Many of the plaudits for Bioshock included praise for its involving storyline, in-depth narrative and rich background. But when you read what Ken Levine (the eminence gris behind the Bioshock concepts) has to say about the game story you start to realise some interesting home truths about game narratives. Levine said that the Bioshock story breaks down into 3 basic acts: escape Rapture, kill Ryan, kill Fontaine. When you look at it that way, you have to ask yourself why then is Bioshock so involving, so entrancing?
The answer is in the details and the back story. The back story is basically the train of events that went before the start of the narrative, the forward-rushing impetus which kicks off the story proper. In that context, the events of the game are the final stages of the epic – they are the denoument, the settling of scores, the resolving of the dramatic tension, the defeat of evil. As for the game-story’s success, it is played out against a detailed, resonant, consistent backdrop which makes the in-game events and clashes more than just a simple string of missions. Characters are encountered and their stories highlight the backstory and the current state of necessity, one aspect in which the superlative voice-acting proved so valuable.
And now Bioshock 2 is starting to emerge, like some weed-choked chunk of seabed rising from the depths. There is a teaser site at www.somethinginthesea.com which cleverly plots out some possible backstory for the new game. I have no doubt that there will be more in the months ahead.
Well, of course, since I`m workin’ like a DOG on book 2 of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy (The Orphaned Worlds) it is completely and utterly and utterly completely verboten for me to be playing any computer games which, for me, means FPS or First Person Shooters. Which is why I’m writing this post as a kind of yearning, a psalm to frenetic gameplay tactics, a paean if you will to the beauty and the breathless brutality of such games. You`ll know how much I loved Bioshock, a game with a meaningful and gripping narrative; well, others that have really got my attention have included Medal of Honour: Airborne in which you play a paratrooper sent on various missions through WW2, and the great thing about it is that each mission begins in the skies with you having just jumped out of a plane. And you can control your parachute and steer yourself towards anywhere in the territory you’re descending to. So different from almost every other shooter I`ve ever played, where you start where the level designers want you to start; in MOH:Airborne it can be different every time, thus the replayability is fantastic. I wish other developers would offer similar options.
Another game which I enjoyed immensely, and which had a solid, dramatic storyline, was Dark Messiah, which introduced me to the joys of the kick as employed up high, on ledges or building walkways without rails. Sure, the old Duke Nukem shooter had a kick ability but only in certain circumstances – in DM you can use it as and when. Terrific game, especially the fight with the cave troll, and the climb up the orc-busy cliff faces.
What I`m looking forward to – Fallout 3 which I am told is topnotch; Necrovision, the demo of which was an absolute hoot (zombies and more kicking); Cryostasis (horror survival onboard a huge Russian icebreaker trapped in the ice); and Three Cards To Midnight, a graphic adventure/puzzler game coming from the guys who were behind the Tex Murphy games back in the 90s, from their new outfit called Big Finish Games. I really hope this one makes it out of the trap cos then we might get to see a new Tex Murphy for the 21st Century, which would indeed be a cool thing.
A couple of other games slipped my mind, like Stalker: Clear Sky, the sequel/prequel to Stalker: Shadow Of Chernobyl whose gameplay was free-roaming, almost freeform, although there was a main narrative spine of missions leading onto further missions, along with various sidequests. Stalker SOC was notorious early on for being bug-ridden and was patched something like 6 times by the developers to clear up various issues, such that by the time I got round to playing it the most recent patch spared me the agonies and frustrations that the first players encountered. Not really an early adopter, me. The other sequel is, of course, Bioshock 2: Sea Of Dreams, of which we`ve seen no more than an enigmatic trailer. Bioshock, like Stalker, was set in a fully realised, highly individual, detailed and consistent environment. However, it has emerged that the original Bioshock team will not be involved in Bioshock 2; a shudder goes through me, recalling how something similar bedevilled the development of Deus Ex 2 Invisible War, which gobbled its way across the gaming universe on a fast trajectory to the bargain bin. Also, there has been talk of the Bioshock ‘Franchise’, and once more my spidey senses tingle, alerted to the presence of corporate marketing vernacular, that money-grubbing, dead-eyed lingo which sucks the life out of anything vaguely artistic and worthwhile. Though I could be wrong.
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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.