Wednesday, 3 December 2008


A different kind of review this time: a computer game rather than a book or a film. I mostly make do with old favourites like Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, but I get through a couple of new titles each year. However, though I pick carefully, they're rarely as interesting as BioShock. At first glance a first-person shooter (FPS) with role-playing (RPG) elements, there's a bit more going on in this title.

BioShock begins with a spectacular plane crash into the Atlantic ocean which deposits the player amidst burning wreckage but close to a mysterious mid-ocean lighthouse. Investigation of this reveals a bathysphere that takes the player to the underwater city of Rapture. However, Rapture is in trouble and is now far from the utopia that its founder, businessman Andrew Ryan, envisaged when he secretly began its construction in the aftermath of the Second World War. Framed as a refuge for scientists, artists and entrepreneurs from the evils of government and God, it initially attracted the great and the good, including Bridgette Tenenbaum, who pioneered massive advances in genetic engineering. However, its isolation from the outside world also attracted less desirable elements, such as the gangster Frank Fontaine, who created a black market that risked Ryan's control of the city. The resulting war between these men devastated the city, killed Fontaine and left behind a violent mixture of genetically damaged Splicers to control Rapture's ruined structures. The war also led to escalations on both sides that saw desperate depredations on the inhabitants of Rapture, including the enslavement of female children.

This is the world the player is thrown into, but with the help of Atlas, a survivor trapped in another part of Rapture who communicates via radio, the player is led through what remains of Rapture and gradually introduced to the story of its rise and fall. The player is introduced to Adam and Eve, the factors that allow genetically-based powers to be acquired and fuelled, and also to a range of weapons that can be used for defence against the dangerous Splicers. Most significantly, the player quickly encounters the Little Sisters and their guardians, the Big Daddies (see picture), who come to play key roles both practically and morally in the game. Furthermore, as the player advances through Rapture, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems, and that the player character is more connected to Rapture than even he himself understands.

Judging the game in conventional terms, it's a very playable FPS with a large and complex environment to explore, and with an impressive range of weapons/powers to assault enemies with. Visually, Rapture is an extremely well-realised city, with brilliant Steam/Diesel/Biopunk flourishes spread across a series of diverse habitats (gardens, hydrothermal power stations, medical facilities and even a museum). Being damaged, and located on the ocean floor, it's also running through with water, and displays some really nice tricks to convince the player of this. Water's not often modelled well in games, but it's done very well here (though obviously not as impressively as ICOM). Attention to detail is extremely good, with Rapture heavily art deco styled (I was reminded most of works by the artist Tamara de Lempicka), and with a lot of period detail (the game is set at the very end of the 1950s). These features alone make it a more interesting title than those that occupy more conventional futuristic or dystopian environments.

In terms of its gameplay, BioShock has quite a good mix of exploration and combat. There are a lot of interesting things to see, and frequently-found tape recorders play out the story of Rapture in an atmospheric way. Just as well really, since as a FPS fan, I don't usually pay a whole lot of attention to the scenery (unless it's hostile), so specific verbal cues about the backstory suit me. On the whole, combat works pretty well, although I did take a while to get used to routinely using my genetic powers. My first port of call was typically projectile weaponry until I realised that if I immobilised (with electricity) or terrorised (with fire) my enemies, I could finish them off more easily. That some of the enemies have similar powers mixes it up nicely, although I was only rarely subjected to the same treatment that I routinely doled out to my Splicer foes.

There were a couple of problems with combat, however. First of all, with both weapons and powers, sometimes a fight got messy as I struggled to select exactly the one I wanted (refusing, as I do, to use the keyboard to select things properly). Frequently I wound up photographing my enemies as they were bludgeoning me. This is compounded by weapons which have multiple ammunition types that require panic-inducing periods of time to switch. Secondly, death isn't actually all that big a deal in BioShock. Most games will throw you back to your last save-point and cost you all of the progress you've made since then, but BioShock resurrects you in a "Vita-chamber" and allows you to continue where you left off (much as with the Grand Theft Auto series). This has a number of problems:
  • it means you can then track down and finish off more easily the now-damaged foe who killed you
  • as dying has no major consequences, letting it happen saves you from having to use up valuable health kits to save yourself (i.e. encourages you do go down guns blazing rather than carefully extricating yourself from fatal situations)
  • only you can do this - no-one else you meet and kill seems to know about these handy Vita-chambers, which seems at least a little unfair
Generally, the Vita-chambers make gameplay a little too easy, although I'd certainly accept that the more standard alternative, Quicksave, carries its own limitations. Finally, while it sometimes took me a while to work the best way to kill an enemy, once I'd done it, combat became a little bit of a chore, especially where I was only confronted by a single foe at a time. For Splicers, electroshocking them or icing them, followed by a shotgun blast to the head, typically sorted them out (and it became child's play once I had the crossbow). Initially difficult, Big Daddies became very easy to take down once electric gel and RPGs came into my possession. And the final boss battle I finished first time by applying my Big Daddy tricks.

However, notwithstanding the above, BioShock holds up as an atmospheric and entertaining game. It does take a bit of getting into, and there's a lot to learn about its world, but these are often good things as far as I'm concerned. Fantastical books like Northern Lights and The Lord of the Rings don't lay everything out on a plate for you right at the start - you've got to work through them gradually to understand the worlds they're creating (except the former's film, which does exactly this to the film's detriment). So BioShock's something of a winner, which will come as no surprise to anyone who's been reading its reviews for the past year (... while I was awaiting the purchase of a computer fancy enough to play it on).

On top from the above, there are two other quite special aspects to BioShock not yet touched on. First, the game heavily co-opts the 20th century "philosophy" of Objectivism formulated by the Russian-born writer Ayn Rand. To the extent that several characters have names derived from Rand or her works, including Andrew Ryan (= Ayn Rand), Frank Fontaine (= The Fountainhead) and Atlas (= Atlas Shrugged), and the backstory of Rapture's origins is lifted her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. During the game, Ryan is frequently heard extolling an essentially Objectivist worldview, and the unregulated (= "free" for Objectivists) technological innovation in Rapture is in keeping with its tenets. I mention this as special, since I don't think I've ever played a game which wears its intellectual origins upfront to this degree, nor integrates them into the plot and setting so well. All that said, BioShock could easily be read as a scathing critique of Objectivism. Instead of the planned utopia, Rapture is quickly reduced to a nightmarish dystopia, both physically and ideologically. Ryan starts by creating somewhere that scientists and entrepreneurs can run free and unbridled by government, but winds up a tyrant presiding over a state in which science is twisted to malevolent ends, and where murderous anarchy is the prevailing civic order.

The other notable aspect is its handling of the morality of the player's actions in the game. It doesn't take this very far (and it has very few practical consequences), but set against the majority of other titles where morally ambiguous (or even actively immoral) behaviour is common, this still marks it up as noteworthy. Basically, as already alluded to above, key actors in Rapture are the Little Sisters, who act as agents for collecting Adam from the city's dead. Their protection by the Big Daddies means that they can represent quite a danger to the player should they be antagonised in some way. When the first Little Sister is encountered in the game, Atlas strongly advises the player to "harvest" (= kill) her to secure her supply of Adam and to gain enhanced genetic powers. However, the player can also "rescue" the Little Sister from the modifications made to her by Ryan's scientists, but this provides only a small Adam reward to the player. At this early point in the game, the player has very little information on the Little Sisters, and the decision is largely left to the player's innate judgement. When I reached this part of the game, the fact that the Little Sister wasn't hostile towards me, plus that she was clearly a child, made me choose to save her. And I continued to do this throughout the game, coming to see it as my duty to rescue them as I heard more and more about the wrongs inflicted upon them (in that special sense of "duty towards virtual characters in a fiction"). My "reward" for being nice was only, as far as I can tell, a different end sequence upon completing the game ...

However, it still makes a change to have a game that's at least keeping tabs on how I'm treating NPCs.

The handling of morality in the game could also be read as a further critique of one particular (narrow?) reading of Objectivism. While it would serve the player best to treat the Little Sisters as a harvestable resource (c.f. "his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life"), the game rewards, albeit with just a pat on the back, sacrifice on the part of the player for them. This is in conflict with certain core Objectivist ethics - so, needless to say, appeals to me. Although my own views occasionally overlap those of Objectivism, I don't believe that its extremism would actually work successfully in the real world (much as with the related political movement of Libertarianism). Among other things, I think there are good biological reasons to believe that (self-interested) altruism plays a significant role in many organisms including humans, and that it's possible that facts of human evolution (evolving in small, tight-knit communities) mean that we're more indiscriminately altruistic than one might otherwise expect.

Anyway, enough pontificating already. This was just supposed to be a computer game review!


Oberon said...

......join globalove think tank.

Plumbago said...

Hi there. Thanks for dropping by my blog. It's very kind of you to suggest membership of globalove. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on there, but I struggle to keep my own blog up to date as it is! I think I'll just stick with reading globalove for now.

Thanks again and best regards.