Sunday, May 1, 2011

Analysis: Bioshock

 Bioshock is one of the most well-known names among "people who take games seriously" crowds. Its artistic style and philosophically influenced setting has drawn a sort of artsy following and earned it a lot of critical acclaim. However, I've always had a problem with it, and the problem is that there are two Bioshocks: "story Bioshock" and "gameplay Bioshock". Story Bioshock is based on reality with some minor deviations (plasmids and splicers). Gameplay Bioshock is a pretty standard FPS that doesn't treat anything like its real equivalent in order to make a very "game-like" experience. Story Bioshock is about an unbelievable underwater city populated by believable human beings; Gameplay Bioshock is a series of corridors populated by hostile AI.

It's the same problem that games like FFXI and, to a lesser extent, Lost Planet had: the setting does not support the gameplay, and the gameplay exists in a way that ignores the setting. The difference, of course, is that while one has to go digging for interesting concepts in FFXI and LP, in Bioshock the interesting stuff is staring you in the face. However, in Bioshock those concepts are used as a distraction to try to make the player ignore the fact that the actual gameplay has nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, to make use of its setting properly, Bioshock would have to be a different game; perhaps not totally different, but different enough. There are too many things about the gameplay that just don't make sense for it to be believable. So let's start from the beginning.

Story & Premise
Bioshock takes place in the Randian utopia/dystopia of Rapture, a massive underwater city designed by its founder, Andrew Ryan, to serve as a haven against the various societal and governmental influences that exist on the surface. One of its main goals is to escape the ideas of forced altruism that Ryan felt pervaded the surface world in the form of taxes, charities, etc. Another goal was to avoid the influence of things like censorship and moral control, especially in regards to things like research and development.

One of the things that this unhindered research results in is the development of ADAM, a material taken from sea slugs that allows for genetic modification and development. While the player mostly comes into contact with combat-related Plasmids like throwing fire or lightning, most of the Plasmids are suggested to be more utilitarian in nature, ranging from cosmetic improvements to medical advancements. However, the side effect is that ADAM eventually causes mental and physical decay, resulting in the mutated beings known as Splicers.

Rapture is eventually taken down due to Ryan's paranoid need to keep the city a secret from the surface world (though how a billion tons of material and thousands of prominent citizens just disappeared without notice, I don't know). His fear of the surface allows smugglers such as Frank Fontaine to establish a racket based on the unfulfilled needs of the populace, especially the poorer segments of the population. This eventually led to a civil war between Fontaine's followers and Ryan's followers that ended up destroying most of the city, a war exacerbated by the sanity-influencing effects caused by Plasmid usage.

The player in Bioshock takes the role of Jack, Ryan's son, who was subject to research by Fontaine that accelerated his growth and instituted mental programming. He was taken out of Rapture, then activated later as a Sleeper Agent. Jack's genetic makeup allowed him to bypass many of Ryan's security measures, and Fontaine's use of the command phrase "Would You Kindly" kept him under control. Under Fontaine's instruction, Jack made his way to Ryan's sanctum and murdered him. Following this, Jack was rescued and deprogrammed, at which point Jack made his way to Fontaine and murdered him too. The events following this depend on the player's morality.

While there's a lot of things in Bioshock's story that rely on suspension of disbelief, it's not a bad story. It's a logical set of events for the most part, and while its commentary on the Randian ideal is somewhat diluted by the necessity of crazy genetic modifiers that make people go insane, it's still fairly solid as a philosphical analysis. However, the problem is that Bioshock isn't a book or a movie. It is a game. Games are meant to be played and interacted with, and the role of the player takes Jack's role from "acceptable" to "forced".

Bioshock's plot twist - that the player is being controlled by their friendly radio voice - is designed in such a way that it serves as commentary on the traditional player-character relationship, in a crude aping of the Metal Gear Solid formula (which was already fairly questionable). However, the mechanics of the mind control don't match up with the way that the player is corralled throughout the game. The player does what they do for two reasons. Firstly, they are receiving instructions on the radio that are indicated to be issues of survival, i.e. "if you do this you will get out of Rapture". There is no reason for them not to be followed, and if there was a reason it would be undermined by the second issue.

The second issue is the fact that the path through Rapture is entirely linear, and there is no way to go except forward. It is not a question of control or exertion of free will, it is the fact that the choice is literally not the player's to make. There is nothing else that you could do except go along with Fontaine's plan, and it isn't because of the mind control. The mind control is shown to work in a very direct and unavoidable way: go here, do this. However, unless Jack's programming knows exactly where Ryan is, there is no reason for the rest of the city to be inaccessible. In addition, there is no reason for Fontaine to mess around with all the other excuses and justification: he could have just grabbed control of him immediately and told him to go kill Ryan.

In a normal plot, these would be relatively minor gripes. The fact that the game is a game is what makes it a problem. The player will try to do other things and find that they cannot. It is not because of Fontaine's insidious plot, nor is it because of the limitations of Jack's will. It is because they did not program those areas. That is the reason. Bioshock's plot is the same as every other linear FPS' plot, except they are laughing at you for it. That's it. Even if you were suspicious of Atlas from the very first moment, there is nothing you can do. Even if you really just wanted to get home, there is nothing you can do. It makes assumptions about the player's motives and then taunts them for having them even if it cannot confirm them.

What bothers me about it is how little work it required on the part of the developers versus how much praise they got for it. It was a way for them to change absolutely nothing about the gameplay while still retaining intellectual credibility. It's like making a bad game and then at the end going "I tricked you, you just played a bad game". It doesn't make the game good, it's just a poor justification for bad gameplay. The in-game justification is mind control, but the actual issue is that the programmers didn't provide any alternative paths, and to be frank the mind control justification doesn't actually cover that.

One part of the game that should have made for an interesting concept, but wasn't really used that well, was the concept of the Splicers. Splicers are human beings who use mass-produced Plasmids exactly like the ones players use, found in vending machines across the game world. They are insane individuals, but it's indicated that Ryan is coercing them through payments of ADAM, and thus they can theoretically be reasoned with to some extent. They're part of a hostile environment, but they're still people, even if they're unstable people with a wide variety of superpowers.

Naturally, the game doesn't use any of this.

Splicers are always hostile units who are grouped by class: Thuggish Splicers, Leadhead Splicers, Spider Splicers, Houdini Splicers, and Nitro Splicers. Splicers of different classes are fundamentally identical even if they're defined only by the weapon they carry. Some have Plasmids, but it's based entirely on their class, not on individual variations. They feel like factory-churned robots, not like people, and it doesn't help that there's only a few Splicer models and voices. It's supposed to feel like a city full of lunatics, but instead it feels like a game area full of standard enemy types.

What bothers me about this the most is that a lot of the voice acting is really good. It's intense, it's emotional, and it suggests a humanity that is totally undermined when it's strapped to a robot with the instructions "kill kill kill kill kill". There's even voice clips in that video that suggest Splicers can be bartered with. They have different factions, different motives, and different viewpoints. They have different origins and different Plasmids and different mutations. They should be different, and the game grinds them out like an assembly line. It's hard to take seriously when they serve no purpose other than speedbumps and pop-scares. They should have been treated like people, and instead they're treated like robots.

Presentation and Combat
While Bioshock's artistic direction is certainly distinct and memorable, there are other forms of its presentation that tend to suffer as a result of not being the main focus. It is these things that primarily took me out of the game, not just in terms of logic but also in terms of tactile connection. Indulge me for a minute and allow me to tell you a story. I picked up Bioshock after not having played in a while, due to my recent interest in that time period. While I remembered that I didn't like it, I felt like it ought not to matter because I was there for the immersion. This worked reasonably well for the game's intro; the sweeping visuals, the distinct design, the detail on the different objects, etc. However, it simply evaporated as soon as I engaged in combat. The worthless little plinks of the revolver (or even worse, the tiny scratches of the Thompson SMG) drew zero reactions from the Splicers, who kept advancing without even acknowledging they were hit. Then they hit me, and all that happened was that my health went down.

Damage in a game is kind of difficult to do. Condemned is one of the few games notable for its brutal depiction of melee combat, so expecting Bioshock to be able to pull off the same concept might not be fair. On the other hand, it creates a problem. I was drawn in by the realism and detail of the world, and all of that became totally useless as soon as I picked up a gun. It turned it from a tangible, believable world to a game level. The guns and their effects on the Splicers are so unbelievable that it was almost impossible to go back to appreciating Rapture as a "real place" afterwards. It was basically necessary for the gameplay, though, which is also inhernetly unrealistic.

So how would this be fixed? My suggestion would be to make the game more of a stealth/adventure game than a high-powered FPS. Make encounters with Splicers more optional (i.e. provide ways to negotiate or evade them), but also more deadly. Problems should have multiple solutions, and the most direct one shouldn't always be the best. In essence, it needs to be realistic, not just because "realism is good" or whatever, but because it's attempting to portray a realistic world in Rapture. The world it shows it at odds with the gameplay, despite the fact that many parts of the setting are there to justify the standard FPS conventions (such as the different stores).

Bioshock is first and foremost a game about combat, regardless of whether you're using stealth or hacking turrets or whatever. It's a game about Splicers getting shot en masse in the face. The atmosphere of fear that the game attempts to cultivate through the use of "monster closets" and atmospheric noises is undermined by the fact that Jack is a superman who literally cannot die due to the presence of Vita-Chambers. It attempts to make the Splicers justified, but then treats them like disposable zombies instead of insane people. It tries to make the world realistic, but fails when it comes to depicting combat and damage.

What bothers me the most about Bioshock is that people praise it for its setting, and then apply that praise to the game itself. Bioshock is a mediocre game with an acceptable setting. If Bioshock is accepted as a shining example of gaming, then the bar is being lowered; it doesn't matter how well the game plays or how well it integrates concepts as long as it looks nice. In terms of gameplay, the setting only exists to justify the linearity, and even that's half-done. They could have made a game that actually worked with Rapture and the concepts it represents, but they didn't, and people are okay with that. We, as a gaming community, ought to expect more than that.


  1. Is BS 2 any better? These are the kind of games that I avoid like hell because they are shit under the mask of gold.

  2. I could not work up the level of care necessary to play Bioshock 2, but from what I understand it's basically the same albeit aimed at a different target (collectivism instead of objectivism). I would be very surprised if they'd radically overhauled the ecosystem of Rapture.

  3. "Bioshock is a mediocre game with an acceptable setting." I couldn't agree with you more. I might even say it had an excellent setting, but that setting itself never felt exploited, in the sense that I never traveled around Rapture and got to see what made it so great in terms of the architecture - sure, I saw it at the start, but being able to take detours during the gameplay, stand in a window and look out at this once wondrous city would have really made me feel like I was somewhere special. But in the end, at least in my experience, it became nothing more than a corridor shooter.


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