Dispatches: BioShock, Part Three; Or: Someone to Watch Over Me

Today on the Dispatches, we finally reach the end of Ken Levine’s head-scratchingly identity confused FPS rollercoaster ride, and begin to draw some sketchy conclusions. This isn’t the ending I thought it would be, pleasant dreamers– well, except for the fact that I got the good ending, if you know what I mean. Instead, it’s what immediately preceded those final, alternate-branching moments that I felt something from this game that I hadn’t from most others, something that makes me at once look on it with respect and a little bit of sadness, as well.

BioShock is a good game, but sometimes it doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. It goes so far, yet just at that point, it finds a way to overreach itself, but even then one can’t help but pause to admire what it was trying, and at times failing to do. In the end, Levine’s strange combination of art-deco excess, murderous chaos, schizophrenic suspense and blockbuster showstopping all can’t help but remind me of a certain cinematic icon, one whose work I’ve never truly enjoyed but always found a way to appreciate from a safe distance:

Alfred Hitchcock.

Now, like I said, I’ve never really enjoyed Hitchcock’s films. To be honest, I’ve always found his work, while certainly clever and crafty, to be at least a little overrated, and his reputation far overblown when compared to his contemporaries like the peerless Fritz Lang, who practically invented all the genres of which Hitchcock was later hailed as the master. However, I’ve learned the hard way that you can never underestimate the contributions of certain individuals, because no matter what, sooner or later you’ll run into one of their fans, and if you even dream of criticizing the object of their cultural affections, you’ll quickly find your head metaphorically chewed off.

Besides, even though I’m not a big Hitchcock fan, plenty of other filmmakers whose work I admire much more apparently were. French New-Wave icon Francois Truffaut was a life-long devotee of the rotund English gentleman, and famously conducted numerous interviews with him which for his landmark book Hitchcock/Truffaut, which among other things tells readers how he put his movies together, exactly what a MacGuffin is, and offers a number of hypothetical suspense-scenes he never got the chance to shoot, like the one I’m about to outline right now.

See, for many years, Hitchcock had this great idea for a set-piece to open one of his films. The camera would follow a car on an assembly line as it was put together, piece by piece. At the end of the sequence, one of the car’s doors would open and a dead body would tumble out, setting up the mystery of the man’s murder. It’s a terrific idea for an opening, and it likely would have been one of the most memorable sequences he ever put to film, but he never did, and there’s a very good reason why:

It doesn’t make sense.

I mean, seriously– where he hell is the body supposed to come from? It’s a strange, bewildering kind of genius, because the sheer incoherence of the notion is the very reason it holds such a fascinating sway. Right from the start, you want to uncover the mystery of how a dead body managed to wind up in this car, where common sense and (if he’d ever filmed it) your very eyes would confirm there was no possible way for a dead body ever to wind up. In the end, however, barring the supernatural, there really is no explanation for the sequence Hitchcock had in his head, so therefore that’s where he decided to keep it, tantalizing his audiences only with its furtive suggestion in an extended interview with a Gallic cinephile.

To me, Hitchcock’s story of the car on the assembly-line has long been one of the best examples of that most dangerous of creative traps– the good idea that does not work. For whatever reasons, writers, directors, designers and artists of all ilks must one day face this monster and confront it in their own way. If they can discover a method of wrangling the better angels of their idea and tying them down to some compromise, so much the better, but if they insist upon keeping their vision too pure for something as trivial as logic, the only reasonable thing to do is cast it aside and move on ahead.

Plenty of game designers have reached these conclusions before. Hideo Kojima, for example, famously wanted to make Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater without continues— sure, you’d be able to save your game, but once you died, those save files would be erased, and you’d have to start all over from the beginning again. It would’ve given players the freedom to fail, sure, but let’s be honest– it just wouldn’t have worked. Fumito Ueda could’ve made Shadow of the Colossus without any kind of HUD whatsoever, and sure, it would’ve made the game that much more elegant and presentable, like his last game, but let’s be honest– it just wouldn’t have worked. And he knew why:

“When we said … Ico is not a conventional video game title, we set limitations on ourselves for the development of the game… But for [Shadow of the Colossus], we wanted to remove those artificial limitations that we placed on ourselves. We wanted to just make a game that was fun. If a limitation made the game less fun, we weren’t going to restrict ourselves.” WIRED, 3/09/06

In both of these cases, you probably could’ve solved the problem by just making No-Continue/No-HUD gameplay an option somewhere in the menu, just in the same way that BioShock allows you to turn off the Vita-Chambers. However, Ken Levine’s car on the assembly-line isn’t quite so easily switched off as those examples are, because it isn’t something that rears its head until very, very late in the game. It’s a moment that, had it been handled correctly, could’ve made the game, could’ve stood out as its defining sequence of actual game design, and not merely in-game theatrics.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the player’s transformation into a Big Daddy, and the inevitable Little Sister escort mission it implies.

Now, when I settled down for the last third of BioShock, I was fully prepared to not have anything new to say about the actual design of the game, because frankly, I thought I’d seen it all. Would there be more compelling pre-scripted game moments for me to experience? Of course there would. Would the thoroughly twisty story come to some kind of satisfying finale, based partly on the decisions I’d made along the way? Absolutely, old sport. However, I didn’t really think there would be anything more as far as mechanics went– the combat of Plasmids and weapons, the handling of various in-game economies, and so forth. I mean, when you get right down to it, very few games actually give you that much which is different in terms of gameplay by the end. Difficulty goes up, no doubt, but its rare that a game will give you new rules to follow, instead of simply playing harder by the rules you’ve known from the start.

As an infamously longstanding Metal Gear fan, I see a game’s final challenges as best exemplified by the series’ three stand-out closing boss-battles.  In MGS3, the Boss stood as a final test for all the abilities and skills the player had used to get ahead throughout the game– stealth-camouflage sniping, up close and personal close-quarter-combat, hunt-and-gather subsistence. In MGS4, Solid Snake’s ultimate battle with Liquid Ocelot marked an abandonment of the game’s standard rules of hide-and-seek warfare, in favor of an abruptly newfangled fighting-game interface to simulate an epic match of fisticuffs, forcing the player to acquaint themselves with the new controls. Finally, in the MSX title Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, the player’s final confrontation with a seemingly invincible Big Boss can only be won by picking up two apparently useless items (not unlike the trash littering the streets and corpses of Rapture) and combining them into a makeshift flamethrower (not unlike the varieties of items and ammunition created in Rapture’s U-Invent booths), an act which the player must perform themselves without any prompting or instruction from any of Snake’s radio-support team (entirely unlike the endless radio, audio-log and pop-up instructions rampant throughout BioShock).

As such, these battles fall into three varieties of rule-sets: those the player has already learned, those the player has yet to learn, and those the player must teach themselves. BioShock‘s Big Daddy moment could’ve easily been a fine example of the last case, forcing the player to protect the Little Sister with all the tools the game had put into the player’s disposal throughout the game in new and exciting ways, but instead, it winds up acting more like the first, and playing strangely like the second– it tests the player’s abilities far too strictly on grounds in which the player’s abilities have not yet been proven, and does so in a manner in which failure becomes something far too upsetting to even consider.

This is where the car on the assembly-line bit comes in– yes, it’s all very well and good to ask us to protect a Little Sister. In fact, it’s sort of beautiful– but for the love of God, don’t actually let them die.

The balance is way off in this portion that makes it totally inconsistent with the rest of the game, and shows off just how much potential was missed. Earlier in the game, Little Sisters are said to be invincible to any weapon, presumably to explain why you can’t hurt them except by choosing to harvest– if so, why is it they’re so thin-skinned in the face of all the splicers and security drones? Throughout the game, the Little Sisters are supposed to be gathering Adam from the corpses of the fallen citizens of Rapture, as they’ve been genetically engineered to be biologically dependent upon the aforementioned resource– if so, why don’t their life-bars go up whenever they stick their needles into dead bodies along the way? Finally, whenever you fight a Big Daddy in the game, it’s a momentous showdown, a long, drawn out battle in which your plasmids and weapons must be carefully rationed to take down the hulking behemoths and their powerful attacks– if so, why is it that after you become a Big Daddy, you’re so goddamn weak?

It’s here where the game failed on the terrific promise they cooked up– when the objective to “Become a Big Daddy” came up on the screen, my lips drew tight in a feverish smile, the likes of which I hadn’t given into since Solid Snake got to pilot Metal Gear Rex in Metal Gear Solid 4. Despite all the arguments against MGS4, you’ve got to admit this– Kojima knows how to deliver fanservice. The Metal Gear vs. Metal Gear fight worked so well because the player had an expectation of what a Metal Gear was capable of– firing machine guns, lasers, missiles and generally causing all sorts of giant fucking robot-related mayhem– and that’s exactly what the player was given control over. The Metal Gear that the player piloted operated according to the same rules that the Metal Gears they’d fought so many times did. Therefore, the wish-fulfillment came true– I felt like I got a chance to pilot a Metal Gear, because for all intents and purposes according to the rules of the series, I was piloting a Metal Gear.

It’s a testament to Levine’s story and storytelling that he was able to build up to this kind of moment, not in the fourth, sixth or seventh game in a series (depending upon how you count), but right from the first. Right from the introduction of the Big Daddy and the Little Sister, I wanted to be on their side, and throughout the game, grappling with the former and rescuing the latter, that connection was deepened. The more I encountered the Big Daddy, the more I wanted to control one. BioShock really works hard to earn the Big Daddy-sequence, yet when the time comes for you to actually become one of them, it amounts to little more than another protracted fetch-quest (seemingly the game’s favorite method of design) with only a small power-upgrade and loss of peripheral vision as your reward.

This is what being a Big Daddy is like? Damn. Being a Big Daddy sucks…

And yes, I get that this is probably the point, but still– the Big Daddy that the player assumes command of doesn’t even remotely match the Big Daddy the player encounters again and again throughout the game. You’re not really next-to-invulnerable the way NPC Big Daddies are; you aren’t given an all-powerful rivet-gun or big-honking drill-arm for weapons– seriously, this is the big wish-fulfillment moment of the game? Becoming the one Big Daddy in all of Rapture who still hits bad guys with a goddamn wrench?

The most important part of this equation, however, is the fact that the player’s lack of Big Daddy-power is one of the key disjoints of the Little Sister-escort mission. If you were able to effortlessly tear through your enemies and protect your charge the same way a real Big Daddy could, the mission would work. If the Little Sister were as invulnerable to splicer attacks as the other Little Sisters were throughout the game, the mission would work. If the Little Sister could at least HEAL, goddamnit, the mission would work. Instead, it’s a no-room-for-error trip through the world’s most dangerous obstacle course with a hemophiliac child expecting you to protect her.

And guess what? I couldn’t do it. Not on my first try, not on my second, third or even fourth tries– when I was asked to protect a Little Sister, I failed miserably, and while I would’ve been only too happy for the game to go back to my last save, or even start all over from the beginning, it did something irredeemably worse: it expected me to keep on going.

The Little Sister was there, dead on the floor, and the game expected me to summon another one, and try again. That’s the really disturbing thing, that the game allowed these girls to die, and die visibly, onscreen, while before it had been so squeamish about presenting you the full, awful consequences of the choice to harvest, rather than rescue. Before getting the game for myself, I watched a friend of mine play the game on his computer and harvest one of the Little Sisters– it was an ugly thing to watch, but at least there wasn’t a dead body at the end of it. During the escort mission, however, there was– and considering that the Little Sisters have the strength of a cancer-ridden AIDS patient undergoing chemotherapy, it’s a sight you see pretty often unless you’re playing within an inch of speed-run perfection.

Or, of course, unless you’ve stocked up on items ahead of time.

Now, this is what the game wants you to do, because that’s what it tells you before you move ahead to the escort-mission segment. So perhaps it’s my fault that I didn’t stockpile as much ammunition, health, EVE and whatnot beforehand, but that still doesn’t excuse the primary flaws the mission suffers from. Furthermore, it commits a cardinal game-design sin by non-diagetically instructing the player on what to do. I’m perfectly fine with occasional diagetic instructions from in-game characters, primarily because it opens up the possibility for a Big Boss-style subversion of those instructions, which BioShock does in its handling of the Little Sister harvest-or-rescue argument.

However, if you flat out, directly tell the player what they’re supposed to do to succeed in an area, or even just have more of a fighting chance, you take away part of the player’s agency. I wish I could’ve played and failed the Little Sister-escort mission until I realized on my own that I had to re-open an old save file and start hoarding resources like there was no tomorrow before I approached the game’s penultimate challenge. Then, at least, the solution to that problem would’ve been my own, or more importantly, it would have felt like it was my own. Even if the designer wanted me to enter the escort mission fully loaded and designed the mission to be as punishingly difficult as possible in order to make sure I was playing it his way, if I had decided to go back and fully load up myself, I would have felt ownership of that decision.

Instead, I wound up just doing what I was told to do. And ironically, if I hadn’t been told what to do, I probably would’ve been more likely to stockpile on my own before heading off, just to be safe. The main reason I didn’t follow the instruction before the escort-mission is because it was given to me. Game designers should always remember the Garden of Eden– sometimes the best way to make sure a player will do something stupid is to tell them not to. Players like to make up their own mind, even if they don’t know what’s good for them, so reverse psychology can always be a tool at the designer’s disposal.

In the end, leading a Little Sister to safety wound up being my emotional high-point for BioShock. Despite all my criticism, it’s worth noting that the game had indeed built another kind of worthy loss-state, in the death of a Little Sister– even though the game gave me the option of simply summoning another one and continuing, my conscience couldn’t sit still until I rebooted the game from the last quicksave and tried again. I hadn’t let any Little Sisters die in the rest of the game, and I certainly wasn’t about to start now. Still, I think that my experience in this portion of the game is defined more by the time I spent avoiding the game than actually playing it– I didn’t pick up my controller for a solid week, so shaken up I’d been by the sight of a fallen Little Sister, and too anxious to try the game again lest I lose and allow one of those polygonal girls to suffer the consequences.

BioShock aims to make a concrete emotional connection with the player, and to that end it was a monumental success, to me. Because of that, the rest of the game’s final moments didn’t grab me as much– the battle with a literally statuesque Atlas/Fontaine is very impressive and flashy strictly from the presentation angle, but in terms of game design it suffers from the same leaden lack of balance that the rest of the pre-ordained boss-battles do, and no amount of set-piece gimmickry can hide that. The best battles in BioShock are still the player’s chosen confrontations with Big Daddies– you can excuse some of the restlessness in those fights because the player themselves instigates them.

In the end, the Little Sisters’ closing revenge upon the villain and their ultimate redemption top-side are affecting, but somewhat abrupt. Yes, I’m glad they all get to live long, happy lives, but the game’s “good” ending ignores the lingering questions that players might have concerning the future state of Rapture and the survival of its inhabitants. Hell, even the “bad” ending doesn’t give you that much more to think about, either. For a game whose sequel is teased right after the closing credits (in the PS3 version, anyway), BioShock doesn’t bother to address too many of its own loose-ends.

At times I wish the game was a little more clear in its presentation of narrative– I still don’t know whether the player is in control of a clone of Andrew Ryan or his illegitimate son, mentally conditioned to become an assassin– and it serves as a powerful reminder that when you have elements of your narrative whose consumption remains optional, you have to do your best to make sure the player is given ample opportunity to find it for themselves. You could play through MGS3 and never make the radio-call at the right place to hear about the circumstances of Ocelot’s birth, but at least you could always pause the game and issue a radio-call whenever you wanted, so you were never really at a loss. In BioShock, however, there’s any number of ways you could miss one of the audio-logs– it could pass your notice while searching a room, you could ignore it in the middle of a battle, or you could pick it up, not play it, and fail to realize that you could listen to them at any time in the game’s menu, something the game never points out to the player.

As far as the story goes, much can be said of the byzantine complications between the Ryans, Atlases and Fontaines of the world. At its heart, however, the game is very simply about what happens when people become too strong. It’s a cautionary tale about why giving everybody superpowers isn’t necessarily a good idea– with great power comes great responsibility, after all, and people who buy into Objectivist philosophy aren’t likely to be the most responsible people in the world.

And I like that story. I love how unabashedly pulpy it is, and how it wears its anachronistic political-incorrectness on its sleeve (it even has a Chinaman mad scientist! Or is he Japanese? He might be Korean, actually). BioShock plays out like a delirious comic-book radio-drama of the same vein as Doc Savage or The Shadow, and has pretty much the same level of maturity, which is just as much as I want while I’m blasting bad guys, who might as well be addicted to opium as plasmids. As a testament relic to bygone eras of high adventure and daring acts of dering-do, it belongs to the same proud level of other sophisticated serial fanfiction like The Rocketeer or The League of Extraordinary Gentlement— not quite Star Wars or Indiana Jones quality adventure, but certainly close enough to it for me to want more.

Still, the story that goes deepest to my heart is the story that Levine put at the foreground– the story of the Big Daddy and the Little Sister. Taken altogether, it’s a fabulous kind of science-fiction fairy-tale of an underwater city full of dangerous, threatening things, where the most powerful monster of them all lives solely to protect the smallest, most innocent creature alive. It’s to the game’s credit that it shows us every possible angle of this relationship: through most of the game, the player gets to experience their story as an outsider, attacking the Big Daddies and given the choice of how to deal with the girl; in the escort-mission, the player assumes the role of a Big Daddy, protecting the girl themselves; the player even gets to play out the role of a Little Sister (sort of) in the final battle with Atlas, slowly draining him of ADAM.

It’s too bad, however, that only one part of this triangle is ever really articulated as clearly as possible. It would’ve been nice if the player-as-Big-Daddy could’ve been the showroom piece of the game, instead of just the car on the assembly-line, but I have to give Levine credit for trying. Plenty other game designers might’ve given up long before then, and simply settled for a sagging, merely competent third act after the climactic revelations of the second, but instead Levine raised the stakes of his story and put it into the game-design itself. Even though the escort-mission doesn’t quite fly to the same heights as it aspires, it’s an excellent example of gameplay-storytelling, rather than in-game storytelling, and as such, it’s plain to see that no matter what else, his heart is in the right place. One can’t say so much about all game developers, nowadays…

And on that note, I’ll end these Dispatches. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed BioShock, and can safely say that I’ll expect something interesting when the sea of dreams eventually washes up on our shore. Next time, all this mental wrangling over babysitting a Little Sister has got me pondering about the intricacies of the game-design trope of the escort-mission in general, so expect more on that later. Until then, pleasant dreamers, whenever you go shopping for a new car, make sure you check inside for that new corpse smell…