Mel's note: This was difficult to post on GR, as it was a toss-up between a rant about games journalism, and praise for the game. Thus it is both posted as a blog and a review!)
A Bioshock Review... In Dactylic Heptameter!
Only jesting! It's actually in prose. As we all know dactylic heptameter would be very challenging as a dactyl is trisyllabic and heptameter has seven iambic feet (Of course - Mel)! Crazy times. Reading a recent post on Bioshock reminded me I'd started writing this a while back, but never got round to finishing it. It's hardly a review, because I'd be pretty surprised if there's anything new I could tell you in that respect. It's more just my thoughts, in word form, with a smattering of pretentious words like 'Post Modern' and 'Objectivist', a quote from Montaigne, that sort of thing...
All aboard the Infanticide Express...
What can we say about Bioshock that hasn't already been said a whole bunch of times? Presumably only this: it's stupid. Stupid and ugly.
Whoa, calm down there Bioshock fans! Put away that... what is that? Two lengths of rubber hose, half a snooker cue and a yo-yo!? My God, it's a crossbow! Don't shoot! Bioshock is, of course, not crap, nor stupid or ugly, and only an attention-seeking charlatan would try and convince you otherwise. What it is, though, is the new poster boy for making videogames respectable - indeed not merely respectable, but worthy of consideration as having artistic merit. But it is a treacherous, double-edged tightrope this 'respectability'*. On the rosy positive side we have something to finally convince people that gaming's not all about thinly drawn storylines with busty, buxom, bouncy-bosomed heroines and chainsawing prostitute's knees off.
On the tedious detractor side we have an endless stream of interminable articles from insufferable game journalists spouting off about 'Objectivist philosophy' this, and 'Ayn Rand' that, and 'Atlas Shrugged' the cocking other. In fact scratch that' because it's not even just game journalists we have to worry about now: gaming's 'grown-up' and all of a sudden every bastard journalist in earshot is jumping onto the Bioshock-bandwagon, Firing up their 'Foxes and heading on over to the Wikipedia 'Objectivism for Drooling Idiots' section, before rubbing themselves to a climax over how bloody worthy it all is, and how wonderful it is that their Arts degree will finally come in useful for something, and how fortuitous it is that a humble computer game can show how bastardly bloody clever all the journalists are.
Part of me would suppose this is just a reaction to suddenly finding that one's hobby has become osmotically absorbed into the mainstream: pity the unfortunate trainspotter who, upon turning up at the platform one morning, notebook in hand, ready for a day of solitary OCD aberrance, finds three hundred other people there, proudly sporting brand new anoraks with the labels sticking out, taking down the numbers of passing trains and spaffing themselves at the ruddy novelty of it all. But Bioshock has as much to do with the social mainstream as I do with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry' Wii Sports is mainstream, Guitar Hero is mainstream. Bioshock is... just clever. 'Too clever' some would say, but then some people will tell you that a diet of fish-finger sandwiches lacks nutritional balance: you should ignore these people. Until the day comes when I can mention Bioshock at a dinner party, and everyone will nod their head sagely and launch into an enthusiastic conversation about the perils of Free Market Capitalism rather than simply rubbing mashed potatoes in my face and calling me a spotty geek, then I would be reluctant to go flinging words like 'mainstream' about.
Bioshock is all things to all people. To some people it's a triumph of the intellect. Ever find yourself stuck for dissertation ideas? How about 'The Role of Bioshock in the Effect of the Industrial Revolution on Victorian Love Poetry'? Go on, it'll be fine: Bioshock really is that versatile. It's not just brains though for it also, on the whole, plays very well. It's a sandbox of killing options: you wanna lure that group of splicer's onto a puddle of water and electrocute them? Go ahead. You wanna use telekinesis to fling chocolate bars and doughnuts into that chap's mouth until obesity related health complications kill him? Knock yourself out. You just plain wanna blow that ****er's skull inside-out with a shotgun, do ya? Hey, it's your party. But all this freeform killing is bolted very firmly onto a rollercoaster of linear narrative. 'Too linear' whinge some childish peasants out there, hoping to derail the game. But Bioshock defends its own linearity by making it an essential plot-point: you do not choose where the rollercoaster takes you for a damn fine reason, thus swatting away the wearisome complaints of linearity like the contemptible gnats they are.
But it's not all roses and copious Shift+F7 thesaurus use, this Bioshock reviewing business. Many aspects of the game have been decried by someone or another. In fact every aspect of the game's been decried by some wanker, but that's what happens when you let everyone have an opinion. 'Wherefore Vita-Chambers?' ask many otherwise satisfied players, shaking their tiny fists in defiance of God at the injustice of it all: 'They allow you to respawn as many times as you like, taking away the challenge, cheapening the experience and rendering death naught but an inconvenience'. True, all true, but I rather like the way they cheapen, not the game experience, but the life of the protagonist himself. What better way to devalue the human condition than take the fear out of death? Ryan claimed that 'a man chooses, a slave obeys.' Montaigne claimed 'a man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.' Touche, monsieur. Whilst you reconcile those philosophies, I shall say this: point is, Jack willingly and cheerfully kills himself to take down his foes; safe in the knowledge he will born again to continue the slaughter. What kind of sick society leads to a man not caring for his own life anymore and treating himself as a disposable multi-tool? That's ****ed up, right there. It would be better still if your corpses remained sprawled on the ground for your reanimated clone buddy to stumble over as he marches forth, whistling and humming, to his Big-Daddy Drill-arm induced death. But one can't have everything.
It comes to this: the Vita-Chamber asks the ultimate suspension of disbelief from the player. Now if you can't suspend your disbelief in the first place...well what the **** are you doing here? Go stand outside and look at a tree or something, po-faced bore that you are. Does anyone believe that Ryan could construct an entire city under the sea, in the 1940's, in comparative secrecy? Modern technology can't make my toaster work properly, so how the good heck did Ryan make a skyscraper work at the bottom of the ocean with steam power and rubber bands? Likewise, how do the turrets and cameras in the game work, able to distinguish friend from foe with pinpoint accuracy from hundreds of meters away without using computers? And heat-seeking missiles, cobbled together out of a couple of shoelaces and an alarm clock: do we look stupid to you 2K?
You may have seen where I'm going with this: Bioshock asks you to make certain concessions, and in return it expands your mind with it's 'quantifiably cleverer than thou' wondrousness and lets you play in with it's toys. That's the entrance fee, chaps: pay it or go play in another superbly realised undersea dystopia. What's that? There aren't any other superbly realized undersea dystopias? Well then...
When was the last time anything was that simple? The wonder of patches means that people can now wander through Rapture without the constant terror of being saved from death by a Vita-Chamber, looming over them like a well-intentioned but irritating baby-sitter. What the patch fails to address is what has often been cited as the game's major failing: Child death scenes. The Little Sisters are a nightmare for the game designer. When we are presented with the option of harvesting or saving these slug-children, it could theoretically go one of two ways. One can be shown too much: a brutal, stomach-churning depiction of the murder of a child would result, as inevitably as a government data leak scandal, in the following headlines leaping up all over the place:
'EXCLUSIVE: SICK CHILD KILLING SIMULATOR TEACHES PAEDOPHILES HOW TO MURDER YOUR HAPLESS OFFSPRING'
'EXCLUSIVE: VIDEO NASTY BABY FUCKER RESPONSIBLE FOR MADDIE'S DISAPPEARANCE'
'EXLUSIVE: DIOSHOCK!!! POLICE INVESTIGATE BIOSHOCK AND PRINCESS DI LINKS'
These are the kind of headlines one can quite happily avoid. Thus, even in a world where any publicity is good publicity, many publishers are still reticent to leap aboard the Infanticide Express. The makers of Bioshock contrived it so a player choosing to harvest a little sister sees only a screen fade-out, some weird cellular business, hears heartbeats, and is suddenly the owner of a brand new sea-slug. 'So, like, did he just... turn the girl into a slug or... like... what?' Thus the censors are pleased but 2K rather kick themselves in their own 'We're making a clever point here; now where's our medal?' balls.
It's a matter of consequences. Andrew Ryan's actions have consequences for everyone; the choice of Rapture's citizens to splice their genes has consequences; it all falls apart, then, when one is told 'You can avoid the consequences here, because they'd be too unpleasant'. No-one wants to see a child being killed, because it's horrible, but by surgically removing the horror the choice becomes less morals and more mathematics, and that's a failing. A quick visit to GameFAQ's reveals that, although harvesting the little sisters results in more ADAM, the game offsets this with bonus gifts for those who save the kiddies. Perhaps it would have been braver for the devs to make it so that saving the little sisters actually made the game noticeably harder? Like someone suggested 'Each goodly thing is hardest to begin' - a coconut for whomsoever can identify the quote without Googling...
The argument that The Daily Wankstain and so many other top quality media outlets miss is that a game can give a player a choice without condoning an action. Recent Grand Theft Auto games are often seized upon because they 'encourage' the player to commit wanton (read: definitely not hilarious) acts of carnage. But surely there's a difference between 'allowing', or as a game does, 'facilitating', and 'encouraging'? In real life if I am driving a car I am 'allowed' to run someone over. Physics 'allows' the acceleration of my vehicle towards the gawping pedestrian, laws of momentum 'facilitate' my murderous intent, even if the Highway Code and the lawmen frown upon it. Why, then, am I not a serial killing road bandit? I do not run people over because I am not a skull ****ing sociopath, and I appreciate it is the wrong thing to do. Why can't Bioshock show the killing of the little sisters, then, safe in the knowledge that, although the option is there, people will not take it because their morals will see them through? Can't we be trusted with that?
Maybe Bioshock is a bit clever for its own good. This smart-arse, Post-Modern 'it's linear for a reason' business pretty much falls apart midway through the game, when the linearity continues even though the justification has rather fallen away. The sequel will certainly have to pull something pretty impressive out of it's arse/hat, providing either more freeform gameplay or a convincing reason for the absence of freeform gameplay (preferably not 'a splicer wizard did it!'). Perhaps it could offer a completely non-linear city to explore, thus leading the player to realise that they haven't a ****ing clue what to do or where to go, thus craving the very linearity they so often rail against. My vote would go to the sequel being one endless minigame in which you pick from a line of matchboxes to try and find one containing a beetle, set to a deafening audio loop of ten thousand bats squeaking. Self-indulgent boredom fest or finely crafted rumination on Behaviourist philosophy? Quick, someone get the literati on the phone!
* It may sound as though I've confused my metaphors somewhat there, but I actually had in mind a tightrope made out of cheesewire.
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