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12/18/2015

Bioshock in a Nutshell

I tend to view all "spiritual successors" to games with a skeptical eye, as they tend to either be point-for-point retreads that bring nothing new to the table, or completely miss the point of the games they claim to be "successors" to.  Just to name a couple examples: Code of Princess somehow took its inspiration - a very energetic arcade style beat-em-up - and made it slow, dragging and grindy.  Pillars of Eternity lacked any of the fine-tuning, balance and options that made its predecessors Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment such a blast to play, and as a result was exceptionally tedious and frustrating. And the less said about games like Splatterhouse 2010 and Galaga Legions and the wretched Double Dragon 2 remake, the better.  Bioshock certainly isn't as bad as any of those, but it still lacks much of the charm of the game it purports to be recreating; a game which also happens to be one of my all-time favorites and is, for my money at least, the best survival horror title ever made.  So now it's time for me to explain exactly why I was disappointed with yet another highly acclaimed release.  And no, it's not "just because I'm a contrarian asshole who doesn't like anything popular".

The game opens with our unnamed protagonist on a plane home to his family when it suddenly goes down in the midst of the ocean, forcing him to swim to a nearby island.  Inside the light house, he finds an elevator taking him down to an undersea city replete with early 1900s art deco and neon lights, as well as a video introduction by one Andrew Ryan (I see what you did there) explaining that he created the city of Rapture to be rid of the "parasites" of modern society and create a paradise for true creators and capitalists.

Spoony: And to be fair, this is a pretty good introductory sequence, introducing us to the setting in a grandiose manner and showing off the engine's impressive visual capabilities to boot, with its prevalent chrome, condensation and neon lighting effects lending the setting a very showy, yet nostalgic, charm.  The abrupt feeling of it also ties into the big story twist, though that element is... less well-executed, as I'll explain a bit later.

Right out of the gate we get the sense that something's gone wrong, as we arrive at a platform that has mostly been destroyed.  We're soon contacted by a guy known as Atlas, who tells us that the city has fallen into ruin at the hands of the "Splicers" and we soon end up having to fight them off with the only weapon at our disposal - a pipe wrench.  Again, I see what you did there.  However, we soon get access to the game's prevalent superpower mechanic - the Plasmids - and find ourselves able to throw lightning from our hands, generate swarms of bees, and set things on fire with a flick, among other things, which further helps us to fight off the genetically-mutated crazies we're surrounded by.  Oh, and said plasmids are fueled by a miracle chemical called "Adam", which is extracted from a rare deep-sea slug, hence Rapture's location.

Spoony: I'm going to be saying this a lot throughout the article, so settle in.  System Shock Did It Better Because (henceforth abbreviated as SSDIBB): That game's introductory sequence has you, as a military recruit, sign up for service in one of three military branches and several training regimens within each, with your choices determining your starting skill set.  However, Bioshock lacks any such character creation feature, and the extent of your "customization" is in what plasmids you choose to equip.  In the case of SS2, you could make yourself a hardened soldier, a psychic "mage" type with somewhat fantastic psionic powers, a technical type who can repair weapons and hack into electronics, or any combination thereof.  Bioshock eschews the element of choice and basically throws all of these abilities into your lap at once, which greatly diminishes the role-playing aspect of the game and quashes much of its replay value.  Not to mention the fact that an undersea city doesn't quite have the same level of claustrophobia and isolation as, say, a dilapidated spaceship millions of miles from earth and under attack by a bizarre alien force.  Nor do the comically flailing coked-out maniacs we're fighting invoke the same level of dread as the shambling, formerly-human aberrations that System Shock presents us with...

After a bit of that, we're introduced to the central monsters of the story - Little Sisters, mind-controlled young girls who act as living Adam factories and reclaim it from dead bodies with big hypodermic needles, and Big Daddies, their enormous, less-than-human guardians who reside in diving suits equipped with rivet guns and giant drills.  They are essentially the crux upon which the game builds itself, as you will often have to combat the Daddies to access the Adam the sisters carry.  This is easier said than done, though, as despite their size and lumbering appearance, Daddies are extremely fast, dangerous and brutal - they can charge across the room, shoulder tackle you into a stunlock and then rivet gun you to death in a matter of seconds.  In fact, they move even faster than the unencumbered Splicers you've encountered, which is a bit confusing.  Really, the only shot you have against them is to continually keep them stun-locked with electrical attacks; whether plasmid or with the shotgun's lightning mod.  Or at least that would be the case if the game didn't readily provide you a respawn point mere feet from where you're likely to encounter any serious enemy resistance, which makes the challenge of the game pretty much nonexistent...

SSDIBB: The respawn points in the System Shock games were considerably fewer and further between had to be manually activated before they could be used, which lent a fair bit of tension to the proceedings; after all, if you got caught off guard and killed before then, you were SOL.  And given that those games were essentially survival horror titles with limited resources, plenty of traps and enemies that were often much stronger than the player, it really kept you on edge until you had that measure of safety, especially on higher difficulties where health was extremely limited.  Oh, and System Shock 2 also didn't attempt to shoehorn in a painfully trite good-vs-evil choice like Bioshock does...

By which I mean that once you've destroyed her guardian, you can choose to spare the Sister (which nets you less Adam overall) or brutally rip the slug from her body and kill her.  The latter choice earns you the scorn of a later character while the former gets you gift drops in the form of unique plasmids and more than enough Adam to make up for whatever you lost by not being an evil prick, so all in all, a pretty insubstantive choice.  Especially when you consider that the "good" or "evil" endings only hinge on whether you've killed at least two Sisters or not, so you can be the good guy throughout the whole game and only kill the last two Sisters if you really want to see the alternate outcome, which is such a cartoonish and dopey premise that it might as well have come from someone's bad fan fiction...

Spoony: If you want me to get invested in a moral dilemma, you need to have some incentive to pick the "other" option other than for the sake of being a jerk.  To use a pretty recent example, Fallout: New Vegas gives you the choice of siding with House, the NCR or Caesar's Legion, all of whom are vying for control of the Mojave and whom all have their own codes of honor and end goals with some questionable elements to each.  This lends the player's decision quite a bit of weight and a nice nod to realism, as none of them can easily be described as the "good guy" or "bad guy" in the game's scenario.  And that's honestly how these big choices in games should be - there should be some legitimate thought involved, as well as advantages and disadvantages to both/all sides. A choice between "murdering little girls for personal gain" and "not murdering little girls to win a later character's favor" isn't really doing anything to get me invested in your story, because it's not really a dilemma unless you're a deranged sociopath...

Anyhow, we confront more creepers along the way including a crazed doctor, a mad artist who forces us to create a twisted work of "art" out of the bodies of his enemies (more generic splicers), and eventually make our way to Ryan himself after fulfilling several missions.  Usually of the "deliver thingie here and fight another boss character" variety.  There is disappointingly little variety to the missions or combat, though there is an attempt to add a bit of flavor to the monotony by having you "research" enemies via a special camera that analyzes their weakness (aka gives you damage bonuses).

SSDIBB: System Shock had a much wider variety of enemies, from the worker robots to further mutated/technolgically modified humans to the arachnophobia-inducing giant spiders, each of which had a distinct attack pattern as well as resistances and weaknesses to different types of attacks.  Bioshock's enemies get tiresome quickly because they all look and act more or less identical, and given that you're basically an immortal superhero, combat with them lacks any genuine tension.  System Shock's missions also carry more of a puzzle-solving element rather than simply being pointed out to you via waypoints, and the corny "research camera" gimmick is much better handled in its predecessor by having you analyze severed parts of enemies via specific chemicals (and requiring a particular skill set on top).

But to put at least one point in Bioshock's favor, I did enjoy the hacking element of it.  Neither game's depiction of it is terribly realistic (with SS2's version largely coming down to luck and Bio's version being a minigame akin to the old puzzle game "Pipe Dream"), but the sheer variety of things one could hack in Bioshock lent themselves to quite a bit of fun.  You could rewire turrets and attack drones to target your enemies, hack heal stations to damage enemies who attempted to use them, and of course re-program vending machines to get cheaper prices and new stock.  Pretty fun stuff, and I think if the game had keyed that aspect better into the overall strategy in order to even the odds against stronger foes, rather than simply giving the player an endless supply of weapons, superpowers and continue tokens right out of the gate, it probably would have helped it step out of its predecessor's shadow.

At any rate, we soon make our way to Mr. Ryan's office, where the game drops another twist on us - the player is actually his illegitimate son, born of an affair with a Rapture entertainer, but artificially aged and brainwashed to follow any command given to him so long as it was preceded with the words "Would You Kindly" (which Atlas has been saying to us frequently throughout).  He then dies by the player's hand on his own terms, denying Atlas the pleasure of killing him.  Atlas is then revealed to be none other than... dun dun dun, FRANK FONTAINE, a guy who got mentioned in a few audio logs as having plans to overthrow Ryan!

SSDIBB: There was a lot more buildup to the big reveal, for one; the game leads us in with two other antagonists in the form of the AI Xerxes (who bears a strong resemblance to SHODAN) and the menacing alien hive-mind known as the Many, with the former aiding and assisting the latter for reasons initially unclear.  Once you make your way to your lone contact's office, she is revealed to have been dead all along, leading to SHODAN dropping the facade and revealing the Many's true origins as another experiment of hers run amok.  However, the player continues to follow her orders, this time out of fear; you already well know the horrors she unleashed on Citadel Station in the first game and she makes no secret of her utter contempt for humanity, but like it or not, she is your only hope for survival against her rogue children.  The idea that she was deceiving you all along also fits in perfectly with her character and makes her a much more compelling villain than Fontaine, who has no real established history and whom we honestly have little reason to show any concern about, let alone fear.  Not to mention that SHODAN was a villainess given life and substance by Terri Brosius' amazing performance, delivering a calm, neutral and yet discordant voice whose every word oozes with arrogance and cold malice - perfectly suited to a mad machine with a god complex and genocidal ambitions for humanity.

The mind control thing is also a clever idea, but honestly, I felt that it mostly went to waste.  By making the gameplay so mindlessly oriented on shooting things and not giving the protagonist a chance to develop any genuine character, it really doesn't shock or surprise us to see that he was being discreetly manipulated all along.  If you wanted that to be an effective twist, then you had to do something interesting to foreshadow it.  As an idea: for the mad artist quest, have him unexpectedly trigger the mind control command so that you're compelled to help him, and then have him order you to kill some innocents he has tied up or something.  That would certainly be a lot more intriguing - not to mention shocking - than the reason you're given to go on his dumb filler quest and murder generic foes in his name (just to restart an elevator he stopped)...

Anyhow, after that big and not-at-all-predictable reveal, Fontaine tries to compel the hero to off themselves in order to cement his rule over Rapture, but the little sisters come to our rescue (yes, even if we've been a jerk to them up to this point).  They turn out to be working under the orders of Dr. Tenenbaum, the only opposition to Fontaine's rule now that we've killed Ryan.  With her aid we manage to shake the mind control programming and prepare to lead an assault on Fontaine himself, which requires turning ourselves into a Big Daddy by donning the suit, altering our voice with a bizarre contraption, and genetically modifying ourselves even further.  Which, dare I say, is another wasted opportunity to play up the horror aspect of the game by making the process a lot more drastic and gruesome, a la the stroggification process in Quake 4?  Just a thought.

With that done, we fight our way to the center of Rapture, confront Fontaine (whose plasticy sheen and unnatural skin color, paired with his corny accent, makes him unintentionally hilarious) and manage to defeat him in a fierce battle by steadily draining his body of Adam and popping health packs like candy.  The Little Sisters then finish the job by repeatedly stabbing him with their big needles and, depending on the player's choices through the game, either end up being adopted by the protagonist and living a relatively normal life or turned into his foot soldiers to lead an attack on the surface.  Which, again, would work a lot better if we were given any genuine reason to care about either party as characters and not just plot points.

SSDIBB:  It all comes to a head at the end when SHODAN uses the opportunity afforded by the Many's death to seize control of the Von Braun's warp drive and begins to rewrite reality itself in her own image.  While it is a very expected moment, it also fits in perfectly with her character and lends quite a bit of gravity to the situation, as you're literally the only force standing against a mad AI who views herself as a goddess and now has the very real possibility of making that delusion a reality.  And while SS2's ending has a rather cheesy exchange between the protagonist and SHODAN, it is still a satisfying moment to see her defeated at his hands.  However, that quickly dissolves into further horror when you learn soon thereafter that SHODAN is still alive and on a one-way trip to Earth far from your current location, ending in her iconic and chilling laugh right as you realize the implication of the situation.  It's such a simple, but effective scene that it still ranks among my favorite game endings even fifteen years later.

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Spoony: And that's Bioshock.  It's not the worst "spiritual successor" game I've played by any stretch, nor is it even that bad of a game in general.  However, it really does feel like like one of those Hollywood remakes of a classic horror film, retreading System Shock 2's script point-for-point while simultaneously dumbing it down to appeal to a wider audience.  It lacks nearly all of the original's subtlety, tension and polished design, and it has so few ideas of its own that it feels like they just looked up a story synopsis of the older game and did a few find-replaces to get the outline for their "new" game.  Really, it all just comes down to the same problem that games like Mass Effect and Jade Empire already put on full display - showing console-biased gamers something that a PC-platform game had already done better years earlier, then watching all the positive acclaim come in because they'd never seen anything like it before; never mind that the game it cribbed all its ideas from (and which they conveniently forget to give credit for) did nearly everything far better...

I don't think this is entirely Ken Levine's fault, either - after all, this was a game first released on "the dudebro system" and as a result had to be geared toward that particular brand of ADHD by jamming it full of challenge-trivializing checkpoints and overdone combat sequences that boil down to raw attrition rather than any level of skill.  Nor can I blame him for Bioshock 2, which was just a streamlined retread of the first game with a badly-balanced multiplayer system jammed in, as he had no involvement in its creation.  However, I can give him full blame for his later turd Bioshock Infinite, which touted itself as being a whole new direction for the series... but just became another braindead shooter with constant checkpoints, absurd dialog and a script more self-indulgent and sloppy than a fifth grader's Donnie Darko fan fiction.  Not to mention bringing back the laughably trite good-and-evil mechanic again as you choose to shoot or spare certain people during your city-wide murder spree, which has the barest minimum of effect on the in-game narrative and doesn't even net you an alternate ending this time.  Just another piece of pandering crap to make the dudebro crowd feel smarter than they really are because they understand the game's "subtle subtext" that they've been beaten over the head with like a sack of quarters...

As I've seen saying all along, if you want to see this game done better and in a far more well-realized and interesting style, just play the System Shock games instead.  They're widely available at a bargain price, have much better-balanced gameplay with elements of choice that lend themselves to considerable replay value, and effectively convey a feeling of claustrophobia, isolation and constant unease that Bioshock never even comes close to.  They don't try to shoehorn in a straw man about Objectivist beliefs or act like they're smarter than you are, either, so definite props for that!

And yes, I am absolutely enthralled about the recent announcement that System Shock 3 is in development.  It's high time that franchise got the recognition it deserved!