Dispatches: BioShock, Part One; Or: I Wanna Marry a Lighthouse Keeper

Today on the Dispatches, we follow a time-honored Dispatch tradition– when it comes to reviewing games that aren’t Metal Gear, better late than never.

It’s been over a year now since Ken Levine’s much talked-about FPS BioShock debuted for PC’s and the XBox 360, and in that year, a lot has changed. Back when it first arrived, it was the talk of the gaming-town, and I can’t tell you how many times people in my game-design classes– students and teachers alike– waxed rhapsodic about it as a game to change storytelling in games forever. Most of the time, this hyperbole was followed by a kind of awed disbelief that I hadn’t already played the game, and a fervent insistence that I rush out and purchase it now, to experience it for myself.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t own a 360, or that my PC wasn’t advanced enough to run a high-end game like BioShock— that only meant that I was obligated to go out and buy Microsoft’s console, or get sufficient upgrades to run the game on my laptop, already slowed down by such harddrive consuming software such as word processors and Power Point. In the end, I decided to be patient, and simply wait for it to come out on the next-gen system I already owned, the PS3, to which the response was almost universal– “BioShock will never come out on PlayStation!”

Exclusivity’s a tricky thing in the gaming world. I bought a PS3 because I knew Metal Gear Solid 4 was unlikely to ever be released on anything else, and so far I’ve been proven right. And here, a year later, BioShock has, indeed, enjoyed a belated release on Solid Snake’s favorite gaming system, just this Tuesday, and despite the spendthrift obligations of our iceberg of an economy, I was able to finally purchase this game, in order to experience it for myself, the way everybody said I should. Yet in that time, something else has happened, something that makes this experience just a little bittersweet.

See, despite the fact that it earned a veritable avalanche of critical praise, several dozen “Game of the Year” awards for 2007, droves of fanboy allegiances salivating at the prospect of a fully franchised series of sequels, prequels and a big-screen motion picture deal involving the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski, nobody’s really talking about BioShock anymore. At least, not since Portal.

Now, Portal is a game that I’ve got something of a complicated relationship with. Since The Orange Box came out late last year, Portal has not only overshadowed the rest of the games it was packaged with– no small feat considering its immediate cousins were the Half-Life 2 series– but also the general spectrum of games released in the past several years. Nearly every authority in gaming has declared it a pinnacle of innovative design and finely executed in-game storytelling, capturing the hearts and imaginations of countless players along the way. Many who first praised BioShock quickly covered their tracks and heaped new praises upon Portal, sometimes recycling the glories they once bestowed upon Ken Levine’s game, declaring it already a dusty relic compared to the bright, shining newborn in the Valve Corporation’s manger.

Before I even got a chance to put my hands on it, I’d already lived and died with the newscycle of one game before even being given the chance to wrap my head around another. While everyone around me turned from waxing rhapsodic about Rapture, neo-Objectivist philosophy and the moral conundrum of harvesting Little Sisters to waxing rhapsodic about GlaDOS, thinking with portals and the moral conundrum of incinerating a Weighted Companion Cube, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the underdog of the discussion. How does a game go so quickly from being everybody’s favorite to everybody’s second-best?

For the time being, however, the question of which game was more deserving of exactly what tonnage of praise was one I’d have to save for another day, because at that point, only one of those games was available for a console I owned. That game was Portal, and on its own, it was a pretty good game. Its time-and-space gimmick was fun, its gameplay was nicely paced, its distribution of narrative-driving level design along the way was thought provoking, and its writing, while far more cute than clever, wasn’t nearly annoying enough to keep me from having a good time. At the end of the day, however, I couldn’t help but feel that it was just a wee bit overrated– yes, the game did a lot of interesting things, but besides the titular mechanic, was it really doing anything that previous games hadn’t already done before?

Of course it hadn’t, but that really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Portal began when Kim Swift and her Narbacular Drop crew were recruited by the Valve Corporation to retool the latter game’s multi-dimensional puzzle-gameplay into a new title, which would become the centerpiece of The Orange Box. Aided by Valve’s able, anonymous-by-way-of-collective-crediting crew and writers like Erik Wolpow, work on Portal became a testament to the design-philosophy of adhering to constant playtesting to better shape the structural flow of the game and a marked dedication to expressing one-hundred percent of a title’s narrative elements through in-game details. It’s what they changed the FPS world with back in 1998’s Half-Life, and it’s exactly the same kind of moment-to-moment craft they put into Portal, though with nearly ten-year’s worth of experience and polish.

Now, this is all well and good, but here’s my point– yes, Portal succeeded in telling its story entirely through in-game moments, and did so expertly well, but so did Half-Life and Half-Life 2 before it. What bothers me aren’t the compliments the game received for its quality– all of which it deserves– but rather for its aesthetic and narrative innovations. Sure, it was good, but it wasn’t exactly new.

BioShock doesn’t really have anything new up its sleeve, either. Even before everyone traded their dropped-jaws from one fourth-quarter gaming masterpiece to another, Ken Levine’s underwater dystopian-set magnum opus was basically patterning itself upon the same roots as Portal, though much less streamlined than the latter. At their cores, the two games very much adhere to the same Valve-esque doctrine of pouring as much of the game’s narrative into scripted moments inside the game’s engine, rather than dropping them unceremoniously into bloated, Kojimian cut-scenes.

The only place where they differ, really, is in focus. Portal is a short game encompassing a small space in which you navigate, live and fight by doing one thing: making portals. As for BioShock— well, I’ve played it for the past two days now, and I still haven’t reached the end of the game’s skillset. Where Portal had threadbare minimalism, BioShock is absolutely all about variety– variety of level design, variety of weapons and abilities, variety of in-game currencies and methods of obtaining them, variety of enemies and methods by which one may dispatch and in turn be dispatched by them, variety of characters, voices, color and sound. If one game’s quality was achieved through empty space, the better with which to help the player focus their attention, the other’s is achieved through density, the better with which to overwhelm the player through sheer scope and panorama.

To put it in cinematic terms– Portal is to BioShock as THX 1138 is to Blade Runner: They’re both great experiences, conveyed in strikingly similar fashions and basically talking about exactly the same thing, but ultimately catering to very different tastes.

Of the two, Portal is easily the more “elegant” and “emergent” title, and to its credit, it’s one of the best examples of game design by subtraction, the philosophy by which guys like Fumito Ueda, Eric Chai and Jordan Mechner work/used to work. There’s a lot that Valve’s game has in common with the likes of Ico, Another World and Prince of Persia, and it’s tempting to say that it’s merely aiming to convey the same kind of vacant simplicity of those games in a first-person environment, but doing so would obviously be undercutting the ingenuity in spatial mechanics it comes up with that none of those celebrated titles do. Ueda, Chai and Mechner’s work basically consists of very traditional platforming and action combat, though designed with a dizzyingly austere scope of balance, fine-tuning and sometimes awe-inducing scale. Shadow of the Colossus may only be concentrating the Zelda experience of boss-fights and dungeon exploration onto singular, massive creatures, but damn your eyes if you can play even one round of that game without having the ever-loving fear of God almighty put into you.

Portal does those games one better, as far as sheer innovation is concerned, because instead of just doing something that many, many games have already done before far better than anybody ever dreamed possible, it goes the distance to actually do something no other game before (except Narbacular Drop) had ever done. That’s the greatest thing that it does, and while its dedication to in-game storytelling is encouraging, I can’t take the argument of its innovativeness seriously.

Furthermore, the whole argument of in-game storytelling raises the issue of how it relates to storytelling through gameplay, because those two things aren’t necessarily the same. Portal‘s gameplay is entirely achieved through making portals and traveling through them. Portal‘s story, on the other hand, is all about a passive-agressive artificial-intelligence that’s gained control of a scientific laboratory and sadistically forces a lone subject to endure an increasingly dangerous set of experiments. Now, the game does a good job of making us experience the second part of the narrative, but the rest of it is entirely achieved through level design and voice-overs– we don’t play through the backstory of Aperture Science, the Rat Man or even the Weighted Companion Cube. We simply play as an outsider who observes all of those stories as past tense by sifting through the detritus of what was left behind.

This is a great way to convey a game’s story– by and large this is how BioShock conveys its story, too– but there’s a difference to be found between this kind of in-game storytelling and actual gameplay storytelling, the moments where a player’s interactions actually make a difference in the ongoing conflict. This is the sort of thing Kojima has always been great at– making us feel Big Boss’s betrayal by leading us into traps and ambushes over the radio, giving us a sense of McGuyver-esque ingenuity by forcing us to build a make-shift flamethrower without any suggestions, giving us the power to overcome death itself or steal away an immortal’s powers with the one piece of equipment you’d never think to use– and it’s the sort of thing that I long to see happen more often in games.

Now, the real question is– does this happen in BioShock? Yes and no, but if it does, it occurs far more often than it did in Portal, which shows off its dedication to variety, yet again. According to Levine’s doctrine, if you’ve got a story worth telling, you’d better be willing to use as many tools as you possibly can get at your disposal.

I haven’t even played halfway through BioShock yet, but already it’s grabbed me a lot more than the entirety of Portal did, which was already quite a bit. Partly it’s because each of the elements that Ken Levine draws together in his game are things I’ve always had fondness for in my own cultural passions, but never bothered examining much on their own. Art Deco, superpowers, alternate history and Ayn Rand-bashing are all great fun in my book, but usually they’ve taken a back seat to more pressing matters, like ancient mythology, conspiracy theories, politics in science fiction and space operas (and NO, they’re NOT the same thing). But by mixing up all these cultural artifacts that hold a second-tier place in my long-term attention span, he’s created a sort of perfect storm of premise, setting and gameplay– sure, I’m interested in all of these things on their own, but not too much, so that when they all come together there’s an element of unfamiliarity I have with them which gives the experience a much savored sense of fresh discovery.

In other words, BioShock grabs me more than Portal, on one level, simply because it’s about things I generally don’t think about as much. Portal feels very familiar– a little too familiar to really jolt me awake, in the same way. If I were more interested in costume dramas and period-pieces, perhaps its modernity would be different enough for me to get a whiff of that new-car smell. In the case of the almost steampunk retro of BioShock, however, everything old is new again.

At the moment, I’ve played up to the early parts of Arcadia, and as such I feel like I’ve gotten a third of the way through, and that third carries with it a pretty decent scope of much of what the game offers. In terms of gameplay, what impresses me most is how easily I’ve dropped old gaming habits of mine in lieu of new ones that the game encourages you to make.

I first noticed this when I stopped to hack a security camera for what felt like the fiftieth time; usually in a game featuring security cameras, say, Metal Gear Solid, I make one of three choices– either avoid the security camera’s vision, disable it momentarily with a chaff grenade, or shoot it out with a silenced weapon. Now, BioShock doesn’t feature silenced weapons, the only way to momentarily disable machines is by electro-shocking them over and over again, which would waste energy, and since this is a FPS there’s no real way to avoid one camera without necessarily bumping into another one outside your range of vision (stealth and first-person gaming don’t often mix well), so I fell very easily into doing what the game wanted me to do– shocking cameras, and then hacking them.

Now, I kinda dig the fact that you’ve got “hacking” in a game that’s set in 1960, where all the technology seems to be based on the cutting edge of, say, 1939. The act of breaking into a machine and rewiring its systems based on glass tubes and pipes filled with glowing blue liquid reminds me of the clockwork computer engineering in Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine, the book that practically invented the steampunk alternate-history genre. At the heart of the experience is a very, very simple Pipe Dream-esque gameplay that hasn’t gotten tiring, yet by now has gotten a bit frustrating. I’ll probably be using the auto-hack tools I pick up and create more often as I make my way through the game, but the more of them I collect, the more I feel I may want to protect them as a valuable resource.

Speaking of dwindling resources, I like how the game forces the conservation of ammunition and energy as a constant presence, and even works it into some of the larger themes at work. Because you’re always just about to run out of ammo, it behooves you to kill as many enemies as you can to collect additional bullets from their bodies. Because you’re always strapped for cash, it behooves you to always scrounge every corpse, trashcan and ashtray that comes across your way for a spare dime or two. Because you’re always low on energy for your plasmid-superpowers, you’re always going to be on the lookout for EVE needles, not to mention the roving pairs that make up the most iconic image from the game– the massive, hulking Big Daddies, and the ADAM carrying Little Sisters.

Now, the whole “moral conundrum” issue of the Little Sisters– rescuing them for a little bit of ADAM or harvesting/killing them for a whole lot of it– has already been done to death, and there’s little chance that I could really add anything to the conversation this late in the game. The thing is, I’m not entirely sure why it was ever a moral conundrum for anybody in the first place– yes, as a resource handling issue, I could understand why you’d want more of the plasmid currency than less, but even when you’re forced to make the decision for the first time, the game goes out of its way to telegraph the fact that harvesting isn’t really worth it, in the long-term. The only places you can use the ADAM currency are at rare Gatherer’s Garden vending machines, which seem to be dispersed at the same intervals that you’d get when encountering the number of Little Sisters you need to save. Rescue the girls, and by the time you reach the vending machine, there’s a windfall of ADAM and other valuable items to make up for the resources you would’ve earned by harvesting.

Therefore, even if you had been harvesting the Little Sisters for short-term profit all the while, it wouldn’t really make much of a difference in terms of root gameplay, so all you’ve got left is the aesthetic/narrative question of whether or not you’d prefer to save a weird, genetically experimented little girl or kill her. It’s not really a problem to solve, since the difference between one option over the other is negligible at best, and instead becomes that most problematic of all game-design tropes– a choice. And I can’t imagine who, in their right mind, would rather kill a weirdo little girl rather than save her.

However, even deeper than that is this– personally, I prefer to avoid the Big Daddies and Little Sisters altogether. It’s not that I want to avoid the fights with the dive-suit wearing baddies– those are pretty damn fun– but instead, I just like the pair of them so much I really don’t want to get in their way.

The game’s cover proudly shows off a Big Daddy and Little Sister, and on the interior there’s a nice shot from the trailer, a close-up of their hands coming together, Sistene Chapel-style. It’s the sort of image you’d imagine seeing in a Steven Spielberg production directed by Guillermo del Toro– disturbing, creepy, dangerous and absolutely heart-melting. Not many things get me sentimental, but goddamnit, I’d be a rotten, cold-hearted bastard indeed if I weren’t moved by the sight of a pale, bloodthirsty genetically-modified little girl and her big, scary-robot looking protector in a diving suit with giant drill-arm action. I like the Little Sisters because I think they’re cute– hell, in the middle of this underwater dystopia gone frightfully mad, I think it’s cool that these kids can get all excited about extracting glowing ectoplasm-stuff from enemy corpses. More power to them, I say.

Whenever I see a pair of them lurking around in a level, I don’t immediately rush to attack the Big Daddy so I can save the girl– instead, I just wander around and watch them for a bit. It’s entertaining to witness the little bit of human comedy they create, a patient, brooding father dutifully following a petulant, endearingly spoiled daughter. After you’ve killed the Big Daddy and rescued the Little Sister, it’s even a little sad to see the girl unshackled from her genetically-dependent bondage, and therefore drained of all actual character– if that’s what freedom looks like in Rapture, then I say bring on the Great Chain, daddy-o.

Still, it’s interesting to note that Levine managed to create the moral conundrum he was looking for, just not in the way he expected– the issue of rescuing or harvesting a Little Sister isn’t a conundrum for me because there’s not much functional difference between the two in the long-term. There may be a choice, but there’s no options to be weighed. Instead, I find myself debating whether or not to engage the Big Daddies, because there are consequences to consider– how much life, ammo and energy I’ll lose, how much ADAM I really need, and how much I’d rather just keep watching the two of them roam around, and just play amateur video-game anthropologist instead.

Ultimately, I wish there were a third option– fighting the Splicer enemies attacking a Big Daddy/Little Sister pair, and gaining their allegiance like the various rebel militias in MGS4, another fine example of gameplay narrative, rather than in-game storytelling. In the end, I’d rather be with them than against them.

And that should be enough for now. Tune in next time, when I’ll consider the game’s storytelling and how it ties into the experience of actual gameplay, and pontificate a bit on how Levine’s critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is also pretty much a critique of game design tropes in general– points that I’m sure have already been made a year ago, over and over again. Until then, pleasant dreamers, be thankful that I’ve gone through an entire post without making an obligatory Bobby Darin reference…