Extra Punctuation Transcript
We recently passed the sixteen year anniversary of Bioshock’s release in 2007. Not a huge occasion, but worth marking. Maybe send Ken Levine a nice card. Bioshock’s a great game. It was one of the last cherries to be placed on top of the golden age of first person PC immersive sims that ran from the late 90s to the mid-2000s.
Not that it’s above criticism, if there were any game that would seriously benefit from being forcibly held down and having its last two hours sawn off. And the less said about its binary moral choice bollocks the better. What, I can save every bloody little girl in this entire ill-advised social experiment cum gated community and be a great big hero, but then I kill just one of the little buggers, just to see what would happen, just a special treat for me, and suddenly I’m an irredeemable bastard? Talk about political correctness gone mad.
But something I’ve brought up many times in various different avenues is that Bioshock has, in my view, the best beginning of any game ever. I mean that entirely without hyperbole, so understand how significant an accolade that is considering the thousands of games I’ve played in my life. Shame it can’t keep the momentum going, but statistically only about 20% of players actually finish games, so a good beginning goes a long way. And the best approach to take when kicking things off to ensure maximum player engagement has multiple schools of thought.
A surprisingly popular method is to make us watch nineteen legally mandated unskippable company idents, and then tick a little box that says, while we don’t want to have our identity stolen, we’re not averse to giving the publisher the opportunity to do so as long as it means we can shoot some monsters for a bit. That aside, one school of thought states that a game’s opening should have a slow burn to let us gently sink into the shoes of the protagonist and learn about their place in the world, such as in Fallout 3 or Assassin’s Creed 2 which both literally begin with the main character being born, and that’s about as immersed in a character one can possibly get.
The diametric opposite viewpoint believes that a game should kick off with an exciting action sequence to immediately seize the attention of the easily distracted dumb dumbs. Mid-story if necessary. Many, many games have done that thing where they start with a flash forward to the big action scene in the third act before rewinding back to the actual start of the plot. I kinda hate that, because it’s immediately killing suspense. We now know exactly where the plot’s going to end up and how high the peak of the action is willing to go. I prefer to be surprised. Imagine if, at the start of Saint’s Row, there was a flash forward to Saints Row 4, and you saw yourself as the president fighting aliens before suddenly getting dragged right back to slightly shonky crime sandboxing. You’d have been confused, at best.
Another popular approach is to begin in a vehicle travelling to the game’s main setting, pioneered of course by the opening train ride in the original Half-Life and the roughly ninety billion games that start with flying in on a helicopter with the side doors left rather irresponsibly wide open. The upshots of this method include being able to establish the setting with a nice sightseeing tour of where we’re going to spend the rest of the game, and to create a sense of isolation when the vehicle we’re in finally drops us off or, more often than not, crashes. There’s a related technique popular in horror games like Silent Hill 2, Resident Evil 7 and Blair Witch that I like to call the “forest walk”, where the game starts with a relatively peaceful hike through a forest, creating a sense that the hero is unwittingly getting further and further from safety with every step.
And part of what makes the start of Bioshock so effective is that it employs every single one of the techniques I’ve just listed. Except for the flash forward thing. But it does open with a bit of attention-grabbing action. It starts with a plane crash, but one that you more hear than see. It stays rigidly fixed in the first person perspective from the word go for immersion’s sake, and spoiler alert, the plot has a little bit of unreliable narration going on, so we get one shot of the back of an airline seat before there’s a blackout in your character’s memories, catastrophic noises, screaming, and the next thing you know you’re underwater, surrounded by sinking debris, desperately fighting your way to the surface for air and bursting up, gasping, amid an ocean wreathed in flames.
But then, the tone flips on a dime. You wonder why your character isn’t moving for a few moments until you experimentally touch the mouse and realise you’re now in control. And this is very deliberate. It’s why I love this as a game intro, because it does things that are only possible with interactive narrative. There’s a reason why the game doesn’t automatically steer our character out of the wreckage and up the lighthouse steps. Because whipping the leash off at this point is intended to convey the same thing as the infinite ocean stretching to the horizon, the total absence of other survivors, and the remnants of the plane still sinking below the waves – the sense of being abandoned, even by the guiding hand of prerendered narrative. The moment of desperate survival has passed. You’ve no resources, no one’s coming to help, what now, twattypants?
And in this moment of total bewilderment, we gravitate to the one thing that represents stability: a lighthouse extruding from the waves. We leave to one side the question of what a lighthouse is doing here without a crumb of dry land in sight, because we can tell from our protagonist’s laboured breathing that he is in dire need of a towel and some hot cocoa. But we don’t find that once we get inside the lighthouse, do we. No, the lights pop on and suddenly we’re getting disapprovingly stared at by a huge statue holding out a slogan on a banner as if daring us to disagree. And that quickly the tone has flipped again. Now we’re not a desperate lonely survivor, we’re an interloper descending an immaculately decorated rabbit hole. We’re herded into a bathysphere and thus begins the “vehicle ride towards the main setting” portion of the intro.
But hold your horses, because first a projector screen needs to drop and Andrew Ryan needs to do his impeccably written opening monologue. Is a man not entitled to the et of his cetera and all that. And I can only imagine what must be going through the mind of the poor sod we’re controlling at this point. He’s just narrowly escaped death, he’s soaking wet and freezing cold, his mind is fizzing with fear, adrenaline and confusion, and now he’s getting bombarded with philosophical rhetoric by a dude who comes across like a 1950’s girlfriend’s dad we’re meeting for the first time and evidently failing to impress.
But just as we might get completely overwhelmed, go into a foetal position and cry yes, fine, I’ll become an objectivist, just stop yelling at me, the projector screen whips away and we are awestruck by our first sight of Rapture. An impossible city on the sea bed, glittering with neon signs and lighted windows – oh look there’s a whale. See, the beauty of the Bioshock intro is that it’s such a beautifully paced rollercoaster of feelings. Explosion, danger, desperation, then strange calm, sinking despair, loneliness, then confusion, getting yelled at by a bloke who looks like Walt Disney, then dumbstruck awe, and we’re not even done, the tone settles down as the bathysphere arrives at the station, then bam, horror and violence again with the first sploicer encounter, then reassurance when we first contact Atlas, a bit of intrigue as we explore the first area and see the discarded picket signs – the sine wave between exciting action and quiet contemplation continues and we are very firmly off on the right foot. Pity the game can’t keep that foot glued on for the whole runtime, but that’s what happens when you peak early, I suppose
So, I challenge you, commenters, can anyone think of a better beginning of a video game, now we’ve established I can’t? I think Bioshock Infinite’s up there, mainly because it’s basically the same sequence beat for beat, just moving in a different geographical direction. It’s possible that it overdoes things a bit. I preferred it when I was a silent protagonist. I don’t like how Bioshock Infinite’s main character, Booker Dewitt, keeps feeling the need to comment on stuff. Yes, it’s a city in the clouds, very impressive, I didn’t need to hear Booker Dewitt making impressed noises to know when to be impressed, I’m not a cocking sitcom audience.