BioShock - Ninety of One, Ten of the Other
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Shakespear's Romeo and Juliet is one of the more interesting ways to start a piece in that there is no drawn out exposition, spoken narration, or any scenery description. It starts out with a fight. Two men less than two sentences from animalistic violence, and visceral combat. After the fists have flown and a man murdered is the audience let in on the context of the brawl. It's a powerful way to start a piece, letting the emotions serve as the introduction, leaving details to experience rather than narration.

BioShock has a similar plan, starting with a plane crash. Oil-slick waters hissing with flame, and a lighthouse entrance advertising relative safety from the burning waters around. From there, the protagonist, whose eyes the player inhabit, goes on an emotional rollercoaster through the artistic wonder that is Rapture. Every inch of society dripping with the expense and extravagance of excellence, a better society nestled among the octopuses' gardens, in a towering city hundreds of leagues under the sea, and coming apart at the seams. The artistry, architecture, and cityscapes are beautifully rendered and catastrophically destroyed. It's a bit like looking at the modern Colosseum, a testament to the beauty of man and the harshness of nature.

Every experience in Rapture has no context other than what the player brings to it. There's just a voice in the radio, a utopia turned insane, and an endless population of insanity dragging its claws into the player's heels. In that way, it's similar to Portal, a narrative so cleverly understated that the story capitalized on the details, and gave the player nothing else. In terms of using minimalism to convey a narrative, BioShock meets its mark, and manages to tell the tale of Rapture without speaking a word of it, and letting its inhabitants provide context to broken and lost city.

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The problem with that is that there needs to be a certain amount of empathy for the scenario, or the atmosphere, to have life. BioShock has next to none. The splicers, some of whom had voices in various in-game audio diaries, their personalities and voices providing the player with a lens through which Rapture is made into the city it is, and was. However, for every splicer who has a voice, a brain, a soul, any amount of humanity, it is lost before the end of their stay in the player's perception. Every single splicer that once had a voice devolves into a traditional, standard enemy. It's nigh-impossible to empathize with a thug who does little more than run, swing, and shoot. However, it forced the player to understand through the narration of the major parts of the city, then devolves them rapidly into mindless enemies. The whole build-up seems wasted when it coalesces one of many cold, lifeless gunfights.

Worse still, there are a very limited number of character models in game. In fact, only two of the characters don't have their models reused. The worst part still is that the final boss of the game, the main antagonist, isn't one of them. It just feels lazy.

There are only two major characters in the whole game the player should have the smallest amount of care for, and the game forcibly removes one of them. Within the roughly 15-hour narrative, the player has so little to hold onto that going from goal to goal loses its luster. Like the city itself, the game just can't keep the player drawn in. Everything ceases to have the adrenaline-fueled drive, and instead felt like a cog in the machine. Perhaps it was in favor of the overall narrative, but that doesn't protect the game from its medium. As a game, BioShock drops the ball in a big way in terms of giving the player an actual playing experience.

Something that the actual gameplay doesn't help enforce. The gunplay and powers feel run of the mill. If anything, they keep the same life of their spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2. A game whose release was a nearly unforgivable eight years prior. Considering how little the system seems to have changed, it almost feels rushed. In comparison to how much time and effort seemed to ooze from the walls in the environment, writing, and voice-work. To feature gunplay and powers that allude to a time long since passed that it feels far too thrown together to even be worth the cost of entry, in compared to actually going back and playing System Shock 2. There are even some old-feeling FPSRPG conventions that seem to take away from the overall effect. The increased defense and life of late-game enemies isn't offset by late-game powers and upgrades. It ends up making the beginning feel a touch too easy, and the end a leap and bound too hard. It ends up making the cogs poke out of the sides of the machine, further hurting the play experience.

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The only point of empathy and interest the experience maintains throughout is the Little Sisters, little girls whose fate is entirely on the player's choosing. These young girls seem so inhuman and unnatural at the worst of times. However they may appear at first, they become very, very human when separated from their protectors. It becomes very disquieting to see them alone, without anyone to protect them, in a world surrounded with psychos and sociopaths.

However, the game drops the ball in turning them very quickly into a mechanic. The first and second little sister to appear on her own own is a lost and frightened little girl. It's easy to care for her as an individual, but that quickly loses its touch by the fifth, and is completely gone by the tenth. By then, the girls are simply a growth mechanic. Fight a Big Daddy, harvest or save a little girl, and get benefits. The death of Big Daddies hit the Little Sisters in a very big way, but to the player, it's a goal. There's no mourning the loss of life, or the lifelong companion dead. Just a goal.

It's hard not to look at the stellar atmosphere in BioShock and not expect greater things from the rest of the game. However, the game simply does not deliver. Instead, we get a great idea and a beautiful setting that would be better left to novelization or cinematography. It's quite possible that BioShock, as a movie, could've been the next Citizen Kane in terms of commentary on the human condition. However, as a game, BioShock consistently fails to deliver. That's only made worse when games like Portal to the same type of story that much better, and Fallout 3 do the game elements more justice. However, the absolute worst part of what BioShock is what it could have been.

Bottom Line: BioShock feels like the game System Shock 2 tried to be, but came out eight years too late, and didn't innovate enough to pull its weight. Neither a good nor bad game, but terrible compared to what it should have been.

I had the same exact problem with the game: there's no real interaction with the plot. It was an example of the bad side of silent protagonist. I know plenty of people that say "silent protagonists let you project your own personality on the character." But that doesn't work in some games, especially ones as completely linear as Bioshock. I'm not saying linearity is bad, per se, but in cases like Bioshock (and other silent protagonist games that I won't name to avoid sounding flamey), you end up with a hollow character that the player doesn't ever get the chance to fill with his own personality and voice. I was never actually intrigued by what happened to Rapture, and honestly I didn't realize there even WAS a plot until the game had almost ended.

While many of your points stand in my opinion, such as the splicers being too samey and unhuman, or the emotion effects of the little sisters wearing off after a while, I think you are making an error in trying to compare Bioshock to a movie or a novel.

I have yet to see any video game which doesn't to some extent re-use character models, and I have never seen a game effectively use emotion or empathy as well as it could. Narrative seems to come last in priority after mechanics and graphics in most, if not all, games.

In my opinion, for a video game Bioshock manages to achieve a great deal. Unfortunately the medium itself has yet to really embrace characterisation and good storylines, a reason why I personally find myself gaming less and less as I feel it can no-longer provide the experiences I desire.

Nice to see one of my favourite reviewers back. BioShock is one of those games I have strong opinions on - I think it's a highly-polished game in certain details, and yet, I can't help thinking that I had seen pretty much everything before in System Shock 2 - and that System Shock 2 did it better. You touch on that perfectly in your review of BioShock. The final boss battle with the antagonist was a grave disappointment - the one with the main antagonist in System Shock 2 was little better, but at least it didn't have the bad guy barking, "COME AND GET IT MOOK".

The disappointment derived from the inability to fully use the potential of BioShock's setting and game elements is one of the main contributing factors as to why I'm so opposed to its sequel. Then again, I also oppose the sequel because I felt that BioShock deserved to be a self-enclosed story.

That said, there is 1 notable exception (at least for me) in the game where you can empathize with the splicers: at 1 point you see a splicer couple dancing with each other, completely abliss to your presence and your previous battle with the splicers nearby.

They don't show hostile intentions or even care about your presence, they just want to be together and continue their dance. You can either opt to disturb them, killing them and looting their surroundings for loot, or simply move on and let them be.
Taken aback by their happiness, I didn't want to kill them so gave them a wide berth and continued on my way ;) Bioshock was a forgetabble game for me besides this moment.

You've near perfectly described my feelings about the game. I could see the quality, but at the same time, I didn't really care about what was going on. I'm about 6 hours in, trying to build the Lazarus Vector so I can. . .do something, and after all that time of getting shot and shouted at, the game part of Bioshock has lost some luster. It's mainly the promise of the world's most epic plot twist and the anger of a friend that's keeping me through it at this point. By absolutely no means do I think it's a bad game, just somewhat over par as opposed to far over it.

 

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