At some point during the blur of the past few weeks, I “finished” BioShock. (The Xbox Achievements are still there to remind me I haven’t really finished until I’ve played through a second time, even more slowly and methodically).
The game has been out so long by now that it’s been picked clean of things to say about it. The initial reviews made it sound as if it would be the dawning of a new age in interactive entertainment. And then a lot of people played it and said, “I liked it better when it was called System Shock 2.” I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, but closer to the “landmark achievement in games” end of the spectrum.
I don’t think my initial take on it was that far off the mark — it makes a spectacular first impression, it does a fantastic job of world-building, and it promises a deeper, more complex story than we’ve ever seen in a game. And then, as you play it, you’re reminded over and over again that it’s just a videogame. Right down to the lava level and the ice level. Granted, the lava level and the ice level are tightly integrated into the story and make perfect sense in the game’s world, but still.
One of my first criticisms, I’m happy to say, was completely off the mark. I’d been complaining about the way the game presented its core moral choice, how it completely lacked subtlety. And I was patting myself on the back for recognizing a layer of meaning in the interactivity that the designers had neglected in favor of the more obvious and blatant one. By the end of the game, I realized I’d been completely mistaken about that (as well as several other assumptions). And I’ve never been so happy to get played by a game.
There’s one reveal in particular — I won’t spoil it here — that will stand out as one of those moments I’ll never forget, where all the pieces fall into place and you’re engaged with the game and its story in a way that no other medium can match. In adventure games, they’re usually called “A ha!” moments, but here it’s more of a “Holy shit!“
The presentation is amazing, the attention to detail is exceptional, and the game itself is pretty fun, hitting the right balance between accessibility and depth. But as it settles into a rhythm, you’re still left with the feeling of a solid game with frequent flashes of brilliance, instead of a brilliant vision delivered in the form of a solid game. In the end, it’s still in my Top 10, even though I ended up disappointed partly because my expectations were set so high.
To the complaint that it’s too much like System Shock 2, I’ve got two things: First, I didn’t like System Shock 2. (I don’t remember playing the original). It just felt as if I’d seen everything before — the same old sci-fi setting, with a “haunted” spaceship, cybernetic implants, DOOM rooms with cheesy hanging bodies and messages written in blood, crates that had lights on them so they were “space crates,” and a light RPG clumsily grafted on top of a shooter. It just all struck me as uninspired, B-minus/C-plus storytelling.
I can see how you could dismiss BioShock as the same thing, with a face-lift in the form of a different setting, story, and overall aesthetic; and with the more complex gameplay elements taken out to appease the console market and more casual gamers. But the face-lift is the greatest achievement in BioShock. The city feels, for the most part, like a real place. You want to see more of it, you want to find out what happened to these people and where the story is going to take you. Frankly, I wasn’t enjoying the last third of the game that much, but I was still compelled to go on, just to see how it all turned out.
As for the “more complex gameplay elements,” that’s the second point I want to make: the other greatest achievement of BioShock is that it makes an intelligent, mature story accessible. Which, I’m optimistic enough to hope, could have a huge impact on the future of videogames. I don’t recall ever seeing TV advertising for System Shock 2, but I’ve seen ads for BioShock at least a dozen times. (And any excuse to hear “Beyond the Sea” again is fine by me).
And the game, according to the publishers, is a hit. Not on the level of Madden or GTA San Andreas, maybe, but still: a big-budget, blockbuster game that’s being reviewed well and selling well! It’s sending a message that real art direction, not just flashy visuals, is important and it will help sell a game. Maybe you don’t have to choose between critical appreciation and sales anymore. Maybe we don’t have to keep ICO and Shadow of the Colossus always on-hand to point to as attempts to create art in games, while the industry just keeps churning out more uninspired stuff with reasonable entertainment value but no substance. Maybe you can actually make money releasing a game that has a genuinely adult sensibility — not some fantasy story that’s appropriate for all ages but ultimately shallow, or an adolescent car-stealing game that insults your intelligence as viciously as it assaults hookers. Maybe Half-Life 2 isn’t just a fluke, and people really can appreciate games that focus on presentation and world-building.
Ultimately, BioShock is far from perfect, but it’s impressive simply for what it attempts to do. Only one section of the game outright fails (towards the end); the rest is always above average and frequently exceptional. The disappointments are simply due to the fact that it sets the bar high for itself, and it spends a lot of its time just short of it. A lot of the story could be told more subtly. Much of the game just feels like recombinations of things you’ve seen before in movies and in other games. But when it gets it right, it really does make you feel that this is a sign of what games are capable of.