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300 Word Review – Bioshock (1.1 Patch)

For a about a month and half in late 2007 Bioshock was the future of video games. It’s dense and macabre story combined with a unique and disturbing setting made it feel adult and mature compared to the space marine infested machismo of most other first-person shooters.

Then came Portal.

Portal‘s light touch in all things, from it’s humorous storyline to it’s simple but surprising central mechanic, made Bioshock seem over the top at best and in it’s worst moments simply maudlin. Bioshock was a throw-back in everything, from it’s 1940′s setting and plot to it’s nearly decade old PC shooter mechanics. However, Bioshock was updated in the last month and so it deserves another chance.

The most important part of the new update is that it has un-broken the game. Whereas formerly death meant nothing, with you simply popping out of the nearest “Vita Chamber”, you can now turn the Chambers off along with the ‘goal arrows’ and ‘text tips’ and everything else that was meant to coddle the game’s non-existent casual audience.

The ‘field of view’ has also been expanded and you get the feeling that it’s the way it was always supposed to be. Your eye is now more naturally drawn to the monumental architecture of Rapture (the game’s locale). Fights with the Big Daddies are even more thrilling as their size is still screen-filling without being blinding.

Playing through again also makes you notice the little things, such as the wry way you’re forced to search every nook and corpse, scrounging for ammo and junk food, becoming the very “parasite” the game’s antagonist rails against. This and other touches make you realize that Bioshock was easily one of the best games of 2007. Unfortunately it’s still not nearly as good as Portal.


  1. Not sure I can understand your verdict ;-) It implies there is an underlying scale like the best 10 games ever made. Shouldn’t we evaluate each book, game, film etc. on the basis of what the work intends to do. It is useless to compare Ulysses with The murder of Roger Ackroyd in order to say what’s the better book. Usually this just means that you take the evaluative scale of one work and apply it also to the other which works under very different premises. Not seeing the mastery in crafting a very clever crime novel will miss the point. Portal is very intelligent, innovative and amusing, but I never spent a minute thinking about it – it is in some aspects like Christie’s book. Bioshock on the other hand succeeded to merge gameplay and story telling in a thought provoking way which is quite new for computer games. Comparing them as if there is a common scale may satisfy the needs of those who need shopping list and guinness books but what is really won by doing it?

    Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  2. Nash wrote:

    Does no one else think that Bioshock’s story was kind of weak and confusing? I totally appreciate all the literary themes and allusions. And there were in-game moments of story brilliance, such as the “would you kindly” revelation and the scene face to face with Andrew Ryan, which seemed to be commenting on in-game goals and player-controlled avatars in general. But the history and backstory were very much TOLD, and not shown to us – like reading the story treatment instead of seeing a scene. Not that flashbacks would have been a good idea (and indeed the in-game flashbacks are done really well). But why have such a complex and detailed history of Rapture if we can’t truly experience that history? It seems like a silly design decision to put those tape recorders around Rapture for the player to discover the past; I found them hard to understand, especially when I’d be attacked while trying to listen and put all the pieces together. And the final plot twist – you were created by Andrew Ryan in Rapture and Atlas is a bad guy – was pretty much riddled with Hollywood cliche. I think Bioshock is important because it was attempting something mature. The sound design was incredible. The art direction was incredible. A lot of the story was well written. But as a whole, I’m not sure that I feel all the pieces truly came together. As far as mainstream first person shooters go, I still think Valve has it figured out best. Portal was genius, but the Half-Life series doesn’t seem to get the love it deserves.

    Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Oren wrote:

    Since I havent had the time to fully write my side of the debate, I decided to do the next best thing. This Friday, February 1st, at 12, come to Tisch and go to the 9th floor. There someone will present who has a much better understanding of Bioshock than me. I dont want to ruin it for anyone, but feel free to hit me up to find out who.

    I will say that while Portal was awesome, I found myself wanting to turn off the sound to actually enjoy the game because GlaDOS just had an annoying voice; while in Bioshock, my roommates asked me to pick up more of the tapes because they loved hearing the story, and they were not even playing the game!!

    Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    In terms of narrative, “Portal” is probably the most overrated game I’ve ever played. While it certainly has effectively expressive and well paced level design, the additional exposition of GlaDOS felt really forced, especially for the fiction they were trying to present. Sure, I’ll buy that if you’re a test-subject in a scientific experiment that you’re likely to be monitored and led by an all-knowing, all-seeing supercomputer, but does it have to be so obviously passive-agressive? The overly jokey lines may have been good for a laugh or two, but all they did for me was drag me out of the experience of the game. Sorry, but I can’t suspend my disbelief quite enough to buy most of what GlaDOS was saying, from the bring-your-daughter-to-work/organ-donation-for-girls program, to all that cake bullshit.

    Mostly, all the “humor” does is telegraph GlaDOS’ betrayal from the first level or so, and while the idea of a super-computer turning against its humans isn’t entirely new (HAL, anyone?) it kind of spoiled any of the “narrative” fun I might’ve had to have that all-important plot-twist made so blatantly obvious and inevitable from the very beginning. If GlaDOS provided any useful function in the game, providing you with actual hints and advice along the way, then maybe the all-important plot-twist would’ve carried some weight. Kojima already figured out how to make a story of betrayal part of the mechanics with Big Boss in the original MSX “Metal Gear,” a game that still has a lot more to offer in nuanced storytelling than anything in “Portal” (or all the other “Metal Gear” games, for that matter).

    In terms of game design, “Portal” stands as one of the most innovative and exciting titles we’ll ever be lucky enough to play. In terms of narrative, however, it’s a third-rate “Logan’s Run,” and nothing more.

    Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  5. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Comparing Bioshock and Portal seems pretty valid to me, as they’re very similar games. They are both first-person shooters with roots in PC gaming and they are both basically science fiction stories about technology gone awry. Most importantly they are both at their core about power and obedience. The difference is that Bioshock takes 15+ hours of brooding monologues and shooting people in the face to make it’s point, while Portal is 3 – 5 hours of light puzzle solving mixed with humorous quips.

    Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 11:34 pm | Permalink
  6. Nash wrote:

    Bob – you had me until Kojima. For me personally, in my own humble opinion which is just that – an opinion (don’t want disagreement to sound like standard video game message board flaming here), I think the MGS stories, including the first one, are among the worst video game stories ever told – and that says a lot. Campy, B-movie dialog with even worse acting…

    It seems like Kojima has the same thing the guys at BioWare have – hollywood envy. I am sick and tired of cut-scenes, and I think they are obsolete and contrary to what a game inherently is. An little intro, or a little scene to help set the story are one thing – but to actually convey ACTION within a scene, for me, goes against the notion of being IN a story.

    I don’t think Portal redefines anything on a narrative level itself – but I think it redefines writing for games, simply because the writing is good, and because the writer was hired because of his previous writing work. Again, I know we disagree, and I’m totally cool with that. But Portal was the only non-Schafer game that ever made me truly laugh.

    But here’s my biggest point – we all agree about the brilliant puzzle design of Portal, but are disagreeing about it on a narrative level. Don’t you all see how awesome this is? We’re arguing about games on a narrative level! The times, they are a-changin…

    Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 1:54 am | Permalink
  7. Nash wrote:

    Quick follow up…(sorry)

    Bob, I think I misread your statement the first time through. I guess you meant that the original Metal Gear had more nuanced storytelling than the later Metal Gear Solid games? If so, I need to go replay the original Metal Gear to see what you’re talking about.

    Also – another way Portal and BioShock are related is in this exact discussion of betrayal. Atlas leads you along, until you discover that he’s really the bad guy – just like Glados, just like Big Boss. Just like HAL, and Fight Club, and a million other movies that came before video games were even invented. It’s not new. It’s just a question of how well it’s pulled off…and also a question of how it affects you as a player, as opposed to a viewer.

    Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 2:00 am | Permalink
  8. Bob wrote:

    Nash, one of the problem with GlaDOS is that you can see her truly malevolent nature pretty much from the beginning of the game. It would’ve been nice to be able to play the original MSX “Metal Gear” games without having been spoiled of their twists by the “MGS” series, but even knowing ahead of time that Big Boss was an evil mastermind didn’t prepare me for the way the game’s mechanics work him against you. After playing the game according to his radio advice throughout the whole game, you keep on following Big Boss’ orders even at the moment of betrayal, and it takes a few moments to realize you’re being led into traps. THAT’s an effective use of gameplay to communicate ideas of obedience, independence and the nature of trust, and it’s something I didn’t really find present in GlaDOS at all, as very, very little of her lines relate to the chalenges the player faces. It adds color to the scenario, but little more.

    The narrative embellishments of “Portal” might not interrupt the gameplay experience like cut-scenes do, but they don’t add anything concrete to the gameplay itself, and can be very easily distracting.

    On the the camp of “Metal Gear”– point taken (Snake does wear a very familiar looking bandanna, after all). Still, I’ll take Ocelot’s histrionics over GlaDOS’ cake nonsense anyday. I haven’t had a chance to play “BioShock” myself, but at least it casts Ayn Rand’s philosophy as malevolent, so at least the game’s heart is in the right place.

    Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 4:14 am | Permalink
  9. Back to Pratt’s original post: I like the idea of a director’s cut for a video game, which is essentially what you seem to be arguing has improved Bioshock. As to comparing one game to another in terms of what was the best game of the year — yes, indeed this is an unfair step to take in a critical assessment, just as considering the “value” of the game. Perhaps your post was more of a review? In that case, shame on you ;)

    Yes, the creator of Bioshock will be speaking at Tisch tomorrow… see you there.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 4:34 am | Permalink
  10. Dammit Pratt, it’s spelled BERKELEY

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 4:34 am | Permalink
  11. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Noted and corrected, Mr. Miller.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 4:56 am | Permalink
  12. Frank wrote:

    Bob, you’re high.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 5:10 am | Permalink
  13. Bob wrote:

    If I were, I wouldn’t have been depressed enough to make a game about suicide. At least not until I ran out, anyway.

    Friday, February 1, 2008 at 6:02 am | Permalink
  14. So I just started and finished Bioshock, and I waited to play it after listening to Ken Levine lecture on Friday about narrative in games (which I think was titled “Your Story Sucks”)… and here’s my verdict:

    Many of the best moments in the game happen in the first 10 minutes. By that I mean the plane crash (talk about a hook) and the first time you stab yourself with some of the roids — it’s elctrobolt or something, and if you remember the controller vibrates but then fades along with the screen… it’s the most cinematic, interactive, powerful narrative gaming moment I’ve ever come across and I think being largely forgotten about (fuck Portal’s song).

    Pratt has it right: the game is too long. BUT, I actually liked the last quarter of the story unlike a lot critics. There were many times were I felt like I was completing a laundry list and I’m not sure why designers feel like they need to give the gamer busy work.

    This is a great game for reasons of having a catchy plot, great stylization, fun game play, and overall original mechanics… but let’s be honest: if this and Portal are setting the narrative bar for games now, it isn’t exactly being set that high. These stories are simple and trite (and Ken Levine argued they need to be that way for a reason… maybe so). Seems the game design world is more suited for the juicy burgers of a Tarintino rather than the 7 course meal of a Checkov. Am I the last one to realize this? Am I the last one to play Bioshock?

    Sunday, February 3, 2008 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  15. Bob wrote:

    No, I am. That’s what 2K gets for putting “BioShock” exclusively on the 360 and PC’s that require steroids to run the game even with a choppy framerate. I’m getting a chance to play it along with a friend now, and mostly I’m just still annoyed it isn’t out on the PS3.

    As for whether games have to be simple and trite– Fuck no. Hell, ALL games with firearms– including mine– adhere to the principle of Chekov’s gun. After all, if you find a piece in level one, it usually pops off several rounds by level three.

    Sunday, February 3, 2008 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  16. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Let’s be fair here, Charley, Anton Chekov’s medium was human language, and if that’s what you’re working with you’re going to create a certain type of story in a certain way. At this point most games are about movement and space. Do you know the story of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird? It’s simple and ancient and beautiful, but it’s not Chekov.

    Sunday, February 3, 2008 at 8:05 pm | Permalink
  17. Bob wrote:

    Movement and space are primitive modes of expression in any medium. Sooner or later, games are going to have to outgrow mere kineticism as the only dominant method of interactivity.

    Sunday, February 3, 2008 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  18. Charles Joseph wrote:

    That may be the most myopic thing I have ever heard you say.

    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 1:27 am | Permalink
  19. Bob wrote:

    I highly doubt that. Otherwise, you’d better get your ears checked.

    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 3:44 am | Permalink
  20. Charles Edward wrote:

    Stories in games having to be superficial…hmm, I can see where that line of thinking comes from (since you can easily wag a finger at all the sub par stories in great games).

    Maybe it’s a bit short-sighted though, and you can see where this argument goes ( referencing the great train robbery and citizen kane and making all those common and cliche film and tv analogies, artistic mediums having a documented growth period and all that)…well that was fun.

    Ok, so both camps have been around for awhile, you could even boil this down to being an offshoot of the narratology/ludology argument that never really happened/mattered. Frasca explores this a bit here if you really really care about this stuff:

    Ok, so given all this, my two cents are simple: People love stories and stories are literally told….ALWAYS, it’s the definition of story, narrative, tome, tale, all of them. An account of an event. No matter what you think, if it’s story, there’s a teller and that inherently means a disconnect between us (or a player), the narrative, and the teller (game designer or even an in-game narrator). Ok, I hope we can agree on this, because it’s the definition of story and it’s in direct contradiction to personal experience. Hence the wonderful paradox of walking through the “story world” of say, shadow of the colossus (to use an easy artsy game reference). Is that my personal experience or am I being told a story through a medium? Both? Is that fair? If it’s ok to say, “yea, even though stories are inherently told, I’m IN one right now” then THAT should be the way games “tell” stories, not with cutscenes (that’s a multimedia technique of mixing game with movie, don’t fool yourself, you have officially left the game when that scene starts and you’ve entered a new medium). This is why I’d argue that Shadow of the Colossus has one of the strongest storytelling experiences, because it’s not about telling, it’s about BEING the story. hells yes.

    Ok, I could go on for another two hours, but let me first see how many people I’ve insulted.

    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  21. Frank wrote:

    >> Movement and space are primitive modes of expression in any medium.

    Don’t tell Richard Serra. Or Roger Federer, for that matter.

    Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 4:51 am | Permalink
  22. Bob wrote:

    For maximum controversy– I don’t consider there to be any real expression in the play of a game, only in the design. Athletes are not artists. Something else is going on there– the exercise of physical and mental agility, but that’s not the same thing as creative invention. Granted, I also tend to think that interpretive “artists” like musicians and actors are given way too much credit for whatever they’re expressing, but I’m not willing to cut the players of a game the same slack as the creators of a game. Let’s not allow the magic circle to get too blurred, here.

    Anyway– Richard Serra’s not the best example of a sculptor whose work takes full advantage of movement and space. Calder, maybe– at least he did mobiles before moving onto stabiles.

    Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 5:51 am | Permalink
  23. Charles Edward wrote:

    A quick counter example:

    figure skating (Athletes as artists)

    custom combos using roman cancels and the like in guilty gear.
    or the unconventional, creative use of frame counting and input buffer for devil may cry 3. I could post videos, but you know I’m right. The players there are creative, and yes, they are artists, I said it.

    Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  24. Bob wrote:

    Creative, yes, but they’re not using that creativity to express anything– they’re using it to win. Ergo, they exhibit expertise, but no art. The artists are the ones who designed and built games like Guilty Gear and Devil May Cry which provide players the room in which to explore the different gameplay possibilities.

    For example, since you brought up Shadow of the Colossus, ask yourself this– who is responsible for the picturesque views you see in the game? The player, who is given pretty free range control with the game’s camera, or designer Fumito Ueda, who designed the game’s camera to alow for the player’s free range control in the first place?

    As for figure skating, it’s neither athleticism or art. It’s dancing on the ice, which in my opinion makes it about as low a form of interpretive display as disco. Mind you, I wouldn’t say this in front of Tonya Harding…

    Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

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