Dispatches: BioShock, Part Two; Or: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Today on the Dispatches, we review the second act of Ken Levine’s underwater dystopian saga. How do we know that it’s the second act of the game, however?

Very simple– because he told us so.

Let’s have Sherman set the Way-Back machine back to about a little less than a year ago, to a time when BioShock still hadn’t yet come out on the PlayStation 3 and I was sitting around wondering exactly what everybody else was talking about. One Friday morning, Ken Levine came over the NYU to speak to a small, but rapt audience about his game’s creation, and for the life of me, I believe that I was the only person in the crowd who hadn’t yet gotten a chance to actually play the damn thing. Plenty of fellow students and more than a handful of teachers were there, and while just about all of them probably got more out of the experience than I did, it was helpful for me to sit through it and learn as much as I could about this game’s background and structure, in hopes that it might help me better understand the game once it came out on a system I was able to play it on.

Fast-forward to last week, when I first popped BioShock into my PS3 and sat through the slow-jazz and advert-propaganda waiting room of the game’s install screens. Thanks to my time at Levine’s lecture, I had some pretty good expectations of what the game would be like, before it even got underway. For example, I knew that it would begin with a plane crash in which a trail of fire leads the player to the Rapture lighthouse (but not, however, that it included a sly crib from Another World, submerging the player underwater until swimming to the surface), I knew that the Atlas character was originally hoped to be voiced by Morgan Freeman, which would’ve made him sound as trustworthy as possible (therefore meaning he wasn’t to be trusted), and I knew that the game was going to follow a basic three act structure, which was outlined for us as a set of three main goals:

(1) Find Atlas’s family (check)

(2) Kill Andrew Ryan (check)

(3) Escape from Rapture

You’ll notice that only the first two objectives have been checked off that list, because that’s as far as I’ve gotten in the game, and so far, it’s all pretty much living up to the impressions that I had from listening to Levine’s talk– rich, atmospheric first-person shooting overlayed with some pretty interesting expository narration from multiple perspectives, interspersed with genuinely unsettling, bombastic, interactive theatricality and occasional trips to vending machines.

What I didn’t expect, however, was to find the game’s heart in that last portion– while most of it is played out in large, looming corridors and city plazas encapsulating this underwater dystopia, encompasing massive shoot-outs with superpowered freaks, security systems and great, hulking behemoths of safety-patrol troopers, the game itself is really lived out in the Circus of Value, the U-Invent and the Gatherer’s Gardens. That’s where BioShock really takes place.

Now, this doesn’t exactly surprise me all that much, as it’s pretty common nowadays to find games that are best defined by their most fleeting, seemingly peripheral pockets of design– a Mega Man game takes place between the Robot Master stage selection screen and the weapon selection menu, the two crucial places where the Rock-Paper-Scissors dynamic of the series plays out to the fullest; a Metal Gear game takes place somewhere between the sometimes informative, oftentimes deliberately misleading radio-chatter and the hide-and-seek/lateral-thinking strategies they may or may not endorse; Resident Evil 4 (I can’t speak for the rest of the series) takes place between the masked Merchant and Leon’s suitcase, an increasingly limited storage space for all the game’s most vital zombie-slaying equipment.

BioShock fits this pattern, and gives it a nicely capitalist twist– it takes place somewhere between the vending machines and the battles wherein you earn more money, ADAM and stray pieces of seemingly useless brick-a-brack. Like the sometimes-too-neat economies of MGS4 (whoever has the most toys wins) or RE4 (whoever has the biggest toybox wins), BioShock puts a player’s success firmly in the hands of how much they’re willing to shell out to purchase health and energy, ammo and power upgrades. Unlike those two, which keep their cycles to a simple variation of kill-for-money/spend-money-on-weapons/kill-again, Levine’s story of economically motivated despots adds a crucial monkey-wrench into the mix, or rather, demands that the player throw in that monkey-wrench themselves.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the hacking. Last time I mentioned it as a nice diversion, but not much else– a pleasant little mini-game that might be rewarding on its own (and kinda was, if memory serves me, as Pipe Dreams) and not too distracting in the larger game as a whole. More than anything, the hacking initially reminded me of Toad’s slot and memory-card games in Super Mario Bros. 3, which were fun, useful and satisfying in Miyamoto’s let’s-throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to game design, but ultimately somewhat expendable.

None of Toad’s parlor tricks really had anything to do with the game at large, but they didn’t detract anything either, which lends them a license to basically do as they will, and this is where BioShock‘s difference with the hacking comes in, and makes it that much more interesting. In BioShock‘s case, it isn’t that the hacking succeeds because it avoids detracting from the experience– instead, after prolonged exposure, it goes out of its way to detract from the experience. It wants to be a distracting, frustrating, annoying little minigame, and as such, it succeeds tremendously.

Why is this a good thing? Why should the fact that the hacking gets on my nerves be a good thing for the game? Because after a while, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I ran out of patience for the ever-increasing speed, the demand to keep up with the flow, and most of all, the risk of triggering an alarm and having my bullet-riddled ass handed to me by a flock of machine-gun toting seagulls. So halfway through Hephaestus, I quit hacking, and just started paying higher prices.

Do you get it? I gave up. As I’ve said before, modern games aren’t really games anymore because as long as you keep on saving your progress and re-loading, no matter what, you’re going to eventually finish the game, in all likelihood. Modern games have become puzzles because they’re objects to be finished, completed, beaten rather than won, to get all semantically crazy about it. It’s a debate we’ve had time and time again on this blog, and despite past experience here I am digging it up again, because BioShock was able to do something incredibly interesting that both stays true to this rule and fully exposes the real game hiding inside the puzzle– hacking in BioShock is a triumph of game/puzzle design, however awkward, because it manages to build a win/lose condition into the fabric of the puzzle-solving paradigm of finishing/quiting.

The only way to lose a puzzle, or a modern game, is to quit it entirely, and walk away from it. Obviously, a game designer might want to create the potential for a genuine sense of loss in their game, but they don’t want their player to just up and quit the whole thing entirely, so there’s another way to do it– build a game inside your game whose rules you can either adhere to or ignore, and make those rules as hard and challenging to stick to as possible, and yet rewarding at the same time. Play by the rules-within-rules, and you win. Decide to make things easier for yourself and play outside those rules, and you’ve lost because you’re giving up on the game-within-the-game, but you’re still free to play and finish the actual game itself.

There’s a precedent for games that have already done this, to varying degrees, but I’m not certain all their creators are as aware of what they were doing as Levine. The best example probably stems from Kojima’s Metal Gear and the stealth-genre it spawned– it’s entirely possible to play and survive any of the games from that series without playing by the hide-and-seek mechanic of staying out of enemy sight, and instead just running-and-gunning it up Rambo-style, not giving a damn about how many alerts you trigger, but isn’t it more satisfying to follow the advice of your disc-jockey commanders and stay true to the spirit of a sneaking mission, not to mention more practical? Sure, you can play a Mega Man game without figuring out the rock-paper-scissor sequence of Robot Masters, but isn’t there a betrayal of the science built into that game when you ignore the fact that Metal Man beats Wood Man?

If doing something that’s difficult in the short-term gives you an advantage in the long-term, why not just muddle through and do it? It’s the kind of procedural rhetoric that feels forced and unfair in games when you aren’t given an option– either adopt the strategy or fail to advance– but when the game allows you to follow the suggestion or keep on going, despite the long-term hardships, it succeeds, because sometimes a point is best illustrated by negative reinforcement than positive. Just as the easiest way to teach a kid not to skate on Farmer McGregor’s pond is to tell them about little Johnny who fell through the ice and died of pneumonia, there’s an argument to be made that you can illustrate a point about the merits of espionage by allowing a player to experience the dangers of shock-and-awe warfare firsthand.

What’s crucial is to punish the player with extra difficulty and/or hardships for ignoring the rules of the game-within-game. To build a loss condition out of quitting the puzzle, and continuing the game. To give a player the freedom to fail.

Now, what does that have to do with unhacked vending machines? What does the price of guns and butter have to do with the larger priorities of BioShock? Well, by hacking any machine, prices become lower. Vital equipment like first-aid kids, EVE hypos and all sorts of ammunition become cheaper, and therefore, easier to make plentiful. If you decide not to hack, you’re sparing yourself the headache of the Pipe Dreams puzzle and the risk of triggering an enemy alert, but you’re also making all your most necessary resources more expensive. Instead of being able to fully replenish your health-stocks, you might only be able to purchase half of what you need, if that much. Over the long-term you’ve just made yourself a bit more likely to take a trip to the local Vita-Chamber (more on that later) in return for evading the short-term hassle of hacking. You’ll still finish BioShock, of course, but you’ve just lost the game at the heart of it– the game of being a spendthrift, penny-pinching consumer. And that’s the game that I lost, this playthrough.

And it’s strange– I’m not proud to admit the fact that I gave up on hacking, but I’m that much more impressed with the game to elicit that kind of response. For my own personal definitions, the marker of art (to dig up another debate that’s already been long embalmed) is whether or not it can make you feel something you don’t want to experience, and the hacking-experience in BioShock did just that– it made me feel shame, “the feeling which will save mankind,” according to Solaris (was it Tarkovsky or Stanislav Lem who came up with that line?). Harvesting a Little Sister is perhaps something that’s capable of making a player feel guilt, but from a short-term perspective, it’s an angle that comes with certain advantages of quicker resource boons. Rescuing carries more perks in the long-term, of course, but because Levine decided to personify that dilemma, you can’t really feel any shame if you avoid challenging encounters with Big Daddies– like I said before, they’re interesting characters, so it’s understandable if you’d rather just let them be.

There’s no smiling face to pin your insecurities onto with the vending machines, however– the only reason you’d decide not to hack them is because it’s hard. And if you quit something because it’s hard, it makes you something worse than a loser, who at least took a chance in the first place– it makes you a quitter. It makes you a sell-out, or perhaps in this case, a buy-out. And it hammers home some of the principle rhetoric that the game’s more non-interactive elements keep talking about– Andrew Ryan may deliver fancy speeches about moral objectivism and free market trade but the whole hacking-experience puts the question into your hands. Are you a man who would rather prosper off the sweat of your own brow, or suffer the consequences of tax-and-spend price-gougers?

Furthermore, it exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of capitalism itself– standing up for individualism against the dangers of collectivism is all fine and dandy, but what do you do when different individual rights conflict with one another? If everybody looks out for themselves at the expense of everybody else, how long does it take for anybody to realize that everybody is just somebody else to somebody else? Ironically, objectivism is one of the most subjective philosophies in the world, which partly explains why it’s so ruthlessly, efficiently effective and so dangerous– as the fullest expression of Social Darwinism, it casts aside all ethical quandaries in favor of a rule-set that Aleister Crowley might admire. Rapture’s constitution seems to be built upon “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law“, an idea which after a long enough period can only lead to three things: anarchy, despotism, or both.

This is what makes the whole Vita-Chamber angle so interesting– I know plenty of people complained about how it makes the game too easy, and how glad they were to be able to turn them off, but that’s sort of the point. Vita-Chambers work as a commentary on the whole quick-saving culture that BioShock was made in, the relentless dependency on hand-holding that deprives gamers the exhilaration of true life-and-death/win-or-lose stakes. As a gaming trope, the Vita-Chamber is so nakedly literal in its narrative function as a respawn point that it calls into question the whole structure of checkpoints and savepoints in modern game-design– by allowing you to bring yourself back to life after any bloody end, the game basically removes the possibility of impossibility from the game’s vocabulary. The fact that it exists in a game otherwise dedicated to such coldhearted, bloodthirsty difficulty underlines the points it’s making about the economies of dwindling resources by providing the contrast of unlimited lives and, most importantly, uninterrupted continuity.

If death is meaningless as an obstacle, what’s the big deal about dying any number of times to take down a Big Daddy? As a player, it may remove the liberation that the threat of a true, unambiguous “game over” can provide, but as a gamer, as long as it makes your life easier, why not accept it? In a game dedicated to probing the issues surrounding relentless self-interest, it helps emphasize the nature of transition that all roads of philosophical excess lead to– democracies always run the risk of becoming dictatorship if one person’s voice becomes too popular; communism almost never fails to fall into despotism once the impracticality of expecting ‘Haves’ to share anything with ‘Have-Nots’ sets in and the people who run the state come to resemble the people who used to run industry; and finally, capitalism only lasts as long until the city-planner of a community based on individualism realizes that nationalizing an industry is in his own best interest, even if it isn’t in the community’s, or his own state-credo’s.

It’s interesting that you learn about Ryan nationalizing Fontaine Futures at about the same time you learn that Ryan developed the Vita-Chamber to only bring his genetic signature back to life. They’re both narrative illustrations of how adhering to individualism in the short-term can sabotage it in the long-term, and tying this point to the artifact that’s continually holding the player’s hand all this time puts that theory into the practice of the gameplay itself. Furthermore, they underline the inevitable loss of agency in a society so zealously dedicated to protecting it at all costs– a notion that takes on a new, sad sense in the myopic scope of flagship capitalism– at a pointed moment that showcases the player’s loss of agency, the much talked-about confrontation with Andrew Ryan himself.

Now, my hacking and Vita-Chamber epiphanies are, to a certain extent, purely conjecture on my part. You can either agree or disagree with them, but there’s something interesting about the Andrew Ryan sequence that I feel is undeniable– a new motif is being forged in BioShockand other recent games: the motif of the non-existent-boss battle. It’s something I first noticed in Goichi Suda’s No More Heroes, which spent a lot of time building up several bosses the player never got a chance to actually fight. It happened again, in an implied sense, at the belaboured conclusion of MGS4, where a last-minue appearance from Big Boss at first appears to signal a long-awaited final confrontation, but quickly segues into an even longer-awaited dose of exposition for the series’ notoriously byzantine plot.

In either case, the player’s expectations are dashed in order for a point to be made. In the case of Mr. 51’s saga of the assassin Travis Touchdown, the non-existent bosses feel like a knowing joke, a fast-one aimed at the conventions of modern gaming and the motivation behind all the rest of the title’s infuriating busywork. For Kojima, the non-existent boss is allowed to rear its head for a moment to emphasize the narrative of Snake’s transition from a man of war to a man of peace– even the player must accept that sometimes, there’s no need to fight anymore.

Accordingly, Levine builds the player’s expectations of a confrontation with Andrew Ryan as a way to further his arguments about the lack of agency and control in a society supposedly dedicated to their preservation. During the lecture I mentioned before, Levine candidly discussed how he and his team used audio-clips, level design and in-game theatrics to properly introduce, set up and showcase characters before you encounter them in the game, specifically pointing out the first “boss”– if you want to call it that. Without all that build-up, Levine said, Dr. Steinman would’ve just been a guy shooting at you with a machine-gun, and not the tragic portrait of a plastic-surgeon gone frightfully mad that the game aims for. Throughout the game this is how most of the characters you encounter are built up– introduction through audio-clips, embellishment through in-game setting details, and then finally death either through live theatrics or a brief boss-fight.

After you get used to this pattern, you assume that the encounter with Ryan is going to fit it to a ‘T’– the entire game has featured his recordings and radio-transmissions, everybody talks about him in their private diary tapes, and everywhere in Rapture there are countless examples of state propaganda dedicated to his image and name. Of course, despite the fact that the entire game builds up to an expected confrontation with Andrew Ryan, he’s the classic example of a boss you don’t get to fight– a phantom menace.

And the way in which Levine subverts the player’s expectations is perhaps the cleverest example of this new found motif– it’s more affecting than Suda’s faux-bosses in No More Heroes, and less upsetting, because unlike that game, BioShock actually gives you things to do and experience that are at least moderately enjoyable in a non-ironic register; it’s more worthwhile than Kojima’s last-minute Big Boss revelation, because even though the Legendary Soldier implicitly haunts the edges of MGS4‘s narrative throughout, everybody basically spends the entire game assuming he’s dead (or brain-dead, kept in a chemically induced nano-bot coma, and then assumed dead once more) so the player never really spends any time expecting a confrontation with him, save for the first five seconds you see him, before he begins Kojima’s conspiratorial stump-speech. The Ryan non-battle works so well because we’ve gotten to know him as a character long before we ever see him face-to-face.

He’s like Harry Lime in reverse– instead of being assumed dead and shrouded in utter mystery and confusion until a showstopping reveal and cuckoo-clock lecture halfway through, he’s proudly on display every second of every minute in the game’s playtime until the one moment when you expect the most player-interaction. Everything during his showy death scene hammers home the player’s distance from the experience– cut-scene letterboxing windows the non-interactive moment, and even the player’s regular weapons are substituted for a golf club. Unlike the Boss’s death in Metal Gear Solid 3, where Kojima went out of his way to force the player to feel as responsible for the character’s death as possible, Levine makes sure his gamers are as far removed from the experience as he can get.

The only way he would’ve made us feel less involved in the scene would be if we suddenly switched from first-person to a third-person perspective, suddenly seeing our avatar from the outside. Levine, however, keeps things just intimate enough to implicate us in what is taking place– instead of giving us an out-of-body experience, he simply pulls us out of the game, which is strangely akin to suddenly seeing the proverbial man behind the curtain.

The closest approximation to this kind of non-encounter ironically comes from the notorious American NES port of Metal Gear, the version which didn’t actually include the Metal Gear weapon at the end. It’s strange because if it had been intentional, and not just a monumental screw-up of a game being taken out of the hands of its creator and altered in an absurd way for a different market, it might’ve actually been a crowning act of brilliance. Right from the beginning, Kojima sets up that the player is going to destroy “the final weapon: Metal Gear”, and to play all the way to the end and find yourself fighting, instead, a fucking computer, would’ve been a subversion of audience expectations worthy of Samuel Becket (or Clifford Odets, I suppose). But Kojima was more subtle than that– despite his reputation for cinematic histrionics, when it comes to gameplay, the man knows how to play things light, subtle and by way of almost subliminal implication.

Levine, on the other hand, has no time for subtlety, and instead plays things big, loud and obvious– and for a story about big, loud and obvious characters with deliriously over-sized egos, it works. There’s a bombastic grandiloquence– both verbal and non-verbal– on display in BioShock that wouldn’t have been out of character with the films, radio-plays or theatrical productions of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater. Even though Ryan is dead (though thanks to the Vita-Chambers, I suspect that means about as much as saying Big Boss is dead for a third or fourth time) I’m pretty certain his character is going to remain prominently in the game’s scope of setting and detail, keeping his spirit alive, even if his flesh has been battered in.

And once again, that’ll be it for now. Tune in next time, when I’ll bring you the game’s hopefully thrilling conclusion, and I’ll spend a wee bit of time talking about what seems to be the heart of the BioShock experience– the actual story itself. Until then, a toast, pleasant dreamers, to love on my own terms! Those are the only terms any man ever knows: his own…