Three years ago, BioShock came out, and I don’t know what I was doing at the time but it must have been fairly engrossing because I completely missed this particular event. If anyone can remember what I was doing for the entirety of 2007, I’d love to be reminded. Anyway, the remarkable gaps in my memory aren’t important right now, since eventually, I did get round to noticing the game, because it featured a steam-punk dystopia, which is one of the things I love the most (I love saying it out loud as well) in fiction. The fact that it was in the video-game medium made it even better.
See, it is the perennial job of a video-game, or at least the current generation’s worth, to build a world for itself that is if not inherently compelling, then at least convincing. A few generations ago, it wouldn’t have mattered; Super Mario 64 convinced easily with a world no bigger than a castle, and a creatively abstract means of warping between ‘levels’. Technological advances mean, however, that we are now capable of so much more (like sending Mario into space, but that’s a path I’m not going to go down at this moment in time, for fear of coming out in sympathetic asphyxiation for every time the lucky plumber’s head didn’t explode) and it is the job of a modern video-game to blow our socks off. A video-game world differs from that of a book, or a film, because it’s not just part of the background, passed on by the plot, but an actual place that you can wander around and experience. Video-games transcend other mediums by allowing you to actually become part of a fictional world, rather than just be a passenger taking in the sights. If it’s done well, it’s awesome.
In that manner, BioShock succeeded, with its personal setting of a huge, decrepit, futuristic metropolis lurking at the bottom of an ocean, a world designed as a utopia but driven to hell by madness, greed and several rounds with ‘what no man should ever have known’. Several times whilst playing I would stop in one of the travel tunnels between complexes to look out at the fish swimming past with skyscrapers in the background. It is compellingly bizarre, beautiful and utterly fucked. Unfortunately, whilst this aspect of the game sold me from the off, the actual gameplay didn’t, and after playing about twenty minutes of the game, I went to do something else for a while with the intent of ‘coming back to it in a bit’.. and never did for about a year and a half.
It’s not my fault. Okay, it is my fault, but only subconsciously. I like adventure / platform / occasional RPG / mix games more than anything. Those are the genres I <3; I was bought up on them (my first game was Rayman (another awesome game)), and underexposed to other genres such as FPS, RTS, sports, driving, and god sims. (For anyone not following: RPG = role playing game, FPS = first person shooter, RTS = real time strategy.) BioShock is, upon first glance, or more accurately first twenty minutes, an FPS, and although I’m not opposed to them, they never seem to be able to hold my interest particularly well. I chalk this up to the reason I originally never got round to experiencing BioShock properly.
Now, however, I have, and it’s entirely thanks to one person going ‘hey let’s play this’. Such random instances, I have been learning recently, may well be the best way to do things in life. But yes, an evening of exposure illuminated me to the fact that BioShock doesn’t play quite like a typical FPS, but is in actuality more akin to the Metroid Prime games, and their (I thought) unique mixture of adventure, exploration and shooting. It’s not just about guns, although there are plenty – there’s even have an upgrades system which is notable for demonstrating restraint, a lack of which unbalances and ruins many games these days when they prefer to sacrifice the integrity of a challenge in exchange for a gold-plated semi-automatic (I’m actually thinking of Army of Two here, not the Ballad of Gay Tony, since in TBoGT the golden SMG is it’s own weapon with good and bad points). Guns in BioShock, by contrast, are only half of the combat experience, with the other half being given over to chemical-based technical enhancements that… well, essentially, it’s magic. However you spin the ability to shoot lightning from your fingertips, it’s still magic at heart.
There’s a fair bit of this magic, present in both active – fireballs, force lightning, telekinesis, swarms of bees (seriously) – and passive forms. The passive forms offer more of a chance to ‘build a character’, to create that elusive sense of self-identity that many games strive towards. BioShock’s various paths aren’t as varied or restraining as those in, say, Borderlands; you can feasibly do a bit of everything. My friend and I personally chose to make the humble wrench the most vicious weapon on the ocean floor, which had its very own hilarious factor of awesomesauce. When you can stroll through the final level killing everyone with a swift rap or two to the back of the head.. I haven’t decided yet if it’s very wrong or very right, and I may never.
So yeah the game has more depth than simple rakakaka, and whilst it can’t honestly be called an FPS-RPG, it has enough to it to make managing your magics and weaponry almost fun (and this is coming from someone who derives endless pleasure from reorganising the briefcase from Resident Evil 4 to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible). BioShock, then, manages to tick the all important boxes of a) having an engaging in-game world, and b) gameplay that held my interest (at least, after someone showed me how it actually worked)…
This brings us to c), the final part of the video-gaming checkbox trinity: does it have a good story? Even the most impressive overworld and gameplay can’t save a game that has an abysmal storyline, especially if the storyline is heavily intertwined with the world itself. Games like GTA4 and Just Cause 2 can exist independently of their story because they’re tales that happen to be set in particular places; consider the title of the CD release of GTA4’s expansions; ‘Tales From Liberty City’ .. not tales of Liberty City. Games like Bioshock are very much tales of their respective locations, and if the tale is no good, the whole thing begins to fall to bits.
Luckily, BioShock’s storyline is, at the least, passable. Although occasionally given to ridiculous ‘fetch this stuff’ quests that exist purely for the sake of padding, the overall tale of the mysterious city, the mysterious man who comes to it and the mysterious people he meets is a good one. There’s plenty of intrigue about who the good and bad guys are, even if this isn’t reflected in the game’s morality mechanic, which allows you to be either a) Mother Teresa or b) Hitler. It’s not overly twisty-turny to the point of being labyrinthine to those who don’t concentrate (hello Assassin’s Creed 2), but certainly leaves you guessing (and in our case, correctly deducing a particular plot thread completely by accident). Unfortunately, at about the three quarters mark, the clouds clear and the final antagonist makes their stand.. and instantly dissolves from interesting and well-rounded character into taunting, babbling …republic serial villain, as Ozymandius would put it. It’s almost embarrassing. The actual ending is also somewhat abrupt, and blows away the remaining cobwebs of Dubious Morality in order to capitalise on the Mother Teresa vs. Hitler debate for an incredibly black and white denouement. Oddly enough, the ‘neutral’ path is also Hitler. Perhaps that’s some sort of moral warning to those who sit on the fence. Either that or the developer’s deadlines popped up a lot sooner than they were expecting them to do. I hate it when that happens.
So that’s BioShock. Crazy, compelling and definitely worth the time spent with it. Unfortunately, having now completed it, there’s not much left to do with it. I could attempt it again on the hardest mode without dying in order to go for another Platinum Trophy.. but that way madness lies.
Actually, another thing I’ve learnt recently is that madness is actually quite fun.. so yeah I’ll see you all in a bit.