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Review – Bioshock

posted on August 30th, 2007 by christian

About halfway through Bioshock, I had concocted three different introductions to use in a review.

Then I lost my saves.

Word to the wise; don’t transfer your offline gamertag onto Xbox Live at 2 in the morning. Bad things will happen. They did to me, and I had to play the entire first half all over again. Doing this was a blessing in disguise, as it showed me a few things about the game that were not evident the first time around. Then the second half taught me even more. Let’s get right to the point; this is a good game. Is it a great game? Some will feel it is not, as there are most certainly a few problems here. Is it a work of art? This is an even tougher question to answer. Not because the game fails, but because it challenges the medium like few before. There are going to be dozens of articles about the dynamics between the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. We are going to read many essays that look at every square inch of Rapture’s design. But I’m here to tell you that Bioshock proves, for now, that Roger Ebert is right about modern videogames. And in demonstrating this, it also shows just how powerful games can and will be when we really figure this medium out.

Bioshock is certainly a gorgeous game, chock full of high poly models and the whole spectrum of graphical filters. That’s great, but it means little if the environments are not interesting. Bioshock also has the usual amount of crazy physics and movable objects, though every so often you will still find a box of bibles or a table that just won’t budge. Like any 3d game, at times Bioshock just cannot avoid feeling like a Disney ride. Yet Rapture ends up being one of the most beautiful and convincing worlds ever ever put into a game.

Someone left food out for too long.

Bioshock brings attention to detail to a level not previously seen. Rarely is there a hallway that looks the same as the last, except for when they need to be, like in an underwater tube between buildings. Each area has been gone over with a fine toothed comb, everything designed and placed with meticulous care. We are accustomed to seeing such attention given to a handful of setpieces in a short action game. The fact that Bioshock puts it into such a massive gameworld is more than impressive.

I wouldn’t say it feels “lived in”, because the city isn’t all residential. Let’s just say that Bioshock creates an underwater city built by a 1950’s industrialist, where grenades are made from tin cans and gene splicing tonics can be found in vending machines, and somehow the whole thing makes sense. It may be little more than a magic trick and a whole lot of polish, but Bioshock makes you forget about its limitations in order to show you its strengths, and that’s a lot more than can be said of other games. Rapture alone is worth the price of admission.

Still, this is a game, and while in Rapture there are plenty of things to do besides sight see. Between your arsenal of weapons and plasmids, there are a lot of different ways to take out your foes. The AI is clever enough to make enemy Splicers do everything from squabble and fight each other to ambush you outside of a door, which makes combat mostly interesting throughout. There are a lot of ways to tackle any given situation, and I’ve already heard of some things that I didn’t know I could (or should) do to a mob of enemies. I’m not sure about the “no two games play alike” stuff, but there’s more variety than you would think from a game with only six enemy types.

It does fall apart sometimes.. The wrench becomes far too powerful by the end of the game, meaning you can be very well armed throughout, even after leveling a couple Big Daddies. Hacking becomes a chore, and while there are ways around it, they should have made the whole process harder, hard enough to make the act high risk and high reward. The fact that you can’t really die makes kamikaze tactics valid. Certain sections call for more focused enemy placement. Having random Splicers spawn throughout each level helps boost the image of a living, breathing world, but a concentrated assault with machine guns or a shelling from a balcony above would have added even more tension. Finally, the very tail end of the game runs out of steam and utilizes some very predictable gaming cliches that don’t mesh well with the rest of the journey. How much this will bother you depends on what you are looking for in the game. These problems are not that offensive compared to what you will find in most shooters, but if you expect this to be the second coming, I’m not sure what to tell you.

This enemy hopes glow sticks deflect bullets.

But don’t give up on it yet. This game begs for us to dig deeper. Let us look how it ties into Ebert criticisms. The prolific film critic believes that the interactive nature of games causes a problem. If games are art, then giving the player control can destroy that art. It can change the intended meaning of a scene. The very nature of games guarantees that things can go wrong. In a film, the action scene is the action scene. In a game, a beautifully scripted action sequence can go awry thanks to a glitch. A cutscene can accidentally be skipped. No matter what failsafes a developer tries to implement, unforeseen things can happen.

This fundamental problem with interactivity was revealed to me in Bioshock after losing my saves. Facing the task of replaying everything I just completed, I felt a wave of dread. This game was on rental, and it was due back on Monday. I had a deadline to finish this game, and not only was I uncertain if I could do it in time, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through it again. With beer in hand I restarted on Easy. Two and a half hours later I was done with the Farmer’s Market. By my estimation, this area is roughly halfway through the game.

Let me say that again – I went through nine hours of previous play in about a fourth of the time. I played it like a speedrun, blazing through every location as quickly as possible. I didn’t bother to re-explore Rapture, to look for things I might have missed. I didn’t stop to re-admire the beauty of the structures. I knew what I had to do, and nothing else got in my way. On my first playthrough I savored everything Irrational worked so hard to show me.

On the second time, I gave it the finger. Many of the most potent scenes and revelations in Bioshock can be bypassed or ignored. Those that cannot become nothing more than a nuisance when you are running through the game like a bat out of hell. And while I took this route after taking my time initially, I could have played like this from the very start. I could have thrown all the meaning away. Hell, I made one of the game’s big moral decisions based on earning an Achievement. Is that really powerful? Some of my favorite films only get better after each viewing. I can’t see Bioshock holding up very well on subsequent playthroughs. If I bludgeon the game over the head with my wrench, is it still art?

I am reminded of Ebert yet again when looking back at Bioshock’s major twists. They are stunning and powerful, and it just so happens that the most powerful moment in the game takes place in a cutscene. The best part in the game comes when you have no control. I know that every time I watch an RPG cutscene from now on I am going to be sad, not only because they won’t be nearly as good, but becauseI’ve realized that the way most games attempt to be “moving” and “emotional” is by imitating movies. Think about it. We use cutscenes and scripted sequences, fully orchestrated soundtracks and Hollywood actors all in the name of making things more “cinematic”. Have no designers stopped and thought about how a “cinematic game” is an oxymoron ?

Damn, Fallout 3 is looking good. Wait, what?

There’s more. There is a moment in Bioshock where you’ll add something into your inventory the size of a small nuke, and you will go on glorified fetch quests. It isn’t anything you haven’t done before, but when placed into a world that is as convincing as Rapture, it helps bring to light just how stupid most gaming cliches are. Let me put it this way; when a film does something ridiculous, it isn’t because “that’s just the way it is in this genre”.

You can’t blame Bioshock for these revelations. They exist because of its nature as a videogame. The fact that it brings them to light at all makes it more important than any game that revels in schlock. What is important, however, is that Bioshock tries to do something about this. Not by asking “How can we fix this?”, but by saying “Can we do better? Fuck yes.”

Just in time for the release of Bioshock, 1Up has an interview with Irrational’s Grand Poobah, Ken Levine. This, I feel, is required reading. While Bioshock is certainly not his first great game, it is the one that will make him an industry celebrity. Like Jaffe, Kojima or Molyneux, everything he says from now on will be heard. That is, if he says anything. Levine is the type of person we need to see more of in the games industry. When 1Up asks him about industry trends, he mostly replies with his own experiences. One moment he lambasts the censorship of Manhunt 2, and the next he’s criticizing developers for acting like seventh graders. When asked about the potential of a PS3 port of Bioshock, he doesn’t dance around and string us along like Kojima is with Metal Gear Solid 4. He just says no. This is a a man who doesn’t care about industry drama or arguing with the public or making a name for himself. He is just a guy who once tried to get into Hollywood, and instead found himself expressing his creativity in games (a twist that Ebert would relish). David Jaffe will tell you he will make you cry, but Levine has a better chance of actually doing it.

If I learned anything from the 1Up feature, it is that Levine and Irrational have a simple goal – make a game filled with awesome things. As Ken states in the interview, a ten minute tutorial that teaches a Marine years worth of combat info is not awesome. Excessive cutscenes are not awesome. Just like a piece of literature, a story driven game needs a good initial hook, and since it is a game, the story should never take over the experience. Levine brings his know-how as a writer to his games, but he never forgets that they are games in the first place. They are different, and he treats them as such.

This is why Bioshock works. Near the end of the game, I found myself growing tired. I didn’t want to find clever ways to kill enemies, and I didn’t want to explore. There are only so many ways to dress up an apartment complex, and that stupid map wasn’t helping much. The game didn’t give a shit what I wanted to do. There are times when it has to nudge you forward, but it also let me ignore huge chunks of each environment without making me feel guilty.

Ayn Rand has seen better days.

But I kept exploring, and I kept cursing myself for doing it. Could they have trimmed down the size of each level? I suppose so, but it never struck me as lazy filler. It was all part of their vision. If Bioshock was turning a bit sour, it was because of my own tendencies as a gamer. It was my fault for playing it like an obsessive compulsive. My choice. And the game was showing me just how conditioned I had become. Why was I making this game into work? Because I had been taught to do so.

Furthermore, while the twists could be done in a film, they wouldn’t be nearly as potent. They work because you are in control. Even the cutscenes work because you were in control. Bioshock challenges our notions of how we interact with video games. It acts as both commentary and revelation. Like Metal Gear Solid 2, it needed to be an interactive experience in order to convey its messages. The twists in Bioshock are as powerful as anything I have seen in a film, and it isn’t because it tries to emulate film. Instead it uses its own strengths to try to tell us something.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if you want to ignore Rapture. It doesn’t matter that we can gain control. All Bioshock wants to do is let you do awesome things. That might mean following the story, and that might mean picking fights and rampaging through each level. Bioshock wants you to feel something, whether it is high emotion or just an adrenaline rush. Quite frankly, this is something movies cannot always do. Sometimes we can make our own meaning. But sometimes we are going to leave confused or unimpressed. We might have wanted more action or more comedy.

The same things can happen in a game, but they don’t have to. A game can give choice. It is a powerful and special aspect of games, and we can and must learn to wield it effectively. There are some things that film will always do better than games. Just accept that. But there are some things that games can do that films simply cannot, and that is a great strength. These forms are not enemies, nor are they two sides of the same coin. A game is not a film, which is not a book, which is not a piece of music. By recognizing this, Bioshock tries to be worthy of the same consideration as these other forms of media we so often call art . Does it succeed? That is for you to decide, but few games get this close. At the very least it shows us what we need to do.

Grab that damn wrench, and let’s get to work.

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7 Comments

  1. Stefan said on August 30, 2007:

    Let me preface this by saying I haven’t played bioshock yet. But I am listening to the musical score (made available for free at http://downloads.2kgames.com/bioshock/BioShock_Score.zip), and the music for this game is something I would certainly call art. Given that, I don’t know how the addition of graphics and an interactive discrete-state system can remove the music’s artistic nature. I honestly don’t think the addition of interactivity fundamentally alters the nature of art. An artist creates something and presents it to the world, and in the case of a game what is crafted is a complex system of changing images, sounds, sights, sensations, and motions. Sure the player can choose how they navigate all the potential states of this system, just as a person can navigate one of Gaudi’s buildings, or can focus on any particular part of a painting. The whole system in all its possibilities remains, no matter what actions the viewer takes. (I suppose short of deleting it from their computer) Just like a painting or a piece of music, the nuances of the system can be explored and appreciated, or it can be allowed to fade into the background where it is completely overlooked. A philistine running through an art gallery without more than a glance at the paintings does nothing to reduce their artistic value, and neither does a player running through a game without paying attention. They may choose to ignore the art, but they do not nullify it.

  2. jay said on August 30, 2007:

    I am skeptical about your argument that all things can be boiled down to “base” arts. Bratz the movie is art because they play good music in the background. A romance novel is art because it has a beautiful cover (what a hunk!).

    Besides that, I think winning the right to call something art is missing the point if the art is unconveyed. The purpose of art is, in my estimation, to express emotions and perhaps ideas. If interactivity allows people to alter what is being conveyed, that could be a problem for those who want to call games art.

    Your example of running through a gallery is funny but I’m not sure it works. If someone stares at a painting they may still not get it but there is a difference between not getting something and ignoring it. Running through a gallery is the same as running through an arcade. The point is that even when actually playing the game you can virtually run through it.

    I do agree with you that ignoring art doesn’t nullify art but I’m weary of the idea as well. You seem to be approaching some sort of objective argument that art is art, declared the universe! Again, in real world terms, if art fails to convey and in video games case has a much greater chance of failing to convey its message, it is effectively not art, at least to some people.

  3. christian said on August 30, 2007:

    This is good stuff from all. Let’s keep the discussion rolling!

  4. Matt said on August 30, 2007:

    I’m on Stephan’s side with this. If there is a slight chance that art is created, it’s art, even if the player is unable to find it. I don’t like the fact that you’re turning this into “Art needs to be 100% perfect to become art.” That’s such a strict way to look at it all. And we do have to remember, this is but one game in a sea of thousands. Just because you semi-found a way to prove Eggbert right, doesn’t mean it’s the same for all games. Again, I bring up Lumines 2. BioShock gives too much freedom to the player, even when an in-game cinematic is occurring. At some points I missed something I should have been looking at. But in Lumines 2, no matter what you do, it adds to the artist’s vision. You could just sit there and it would still occur. So right there, I disproved Ebert’s claim that the interactivity can kill a game’s art. Some will say then if you can do nothing, it’s not interactive, therefore becomes visual art. But the more you play, the richer the message becomes. So blah.

    But yeah, just because the art is hidden, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Oh, and play Lumines 2.

    Art == Lumines

  5. christian said on August 30, 2007:

    Matt, Bioshock doesn’t give “too much freedom”. In fact it has quite a bit of control. In the end it doesn’t care if I run through it all, as long as I’m enjoying myself. That isn’t “too much freedom”, that’s as much freedom as it wants.

    Its enough freedom to damage the art, but that doesn’t matter. The game doesn’t care, and it shouldn’t care. It has other things to worry about. And I wish players would have something more to worry about as well. if games aren’t “art”, or if they aren’t for a few more decades, who cares? The experience of this game, of many other games, is far greater to me than many great films. Maybe a good experience translates to art. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter.

    Also, if Bioshock is a game in a sea of thousands, so is Lumines. So bringing it up does nothing to persuade me, because you presenting me no more than what I’ve given you. However, what are the majority of games out there similar to. An abstract puzzle game? Or a shooter/adventure game? Bioshock shows that so many in that sea are rather pathetic specimens, and that we can and should do better.

  6. Stefan said on August 30, 2007:

    Jay, I realize it seems like I was arguing from a universal absolute, so let me address that first. I think of the concept of art as a purely human creation. It’s up to us to define as we like, but I object to our defining it in a manner which is internally inconsistent.

    I also think I may not have been as clear as I could have been earlier. If you’ll indulge me for a moment, what I’m saying is that I think we can effectively stop thinking of a gameplay experience as something that the player actually has any role in crafting. What is installed on your computer or burned to your console’s disk is a finite state machine. By the time it reaches your house, the game’s creators have defined every possible state that can ever exist in the game, and that definition is the crafting of their art. This can be a difficult way to think, since the number of possible states crafted by the programmers is huge beyond our comprehension, but it is still a very accurate way to describe any piece of software.

    If we then consider that this static space of all possible states in the game is what has been crafted, the primary objection I hear to video games being art is no longer valid. All the player does is navigate an effectively static state space. I have yet to think of a way in which this is significantly different from physically navigating an installation, or an artistically designed building.

    There are ways that you can walk through a building where most of the artistry is never seen, and there are ways to navigate the set of possible states within a game where pretty much no artistry (however we define it) is encountered. Now this may be because the building is not art, but it may also be that the building was designed by frank llyod wright, and you just happen to have been walking through the basement looking only at your own feet. The experience of the house is defined by the visitor, just as the experience of any piece of art will be. The state space represented by the game itself remains more or less static.

    In truth, many forms of sculpture and musical art that have existed for more than 100 years are actually far more interactive in this sense, as viewers are invited to truly shape them in any direction they want, rather than just exploring a predefined space. The games which I would call truly interactive art are those where modding tools are made available and community modification is encouraged. Observers are invited to become crafters, helping to redefine the space of all gameplay possibilities.

    Whatever set of criteria we want to define as elevating a crafted object to the level of art, it should be possible for the original designers, or the designers and modders, to occasionally meet them. And to my thinking, the fruits of those labors will be art, or else we will be applying inconsistent standards.

  7. jay said on August 30, 2007:

    I accept your position that gamers do not define anything, they simply play within set bounds.

    Still, you’re arguing this ivory tower style (damn you intellectuals!). In real life when we say art we tend to want a good narrative that’s meaningful and games often let you break the narrative. That said, I agree with Christian that designers need to embrace the interactivity and loosen up on the emulation of cinema if they want to stop being lame shadows of movies (narrative wise).

    The irony is I love jRPGs and other linear narrative games. I must want the medium to remain in the shadow of cinema.

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