Bioshock and other games

I bought a PlayStation 3 a week or two ago, primarily for its Blu-ray player capabilities but also to play some video games.

I've been hearing a lot of good things about some of the recent computer and console games; I gather that some of them have a lot of cool character and story stuff going on.

But I'm not really interested in, and am not very good at, the “shoot everything that moves” thing. I have no particular philosophical or moral objection to it; my real-life pacifism doesn't prevent me from, say, enjoying watching action movies, or enjoying playing semi-abstract spaceships-shooting-stuff '80s arcade games. But the first-person shooter thing, where there are a bunch of people out there shooting at you and you have to shoot them before they kill you, and you have to choose between various weapons, and deal with ammunition—I don't really enjoy that stuff, and I'm no good at it.

But I'm very interested in games as storytelling, and as character-portrayal. So I picked up two games that have sounded really interesting in that regard: Bioshock and Mass Effect 2.

And yesterday, I started up Bioshock for the first time.

Here's my memory of what I had heard about it in the past:

  • It implicitly mocks Ayn Rand, by showing a gritty dystopian society that started out as a Randian utopia.
  • There's a difficult moral decision to make, involving a little girl.
  • It has a great steampunky look to it.

The moral-decision thing had sounded particularly intriguing to me; iIrc (which I may not), people talked about it as being central to the game, a sort of way to shape the character of the person you're playing.

So when the game started, with the player character surviving a plane crash, I figured I would attempt some roleplaying. He sounds stress and scared and exhausted at the start of the game, as he swims to shore, so I figured I would try behaving like an ordinary guy (in 1960) who's just survived a plane crash and is freaked out about it. Scared, twitchy, stressed, not sure what's going on.

(Turns out, btw, that the game does have a great look to it, but it's not steampunky (I must've misremembered or misunderstood that); more art deco.)

But after a couple of attempts to avoid encounters with insane violent locals, it became clear that that wasn't going to be feasible. In the game so far (I haven't gotten very far), there are two main things you can do: (1) explore parts of the city; and (2) kill people (or former people, or people-like beings, whatever you want to call them). Well, and (3) collect items, mostly by looting the bodies of the people you kill. (There's also all the genetic-modification stuff, but so far that seems to be entirely in the service of killing people.)

I haven't yet faced the moral-decision aspect of dealing with the Little Sisters, but I'm sure it'll be interesting when I get there. (Though I now think I know exactly what the choice to be made is, having read the relevant help info.) But it strikes me as a little bit odd that in a game where making a moral decision is a central aspect, your only option in almost all of your interactions with other (quasi-)sentient beings is to kill or be killed. As far as I can tell, in most of the encounters you don't even have the option of running away.

Which makes it hard for me to have much moral or emotional or character-identification engagement with the story. (Even in tabletop RPGs, I haven't been into the “enter the next room of the dungeon, kill the monster, take its treasure, repeat” school of gaming since early high school, when I found out that RPGs could have roleplaying and plot. Though I recognize that the two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive.)

I'm not really complaining here; it seems to be a fun and interesting and visually gorgeous game regardless. It has a bunch of nice little satirical touches, and I may well become more engaged with the characters and plot as it goes on. (I kind of suspect that the protagonist has a bit of a dark secret, for example. Don't tell me; I want to find out for myself.)

But it does feel more game-like than story-like to me, and I'm disappointed at that. That's not the game's fault; it didn't promise anything it's not delivering. But I was hoping for something more.

4 Responses to “Bioshock and other games”

  1. Aaron

    IMO Bioshock is totally overrated. I didn’t enjoy visiting that world at all, nor did I enjoy the game much (and I do like some first-person shooters very much, especially ones with good story and environments, like virtually everything Valve does).

    The moral choice element is also totally overrated. The “Zero Punctuation” review hit the nail on the head. You have to get quite a bit further to see the thing that people really got excited about. I will resist saying any more. IMO, it’s not worth the trouble unless you really enjoy the game for its own sake (which I didn’t much).


    I think Bioshock is a terrific game, but it’s definitely a shooter, and the element of choice has been overstated. It has a strong story, beautiful environments, terrific music, good dialogue, and excellent voice acting; however, you will have to kill lots of bad guys before they kill you, and choose between various weapons, and deal with ammunition, so it may not be the game for you.

    I would recommend the game Heavy Rain; it’s much more what you’re looking for: a game that’s more story-like than game-like. Let me quote what I said here:

    it’s a video game that doesn’t ask you to kill five hundred bad guys in the course of the story. Not that I haven’t enjoyed games that involve a lot of killing, but I’d like to see more variety in the types of games available, and Heavy Rain provides an interesting example of a game that’s story driven and not focused on combat. Game critics sometimes use the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” to describe the discrepancy between the narrative side of a game, where the protagonist behaves like a normal person, and the gameplay side of a game, where the protagonist is an unstoppable killing machine. One of the reasons this arises, I think, is that game designers want to tell a variety of stories, but only a few stories mesh perfectly with the combat mechanics that are the core of modern video games. Heavy Rain avoids this problem by using a different style of gameplay, one that works for activities other than combat, and I think it opens up a lot of opportunities for storytelling in video game form.

  3. Patrick Weekes

    I really like the way that Bioshock tells the story through ambients. The art, the sound, the voice-overs, all of it is clearly telling you what happened and how things went wrong. There’s a part that I don’t imagine you’ve gotten to yet, and I won’t spoil it, but it’s just some recorded dialog and a few placed items, and it tells you wrenchingly exactly what happened.

    But yes, considering that they marketed the game as having incredible choice, it really doesn’t amount to much (especially given that there’s no real different — as I recall, you are slightly better off if you do take the good approach, but only slightly).

    I’d say play it as long as you enjoy it. Once you stop having fun, don’t assume it’s going to get better at a later point.

  4. David Moles

    I enjoyed Bioshock a great deal — I go back to it probably once a year like a favorite book — but it’s mostly about exploring the world and discovering the back story; the main plot is quite well done for a shooter, but the moral choice aspect was definitely overhyped.

    Mass Effect is rather better in that regard; you can’t really change the course of the plot, but you can very much change what sort of person your interpretation of Commander Shepard is, and what relationships s/he has with the rest of the party; I think those relationships are what really drives Bioware’s games.

    That said, I’m not sure about playing ME2 without playing ME1 first; I think the emotional impact will definitely be blunted. But I believe you can get ME1 for the Mac these days, and if you can’t actually transfer your saved game to the PS3, you can at least simulate it.


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