By MarkWahlberg 10 Comments
Bioshock had been my video game equivalent of War and Peace: one of those books you were supposed to read – one of the important books – one that I frequently started but never got around to finishing. I finally did finish it yesterday, though, and in typical MarkWahlbergian fashion I want to talk about it with you fine folks. If that’s ok.
Although I’d never gotten very far into the game, I’d had the Big Reveal spoiled in part for me several years ago (possibly by the Bombcast crew, I can’t remember exactly). I knew about ‘Would You Kindly’, but I didn’t know much else, and so I found myself paying more attention to the other details around it, such as the fact that you were playing as a rapidly aged 2 year-old whose father was an Objectivist genius businessman and whose mother was a stripper (add that to the list of sentences I’d never thought I’d write). That seemed much crazier than what I had expected, which was a KOTOR style ‘you are Fontaine’ sorta deal, with Atlas actually just Ryan trying to fuck with you or something.
The other result of not being shocked by the twist was that I think the flaws in the rest of the story stood out more. The twist certainly is what got everyone’s attention when the game was released, but when you look at the actual story, there isn’t a whole lot else to it. Most of it is actually just atmosphere, with audiotapes fleshing out the details of the places you encounter. The things that I was most curious about – how exactly did they go about building Rapture, how did they choose who to let into the city – were never clearly explained, and that’s understandable. The focus of the game was on how Rapture fell, and when you’re creating atmosphere, it’s just as important to know what to leave unsaid, as it is to know what to tell the audience. What Bioshock does very well is to show us the broad arc of the downfall of the city through the personal stories of individual people, which makes us more invested in what happens. We want to find out Bill McDonagh’s fate just as much as we want (at first) to help Atlas reunite with his family. So it is very strange that the ultimate villain, Fontaine, is barely explained at all as a character. For most of the game, he is a boogeyman lurking at the corners of everything, eventually starting an all-out war with Ryan over control of Rapture. Fontaine’s essential nature is repeatedly described as a criminal one; he even goes so far as to call his entire effort as a ‘long con’. But we never really know what he wants. If he is at heart a con man, then why does he try to take over the city? The whole point of a con is to take what you can and run the hell away, preferably without the mark ever knowing he’s been conned. And if he is only trying to use the city for personal gain, why does he turn himself into a roided-up freak at the end? That might put him on top of the pyramid in Rapture – which won’t count for much since he already destroyed it – but he’ll have a hard time of it above water. Ryan is memorable because he is a tragic figure; his greatest achievement was what ultimately destroyed him. Fontaine is just a power hungry douche bag with no clear motivation for bringing an entire society to its knees. If we knew more about why he came to Rapture (how did Ryan even decide to let him in?), I feel like even just that little bit of back-story would have made the whole story so much clearer.
Brad posted an article a few years back that linked to an alternate ending someone had come up with, which I think accurately addresses most of the flaws in the conclusion. However, there are a couple things about it that I also want to point out. Once Fontaine starts berating you over the radio, he immediately begins to cast doubt on Tenenbaum’s intentions, doubts which ultimately prove to be baseless accusations. And I think this is part of a huge error in the entire story, in regards to the theme of free will. The whole point of the Reveal was that you had not been acting of your own accord, that you were at the beck and call of the voice of ‘Atlas’. Once Tenenbaum rescues you, she claims to have ‘removed’ this mental conditioning. But then you spend the last third of the game doing whatever she tells you to do, so that while you are technically free, you’re not actually doing anything differently. You're still obeying the voice on the radio.
The problem with this situation became very clear when she tells you to become a Big Daddy. She claims it is necessary to go through the doors, because only Little Sisters can unlock them, but you’ve already had Sisters unlock those same kinds of doors for you before, when you were in the Orphanage. The justification for becoming a Big Daddy from a gameplay perspective is readily apparent – the cathartic nature of it is obvious – but from a story perspective it’s very confusing. Add onto that Tenenbaum’s clear desire for you to free the Sisters, and the Good Ending suddenly becomes much weirder when you realize that it’s entirely possible that she never freed you at all, but only altered the conditioning to match her voice instead of the trigger phrase. That’s just speculation, but I mean, for you to spend the rest of your life with a Big Daddy voice (after having your larynx adjusted for that purpose, despite your never speaking), that alone is a bit bizarre.
I did enjoy playing Bioshock, although there were some problems with the 'game' part of it. It was easier than I expected, although I did keep it set to Medium (I played it on my Mac with the track pad, so true difficulty wasn’t really an option), and the gamey-ness of the gameplay contrasted pretty heavily with the dark atmosphere, which is true of a lot of games but definitely stood out here. Having Big Daddies be neutral until attacked was nice, although it did make them significantly less threatening. And having them repeatedly spawn didn’t help much either; there were several times I’d kill one, leave the room, and then hear the deep groan and see a new Daddy walking right over the fresh corpse, even after I’d rescued all the Little Sisters. There was never much incentive to experiment with plasmids beyond curiosity, and the Harvest/Rescue mechanic was undermined by the fact that I got plenty of Adam just from rescuing (which again might have just been the difficulty setting, I dunno). It was still fun, though. And the story was interesting, despite the problems I mentioned above. All in all, I’m glad I finally played it, and I’m interested to see what Infinite will be like. I don’t know that I’ll get around to Bioshock 2 anytime soon, although I hear Minerva’s Den is pretty cool. And who knows, maybe since I haven’t had that spoiled yet, I might enjoy it more.