Micheal Cobley

Interstellar Tactics




Why We Write: Describing The World Or Changing It

Posted on February 14th 2009 | 1 Comment so far

Motivations and reasons for writers doing what they do are plentiful. For many it is a driving compulsion for expression, exploration both inner and outer, and for understanding. For others, writing fiction is a way to propagate a world view, or some understanding already arrived at. For yet others, its a job of work,  a matter of getting the words down, assembling the story, paying attention to technical execution, and fulfilling the contract. Now, from a reader’s point of view, there’s no way to be absolutely sure which mindset lies behind what`s being read, although a propagandist might stand out if s/he were less than skilled in their craft.

Yet beyond the purely internal needs of the writer, its worthwhile asking just what the heck fiction is for? Is it to lay out facts, to create an influence in the readership? You could take a look at Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and say, yes, she was definitely attempting to persuade the reader of the efficacy of her totally bonkers philosophy of Objectivism, and yet a cool technical eye would look over the narrative itself and pronounce it stodgy and long-winded. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy was essentially a narrative exploration of marxist theory (concealed behind his Fall of Empire overtext), as if it truly was a science of history and human social trends which could be manipulated. And you have to wonder how many American SF readers took in the psychohistory stuff and understood what they were reading. Didn’t seem to create a 5th column of secret marxists amongst fandom, as far as I know.

The notion of a book which changes history, like Stowe’s Uncle Toms Cabin, or Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, is a romantic, almost heroic template that nearly all writers secretly yearn to produce. Sadly, we live in an era where the influence of books has waned somewhat – a film or a TV series or even a video game (hey, ya never know) is more likely to influence events than 400-odd sheets of dead tree. Yet still they try, folk like John Pilger and Noam Chomsky, Greg Palast and Mark Curtis – but where are the SF/fantasy books which take a hefty swing at the idiocies of the day and land a solid blow? Is it because we deal in fictional matters removed from the contemporary world by several steps? If we write about a future Earth society in which a democratically-elected World President, say, cooks up paperthin justifications for invading an independent Moon, will it have folk out in the street, suddenly awakened to the madness ruling over them? Or is the metaphorical depiction sufficient to render it….mostly harmless?

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1 Comment


Bioshock – Sheer, Jawdropping Wonderment!

Posted on August 17th 2008 | 3 Comments so far





one of Raptures connecting corridors

one of Raptures connecting corridors




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.

(Continued at http://rockitboy.wordpress.com/2008/08/21/bioshock-further-thoughts/)

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