Posted by: Ben | December 19, 2008

Silver Age: Bioshock

(Videogame. PC. 2K. 2007)

Stuff about Bioshock below the cut, if you’re reading this before I’ve redesigned the blog and inadvertently removed the code that lets me put spoiler tags in it.

A well-designed game, like say Super Mario World, will gradually increase the difficulty of a game more or less in line with the player’s skill. A badly designed one will operate in such a way that the only penalty for death is to have to walk back to where you died and clonk the guy who killed you on the back of the head with a wrench, at least until the final battle when for reasons best know to itself the game removes not only your Vita-chambers but your quicksaves. I’m looking at you, Ken Levine or Andrew Ryan or whatever your name is. I nearly gave up at the final battle. Luckily for me it was at this point I learned it was possible to pause the game and change between weapons by pressing Shift, as up until then I’d been fumbling with my guns and shooting at random like a dyspraxic Blackwater mercenary. Once I discovered this, Fontaine suddenly became ludicrously easy to kill, and I felt somewhat more well-disposed towards Bioshock, even though, kill or be killed, the game just ends, without so much as a theme song.

[On the subject of theme songs, there’s something to be said for playing games in the right order even if it’s a bit eccentric to be seen playing Ultima 1 in this day and age. For example, You Have To Burn The Rope makes no sense whatever unless you happen to have already played Portal. Which I played but couldn’t be bothered writing about here.]

Where Bioshock should have ended, of course, was a couple of levels earlier, with the Big Plot Twist, which as a casual reader of the videogame press I knew was coming, but I didn’t quite manage to guess exactly what it was. I suppose the best plot twists should be perfectly obvious to, or at least guessable by, the reader / viewer / player, but come as a complete surprise to the characters. For example, in S.T.A.L.K.E.R, before even playing the game you know that the main character is really Strelok, but it works as a twist in the context of the narrative. Compare (to pick a random example) rubbish movie The Village, which has two plot twists. One – that the mysterious monsters are really the village elders in disguise – is obvious but dramatically effective because the characters really weren’t expecting it. The other – that the action takes place in the present day rather than a hundred years ago – is meaningless to the characters and therefore also to the viewer.

The moral of The Village, rightly or wrongly, is that if you’re trying to build a utopia, don’t take people with learning difficulties, because they’ll just mess it up for everyone. I think the moral of Bioshock is more or less the same, except I’m a little sketchy on what the hell was going on with the plot generally. I’m still not entirely sure if Andrew Ryan was my dad, or why he wanted me to brain him about the head with a golf club. I suspect it would take a second play through to be certain, if I was the type to play games a second time through. But I don’t have all the time in the world, and it took a month to play it the once.

Still, it’s nice to have a game with enough narrative meat that it’s even possible to sit and discuss the story as though it were a work of literature, which it is, albeit a simple and truncated one. The game has plenty of technical quailites that merit praise. Mention should be made of the architecture, particularly the opening bathysphere trip into the underwater city. My jaw fell open in awe. This is what graphics cards were invented for. The way the splicers dementedly talk to themselves is a joy too, the masked mothers nursing guns and the doctors who set you on fire and note your time of death. Unfortunately they were also invented to obscure most of the playing area in smoke and flames, so that it’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on in combat. Walk under a dripping ceiling and everything looks like you’re underwater, suggesting that the designers were keen to show off the water effects even if they haven’t quite got them right. I want to play a Thief game in this engine. Actually no I don’t, the levels are still too small (although they’re perfect for Bioshock) and it’d be Deadly Shadows all over again. Come back when you’ve got an Unreal engine that can do Angelwatch.

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