January 5, 2016

BioShock (2007)

developed by 2K Boston (Quincy, MA) and 2K Australia (Canberra) [= Irrational Games]
written and directed by Ken Levine
project led by Alyssa Finley
design led by Paul Hellquist

This trailer is a specially animated standalone and includes no footage from the actual game. It’s not terribly misleading as such things go, but you may still want to watch a bit of the game (the fairly effective first 10 minutes, for example) to get a better sense of what it looks like in action.

As I said in a previous entry, I had to put off playing this one until I had access to a computer that could handle the graphics. All’s well now.

A tremendous amount has been said about this game (as already mentioned in these pages on December 13, 2007, which coincidentally is exactly 100 years ago today!). Its ambition, its influence, its depth and sophistication, blah bibby blah blah. I tried to engage with all that, I really did, but that draft was going nowhere so I’m simplifying. Suffice it to say that I think this game is overrated. It has intriguing and impressive aspects, without question, but they all exist principally to give context to the over-elaborate mechanics of a somewhat tedious first-person shooter, not the other way around.

The other way around I’d be very sympathetic to. I’m happy to play almost any sort of game if it’s the vehicle that drives me through a compelling and well-told story. A real story. But the story of BioShock, despite all its bold ideas and memorable moments, is ultimately an opportunistic fake-out. It’s cobbled together from incongruous bits and doesn’t make sense the way it claims to. It’s just the deluxe gold-plated golf cart that escorts the player through a blam-blam zombie slaughter game layered with endless intricacies of resources upon resources, upgrades upon upgrades that are of absolutely no interest to me.

I know, I’m getting to be a real tired clock — as they say — with this complaint, but it’s what I have to say: SYSTEMS ARE NOT EXPERIENCES. EXPERIENCES ARE NOT SYSTEMS. If you’re selling me on an experience, don’t give me systems. The last thing I want, when I’m setting out to explore a spooky undersea art deco fallen paradise city, is to be managing three different kinds of currency and two different resource bars and four different sets of slots for four different kinds of upgrades and five different kinds of upgrade-management stations ETC FOREVER. The amount of blindly inherited D&D “character stat” balderdash in games is, to me, soul-stifling.

I know, there are lots of players who call this “role playing,” who call it “choice.” They get to choose a style of fighting; they get to choose a modus operandi. Want to stock up on X and trade it for Y and then use a lot of Z, instead of stocking up on Z and trading it for X and using a lot of Y? You can! Hooray, choice!

I say “choice” is a false god. Despite what the marketing copy for decades of games might tell you, nobody has ever minded that movies don’t offer “choice.” People like movies because they offer no choice. What games uniquely offer that deepens engagement is not choice but agency. This is such a crucial distinction. I want to be the one actively having the experience. I don’t want to be determining the experience! Stop throwing choices at me just for the sake of choices! It’s frickin’ exhausting.

(Have I already said exactly this in some previous entry? I know I’ve said essentially this, quite recently, but I have the sneaking feeling that I’ve said exactly this, which I still aspire to avoid, believe it or not. But 100 years of opinionating is a lot of text to remember.)

I want to be clear: there’s some neat stuff in BioShock. It has atmosphere, it has ideas, it has style to spare. It has panache. It’s just that I felt like I had to grind through the game itself to enjoy what was enjoyable, like I was sucking hard to get the meat out of the shell. Certainly I had to grind a long time just to finally find out what these twists were that I’d heard so much about. 8 years and I managed not to have had it spoiled for me! I won’t spoil it for you neither. Manchurian Candidate. Oops.

The strongest thing it’s got going is the initial premise: It’s 1960. A megalomaniacal “heroic” industrialist in the Atlas Shrugged mold (the character is called “Andrew Ryan” — get it?) has over the past 14 years been building and presiding over a spectacular art deco city at the bottom of the ocean, where he and other great minds could live according to Objectivist principles, free from interference by parasitic governments and the emasculating cult of “altruism.” But by the time the player arrives on the scene, the paradise has all somehow gone spectacularly wrong — imagine that!

That’s the good part of the premise, and it is indeed good. Even though I already knew the gist, I was thrilled as the opening of the game unfurled itself. “I guess I see why this is considered a masterpiece,” I thought. That was basically the high point of the experience for me. But hey, at least it was pretty high!

The rich environmental design beautifully embodied both the appeal and the menace of the Ayn Rand worldview. Or better put: the game beautifully found a way to hang explicit significance on the subconscious appeal and menace that have always characterized 3D game spaces. BioShock finally gave real, story-grounded meaning to the nostalgic sensuality and architectural triumphalism that have inhered in high-budget games for the last two decades. Such environments have always made me feel simultaneously cozy and uneasy; now, for a change, I knew that they knew I felt that way.

Not that things are inherently better when they have a reason. But it can still be exciting to be given a reason where you’ve never had one before. “For once, I know the name of the vague oppressive force that always seems to lurk behind these lush environments — it’s ‘Ayn Rand’!”

I would have been very happy to wander around in that elegant, creepy, undersea Rockefeller Center nowheresville, listening to the creaks of the ocean bearing down on it, piecing together bits of information to try to make sense of what had gone wrong. Unfortunately what I mostly found myself doing instead was shooting crazy zombies in the head for 12 hours, while constantly gathering resources that granted me more and more choice in how I went about shooting crazy zombies in the head.

Plus I listened to audio diaries of random characters chattering about the “story.” These were scattered around on identical collectible tape players, all optional, all disembodied, just a string of texts. No more interesting or more committed than any number of lazy games where the “story” is just shoehorned in as some document that you find on a desk and read, or don’t.

Yes, there were some genuine scenes and events, and one of them was indeed pretty good. But Half-Life 2, whose influence showed all over this game, managed to deliver a sense of continuous event and forward motion. Whereas for the most part, if you tore the expository text dumps out of BioShock, most of what’s happening to you the player is almost indistinguishable from what happens in Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game that basically consists of following paths that lead to supervillains and then battling them. So too this game, Objectivist critique be damned.

Plus, it didn’t, in fact, offer any real critique of Objectivism. It was about an Objectivist paradise that (spoiler) had been torn apart by a crime boss and a catastrophe of genetic engineering. The Ayn Rand menace angle, despite starting out promising, ended up as just the usual “Ayn Rand was a meanie” laziness.

My take on Ayn Rand — because this is obviously the place for it — is that her philosophy is wrong, but so is the standard rejection of it. “Altruism” vs. “self-interest” is a completely false binary, so anyone who fights on behalf of one over the other is just making noise. And there’s a lotta noise out there.

She confused fear with “subservience.” Her opponents confuse fear with “greed.” Both sides rail against the thing that bears the name they’ve given to fear, and think they’re fighting with each other. Fear itself is the great blind spot. Like a black hole that can’t be seen because it devours light itself: we avert our eyes from fear because it’s fearful, and so we’re unaware of it. The brain dreams up something arbitrary to fill the gap, we fall for it, and then we argue about that instead.

This accounts for the absurd political environment in which we live. And most other ideological disputes. FWIW.

I am disappointed to be disappointed in BioShock. I’m not enjoying writing about it. I stop.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.