Bioshock – Sheer, Jawdropping Wonderment!
I used to play a lot of role-playing games of the pencil-and-paper variety. D&D, Traveller, Superheroes, Warhammer Fantasy and 40K, amongs others. And whether it involved a convoluted quest, or a plain old bughunt/dungeon hack, there was usually a narrative of some kind, even if it was only Survive The Attack Of The Impossibly Tough Goblins (who were only tough because our dicerolls were so bad as to strain the fabric of the space-time continuum!)
Well, times changed and along came videogames to challenge the pencil-and-paper RPGs with titles like Eye Of The Beholder, Bards Tale and Amberstar. Graphic adventures like Monkey Island and Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis brought in pretty constrained storylines. Today, the choice of fantastic gaming worlds and stories is plentiful, almost commonplace, such that to stand out from the pack a game has to show superlative excellence in all the core aspects of gameplay.
Which brings us to Bioshock.
Reams of praise and contempt have already been published about the game, both online and offnet, so I`ll restrict this post to the obvious highlights then focus on the game’s narrative, which I think has been key to its success.
Graphically, the game is both gorgeous and consistent. The setting is the undersea city of Rapture, built as a living embodiment of ultracommercial libertarianism similar to the philosophy of Ayn Rand (in fact, Rapture’s founder is called Andrew Ryan, a partial anagram). Built in 1946, the city glows with the lines of art nouveau, its functions relying on pre-microchip technologies. The combat system is fluid and packed with variety and grotesque abilities, including a broad range of genetic modifications, addons for the body, developed in the last years of the city. Unfortunately, those genetic mods and their marketing, unhampered by any kind of regulation, led to biophysical degradation in the population, as well as mental impairment. Combined with social strife, they brought the city’s social structures crashing down.
The gameplay is from the First Person shooter perspective. It opens with you as a passenger on board a plane flying over the Atlantic in 1960. The plane ditches in the ocean, you swim to safety on a rocky outcrop with a building – inside, steps descend to a bathysphere which takes you down to the seabed and the city of Rapture (a breathtaking cutscene). Thus begins your journey through Andrew Ryan’s leaking, crumbling dystopic-utopia.
The point-of-view storyline is pretty straightforward with 3 acts; 1) attempt to escape in a bathysphere, 2) get to Ryan and kill him, 3) go after Fontaine. In an interview, the game’s creative director, Ken Levine (who also wrote the storyline) said that few or no gamers give a damn about the story, pointing to the 3-act spine of Bioshock. I think he`s wrong – the viewpoint/player’s story is vital to enjoyment and involvement, but it is only the most salient component of the entire narrative. The entire narrative of Bioshock comprises the back story, the politics, the out-of-control market in genetic mods, and the individual stories and suffering of the citizens of Rapture.
In addition, there’s the presence of the city’s former leading lights, mad doctors like Steinman, scientists like Julia Langford and Bridgette Tenenbaum, crooks like Peach Wilkins and Frank Fontaine, or deranged artists like Sandor Cohen. And Andrew Ryan who, like the others, has shut himself away, barricaded against the city`s last, crazed denizens. Each of them has their own story and a part to play. The narrative of Bioshock has many layers: this, combined with the best voice-acting I`ve ever heard in a game, makes that narrative convincing.
The game is not perfect – the final quarter or so lacks the character presence of the preceding sections, and the boss-fight at the end was unsatisfying and lacked sophistication. Instead of going mano-a-mano against a gene-modified superman, it could have involved using some kind of mod deactivater with which you could have progressively stripped Fontaine of his powers, reducing him to just a man. That would have been interesting.
So an imperfect ending but still a magnificent, epic, cinematic experience (due to become a real cinematic event if the movie reaches fruition). Apparently Bioshock 2 will be a prequel set in the time leading up to the fall of Rapture, and Levine is still involved which hopefully should maintain the integrity of the narrative. In all its aspects.
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