Sunday, December 20, 2009

Games of the decade: BioShock

Part of a series of subjective looks at my favorite games of the decade.

(2007, Xbox 360 and PC; 2008, PlayStation 3)

Apparently there's been a backlash? These things are hard to quantify, but I feel like every time I hear somebody mention BioShock these days, it's to criticize it. No game is above criticism, of course. Still, when I played this game, I was fully swept away in the world it created, in the story it told, and the elegant way it fused shooting with user-friendly RPG elements. BioShock is ambitious in many ways, and wisely restrained in others. Everything it does, it does at the highest level.

One of the criticisms people make is the relative simplicty of the game's morality. Choosing to harvest or save the Little Sisters is a binary choice, and not even a tough one. I saved them, because that's how I play everything, and before long it was obvious that doing so wasn't costing me anything. When you harvest the Sisters, you get some ADAM right away, but if you save them, you'll get even more, provided you have a little patience. So there's no good reason not to save them, unless you want to be a jerk. As roleplaying goes, this ain't Fallout.

But it's not supposed to be. BioShock is an action game, and one of the things that's great about it is that it keeps its eyes on the prize. Nearly all of your powers are employed, whether directly or indirectly, in service of combat. I built my character up as a hacker, and I never got tired of turning the security systems of Rapture against its inhabitants.

One of my favorite memories was the early battle against an insane doctor. I had him on the ropes, and, in one last, desperate move, he sprinted out of my sight to a nearby aid station. Unfortunately for him, I had hacked it, and it dealt him the killing blow. That's the kind of game design I like: you've got nearly endless options for accomplishing your task, and doing it one way doesn't make you feel like you've missed out on another.

The biggest complaint people have about this game seems to be the escort mission at the end. I think it's brilliant. Not so much for the mechanics of it, gathering the bits of the Big Daddy costume and then escorting Little Sisters in a sequence that you actually can't fail, but for the drama. All game long, you've been encountering these hulking beasts. They leave you alone unless you attack them, which you will if you want to complete the objective of saving or harvesting all of the Little Sisters. They are faceless and anonymous beasts. You think of them as just another video game enemy, albeit a particularly cool one.

Then, suddenly, you find yourself one of them. You're protecting the Little Sisters. You're being attacked by selfish, bloodthirsty freaks. This sequence casts everything you've done so far in a different light. Every bit as much as the famous scene with Andrew Ryan and the golf club, this scene makes you stop and think about what you've been doing, and why.

Ultimately BioShock gives me everything I want from a game. I want to explore an interesting and unexpected world, which rewards my curiosity and which makes sense logically. I want my intelligence to be respected, my emotions to be provoked, and my sense of adventure to be piqued. I want to feel, when the game is over, like I did something that mattered. BioShock mattered.

More on BioShock:


Greg Sanders said...

I'd played through the game leaving the Big Daddies alone because given my essential immortality I had a hard time justifying killing them to gain power I didn't particularly need. This was particularly case since I was already killing 95% of the occupants of Rapture, the desire to balance that out some is also why I left the crazy artist alive. Use of the camera gave me some advancement and I also hacked rather well. That said, not surprisingly, I died a lot.

I only started actually taking them out when I got to the escort mission. At that point, the benefits of immortality were no longer there, I then took out some of the Big Daddies and I'll cop to reloading that mission a few times so that I could actually get through with an acceptable loss rate of Little Sisters.

However, Bioshock didn't really stick with me in part because of that missions. I was raiding an impenetrable fortress by employing an army of children. I could credibly believe that such was the only way to take out the big bad, but I wasn't really convinced that taking out the big bad was so necessary that it justified leading a few Little Sisters to their deaths or killing so many Big Daddies that I had the power get through safely.

I think I could have enjoyed BioShock as an action game, but all the emphasis on morality in the hype made me actually focus on the morality aspect, and relative to your standard FPS-RPG cross-over I found it wanting. There was enough mechanical variety to let get the kind of game play I wanted, however in other FPS-RPGs that variety of play-styles tends also to be reflected in a variety of plot options.

All that said, I'm still quite curious about the sequel and am glad I played the original.

Greg Tannahill said...

Hey, hey, credit where credit's due. I was criticising Bioshock right from day one.

There's a lot to love in Bioshock but very little of it is actual gameplay. In this instance the FPS action is just a coatrack to hang the art deco and the Ayn Rand from.

Julian said...

Bioshock wasn't about giving you freedom of choice, it was about showing you that your apparent freedom means nothing. Why would it surprise or frustrate you that the moral choices were the same? In fact, the benefits you gain from helping the Little Sisters could be construed as making a statement about the way that helping others can end up helping you. Atlas telling you that harvesting Little Sisters is the only way to get enough resources to progress is not the designer speaking or the game speaking, it's Atlas speaking. And Atlas is practically the definition of an unreliable narrator.

Mitch Krpata said...

Right, but you don't know that until much later. I felt like the game wanted me to agonize over the choice, and I didn't.