, please don’t ever, ever, ever call me on the phone if you’re chewing gum. I’m hecking serious as a heart attack. If I call you and you happen to be chewing, hey, I can accept that as my mistake. Just don’t do it the other way around. In addition to being disgusting, it’s also rude.)))
Not ten minutes into the monster-smashing portion of the game, the player comes across his first ever hypodermic needle — a “Plasmid”, the game calls them — and upon plucking it out of a busted vending machine, he immediately jams it into his arm, goes into wicked convulsions, crashes through a banister, and slams into the floor twenty feet below. The potato chips thing had made me laugh; this thing involving the instant hypodermic needle snapped me out of my trance; all at once, I was awake in the world of BioShock, watching the dream armed with rubber gloves and forceps. Our guiding spirit contacts us via the short-wave: “You’ve just used your first Plasmid! It’s a bit of a doozy! Your genetic code is being re-written!” Thanks for telling us that before we jammed it into our arm! I bet your starving family finds it hecking hilarious that you’re willing to let their only chance of salvation flail around on the floor while an entire troop of psycho-freaks walks by, stares at him, and laughs.
As it turns out, the first Plasmid our silent hero obtains gives him the power to shoot lightning bolts from his fingertips. Wonderful. In case you’ve forgotten what happened one paragraph ago, yes, this Plasmid came out of a vending machine. So here I am, awake in the dream of BioShock‘s cluttered study, thinking up reasons that artists and scholars and philosophers who saw fit to run away from modern society would want to be able to shoot lightning from their fingertips, much less be able to purchase this ability from a vending machine. What would honest, society-loathing, government-rejecting artists, scholars, and philosophers need the power of telepathic electricity for? To recharge batteries? The game has some cute little graphic designs explaining the power of each Plasmid as you obtain them, though they always make the powers look like little more than fuel for painful pranks. And here begins the slippery slope of my One Night With BioShock.
BioShock fails, and quite embarrassingly hard, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes time to tie all of its genuinely enthralling atmospheric concepts (underwater city, inspired art design, excellent music, political message, overt genetic enhancement as common and convenient as multivitamins) into an actual knife of entertainment. As-is, there’s just too much to do, too many choices to make. I like having to choose my weapon upgrades wisely, and I can honestly see the pure-hearted intent of the game designers in making me do so; it’s just that, in something like BioShock, the richer and more excellently executed the atmosphere, the more shocking and bubble-bursting are the whip-cracks of context.
Now, 95% of Bioshock‘s appeal for me, personally, is the mystery of this destroyed undersea utopia, and the pleasure of wondering what exactly went wrong. Early on, I felt like Sherlock Holmes as I pieced together the smaller clues: I saw the signboards discarded at the dock, displaying messages such as “WE DON’T BELONG TO YOU, RYAN”, and thought, “Aha! These people wanted to leave! Something was going wrong here — and someone named ‘Ryan’ was to blame!” It would have been really nice if these sort of hints had built gradually in momentum. Not so: eventually, quite early on, you get to the point where you can purchase the “Enrage” plasmid, which, according to its item description, “ENRAGES target, causing it to attack someone other than you”. In a game so steeped in lore and godly details, I can’t help wondering for a second what function such a genetic enhancement would serve in a society focused on self-betterment.
Ultimately, I come to the conclusion that this society failed and exploded because people are jerks: the people making these biological “enhancements” were jerks, and the people buying them were jerks. It really only takes one jerk to destroy a world.
I now stand a precarious step away from implying that the people who made this game are jerks as well, though I’ve seen that one photograph Kotaku always uses whenever BioShock director Ken Levine says something in an interview, and he doesn’t look like a bad guy at all (if you’re ever in Tokyo, Ken, we must do lunch, seriously; I know an excellent ethnic-mixture vegan curry place).
Still: they could have buried the mystery a little more deftly.
Or: I can sort of believe vending machines in the middle of the city, though why are there vending machines for Expensive Things in these god-forsaken maintenance tunnels under the city? It doesn’t make sense — how often did workers suddenly find themselves in need of psychic power upgrades in the middle of a walk up to the surface? Wouldn’t they have dealt with their psychic inventory management on the way to work in the morning, or waited to do it after their shift was over and they were headed back home?
The thing about giving all of the videogame-power-up dispensers in your immersive videogame concrete, in-world justifications, with tastefully tacky, interesting, exuberant neon graphic design, is that you’re begging for the player to supply real-world-logic to explain why they exist where they exist. At one point, your constant narrator informs you, of the ruin of the city: “Nobody knows exactly what happened . . . maybe he found he just didn’t like people.” Duh! What other kind of human being would take a look at a scientific research lab where a man had accidentally created a psychic-power-modifying injection that imbued the user with the ability to send any target into fits of violent rage and say “Yeah, sure, let’s put that in the hecking vending machines all over the city, see what happens.” And seriously, what kind of society-shunning undersea magical enclave of artists and scholars would literally need plentiful vending machines, complete with a stereotypical cigarollo-chomping Mexican mascot, to dispense weapons and ammunition for cash? You can say that they were having problems with smugglers, or that the genetic-splicing freak-bastards were overrunning the city and the people needed to defend themselves, though seriously, I’d imagine that, at a point like that, you’d just have government officials handing out guns in the street (err, “glass connecting tubes”). Maybe if they hadn’t taken time to convene the hecking Board of Artists and decide on what kind of rugged yet cute gun-belt-wearing mascot to stamp all over all of the gun-vending machines, they would have had time to fight back the threat before it ruined the whole damned place. In this, a game so reliant upon its immersing environmental qualities, In many ways — dare I say it — these context-ful vending machines are actually worse than the ammo crates of yesteryear. Nice job on that, guys! Try nuclear fusion, next!
Here I could ask the burning question: “Did no one in this society detect that maybe something about the psychic-enhancement thing was asking for trouble?” Though I’m pretty sure someone would link me to the Wikipedia page on Scientology, and then I’d have to pretend to feel ridiculous.
Around the time the game introduced the interestingly modeled neon-glowing vending machines that let me manage my psychic power slots — that is, let me un-equip one psychic power to make room for another — my Night-Vision was on, and I was seeing pink all over the place. I had a bunch of guns, and I was shooting lots of dudes, and I kind of wasn’t feeling it. Then there was this “boss” encounter where I had to put all of my weapons into a pneumatic tube before entering the room. I got to the end of the encounter and reclaimed my weapons from the other end of the pneumatic tube, at which time my characters hands flipped up and down, wielding each weapon for a split-second before snapping to another one. If only this had been Burnout Paradise on the PlayStation 3, where users with PlayStation(R)Eye(TM) cameras connected to their USB(C) ports will have a snapshot of their face taken at the precise moment of fatal impact with a rival racer in an online match; I would love to see what facial expression I was wearing when that thing happened with the pneumatic tube. I’d put it on every time I go to Starbucks; that way, when I saunter up and say “Shot of whiskey” to the gorgeous girl at the register, she might actually realize that I’m joking, instead of saying “We only have coffees and teas here, sir.” Seriously, I used to work at a Target store, for crying out loud, where three out of ten male customers over forty would spout such small-talky “jokes” as “Workin’ hard, or hardly workin’?” or “‘Tar-zhay’, huh? Fancy French establishment you got yourself here”. Walking into Starbucks and asking for a shot of whiskey in a perfect rendition of a Japanese Clint Eastwood is pretty hecking hilarious, compared to the stuff I had to put up with!
At any rate, I’m officially bored enough of writing about BioShock to begin thinking about what I’m going to actually order at Starbucks tonight, so I’m going to pause for ten minutes to do some deep knee bends, some crunches, and some push-ups.
TEN MINUTES LATER
I believe I was talking about my “Night Vision” being turned on, about my “seeing pink” all over BioShock. “Seeing pink” is a catch phrase I just copyrighted, meaning, well, that I am officially distanced enough from a work of media to see all of its logical inconsistencies as though they be made of neon. Even so, without my critical night vision, I’d be able to see BioShock‘s trespasses, because it’s just so eager to show them to me: Majestic vistas such as water cascading out of a cracked roof and onto a dilapidated dental chair are undermined by the glinting, glowing boxes of shotgun shells conveniently forgotten — and dry — atop nearby cabinets.
Seeing all drawers of said cabinet suddenly flip open when you press the A button is jarring. It makes you think, “A cabinet that well-rendered and normal-mapped shouldn’t pop open that quickly”, which is a strange sentence to put into cognition. (Then again, Physics are Weird, here in Rapture — sliding metal doors make creaking sounds, for example.) If you’re going to spend so many thousands of man-hours on rendering glossy torn upholstery, you could at least put in a drawer-opening animation. A fast drawer-opening animation.
And so many of the damned drawers are completely empty, as well. Why even show me three little empty bubbles with the word “Empty” by them, anyway? Can’t I see that the bubbles are empty? If it’s empty, why even show me the bubbles? Why not just show the cabinet as flipped-open and ransacked to begin with? Even if the item placement is random, it can’t be that hard to program, can it? Can it?
The weirdest of the little logic hiccups unfortunately involve the game’s strongest element — that would be “the mood”. All over the ruined city are these . . . tape-recorders, just lying on tables or desks, or hanging from hooks on walls. You pick them up, and you get to hear a private voice-diary from someone’s life. The first one you find is sitting on a table in a bar, overlooking a frankly spectacular view of the ocean. The voice of a woman echoes out of the tape, with microphone clarity, over the din of people enjoying themselves in a quietly lively place. She says she’s getting drunk, and alone, on New Year’s Eve. She laments what a “fool” she is, for “falling in love with Andrew Ryan!” It’s not impossible to believe that this woman would be drunk enough to tape-blog about her Deepest Personal Secrets in such a public place on New Years Eve; the very candor in her voice indicates immediately that she’s That Type of Woman. Her tape diary ends abruptly with an explosion sound and an “Oh my god!” So the story creeps up and seeps into our brains: something happened on New Year’s Eve, and this woman’s tape diary was forgotten here on the table.
As things progress, though, the tapes start to seem vaguely . . . rude. There’s a point where you see a frozen-solid pipe-tunnel leading to another hub of the undersea city; there’s a tape recorder lying on the ground, glinting ferociously, as you approach. You play the tape, and out comes a thick Cockney squawking: “These frozen pipes! I keep telling Mister Ryan, frozen pipes break easily! We have to fix the frozen pipes, or we’ll have some serious trouble.” I hear this and think, “Uhh, thanks for that?” The little monologue comes within millimeters of saying “We’ll need to use fire plasmids to melt this ice, if it gets too thick!” I imagine the original script must have called for such a line, though someone on the Quality Assurance assembly line must have realized how dumb that would sound. However, without such a connection to the flow of the game as a game, this disembodied flavor-monologue just seems wickedly out of place. It’s damned if it do, damned if it don’t. Around then, the Awakened gamer should begin wondering about the tapes; wondering why these supposed private diaries have been exhumed and strewn about in convenient locations. What with the weird satanic costume-ball masks being worn by the weird klepto-psychos gallavanting all over the place, it’s not hard to make some kind of synapse connection between “Crazy People” and “Crazy Behavior”; maybe one of these genetic blowouts made it a personal mission to arrange these tapes in convenient locations. If you’re like me, and you’re thinking this critically about BioShock, you start to notice, even, that someone was apparently being cremated in the mortuary at the exact moment this underwater apocalypse went down, and you begin to feel a deep dread — like you’re in the audience at your little brother’s school play, and he’s on stage, dressed up as an ostrich, and you know for a fact that he’s going to go stuff-ballistic, vomit blood all over someone, and storm through the audience biting people’s throats — you start to kind of pray, whether you Know God or Not, that at some point soon, this game is not going to try to explain this. Like you’ll get to the Final Boss, and he’ll be standing atop his Ziggurat Of Glory with his imperial cape billowing and his monocle glinting, and he’ll drop the megaton bombshell that he is both your father and he placed all those tapes so that you would find him — and then proceed to die by his hand.
Six hours or so into the experience, I’m kind of tired. The introduction of the oft-discussed Big-Daddy/Little Sister dynamic has come and gone, and the plot has at last let go its iron grip. The storyteller has succeeded in getting us drunk, and proceeds to stand us up and push us out the front door of the bar. We look back, and he’s dusting off his hands, turning around, and setting up the “CLOSED” sign. We are now free. Free to Move Forward in this Meticulous World. Free to Enjoy the “Game Play”.
I’m not going to lie to anyone, here. I know how “game development” goes. I know it involves a Lot of People with a Lot of Ideas, working a Lot of Hours in a big, fancy office. I know that some of the ideas some people work on end up being a whole lot better-executed than some of the other ideas other people work on (witness how great the driving is in Burnout 3, and how drop-dead terrible the menus and interface are). And though I do believe I originally said that Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was not a perfect game, I believe it demonstrates a much “more perfect” way to appropriately use an epic amount of human resources: basically, you write down what the player can do in your game, then you figure out what’s going to happen in your game, then you build a story around that, then you tell everyone, “This is the plan, and we’re sticking to it”. BioShock has too many ideas; too many Little Things To Do. And it’s a shame, because, as I might have said a dozen times before in this very article, the game has some drop-dead genuinely brilliant concepts. It’s just that everything turns into a grind in the end.
It’s like, in an action movie, yeah, where there’s a montage depicting a character’s recovery and/or training in the martial arts. Can you imagine what it would be like if the first forty-five minutes of “Rocky” breezed by, only to pause for three real-time months of footage of Rocky Balboa punching a heavy bag, jogging, eating oatmeal, doing sit-ups, perusing Reader’s Digest while taking epic stuffs? That’s kind of what happens to BioShock: it’s top-heavy, and then it’s boring. A little rearranging of the Feng Shui is in order: a little, gasp, Zelda-ism.
Take the Big Daddy / Little Sister dynamic I touched on earlier. This has been a firecracker of media discussion; this was the darling pet feature of the game. Basically, there are little girls, turned into demon-children by genetic experimentation, who represent the physical embodiment of some Great Power. They are accompanied, at all times, by giant bio-behemoth men in modified deep-sea diving suits. The image of the “Big Daddy” is so striking that it adorns the game’s box, that a metal “Big Daddy” figurine was the Grand Prize awarded to all rabid pre-installed fans savvy enough to pay an extra twenty dollars for the Limited Edition. Basically, the situation is this: The Little Sister is a harmless Little Girl. She has Great Power. If you so choose, you can “harvest” her for that power, making your in-game avatar stronger. However, the only way to get close to the Little Sister is to kill the Big Daddy. Do so, and the Little Sister will cower sadly. Save her, and your character does a Jesus Hand Dance, and sucks the evil out of her with his fingertips. Harvest her, and she sinks off screen, and there’s a scream.
In this day and age where Mass Effect can feature two muppet-like human beings having purely consensual prime-time network-TV Clothed Sex preceded by Literally a Dozen Hours of Accountant-worthy Courtship and cause even mildly Christian people to accuse games of instilling Our Children with the Hunger To Rape Other Children, one has to wonder whether the underlying “problem” with the videogame “industry” is one of people pressing too many buttons or not enough buttons. BioShock‘s “kill little girls for profit” mechanic is a surefire conversation-starter, though in the game, it’s handled with such sterile laryngitis that it might as well just not let you kill them at all.
My “idea” for how to “fix” this element of BioShock‘s game design, I’m afraid, is easier said than done. I’m going to go ahead and give the dudes and babes at 2K Boston the benefit of the doubt, and say that they probably thought of it first:
My idea is that there should have only ever been one Big Daddy, and one Little Sister. The story of the game would branch depending on whether you kill the Little Sister, and at which opportunity you kill her. Maybe the Big Daddy has some kind of card-key and can open doors that your character can’t, so it’s to your advantage to slink around behind them. Every time your path converges with theirs, there’d be some kind of big cathartic showdown. Maybe enemies would attack the Big Daddy, and he would destroy them, and you’d have to avoid getting caught in the fray, or else join the fight to take the Big Daddy down. Maybe the Big Daddy, ultimately, would perish at the end of the game if you let him live long enough, forcing you to make a decision about what to do with the girl.
Of course, this is easier said than done; it would require construction of actual thoughtful set-pieces; it would require the Big Daddy to be an epic, impossibly, amazingly difficult and worthy adversary; furthermore, it would require the Little Sister to be an actual character in the plot, even though she might be presented as an incidental bystander in the context of the greater story. Allowing context to render bystanders as “characters” is one of the great organic traits of modern fiction. BioShock, unfortunately, fails as “fiction” — and as “entertainment” — because its characters are as sharp as lead pipes. Everything that could be emotional or poignant is constantly having its lungs punctured by a rusty spike named “This Is A Videogame”. I stuff you not: at one point, just as the plot is about to let you go and plop you into The World, armed with your Fantastic Weapons and Psychic Powers, your guardian angel on the other side of the short-wave radio exclaims, in tears: “We’ll find the bastard! We’ll find him — and we’ll tear his heart out!” and at this exact moment, I spontaneously picked up a “battery” from the floor, resulting in harsh letters jumping up on the screen and poking their fingers into my eyeballs: “You got a component! Use components to invent things at a U-Invent!”
Eventually, everything in BioShock becomes “Something To Do In A Videogame”. Harvesting Little Sisters or Setting Them Free becomes a decision you make every fifteen minutes. Instead of a punctuation mark, it becomes a verb — and not just any verb, it becomes like a conjugation of “to be”. Killing Big Daddies, even on the hardest difficulty (we here at ABDN wouldn’t have it any other way), is repetitive and hollow. Just lob a bunch of grenades at him, electro-shock him, blast him with a tommy gun. Blow the heckers right up. Who gives a stuff? Not you, that’s for sure.
There was some talk — I think on Gama Sutra — wherein a BioShock game designer or someone related to a BioShock game designer talked about how there was too much stuff to do in the game, and that ultimately detracted from what could have been a tasty, crunchy flowing, living experience. To this, I say: no stuff, Sherlock. I’d like to congratulate you guys for acknowledging your flaws, and I’d like to hold out hope that you might turn out a brilliant game in the future, though seeing as you only recognized BioShock‘s packrattism in hindsight, I can’t be too optimistic.
BioShock means well, at least — its thrilling, thoughtful presentation is a testament to that — as at first it shows you an oblivious enemy standing in a puddle of water, and your guide whispers over the radio (how he can see what I can see, I don’t know): use your electric bolt on the water! Fry him! You do this. Said bad guy fries. Now he’s dead. Nice.
Six hours later, when you’re spilled out into the Game Proper, you’re still seeing guys standing hip-deep in water, and you’re still shocking them. There’s no catharsis in it anymore.
There’s a “puzzle” slightly before the game pushes you out into the street, where a door is locked and you need to find the combination. Amazingly, the combination is written on a piece of paper on a shelf just five meters away from the door. This is precisely where BioShock‘s good intentions crumbled into dust, and made me feel kind of sad; the game’s MO had been, from the outset, to “relay information to the player through atmospheric elements”. The beginning of the game, with luggage stacked on the dock at the city entrance and declarations of protest written on discarded picket signs, had felt like a triumph; now here I am, looking at a number scrawled very legibly on a sheet of paper. It’s four digits. The combination lock on the other side of the room requires four numbers. This absolutely, positively has to be the correct combination. I feel like I’m Sherlock Holmes, and Watson just confessed to me that every mystery I’ve ever “solved” had just been elaborate dinner-party skits concocted by him and a bunch of friends I’ve never met. For one thing, the revelation that Watson has friends is a real downer; for another thing, I’m still a smart guy, though only in the context of some drunk people’s idea of “fun”.
Night-vision goggles on, in the back of my brain, I’m solving ancient riddles: I now know why modern Zelda games are so heavy-handed and sucky. It’s because they spend so much time on them. They’ve got dungeons, plotted out like works of architecture, with hallways of yea length and pits of yea depth. Nintendo’s quality assurance period is so deafeningly long that the level designers must sit around tinkering with the dungeons sixteen hours a day, hoping they’ll get an order from above to “announce the release date already”.
“We’ve got this hallway here, see? In dungeon number six. It’s about fifty meters long. Tanaka put a lantern here, and you light the lantern, and this iron grate opens. That still leaves us with, uhh, like, thirty more meters. So check out what I did. I made a pit of spikes here. And see that wall over there?”
“Awwwwwwww stuff, Yamamoto-kun, is that a hookshot panel?”
“Yes, sir. The player obtains the hookshot in dungeon number four, and it’s only used three times up to this point in dungeon number six, so–“
“You are getting a ray-zuh!”
Et cetera. Or I could mention Rare’s Star Fox Adventures, where you get this “flame” “attachment” that lets you shoot “balls of fire” out of your “magic staff”, and how rather than be used to actually light things on fire, it’s usually used to shoot a “ball of fire” at a “flame panel” on a wall somewhere so that a door opens. Some ten hours of your life after getting that flame attachment, you might be at the end of a cavernous dungeon room, all the enemies dead, all of the blocks pushed, wondering what the hell you’re supposed to do to open the sealed door. You go into first-person view mode and scan the walls. There, way, way up behind you, is a “flame panel”. Both because there’s nothing else you can do and because you know this is the solution to the “puzzle”, you shoot the flame panel with your flame rod, and the door opens.
Seriously, aren’t there more clever things to do with 3D cameras than make me look for a flame panel to shoot with my flame rod?
This applies to BioShock all over the place, into infinity. Except it’s never as clearly offensive as the Star Fox Adventures Flame Rod Example. In fact, in giving me a “choice” of which gizmo from my Santa-sack of Stuff to use to conquer each pseudo-situation, BioShock is actually kind of worse off.
To wit: It used to be that characters would do stuff like fall asleep and dream about ravioli if you didn’t touch the controller. In BioShock, if you don’t press any buttons for a few moments, the words “Hold the right directional button to get a hint if you are stuck” appear on the screen.
The little puzzle-like mini-game you “play” every time you attempt to hack a downed turret or hover-drone-bot is about as fun as those rare, bizarrely self-important moments during your day at the office in which you actually have to use your cellular phone’s calculator function. Really, though, with all the concessions this game offers inexperienced players, I have to wonder when someone is going to make a puzzle element in a game that lets you end the whole charade with a single button press when you see the solution and have far more than adequate time to implement it. Call it the “I Get It Button”. While we’re at it, someone call Sony and tell them to include a feature in the next PlayStation 3 firmware that allows me to navigate several backdoor selections and eventually find a huge-text menu allowing me to disable the mandatory warning in front of every hecking game that tells me not to unplug the console from the wall and/or throw it out the window and/or experience a sudden power outage while the hard drive access light is blinking?
Eventually, the game gets just plain sloppy. There are several copy-editing related errors I have stored in the back of my head for some reason, like this one on-screen message that read “Your maximum health has been increased, allowing you to take more hits before being sent to a Resurrection Station”. I thought they were called Vita-Chambers?
Vita-Chambers are explained, very, very early in the game, as capsules that can re-energize your tired (and even dead) body, using some kind of mystical cloning technology. I’ll admit that I winced when I first read the explanation of Vita-Chambers, first because the description tells me that there’s “no need to touch or otherwise interact with a Vita-Chamber in order to activate it”, which is really dumb and silly, and second of all because I knew in the pit of my stomach that the game — a game with a story about life and death (and politics) — would not be able to roll on until its conclusion without somehow using the Vita-Chamber as a Key Element in the Plot. And when it did, my groan could have shattered a gazelle, had a gazelle been lurking outside my window, nuzzling through my sweet, hot garbage.
Tons of objects — beer bottles, some crates — have physics, and can be burst and blasted apart to reveal Delicious Items. Other crates, the likes of which are used to impede your progress and force you to seek Some Other Route, simply won’t budge.
When your main character gets wet, his field of vision becomes blurry the way that a camera lens does.
If a videogame is to be rightly hailed as a “masterpiece” and/or a work of “genius”, things like these need to not happen in the game, at the very least.
What we have here, with BioShock, is a well-meaning game with some excellent concepts and an iron grip on its execution. It’s just a shame that “its execution” equals “execution of absolutely hecking everything written in every draft of the design document.”
There’s been talk lately of Gore Verbinski, director of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” flicks, signing on to helm a film based on BioShock. The inevitable fanboy knee-jerk reaction was that it’d be “impossible” to relate BioShock‘s deep atmosphere in a movie. Are you kidding me? The only parts of BioShock that wouldn’t “translate” to a movie are the heavy-handed bullstuff things. Are the fan-creatures afraid that the film would neglect to inform the audience that the thing the main character rides down to the undersea city of Rapture at the beginning of the story is called a “Bathysphere”? Come to think of it, maybe that was my first hint that I would neither love nor hate BioShock: when the big white help text floated into view, telling me to press the A button to “Use Bathysphere”. Mac OSX’s spell checker doesn’t even say “Bathysphere” isn’t a real word, though, so maybe all of the internet forum-dwellers who instantly regaled friends with tales of “OMG” re: “the part in the bathysphere at the beginning” were just really big undersea lore aficionados.
At any rate, I think a BioShock film is a tremendous idea, and that Gore Verbinski is the perfect director, not because he’s amazingly capable of sculpting, like, actual art so much as because he at least has the conscience to request that his screen-writers use Microsoft Excel instead of Microsoft Word, you know, so that they can go to the bottom of the columns and see if there are any arithmetical errors before shipping it off to the storyboard artists: I swear, when I went to see the third film in a theater in Tokyo, they handed me a heckin’ flowchart explaining the relationships between the characters. Who hates who, who loves who, who’s being paid to backstab who, et cetera. I thought for a second that the flow-chart only covered the first two movies, though apparently it turned out pretty useful for piecing together the third. In the end, the story, though idiotic, was air-tight. What the hell more could you expect from a movie based on a theme park ride featuring animatronic cartoon pirates? That the film looked really good and was nominated for a record-breaking number of Academy Awards for “Best Johnny Depping” — that must have been Verbinski’s idea. It looks to me like it’s Verbinski 1, theme-park rides 0. And what is BioShock, in its present state, if not a theme-park ride with more Shit To Do? The presence of a pre-installed plot, the very idea of catharsis existing between the Big Daddy and the Little Sister is more than enough feeling to shape a compelling narrative. The game misses the opportunity to be Something That Is, because it is too busy concentrating on being Something To Do; a film could really capitalize, whether or not it offers the lead character the choice of lightning or fire rounds for his shotgun, whether or not the character recovers psychic power and loses health when he smokes a pack of cigarettes. Or at least it could bring Django Reinhardt back to the pop-culture pre-conscious.
I arrive at the end of this review, then, wanting to say something positive aside from my constant beating the dead horse of “lovingly crafted atmosphere”. Here’s all I can think of:
1. The water looks great!
2. It’s perfectly fine to set games in destroyed places because it gives level designers a perfect excuse for why there’s so much stuff unnaturally thrown around.
3. The arrow that guides you to objectives is smart, guiding you in the direction of the stairs and then in the direction of the door. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a guiding arrow do something like that in a game before, though it’s possible that I played a game with such an arrow and just didn’t notice because I otherwise wasn’t lost.
We here at Action Button Dot Net are planning something. It’s to be called “The Action Button Dot Net Manifesto”. It can and will be a list of what I (uhh, “we”) consider the best twenty-five games of all-time, ranked in order and everything. Naturally, these will all be games that would score four stars on the Action Button zero-to-four review scale.
I mention this because the game we will crown as the number one best game of all-time shares many, many traits in common with BioShock. However, it absolutely nails everything it aspires to. It is a tremendously great videogame, the likes of which BioShock had every opportunity to be; yes, I am rating BioShock as harshly as I have because I genuinely recognize and respect its potential when held up alongside the Best Game Ever. I’ve offered plenty of hints to the identity of that throughout this review. Feel free to guess, in the comments thread, what you think the game is (and if you already know, please don’t spoil it T-T).
The game is not Gears of War, so I’m fully free to use Gears as an example for my conclusion. Yes, we’re still operating under the belief that, game-design-wise, Gears of War is As Good As It Gets For Now.
Gears of War‘s simple mechanics are like a survival knife stabbing into an invincible watermelon: a delicious crunch of impact every time; we delight in beholding each and every watermelon tumble down the stairs, or come flying out of a window. BioShock‘s unwieldy choices-laden limp-noodle of a “game system”, on the other hand, is like swishing a chopstick in a glass of water. Eventually, it lets you swish a chopstick in a bathtub. The point is, both of these actions produce sounds — it’s just that one of them is just magnitudes more satisfying than the other.
Ultimately, what we need is a game with BioShock‘s love of details and Gears of War‘s crunch and flow. Because God help us if all of our “intelligent” games are going to be boring to play, and all our exciting games are going to star oatmeal-skinned meatheads. Come on, people. Let’s show a little creativity, a little diligence.