As long long promised:
A small tidbit you might not know about me: I am a gamer. Occasionally, yes, I want to be Angelina Jolie in Hackers, but I’m a tad more sincere in my adoration of computer games. I am regularly found critiquing the shit out of the industry, which seems to have massive problems with a) girls, b) plots and storylines, c) trusting their audience, d) grasping that realism is really not necessarily all that. And a few other bits and pieces. A friend I’ll call Boy Sovereign and I on a regular basis discuss the possibility of making computer games. He claims he’d code them; I claim I’d write them with proper storyline. He then looks at me dubiously.
As a present to myself post-PhD, I played Bioshock. It’s a Take-Two Interactive First Person Shooter (FPS), and it provoked a serious buzz amongst the gamer communities when it was released (which was a while back now; I took a long time to write the PhD, ‘kay?). At least part of this was because it was, allegedly, grounded in, like, intellectual shit. Ayn Rand’s intellectual shit, to be precise (okay, yes, that’s just my way of getting in a snide and empty dig at Rand…). In this respect, it looks like it’s treating its audience with some respect, expecting that they can handle sophisticated theory (if you can call Rand that).
The game is set up, in fact, as a critique of a utopia of Randian proportions: you enter this utopia as it has stopped being a utopia, so the story goes. Rapture, which is the name of this city, is built underwater. This works well, of course, as a technique for delimiting gameplay, as most FPS have to do. Your movement through the city is enabled by a kind of public transport system, and of course you can only make your way from one area to another through long glass tunnels (with all kinds of sealife moseying about on the other side). I have to say that whilst I understand the need to give people a track through the game, I think that the Half Life series does this a lot better, feeling only minimally containing, for the most part, even as you can trust to the game to not let you go off on annoying, unnecessary tangents. (Oblivion, I found, was a bit this way: I haven’t finished it because Oblivion gates kept opening every mile or so, and after a while it gets a bit boring trying to close them. I’m told that there’s a particular task that needs to be accomplished to stop them from popping up, but for this here girl-o’-thoroughness, that’s not a very successful technique.)
Anyway, so there’s this underwater utopia, run by this guy Andrew Ryan. The physical setting is gorgeously art deco, which I kinda loved. His philosophies are advertised around the place, and announced at regular intervals over a kind of PA system (apparently the massive freedom of libertarianism doesn’t include freedom from fucking advertising). This utopia has gone to shit, mostly because a mob leader challenged Ryan for the city. It’s also, though, because everyone was partaking in gene splicing (which you do, too, throughout the game, letting you shoot electricity, ice or fire from your fingers, amongst other things). This splicing has made the people of Rapture into the major bad guys you encounter: splicers. There’s a variety of splicers running around to make your life hell. Amusingly, many talk away to themselves as if they were still a part of Jazz Era upperclass life, with gossip, scandal and disapproval peppering these conversations, all in an aristocratic accent. There’s also doctors, who call out to nurses to ‘help me find this patient’ (that’d be you!). But whilst I appreciate this continuation of the setting, the splicers themselves are pretty boring. They just… kill. They’re just grumpy. It feels like they should bring more to the game than simply being impediments that stop you getting where you wanna go, which is how they wound up feeling. I know this sounds strange, given that the Combine soldiers in Half Life 2 aren’t exactly the most exciting of enemies—they’re just your basic military—but I found the splicers just annoying as the game got going. I actually suspect that this has more to do with the storyline of HL, but we’ll get to that.
These aren’t your only bad guys: there’s also the Big Daddies, who run around apparently looking after the Little Sisters. The Big Daddies are all armoured up to the nines, and they’re ‘looking after’ the Little Sisters because they can produce ‘Adam’ out of dead bodies, which in the convoluted reimagining of the technologised human body in Rapture, is necessary to the processes of gene splicing (while ‘Eve’ is used to ‘power up’ to use these abilities). Now here comes the apparent depth of Bioshock. Ready? Yeah? The depth is that you can choose to either ‘harvest’ the Little Sisters, nicking all their Adam and killing them in the process, or you can ‘save’ them, using a special tool their creator gave you, and getting only a proportion of their possible Adam. That’s it. It has effects on how the game plays out, but it’s really a choice of two things, in the end: harvest a single lil sis, and you’re condemned to being the at least semi-baddie. Big ethical dilemmas, huh? At the same time, you’re misled by someone you apparently rely on, manipulated by them. Except that, even though I knew that this was the case, there weren’t really many options for going other ways. This just becomes frustrating, in the end.
So this is supposed to be the fabulous part of this game: it engages your ethics. But I have to say, as if I were a lil teenage gamer, HL totally pwns Bioshock in this regard. In Half Life 2 (I played HL after HL2, so I’m focussing on the latter), you’re being pursued through a city which is under invasion. Your friends, freedom fighters, really, are helping you make it through, in amongst making amusing comments about your taciturn nature (‘Don’t say much, do you?’ sez Alyx, coyly tucking hair behind her ear). I think it helps the drive of the whole thing that you’re continually under pursuit, whether you’re heading through the underground railway or sneaking into a prison complex. It makes the linearity of the path you travel seem more natural (coz you’re doing it at speed, rather than curiously investigating every lil door). Not just this, but at each location you reach, there is some information given, some decision reached about your next task. These flow pretty naturally: at one point, you’re just aiming to get away, then you discover your friend is in prison, so you go to free him. And so on. (In Bioshock, on the other hand, you’re clueless at the beginning, and it’s not exactly clear why you keep moving through the game (especially once you’ve been betrayed). I mean, sure, you want to know what’s happened, but do you really want to die to know? Perhaps not…)
Okay, so, so far, so seemingly-lacking-in-ethics, right? Yeah, kinda. Except that the entire story of HL and HL2 is shaped by the G-man. The G-man is a mysterious dude who appears randomly, pauses time, speaks weird and seems to be able to control the dimensions. At the end of HL, he makes Freeman (your character) the offer of employment. It’s not much of a choice, between facing a room full of aliens with no weapons, and accepting his offer. At the beginning of HL2, he claims to be responsible for bringing Freeman back to earth to fight the Combine. Yet as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the human who ceded earth to the Combine manipulated Freeman’s presence to unearth the core elements of the resistance. Instead of a simple one-off choice, then, the player is left in the position of not knowing whether or not s/he undermined the resistance even as Freeman appeared to be part of it. It’s not clear to what extent you are simply a tool of the G-man, and whether the G-man is on the side of the human resistance, as he seemed to be, or not. (At the very beginning of HL, it seems he’s responsible for bringing the aliens to earth in the first place). Everything you might have thought was simply survival, all those you killed in the game, all those lucky escapes, all becomes suspect. But because you only find out about this later, you wind up wondering if you had betrayed your own friends unknowingly, rather than, as in Bioshock, having to pretend to trust the person you knew was going to betray you in order to keep the game moving.
This seems a more compelling story to me; the querying of apparently innocent deeds, rather than the self-evident weightiness of the ‘kill or do not kill the little girl’ in Bioshock. This is, probably, partly my non-adherence to a teenage paradigm of good and bad. I’ve heard since that the creator of Bioshock was forced to simplify the storyline, on the claim that people wouldn’t be able to follow it. I suspect, then, that there are a few more dilemmas one would have otherwise had to face: perhaps even the alteration of the body through gene splicing would become a questionable matter for the player. It did seem to me a little odd that you killed off a bunch of nutty splicers (who had gone crazy due to too much gene splicing) but never seemed at risk of becoming one of them. Later in the game, you ‘become’ a Big Daddy (dressed up as one, anyway), so this element would have worked really well: to what extent must you participate in what you are resisting in order to resist it? At what point do you give over simply resisting and seek to dominate? These would have been interesting questions, but they never really quite make it into being seriously considered. And the big boss battle at the end is just kinda lame, in the end. Why is it that the games industry might be able to complexify its gameplay somewhat, but the final battle is always one of pure force?
In the end, Bioshock wants to be more interesting than it is. Its context is cool, but the splicers become nothing more than an irritant as the game goes on. Part of it is context, I think. Half Life 2 moves through a city, through blocks of apartments, through sewers, through canals (on a hovercrafty thing), along coastline, through prison blocks, through huge city buildings, through sand dunes (complete with ant-lions buzzing at you); you fight on farms, lighthouses, in prison blocks, in mines, in the big weird Citadel, in huge warehouses, in small cramped towns and so on. The variety of contexts requires you to be continually finding new ways of engaging your enemies; and they themseles are varied: regular combine soldiers, the shot-gun-bearing variety, big helicopter things you take down with a rocket launcher, roof-suckers, ant-lions, zombies, head crabs (of various kinds) and so on. It maintains interest, where Bioshock became just a repetitive exercise in shooting things.
So thanks, Valve, for trusting your gamers. And phooey to those stupid execs who made Bioshock just another FPS, albeit with pretty graphics.