Steady now, your genetic code is being rewritten.

Creepy shadows FTWThe Xbox 360 demo for BioShock came out last night (a PC demo is in the works), and I tried it out for a little less than an hour. Key discoveries:

  1. It’s awesome.
  2. It looks like it may be able to live up to most of the hype it’s been getting.
  3. They weren’t lying when they claimed it was a shooter; the emphasis is definitely less on character-building and stats like a “hybrid shooter/RPG,” and more on short action sequences. I haven’t played much of the demo, but I haven’t run into any real RPG-like stuff yet.
  4. I have a fundamental problem with first-person shooters on consoles. The controls for the 360 seem to be as straightforward as you can get, and I still felt like I was fumbling around. I’m getting the PC version.
  5. I was already sold by the time the opening sequence ended. But when I found out the first music you hear is a 30s-style jazzy version of “Beyond the Sea,” I pre-ordered the limited edition version with the soundtrack.
  6. I almost wish it weren’t a videogame.

I should explain that last one, but if you’re the type who’s avoiding any knowledge of the game before you play it, you’ll want to avert your eyes. Because I’m about to ruin the best part of the demo (and presumably, the full game).

I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling in videogames, and occasionally pontificating about it on the internet. Watching the opening sequence of the Bioshock demo, from the beginning to walking out of the bathysphere, I really felt like I was seeing a step forward. It wasn’t a huge spectacle like a Final Fantasy game, and there’s technically not much there that we haven’t already seen in Half-Life 2 and a dozen other first-person games. But in terms of how much they said and didn’t say, and how they seamlessly blended the interactive and non-interactive segments — you feel disoriented when you’re supposed to feel disoriented, frightened in the right places, confused in the right places — I was struck with the feeling that this is the kind of thing you can only do in a videogame. The plane crash is similar to the feeling I got watching the “Lost” pilot, except the stakes are higher: partly because you’re not watching Jack watch everything, you are Jack.

But then the videogame conventions started making themselves more noticeable. The ubiquitous radio exposition guy, telling you what to do. The pop-ups telling you what button to press and the effects of power-ups (perfectly acceptable in a demo/tutorial, but still…) The barely-disguised save points. The events that are so obviously pre-scripted that you can almost see the trigger boxes. And somehow worst of all, the on-screen encyclopedia giving you back-story and explanations for the different concepts of the game.

All of this stuff is necessary in a videogame, and faulting a game for having them is the most unfair of nitpicks. So I’m not faulting BioShock — having to decide between totally immersive storytelling and accessible gameplay, they chose the gameplay. I’m just left feeling a little disappointed and frustrated. Disappointed that it looks to be a fun first-person shooter with some great art direction and an interesting back-story, made by a bunch of guys who really liked Fallout and Half-Life and System Shock. Instead of a huge, revolutionary milestone in videogame storytelling.

And frustrated that I know there’s got to be some way to do world-building and exposition and have all the detail and back-story they’ve developed for BioShock, and present it in an even more subtle way than the respectable job they’ve done. I’m just stuck trying to think of what that would be, exactly. Would a player be able to tell the relationship between Little Sisters and Big Daddies without having some Irish guy in his ear, making it explicit? Would it help to have the main character talk to himself as in an adventure game, instead of insisting that he be silent like Gordon Freeman? How much do you have to show in the UI (current weapon, ammo, health) as opposed to relying on the on-screen version? Can a game still be fun if you have to learn how things work by trial and error, and end up dying a few times?