The release date for BioShock 2 is around the corner; the game is already available for preorder in some places. So I’m going to take this moment to look back at the first game. BioShock one was kind of a big deal when it came out, and it still is; not a lot of games make it to the high 90s on Metacritic. Michael Abbot of brainygamer.com calls it “one of the defining games of its generation.” Calling three years ago a different generation is odd, but given the speed that the videogame culture moves, it’s not unreasonable. For better or for worse the statement is hard to dispute. BioShock left a lasting impression. Journalists for non-game oriented publishers even cite it as an example of how games can be an expressive art form. I didn’t play it when it was first released (I rarely do for games anymore). I waited for the hype (and the price) to die down, to see if it could withstand the test of time before I dropped twenty hours of my life into it. When I did finally start exploring Rapture, I waited patiently for the game to reveal to me what made it so special. And well… I never quite found it.
I think BioShock can be broken down into two interlinked components. The first is the mechanical, the gameplay, all of the systems that the player interacts with. As far as games go, BioShock’s mechanics are pretty simple. You point a gun at things and you shoot them. You can upgrade your gun, get health, the typical FPS deal. BioShock is a direct descendant of Doom, its gameplay is founded on walking into a room and killing every single thing that moves for twenty hours. This can be fun, but it’s rarely very artistic.
The second component is, you guessed it, the artistic. BioShock is very loudly artsy. There are stylized statues and paintings everywhere. No detail was too small to bother including in the design of each room. All of the characters have long monologues, thick accents, and dramatic voices. All of the text and dialog is careful, precise, and profound.
An amazingly huge number of people love triple A budget first person shooters. A growing number of people are getting hungry for a more intellectual breed of videogame, something along the lines of what indie games like Braid have been doing with increasing popularity. BioShock is where the two dimensions collide, and have apparently hit a home run, if critical response is how we measure.
Big Daddies are really cool video game enemies. That’s the main reason why they exist instead of hired bodyguards.
That’s what I don’t understand about BioShock. It takes two completely opposite aspects of what a game can be and ties them together. The violence and the art can’t coexist, they cancel each other out. The way that the game forces the player to kill a hundred or so people (these aren’t demons or faceless cyborgs, they’re people with personalities) and never acknowledge the fact that you’re a psychopathic mass murderer isn’t just weird and disturbing, it’s anti-art. Massacring a city’s population in order to display a beautiful painting is more than a little bit ironic.
The other mechanics are no better. Apparently Rapture exists in Toontown where people can have their bodies frozen in an instant and thaw in another instant. If they’re in midair their frozen statue will float above the ground. Mechanical turrets shooting fireballs are put in libraries and bedrooms for security. People can buy drugs from vending machines, drugs that let them shoot lighting out of their fingers. About the same amount of time is spent explaining to the player what the hell is going on in this bizarro world as telling the story. But even after the game logically explains why people here leave their dead lying in the streets for a little girl to suck juice out of, the plot isn’t any more believable.
BioShock’s artistic dimension was either a product of, or helped produce, the notion in videogame culture that “art equals having a philosophical moral or background.” There’s apparently some philosophy in BioShock that people talk about a lot. I didn’t really notice any though, unless the moral of the story was supposed to be “it’s okay to kill a hundred people as long as you save the children.” I’m not sure how well that would fly in a philosophy 101 class. BioShock doesn’t represent the early to mid 1900s very well, but it does represent what people who never lived in the 1960s think they looked like by exaggerating all of the details which seem the most exotic and unique. The characters aren’t very real; they are mainly interested in recording themselves explaining the nonsensical situation in sixty seconds or less and tossing the tapes around the city. I refuse to believe that I was ever expected to believe that Ryan was an actual character. Even with the rest of the BioShock universe as ridiculous as it is, no real person talks anything like he does.
An example of one of the dozen people you fight a hundred times throughout the game.
I didn’t mean for this to become an essay about why BioShock sucks, because I don’t dislike it, but the idea that it’s one of the defining games of 2007 bothers me, and the fact that it is still being cited as a great artistic achievement bothers me more. Both the gameplay and the art have very high production values but devolve into camp. They’re each watered down to accommodate the other, and in the end can’t even coexist. I’ve watched a lot of awful movies and TV shows from the fifties and sixties because people think they’re “essential.” BioShock doesn’t seem like it was a fad. I wonder if my children will play it one day and ask why my generation was so lame.