My tour of videogames from several years ago continued last week with 2007’s Bioshock. Wikipedia describes the game as a “survival horror” FPS, which I guess is accurate, but I didn’t really get the same sense from it as I got from my previous (brief) forays into that genre, such as the small bit of Resident Evil (not sure which one) I played on Chris and Christine’s PlayStation before deciding that Resident Evil games were not really for me.
Bioshock takes place in an underwater city (and by city, I mean city, with “skyscrapers” and neon signs and everything) called Rapture located six miles under the Atlantic Ocean. Rapture was built in 1946 by Andrew Ryan (a near-anagram for “Ayn Rand”) along Objectivist principles. It’s a free market, libertarian, self-interested paradise where men are free to be the unfettered superhumans they were meant to be without Religion or Government or Society holding them back. However, things went wrong. A species of sea slug is discovered that can generate genetic changes in humans, allowing people to be tricked out with special abilities such as enhanced strength, a robust head of hair, or lightning shooting out of your arms. These “plasmids” are desired by all of the would-be perfect beings in Rapture, and a war is on between Ryan and Fontaine, a gangster who has seized on the plasmids and wants Rapture for his own. You show up a year after this war, when Rapture is nearly deserted, save for a few reg’lar folks and a whole bunch of “splicers”, humans driven insane from all the genetic tampering. You wash into Rapture and…
Well, here was my first problem with the game. Why am I even there? The game starts with a plane crash, and you swim to a lighthouse that turns out to be an entrance to Rapture. Well and good, but why continue delving into the place? Why not just go back up to the lighthouse and await rescue? Half the game goes by until you get an answer to this.
The novelty of Rapture being a Randian paradise was also, for me, its downfall as a setting. You give me a decaying city built by Objectivist Libertarians and you want me to do something other than let it crumble into the bottom of the ocean?
The game tries to push you in by introducing you to Atlas, a voice over a radio who asks you kindly if you’d help rescue his wife and child. This is poor form for an Objectivist, but it does the job. Later you find some true innocents trapped in Rapture, but the who and why and what of them is saved for much later in the game. At first you’re rescuing them simply because it seems like the game wants you to. (This sort of “forced choice” is actually explained later in the game, in a truly surprising and clever “twist”.)
If I seem a little ambivalent towards Bioshock it’s because, well, it didn’t really do much for me, I’m sorry to say. When you start the game it asks what difficulty level you want to go with and I went for Normal, which is described as, “I’ve played some shooters.” This is kind of a lie and the game punished me for it, so I started over with Easy. Bioshock is praised for its story and setting, but it’s a shooter at its heart.
The storyline in Bioshock, while somewhat interesting, was something I felt like was happening while I was playing it, not because I was playing it. What I mean is, I ran around shooting splicers, and occasionally I’d find a “diary” in which some character explained a little bit of the back-story to me. Why Ryan and Fontaine and various other people left these narrative devices lying around in unlikely places, I don’t know, but all I needed to do was kill splicers until I got to the next one. It reminded me of my incredibly brief foray into Japanese RPGs, exemplified by about 30 minutes of Final Fantasy 7, in which it was clear that my job in the game was to just fight the slimes in-between cutscenes that actually told the story. While eventually my role in all this is revealed, for the first half-plus of the game I may as well be the nameless Space Marine from Doom; my job is just to walk corridors and shoot whatever moves. (In fact, there’s a character that, once he appears, I guess you’re supposed to talk to? I killed him because he was a crazy person and the game kind of assumed I had let him live.)
I have to say that as gorgeously rendered and thought out as the setting was, when it wasn’t working against me (see above), it wasn’t working for me at all. You want me to suspend disbelief and accept a fully-functional secret city being built six miles under the ocean in the late 40s, okay, fine, I’ll play along. That city also developed advanced robotics. And genetic manipulation. In 11 years. Oh, and also there are vending machines that for some reason dispense gun ammunition — that is, vending machines that are solely to dispense gun ammunition. I mean, I know libertarians like ’em a gun, but I’m not sure you should be a rocket launcher enthusiast in an underwater city even if the market supports it. Also there are freely available plasmids (genetic modifications) that allow you to “hack” these vending machines to get reduced prices. I know you accept a level of unrealism with these things (Fallout had 5.56mm ammunition stashed in filing cabinets in abandoned offices) but one after another kept piling up on me.
I guess I just didn’t click into my motivation for this game. In Fallout 3 I’m given a world I care about, that I want to succeed. I really don’t care what happens to the City of the Assholes and why I am involved in it. This is sort of explained by the twist, but it provides more of an excuse than a reason. It also doesn’t help that I don’t really enjoy the shooting for the sake of itself. I didn’t care about the multiple weapons except that sometimes I ran out of ammo for one, so I switched to another. Nor did the special genetic abilities do much for me. I like doing missions, figuring things out, exploring, but there wasn’t a whole lot of that here.
Obviously Bioshock has won high praise from all around, so it doesn’t need me to add to the chorus. I’m not trying to say that praise is unearned, just that what the game mainly did for me is show me what doesn’t work for me personally in a computer game.
I’m taking a break from computer games for a bit now, so I can actually see my wife in the evenings. Not sure what I’ll pick back up with next. I have Borderlands, Half-Life 2, Mass Effect, Amnesia, and Fallout: New Vegas in my Steam wishlist.