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Looking Back at BioShock

posted on January 22nd, 2010 by jackson

The release date for BioShock 2 is around the corner; the game is already available for preorder in some places. So I’m going to take this moment to look back at the first game. BioShock one was kind of a big deal when it came out, and it still is; not a lot of games make it to the high 90s on Metacritic. Michael Abbot of brainygamer.com calls it “one of the defining games of its generation.” Calling three years ago a different generation is odd, but given the speed that the videogame culture moves, it’s not unreasonable. For better or for worse the statement is hard to dispute. BioShock left a lasting impression. Journalists for non-game oriented publishers even cite it as an example of how games can be an expressive art form. I didn’t play it when it was first released (I rarely do for games anymore). I waited for the hype (and the price) to die down, to see if it could withstand the test of time before I dropped twenty hours of my life into it. When I did finally start exploring Rapture, I waited patiently for the game to reveal to me what made it so special. And well… I never quite found it.

I think BioShock can be broken down into two interlinked components. The first is the mechanical, the gameplay, all of the systems that the player interacts with. As far as games go, BioShock’s mechanics are pretty simple. You point a gun at things and you shoot them. You can upgrade your gun, get health, the typical FPS deal. BioShock is a direct descendant of Doom, its gameplay is founded on walking into a room and killing every single thing that moves for twenty hours. This can be fun, but it’s rarely very artistic.

The second component is, you guessed it, the artistic. BioShock is very loudly artsy. There are stylized statues and paintings everywhere. No detail was too small to bother including in the design of each room. All of the characters have long monologues, thick accents, and dramatic voices. All of the text and dialog is careful, precise, and profound.

An amazingly huge number of people love triple A budget first person shooters. A growing number of people are getting hungry for a more intellectual breed of videogame, something along the lines of what indie games like Braid have been doing with increasing popularity. BioShock is where the two dimensions collide, and have apparently hit a home run, if critical response is how we measure.

Big Daddies are really cool video game enemies. That’s the main reason why they exist instead of hired bodyguards.

That’s what I don’t understand about BioShock. It takes two completely opposite aspects of what a game can be and ties them together. The violence and the art can’t coexist, they cancel each other out. The way that the game forces the player to kill a hundred or so people (these aren’t demons or faceless cyborgs, they’re people with personalities) and never acknowledge the fact that you’re a psychopathic mass murderer isn’t just weird and disturbing, it’s anti-art. Massacring a city’s population in order to display a beautiful painting is more than a little bit ironic.

The other mechanics are no better. Apparently Rapture exists in Toontown where people can have their bodies frozen in an instant and thaw in another instant. If they’re in midair their frozen statue will float above the ground. Mechanical turrets shooting fireballs are put in libraries and bedrooms for security. People can buy drugs from vending machines, drugs that let them shoot lighting out of their fingers. About the same amount of time is spent explaining to the player what the hell is going on in this bizarro world as telling the story. But even after the game logically explains why people here leave their dead lying in the streets for a little girl to suck juice out of, the plot isn’t any more believable.

BioShock’s artistic dimension was either a product of, or helped produce, the notion in videogame culture that “art equals having a philosophical moral or background.” There’s apparently some philosophy in BioShock that people talk about a lot. I didn’t really notice any though, unless the moral of the story was supposed to be “it’s okay to kill a hundred people as long as you save the children.” I’m not sure how well that would fly in a philosophy 101 class. BioShock doesn’t represent the early to mid 1900s very well, but it does represent what people who never lived in the 1960s think they looked like by exaggerating all of the details which seem the most exotic and unique. The characters aren’t very real; they are mainly interested in recording themselves explaining the nonsensical situation in sixty seconds or less and tossing the tapes around the city. I refuse to believe that I was ever expected to believe that Ryan was an actual character. Even with the rest of the BioShock universe as ridiculous as it is, no real person talks anything like he does.

An example of one of the dozen people you fight a hundred times throughout the game.

I didn’t mean for this to become an essay about why BioShock sucks, because I don’t dislike it, but the idea that it’s one of the defining games of 2007 bothers me, and the fact that it is still being cited as a great artistic achievement bothers me more. Both the gameplay and the art have very high production values but devolve into camp. They’re each watered down to accommodate the other, and in the end can’t even coexist. I’ve watched a lot of awful movies and TV shows from the fifties and sixties because people think they’re “essential.” BioShock doesn’t seem like it was a fad. I wonder if my children will play it one day and ask why my generation was so lame.

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  1. christian said on January 22, 2010:

    This is a very good writeup on the game. I was in love with Bioshock when it was brand new (I reviewed the damn thing!), but since then I haven’t had any urge to replay it, even after the major patch/PS3 port came around. I’ve been trying to think about what caused me to change my tune so drastically, and I have a smattering of thoughts that might explain…

    Hype really did have an effect. I can think about any number of scenes from the game, and none of them seem very fun, or innovative, or even logical. But there was so much hype, and I was so desperate for this game to be a worthy successor to System Shock, that I tried to convince myself that Bioshock was working.

    – Bioshock was one of the more detailed and graphically rich worlds to exist on a console at the time, so even if it was a lazy smattering of old timey romanticized architecture, it was more interesting to explore than the competition. That really helped me push through it.

    – It is a very GAMEY game. Getting powers, souping up guns, hacking systems. These are the kinds activities that we KNOW are boring and reek of back design, but which we will still get addicted to when playing. Gamers (myself included) can be suckers for hokey, gimmicky mechanics that allow us to get stronger, or collect trinkets – essentially anything that allows us to master the game world. We might scratch our heads later on, and wonder why we enjoyed that kind of crap, but in the heat of the moment it usually works.

    – This kind of simple, unevolved approach to game design flies in the face of Bioshock’s love of serious Randian philosophy and art deco architecture. The flavors don’t mix.

    – The game’s “serious” aspects are indeed lazy. But hip twenty somethings currently have a craving for anything retro. They also can be frequently guilty of pseudo intellectualism. So you can put a bunch of pre 1950’s cultural exaggerations into a blender, and they’ll still think it is a blast. Then they’ll write a lengthy analysis of how it all means something. That pretty much describes my 22 year old self when I first reviewed it.

  2. DeeMer said on January 22, 2010:

    Couldn’t agree more with all your points, both yours and Christian’s. This is pretty much what I conclude whenever I think back to BioShock. Nice, straight-forward game, a little bit of theatre, lightening bolts, etc, etc.

  3. MIchelle said on January 23, 2010:

    I haven’t been able to give Bioshock any serious playtime up to now. I felt like the whole wondrous nature of it passed me by.

    Finally I have an explanation for why that might be, thank you.

  4. ys said on January 25, 2010:

    I was never that impressed to be honest. The opening had a bit of an impact and atmosphere but for some reason it quickly disappeared and the ending was even kind of bad I thought. I didn’t really get the art-part of it either. I mean, it has artistic design but just because of the particular era that is chosen. It doesn’t make the game art only because of that. It’s almost like calling God of War deep art too because it has lots of Antique-styled buildings and statues. The story itself wasn’t that deep either. I assumed that it would be out of the ordinary when reading the first reviews but it turned out to be rather ordinary once you got over the original setting.

  5. Alex V said on January 25, 2010:

    >>> The violence and the art can’t coexist, they cancel each other out. The way that the game forces the player to kill a hundred or so people (these aren’t demons or faceless cyborgs, they’re people with personalities) and never acknowledge the fact that you’re a psychopathic mass murderer isn’t just weird and disturbing, it’s anti-art.

    I disagree. There’s no reason art shouldn’t be violent.

    But also, the game surely acknowledges the murders that take place throughout – indeed it’s absolutely central to the way that the story unravels. Without giving spoilers, the ‘WYK’ twist absolutely addresses this aspect of the game experience.

    That said, I do feel Bioshock is not perfect and deserves a good kicking from time to time.

  6. christian said on January 25, 2010:

    Good post Alex V. I agree that Bioshock often has explanations for a lot of the things it chooses to do, but they’re the kind of explanations that don’t always feel sufficient. I can think of one scene in particular that screams of sloppy storytelling, and really hurts the big twist.

  7. jackson said on January 26, 2010:

    I don’t mean to say that art can’t be violent. I’m saying that the violence presented in BioShock is artless. It’s the kind of stuff that would be in a cheap grindhouse movie. It’s unmediated violence for the sake of violence. It serves the animalistic part of our brains. It’s cheap and fun, basically on the same level as smut.

    In my opinion the twist half way through was a really cheap way to tie violence into the plot. Its meaning was completely hollow for a few reasons. For one, There’s no vague hint of irony at all throughout the entire game, not before or even AFTER the twist. For twenty hours the game glorifies and celebrates mindless violence. A cut scene that lasts a few minutes does not change that.

    Another thing is that it only acknowledges the presence of violence on the surface level of the plot. It still doesn’t acknowledge the reality of what violence is. No sympathy is offered to those who are murdered, there’s no suggestion that killers are actually very despicable people, etc. It’s still just as detached from reality as the rest of the game is. I can’t see how it changes anything. It’s just a plot twist, nothing more.

  8. jay said on January 26, 2010:

    I think the game does acknowledge that you are a murderer and I think the mid game twist makes the game worthy of our discussion. It manages to make a statement not only about your character in the game but about you as a player of games.

    The game ordered you to murder people and you did. It then mocked you for following its orders blindly. Of course you couldn’t do anything but and in that way it sort of fails in the same way Shadow of the Colossus does (you can not kill the colossi but there isn’t really a game otherwise). The plotline not mentioning directly at the end that you killed a bunch of people is almost a good thing. The narration doesn’t need to hit you over the head with the idea more. The game made itself clear – with little to no motivation you, Jackson, gleefully murder people in games.

  9. christian said on January 26, 2010:

    Yeah but at least in SoTC, you can explore the entire game world and interact a bit with Mother Nature. In Bioshock you will eventually be roadblocked by not choosing to fight.

    And I never killed any Splicers with glee. I often left them alone when I could. I think that works better in the context of the twist, which is why it worked so well for me.

    But then the game screws up elsewhere and softens the impact.

  10. Alex V said on January 26, 2010:

    There’s that great scene with the woman splicer hovering over a pram – it invites the player to consider shooting her but at the same time she seems like a doting, broken mother. I just can’t agree that scenes like that don’t force you immediately to confront the violence that the game forces you to perpetrate.

    The same with the Big Daddies – you can actually leave them alone at a price. If you want the Adam from the little sisters, you have to be the aggressor. And then there’s the choice with the little sisters as well – kill or save. I don’t think it can be denied that even asking the question is a powerful and poignant moment in the game.

    In many ways, it is one of the most direct pieces of game art that you could cite that actually confronts the issue of violence in games. Along with Far Cry 2 I think.

  11. christian said on January 26, 2010:

    I know that the Little Sisters were intended to do what you describe, Alex, but I don’t think they succeeded. At all. The Sisters as they appear in game are little more than robots with canned lines. They might as well have a pull string on their backs. So when it came time to save or harvest them, I know I’m supposed to see it as a powerful moral choice. But there’s nothing really human about them. The game gives you no reason to care about their fate – it just tells you that you should, and expects you to play along.

    To put it another way – I saved all the Little Sisters because I know that games reward you with long term goodies for making those kinds of choices. I never felt like I had the fate of a person in my hands. And that’s where the game loses it. It feels like it is trying to comment on how many games have more control over us than we have over them, but it doesn’t drive the point home. I’d say that only the big twist uses a game concept to deliver an interesting message. The rest of the time, it does the opposite, taking a potentially interesting moral dilemma and whittling it down to fit a game concept.

    A true moral dilemma would require the game to merely hint at the idea that killing them might grant great power, or maybe let them figure it out for themselves. Give them different and unexpected rewards for leaving them along (rather than “rescuing” them, you’d just walk away). Make it so that the power gained by killing them makes survival that much easier, so that even the most good hearted player is tempted.

    What we got instead is a clear explanation of what you can do, what it will cause, and then big colored buttons on the screen that don’t go away until you make a choice. That’s not a moral dilemma – that’s a powerup menu.

    One more edit – I think this is what Jackson was getting at with this post. Many of modern gaming’s attempts at being artistic or emotionally powerful are laughable efforts. And the only good question to this is, “Why?” We know there are other games out there that use the same hardware and actually manage to deliver something interesting. There are even more that fail while still demonstrating that they honestly gave it their all. Bioshock is one of many games where the developer stated their intent, and the gaming community automatically assumed that they succeeded, even though the effort we see on screen is so bad that it makes you wonder if they were bullshitting us from the start. Rather than saying “you screwed up”, we call it art because someone said we should.

    I mean hell, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a Wii game, and even its weakest characters feel more human than anything in Bioshock.

  12. ys said on January 26, 2010:

    Interesting that people mention Shadow of the Colossus. There I felt MUCH more connected to what was happening and even felt bad for the Colossi in the end in a way.
    Another game that made me consider the violence was MGS3 actually. The moment where Kojima forces you to pull the trigger towards the end was very powerful I think. All in all I can name several games that had a bigger impact and made me think more than Bioshock which the gaming media seemed to see as some sort of pinnacle of brainy/artsy gaming.

  13. ys said on January 26, 2010:

    I forgot this. Yeah, it was the same for me with the Little Sisters. I never really felt that they would be alive. For example a Colossus felt much more as an existing entity than they did. And the horse too in that game for that matter.

  14. jackson said on January 26, 2010:

    @jay: I don’t feel the need to discuss the twist is for the reasons I said, it’s a single scene in a twenty hour long experience. That doesn’t mean it’s completely valueless, but its value is extremely overshadowed by the context that it’s in. Its presence doesn’t make BioShock a thought provoking game, just a game which includes a moment of thought provoking material. The interesting themes in that scene aren’t present in 99% of the game. If you want to talk about that scene alone then that’s perfectly fine. But if I’m discussing the game as a whole I have to give it proportionate attention.

  15. jay said on January 27, 2010:

    That scene is based on what you had just done for the first half of the game though. I don’t think it’s fair to say the twist in that scene only pertains to the 45 seconds of that scene.

    Ys is right that other games have made us think about our own actions as players but I thought Bioshock set it up more potently, or at least more blatantly.

    I do agree with most people that the second half of the game completely betrayed the first. But that to me is hypocrisy, as opposed to an undoing of the point the first half of the game made. Here’s a terrible analogy: Jefferson had slaves. That makes him a hypocrite, it doesn’t undo his arguments against slavery. I see Bioshock in a similar light, complete with illegitimate children.

    There is some comedy in all of my defense of the game because I typically argue with people about how it’s overrated. It is only exactly as overrated as I say it is, damn it, and not a tiny bit more!

  16. jackson said on January 27, 2010:

    The twist can be viewed as a commentary on the rest of the game, but it doesn’t change the rest of the game. That scene provides context which I can use to look back and re-examine the past, but it doesn’t automatically rewrite everything that happened. If I’m discussing the first several hours it doesn’t make sense to apply the implications of a scene which is still many hours away. If the developers really wanted me to think of my character’s actions in the twist’s context, they shouldn’t have waited until halfway through the game to tell me about it. By then it’s too late.

    An in-depth examination of BioShock certainly should be required to dedicate a segment to the twist. But a well rounded examination shouldn’t spend the majority of its time using that scene as a lens. An examination of Huckleberry Finn has the right to discuss why the ending compromises any anti-racist message in the rest of the book, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are lots of very anti-racist moments throughout the book anyway.

  17. pat said on January 27, 2010:

    jay can correct me if im wrong, but i think his point is that if you hadnt spent the previous several hours killing people with little to no prodding, the twist would have a very different impact, if in fact it had one at all. i agree with this interpretation, though certain of us have discussed elsewhere on the site that the game would likely have benefited from some form of interaction besides murder.

    beyond that, it is difficult for me to see past the mishandling of the second half of the game (im tempted to call it a betrayal of any artistic or philosophical concept they pursued) and as a result my thoughts on the rest of bioshock are limited.

  18. jackson said on January 27, 2010:

    We may have to agree to disagree then, because I felt barely any impact by the twist, aside from on the surface level of the plot. It’s a clever twist, and it’s open to deeper interpretation, but it doesn’t overshadow my feelings towards the rest of the game.

    I would say that if they wanted to make the game into a statement about violence and free will, they should have done it throughout the entire experience. Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t about the dark irony of war just because one page says so, every page does.

  19. Spyder Mayhem said on February 4, 2010:

    This is a great article and I agree with a lot of what you said in it. I’ll just jump in here and say that Bioshock failed to engage me at all, right out the gate.

    The moral conundrums do seem forced and contrite at some points, and that just ruined any and all immersion that the game was building up for me. I can see why lots of people love it, and I’m not arguing against it being a good game, but for me it was standing on the shoulders of a giant, and it failed to add anything worthwhile to what came before it.

    System Shock 2 is better than Bioshock, outdated graphics and all. I thought that the moral conundrums in that game were more nuanced and more natural. Violence is the only possible answer on the Von Braun, but it stops feeling good the instant one of the mutant zombies begs you through clenched teeth to kill it. Or it doesn’t, depending on how you view the world. The bad guys in SS2 are just people trapped in a situation far beyond their control with no hope of saving. You kill them, yes, but only because it is the only possible option. They try to kill you, but not through malice or spite on their part but rather because they are freakish pawns in a much larger struggle between nature and technology. Rather than belittling you for being violent, it confronts you with the reality of violence as a tool to solve problems and the moral implications of it. It also makes clear that the violence began before you went to sleep, and that with or without your presence it would continue. You are nothing more than a pawn yourself. Almost everyone you shoot seems innocent but at the same time almost everyone involved played a part, knowingly or not, in creating the nightmarish situation that you wake up in. The only way to clean up their mess is to kill them, but it still doesn’t feel good.

    I expected the same type of feeling, atmosphere and nuance from Bioshock and didn’t get it because it is not the same game and I should have known better. Bioshock is still far beyond most FPS games in style, content, story and atmosphere, and I’ll take a letdown spiritual successor to my favorite game of all time over no successor at all.

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