Would You Kindly? Playing Irrational Games' Bioshock
The praise that Bioshock has received from other critics is – after having played through the game – definitely well earned. Even though I'm usually not exactly a very good FPS player, I managed to get through the whole game. And it definitely was worth it. The world building in Bioshock is excellent, be its embedment into the historical background, or the rich story that shines through at every corner, or finally the beautifully captured art deco architecture, which simply is a joy to explore and walk through.
Gameplay itself is reasonably varied as well. While some parts leave the player wondering whether they were just added to draw out game length1, the "magic" abilities one receives over time offer enough variation and allow the player to change his tactics over time.
Later in the game, some near-failure states are added: at one point, one continually looses maximum health, forcing the player to react faster. At another, the player isn't able to choose his currently activated plasmid. Not only is the game randomly cycling between the equipped plasmids, but between others as well, allowing the player to test out previously unavailable plasmids – and requiring him to change his tactics to deal with splicers every minute or so.
With Bioshock having distinct horror elements as well, sound plays an important element as well. Several gameplay elements have distinct signature sounds that allow the alert player to react faster to what is happening. Security cameras, for example, may be a nuisance at first, but as soon as you learn to listen for its sound (a mechanical whirring that repeats every second or so), and look for its red glow, they won't pose much of a threat anymore. The same goes for certain splicers as well.
The Avatar in the Hand of the Player
One of Bioshock's most touted features, the "moral" decisions to make, did not really work for me, however. First of all, they only come into play when it comes to one mechanic: "Rescuing" or "harvesting" the Little Sisters. Played from an analyst's point of view, it is clear from the beginning that both choices should yield roughly the same amount of ADAM in order to advance through the game. Since being a "good guy" usually results in some other characters helping you, "rescuing" the Little Sisters is logically the better choice. As a matter of fact, "rescuing" or "harvesting" only influences the ending cinematic. Throughout the game, the player has not much choice in choosing between "good" and "evil", even though the world around him is clearly designed in shades of grey: most of the characters that appear throughout the game have or had hidden agendas, trying to be good by evil means or bad by good means. The player is not given such choice: understandable from a production point of view, but disappointing given the fact that the game has been praised as offering the player "shades of grey" choices.
Irrational Games are clever enough to comment on that within the game – and this is where the game truly shines for me. At some point, the player is told that his character is under mind control – that he will do anything when asked kindly. This is of course exactly what happens throughout the whole game – on the game level: the players are being told by various entities what they are supposed to do next, and they will do it (because they know that the won't be able to advance otherwise). Atlas gives orders, Jack follows. Ryan gives orders, Jack follows. Brigid … well, she makes suggestions With or without code word.
It is the perfect realisation of what René Bauer describes like this:
Man kann die Liste der Avatare durchgehen und findet bei den meisten Nicht-Adventure-Figuren nur platte Avatare ohne eigenen Wünsche und Hintergründe. Die meisten Spielfiguren sind wie die Figuren im Schach, matt, tot und kontrollierbar. Kurz: Soldaten des Kontrollwahns des Spielers. [You can go through a list of avatars and discover that all but adventure characters are shallow avatars without desires, wishes and backgrounds. Most avatars are like pawns in chess, dead and controllable, short: soldiers under the mad control of the player.]
And yes, the game explicitly comments on that: "A man chooses, a slave obeys", a character at one point says – and the game ironically removes all choice from the player by switching into cutscene mode, giving the player no possibility to choose differently. I guess this would not have been necessary – after all, the player already did whatever the game asked of them before. But yes, maybe they would have thought to have a choice at this point. But all players know what happens when they don't follow the game's orders: the game just doesn't advance.2
Awfully few games are able to pull off this kind of self-reflection. But it is exactly the reason why I think Bioshock is a really great game.