Topical, huh? Yes, I finally completed Bioshock, a game that has been sitting on my own personal pile of shame since release day. It’s a game I have steadfastly refused to trade in because it’s a game I knew I “should” finish before I even considered it. Other games I know I’ll never get around to, so often they’re trade fodder, unless they’re the sort of thing that’s likely to become difficult to find in the future in which case I’ll hang on to them – because ironically, the rarer stuff fetched much lower trade-in values anyway.
But I digress already. Bioshock, then.
THERE WILL BE MASSIVE SPOILARZ IN THIS POST. IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED BIOSHOCK AND INTEND TO, TURN BACK NOW.
It’s not an understatement to say that I was looking forward to Bioshock a great deal as a result of a Squadron of Shame mission on System Shock 2 - this was in our pre-podcast days so don’t go looking for a SquadCast on it… yet. I absolutely adored System Shock 2 and its prequel, which I also played all the way through thanks to the magic of DOS emulation. They were two games absolutely dribbling with atmosphere, and they featured one of the greatest villains of all time – SHODAN. SHODAN was a magnificent villain because she was creepy without overdoing it, she was omniscient and she had a level of power that was never entirely clear to you. It was important not to underestimate her, because she could very often put you into a difficult situation and then mock you from the shadows. The fact that she was incorporeal also helped a lot with the creepiness factor – until the very end of the first game, there was very little you could do to hurt her directly.
Bioshock necessarily took a different tack thanks to its retro-themed 1950s setting rather than the futuristic environments of the System Shock games. An omniscient computer perhaps wouldn’t fit in with the setting, so instead we have two people watching your every move through the security systems in the underwater city of Rapture – Andrew Ryan and “Atlas”. Ryan is set up to be “the bad guy” of the piece, with his constant taunts echoing SHODAN somewhat. Indeed, your whole experience with Ryan is similar to your relationship with SHODAN in the Shock games. He sits in the shadows far away from you, affecting the things that are happening around you. And these are drastic effects he has, too – in one memorable sequence, he kills the forest created in the underwater city, threatening to deprive you of oxygen. The area is flooded with gas and the trees wither and die around you. It’s a powerful moment that pushes home the necessity for you to go forward with your mission to destroy Ryan.
Atlas, on the other hand, is where the “big twist” happens. Atlas is set up from the start of the game to be “the good guy” – your voice in the darkness guiding you onward. Yet paying close attention to the things he says, it is clear that he has his own motivations for you to move forward. When you arrive in Rapture following a plane crash, you have no idea what you’re doing there, and it’s not until Atlas asks “would you kindly…” rescue his family, deal with various problems and finally stove Ryan’s head in with a golf club that you have any clue as to your purpose in that place.
Of course, it’s all been premeditated. Atlas is Fontaine, Ryan’s rival in the underworld of Rapture, and he knows how you work. The trigger phrase of “would you kindly” turns out to be something programmed into your brain to make you do things. You’re under the control of anyone who uses that phrase. Ryan demonstrates this to you with fatal consequences when he hands you the aforementioned golf club and says “would you kindly… kill”, and you oblige. It’s a powerful moment and a nice way of handling the relatively linear nature of the game – the fact that you’ve been surreptitiously manipulated throughout the whole thing was a great justification for what you’ve had to do up until that point.
Following Ryan’s death, there’s some great sequences where Fontaine taunts you with another trigger phrase that gradually causes your health to seep away… and then when you find the antidote, it only half-works, causing violent hallucinations and random, indiscriminate use of Plasmids. Eventually you manage to pull yourself together thanks to another dose of the antidote that you find, and it’s on to the final confrontation.
This is where Bioshock, for me, started to sadly tail off a bit, and a lot of people feel the same way. The sequence where you have to make yourself into a Big Daddy is quite neat, but the gameplay mechanic used here – an escort mission! Ugh! – is rather irritating, unless you enjoy the sight of little girls being shot to pieces with little you can do about it. The feeling of being a Big Daddy is quite fun though – your footstep sound changes to the big clumpy boots that they wear, your grunts of pain when you get hit have the low groaning of a Big Daddy, and your vision is distorted through the diving helmet that you wear.
Finally, of course, there’s the notorious battle against Fontaine. This is, without a doubt, the most ridiculous part of the game, and one which there was really no need for. During your Little Sister escorting, you hear Fontaine suddenly “discovering” gene splicing so that by the time you get to him he looks like something out of Fantastic Four. Oh, and he’s naked. You then have a protracted boss battle with him that pretty much involves you hurling every piece of ammo you’ve got left at him then running up to him and pressing the “Action” button, then repeating this three more times.
Now, as previous posts have shown, I’m a big fan of final confrontations, particularly if the music involved is suitably stirring. But this battle felt so entirely incongruous with the rest of the game. I would have preferred something more along the lines of Uncharted‘s final battle (which I won’t spoil here, but those of you who have played it will know what I mean) which is a masterful piece of gameplay that is entirely appropriate for the setting. It’s still essentially a “boss battle” of sorts but there’s nothing stupid about it. There’s no giant monster, for one thing. (OMG SPOILARZ.) Why couldn’t we just have had a plain old shootout with Fontaine as a human, or fisticuffs atop a submarine or something like that?
Sadly, Bioshock’s ending falls into the same trap that many other games have done in the past – great game, fell apart at the end. Indigo Prophecy, aka Fahrenheit, is perhaps the most notorious example of this, but it’s by no means the only one. Many games are rushed in their final stages by pushy publishers keen to get the game out of the door. It’s sad really, because commonly-accepted wisdom has it that the things we take away most from (for want of a better word) “artistic” experiences are beginnings and endings. A lot of games have great beginnings, but shoddy endings. I’d rather that they made the beginning and the ending first and then sorted out the stuff in the middle afterwards. If there’s a lull in the middle, that’s nothing unusual. A lot of books, films, pieces of music, whole albums… many of them lull in the middle but pull themselves together for an explosive (not necessarily literally) finale.
Of course, with games there’s the argument that if you suffer through a lull in the middle you’ll never get to the end of the game. The ideal situation would be, of course, if developers were free to work on their games until they were completely, totally 100% done and dusted to the writers’ and designers’ complete satisfaction. Sadly, in the high-pressure world of commercial video games, this doesn’t always happen, which is why many commercial publishers could, I think, learn a lot from indie developers making smaller games. Take something like Flower on PSN. It’s short, sure, but it’s a wonderfully “complete” experience that takes you on a journey from beginning to end. Some people weren’t fans of the end of Flower, sure, but at least it didn’t feel like it was rushed through – it felt like it was a conscious artistic decision by the team.
One day, maybe we’ll get the perfect game – one that doesn’t need patching, one whose ending doesn’t suck and remains a consistently excellent game all the way through. Bioshock gets so close, so very close… but falls apart at the end. It’s a shame – but that’s not to say that you shouldn’t play it. I’m really glad I finally played it through as it’s a pretty incredible experience. It still looks great, the atmosphere is second to none and the overall story has been thought through well. It’s just that in a rush to tell that whole story, that boss fight had to get shoehorned in.
So, Bioshock? Good. Very good, in fact.