BioShock: frighteningly polished, terribly creepy, and eerily engaging
I showed up late to the BioShock party; everyone had gone insane and wanted to kill me... nightmarishly fun antics ensued.
I’m not blowing anyone’s mind when I lament that there is simply more quality content available than I’ll ever be able to consume in my lifetime. Because of this, I’m left with choices. I have to decide which games, books, movies, TV shows, etc. I want to consume before I die. So how do I decide what stuff I want to cram into my ear balls and eye holes?
I try to be selective about the games I play. They are a bit on the pricey side, and they take up a good chunk of time. This means that I might have to pass on playing some games that I think I’d really enjoy. But some games seem to have a powerful will of their own, unable to sit idly by while I move on to that new hotness in the gaming world. For me, one of those games is BioShock. When it was released, I didn’t have an Xbox 360, and I’ve never been a proper PC gamer either. So by the time it was released on PS3, most people had already played it, and there were plenty of new games coming out to keep me busy... busy, and distracted from playing one of the most memorable games I’ve ever played.
This game has been out long enough, so I don’t to go into detail about the story. The short version is that you play as a guy who happens upon an underwater dystopian city, Rapture, where everyone has gone insane due to their use of plasmids, a substance that allows them to alter their genes and acquire unique abilities. After arriving, you move through the city, uncovering the story of Rapture’s leader and the downfall of its people.
I’d seen the opening sequence of BioShock three times before I ever played the game, a strange, serendipitous circumstance that I’ve never had with a similar single-player game before or since. So, I already had a loose grasp on one of the game’s selling points: intense set pieces that the player experiences within the natural progression of the gameplay. This gives the game a strikingly urgent and immediate tone. I’m not one to hate on cutscene cinematics in games... well, at least I didn’t think I was. But this game so effectively created dramatic tone and tension without using a single pre-rendered cinematic that I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same about giving up control to watch a game’s story happen again.
And speaking of tension... damn. BioShock has the thickest atmosphere of tension, caution, insanity, terror, and danger that I’ve experienced in a game since I played the original Resident Evil as a teenager. 2K (Irrational Games) perfectly strikes a delicate balance between bloody, gory horror and elusive, creepy, haunting terror. For instance, when “nothing” is happening in most games (in between enemy encounters, for instance) players are often given a moment to catch their breath, relax, and explore. BioShock isn’t interested in that type of down time. Not only isn’t it interested, but the game erupts in a horrific cacophony of maniacal laughter, psychotic ramblings, and ominously approaching sounds of footsteps at the very idea that the player would ever feel safe in the dystopic husk of the underwater city of Rapture. And when I actually did start moving forward through the narrow corridors and catwalks ahead of me, I could often only muster enough courage to inch forward toward the disturbing lunacy ahead of me. One of the most unsettling moments I’ve had in a game happened in BioShock when I would hear a psychopath saying some crazy shit ahead of me, but I knew that there was no other way to go but forward.
So with an unrelentingly threatening atmosphere and no cutscenes to drive the gameplay, how exactly does BioShock deliver the story? The city itself does a pretty good job of painting the scene, and the rest of the gaps are filled in by radio transmissions and collected audio tapes. Every bit of story happens in real time, during gameplay. There are various bosses—mostly mad scientists and sadistic doctors—throughout the game, and players will have moments where there isn't much else to do but watch their monologuing, but because all the cinematics happen in real time and you always have control, you feel like an active participant in the world of the game. There are also moments where the player is given a choice: whether to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters, the genetically modified children whose bloodthirsty urges are assisted by hulking, armored bodyguards, the Big Brothers.
In addition to the tapes, new weapons, abilities, and perks—to boost performance, defenses, and skills—are scattered throughout the levels. The game has a surprisingly deep system of customization, allowing the player to choose upgrade paths and buy powers and perks from vending machines that suit their style of gameplay. For instance, the abilities—which range from an electric stun attack to telekinesis to a bee swarm to a projectile that causes enemies to turn the sadistically violent hands on each other—and stat perks, which are equally inventive, can be assigned to different slots, allowing players to choose how to enhance their character, and many of those powerups have purchasable upgrades.
Tension is a hard tone to maintain through an entire game, especially if you want players to keep playing and having fun. But BioShock was great at dangling carrots to keep me moving. The level designs invite exploration, and it is always satisfying to veer off the critical path to find a great upgrade tucked away in a disturbingly dark corner. The game throws in a camera/picture gameplay mechanic to allow players to gain intel on enemies and become more effective against them. I never wanted to stop moving in the game anyway, because it always felt like an insane person or lumbering Big Brother would sneak up behind me if I stalled.
But that isn't to say that the game doesn't fall short occasionally. The sense of danger that it so deftly creates faded quickly when I realized that the Vita-Chambers, the respawn points in the game, don’t really penalize death in a meaningful way. There has already been enough debate and discussion about this feature/flaw in the game, so I won’t dwell on this too much. Suffice it to say that I felt that the dramatic tension and difficulty of the game were severely diminished when I realized that there was little, or no, downside to dying in the game.
I don’t want to fault the game too much for this though. It is a game. And as much as I experience a game like BioShock, I am ultimately still playing it, too... it is important to remember this obvious truth. The Vita-Chamber might seem like a flaw or a cheap exploit, but the player is also blasting fire out of his hands and hacking mechanical objects by manipulating tubes through which a blue gel flows through... not exactly a realistic portrayal of how electricity or mechanical components works. This is a game, and I can still play it and have fun even if it does video gamesy things once in awhile. Regardless of these slight drops in the immersion and tension I got from the game, I still had to get up from my chair a few times to make sure my front door was locked—it was just that creepy.
There was one area where the game failed. In a sequence midway through the game, a series of environmental objects have to be explored on a fetch quest. For no apparent reason at all, immediately upon checking each of these objects, an enraged enemy appears, sprinting in for the kill. This is more of an annoyance than anything, but it was a moment in the game in which the system (the process where one thing causes another thing to happen) revealed too much of itself to the player.
I had very few gripes with the game. The story, action, and gameplay are all very engaging and perfectly integrated with each other. There was never a moment where I didn't feel totally in the game, even though the game’s governing system is slightly revealed from time to time. If, like me, you somehow missed this game when it was released, I suggest going back and giving it a try. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and to gear up for BioShock: Infinite's March 26, 2013 release, I’ll be playing BioShock 2 soon, too.