February 16, 2010

Ex Post Facto: BioShock

I've been wanting to do writeups like these for a while now, when we discuss or review some old, now seemingly irrelevant thing, but I couldn't come up with a cleaver name. Since the stuff is old, I figured "retro" or "rewind" but they both sound boring and overused. So I settled on "ex post facto" a Latin phrase meaning "after the action." Seems to fit alright. And it's memorable. So, anyways, not having played BioShock 2 yet, I set out to play me some Bioshock 1. I have come to the conclusion that BioShock is not all that. Maybe it was all that back in 2007, but it's not any more. Why would I cut down BioShock? I'm not, but I just don't think it's as fantastic as people made it out to be. I think maybe people were so blown away with "OMG THIS GAME HAS GOOD STORY AND PLAYS FUN YES!!!1!!!" that they were easily willing to look past all those flaws. So here is a review of sorts of BioShock more than two years after the fact.

Let's get a few things straight first: BioShock is an excellent game because it proves you can have story without sacrificing gameplay. The characters and world are extremely well thought out and interesting. There's a real sense of chaos everywhere as characters have degraded into a state of mental insanity. All but a few, that is. And then you realize something: the story seems brilliant until you start to think about it. "Would you kindly" was a genius idea that really turned the worn out game mechanic of having orders barked at you on its head. For the first time, the player's actions were truly justified. Awesome. But why was this so? Because your genes had been altered that way. Fair enough. That's pretty believable in a place like Rapture. And while we're at it, the player has been willing to suspend disbelief about a city on the bottom of the sea simply because the world and it's "ruler" were so believable. Even the plasmids were okay. But then things start to fall apart for me after the whole mind control thing. Ryan had an affair with some stripper and disowned the fetus which was bought by Fontaine and genetically modified to obey him. And Atlus was really Fontaine who was pretending to be dead so he could lie low. And apparently he sends Jack to the surface, only two years prior to the events of the game mind you, to have him purposely come back and carry out his plans for him. And he's changed his face and his voice. And suddenly it's just not believable any more. Disbelief was no longer suspended for me. Why? Why the hell is it all so convoluted? Why did Jack have to be related to Ryan at all? Was it just to justify the Vita Chambers and bathospheres? And if Jack is able to use the Vita Chambers when he dies, wouldn't Ryan just respawn as well? And how come in the bad ending all the splicers are using those bathospheres? I thought only people in Ryan's "genetic ballpark" could use those. And why the hell is Fontaine hiding out? He turns into a plasmid infused death brute at the end of the game. Couldn't he have just plowed through everything and killed Ryan himself? The whole 'Jack aging at super speed' comes out of left field as well. How did that work? And how did he live so long in the good ending if he had expedited aging? How did the residents of Rapture, the splicers, go completely insane, yet Ryan, Fontaine, and Tennenbalm do not? It can't be the plasmids because both Jack and Fontaine use them and are mentally stable. And I never really got a completely clear purpose of what the little sisters do exactly. They extract ADAM why? Maybe it was in some audio logs and I just forgot, but I was always a bit confused on this point. And who controlled them, exactly? Really, the story raises way more questions then it answers for me. Maybe I'm looking too much into it, but except for the "Would you kindly" nothing else quite made as much sense as it should have. I don't want to tear the writing apart here; maybe I'm looking too much into it, maybe it's explained in audio logs I never found, maybe these things are actually explained in BioShock 2, and I could probably point out the same plot holes in any given game, but people seem to think that the plot of BioShock is the best thing ever. It's not. It's written very well, especially for a video game, but I think it's the fact that BioShock is indeed a video game that's tricked people into thinking it's something better than it is. Taken as a whole, it's pretty damn good in fact, but "Would you kindly?" is the only truly brilliant idea I can see.

Besides that, the game itself was a repetitive for my tastes. For one thing, the game was totally linear. They put this huge, interesting world in front of you and restrict where it is you can go. That made me kind of sad. And as for the world in general, it's nice as a whole, but everything looked the same to me. It was all equally depressing. But maybe that's the way it was supposed to be. It seems like ever since Bioshock came out, games have been trying to model their worlds after Rapture. Dead Space did it, Arkham did it, and come to think of it, those are two great examples of BioShock's influence. Of the three, Arkham certainly did open world the best, though the process of exploration was still guided. What has happened is that developers create this haunting world and throughout the game give you a "tour" of it. Audio logs were a big part of this. While they may not necessarily make that much sense from a logical standpoint (Why did everyone find it necessary to recored their every thought and how did those recordings get everywhere?) they certainly flesh out the world and its backstory. BioShock was not the first to do this. Games like SystemShock and Marathon gave the player background information through text, but the guys at Irrational Games realized audio was the way to go and now it's the new big thing. I just hope it doesn't get overused. I already feel like it is to some extent. While we're on the subject of storytelling, BioShock is also not the first game to tell its story without cutscenes. Half Life 2 did this, as do many other games now. So, BioShock didn't so much revolutionize gaming as it did subtly rethink old ideas to use them in new and exciting ways. The gameplay, however, is nothing special.

The core gameplay of BioShock is like any other FPS. What the developers did, though, was throw in RPG elements. Again, not the first to do this, but it hadn't been done in quite some time. What the game becomes, then, is like an RPG with guns and not swords. It's kind of like Oblivion with guns. More so than Fallout 3 because of the plasmids. You have your basic attacks (guns) that can be upgraded and your magic attacks (plasmids) that can be upgraded. Then there's your health and eve (mana) and your gene tonics which act like any old RPG abilities except that they can be swapped out. There's even a system to forge new items out of old junk. I'm not sure if BioShock was the first to do this (I'm guessing not) but the game at least popularized it. So the gameplay is nothing all that special for the most part except that your injecting yourself with needles instead of drinking potions. I will take a moment here to say that the hacking system in BioShock was garbage. It was like a separate puzzle minigame that really broke up the action. It was pretty un-fun for me and I never made use of it.

In closing, BioShock more or less synthesized a bunch of old ideas together while subtly upgrading them for this new generation of gaming. I think that's why people loved BioShock so much. It did old things in surprising ways by either putting two things together that you normally wouldn't or turning some idea upside down. Its legacy was changing the way in which stories in games are told (luckily for the better) and creating interesting characters in an interesting world the likes of which, if it had even been done before, hadn't been done in quite that way for quite some time. BioShock is an extraordinary ordinary game.

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