They chose to build… an action game!

I’ve been limiting myself to at most an hour of BioShock a night, plus I’m going through it very slowly, even for me. So I’m still only done with the first two levels. But if I waited until I was finished with it to write anything about it, then by the time I was done everyone would have already moved on to the next Next Big Thing. So here are my impressions so far. (And I’ll attempt to avoid the puns, so I won’t talk about its immersiveness or its depth).

Before it came out, I described it as The Shining plus The Poseidon Adventure. After playing through it enough to see how all its different systems work together, I’d say it’s more like The House on Haunted Hill plus an alternate-reality version of Ghost Ship that didn’t totally suck.

Now, if that sounds like a slam, I’ve got to point out that it’s not, which means I have to admit in public that I really, genuinely liked the remake of The House on Haunted Hill. It’s exactly what a 90s remake of a Castle horror movie should be — same cheesy story, same cheap scares, with slicker production values and some really creepy new effects (twitchy backwards-walking doctor guy in particular). But it’s still totally a genre movie.

The genius of Steven King’s first few books was that he found a way to disguise literature as genre stories — small-town pre-adolescent memoirs as a vampire story, religious fundamentalism and teenage alienation as a witch story, and every young man’s rite of passage with a demonically possessed car. The Shining used the genre of the haunted house story to talk about the frustration of writing and the deterioration of a man due to alcoholism; the movie expanded that to talk about the emasculation and deterioration of a man due to sheer existence.

BioShock does pretty much the opposite. It takes a brilliantly-realized setting, the full assortment of storytelling techniques available to games in 2007, and several hints at philosophy and morality, and puts them all in the service of a genre game — a first-person shooter. And it’s clear throughout that it was all by choice, not necessity. Every time it came down to a choice between telling a story or making a game, they chose to build… an action game!

It turns out that all the talk about ethical questions and philosophy and novel approaches to storytelling (all of which I’m guilty of perpetuating) are really reaching. Reading the pre-release stuff, I was concerned that they were giving too much away — why did all the previews give away the bit about choosing to kill mutated little girls to harvest their resources, when it would have been much more dramatic to leave it as a big reveal in the game? Well, as it turns out, the big reveal in the game is a screen with two buttons, one for “save” and the other for “kill”.

The “philosophy” isn’t much more subtle. Since Objectivism is such a shallow philosophy that seems designed for you to outgrow once you hit 18 and see how the real world actually works, there’s not a lot you can do basing a whole game around it. The game really just takes the basic premise and has enemies shouting out various Objectivist-inspired phrases. Think of a game that “explores Marxism” by having monsters run at you shouting, “The workers control the means of production!” and you’ve got the idea. The only subtlety so far is deciding whether you think the main villain is bad because he corrupted the Randian ideal, or bad because he was dumb and arrogant enough to fall for it in the first place. (And it’s clear that there’s more going on with the player’s character that isn’t revealed until later, so there could very well be more to it by the time the end game rolls around).

I don’t want to make it sound like the game is completely without subtlety, since it’s really an exceptional exercise in world-building. It’s unfair to leave the movie analogies at House on Haunted Hill and Ghost Ship; you have to throw in the genius of City of Lost Children to do the art direction justice. You really feel as if you’re exploring a fantastic place. The sound design is just excellent. And the music is just flat out great, right down to the choice of songs (“Beyond the Sea” and “It Had to Be You” and “God Bless the Child” were inspired choices).

So where something like Half-Life 2 uses a first-person shooter as an experiment in immersiveness to tell a great story, BioShock uses a cool story to make a first-person shooter. A really solid first-person shooter that’s a hell of a lot of fun to play so far, with a ton of great mechanics that work together well. And with production values turned up to the maximum.

It’s also the best example I’ve seen so far of realizing interactivity in narrative videogames. Not with branches or cheesy multiple endings; from what I’ve seen so far, the game is very linear. But within a section, you really do get to decide how to solve problems, and your choices do make a difference in the game. As much as I love Half-Life 2, still has the feeling of being “on rails,” slogging through sequences the designers have meticulously set up for you. BioShock is kind of like a violent skate park, as in all the tools — oil slicks, pools of water, turrets and cameras, and enemy spawn points — are clearly set up for you to accomplish something, but you’re given free rein to just play around in the environment and put the tools together however you like.

It’s not the great leap forward in videogame storytelling that I was expecting, but in my mind, it proves what a tremendous effect good storytelling has on the overall experience. BioShock is pretty good at everything it tries to do, and in some areas (like art direction and music) it’s outstanding. But the key to it is the whole experience, not just the storytelling. And although it’s made up of parts borrowed from dozens of different games (found recordings, a health and mana bar, power-ups, etc), it’s not hyperbole to say that the overall experience isn’t like anything you’ve played before.