Summary: Why is BioShock brilliant? In this combined spoiler-free review and spoiler-laden editorial, Jakub lets you know. Though you should really play the game before hand anyway.
In fact, you probably even shouldn’t read this review at all. The game is just that good and that subtle, that potentially cluing yourself into some things you may want to look for is bad enough.
Before I begin the spoilers, I will say this in case you need any more encouragement: BioShock is art. As a game, it is great but feels only good because the gameplay is quite simply blown away by the story and storytelling. Contrary to all comments otherwise, BioShock isn’t a revolutionary game – it is merely a combination of System Shock and Jedi Knight, with a bit of Half-Life thrown in. Again, if it wasn’t for the story, the previous sentence would seem ridiculous because who doesn’t want System Shock, Jedi Knight, and Half-Life all in one package?
It is the story itself that is magic, the writing, the exposition, the way everything in the game comes together to tell it all. Things that don’t make sense or just seem so weird that you automatically kick the “suspension of disbelief because it’s just a stupid game” button are slowly revealed to make a whole lot of sense within the game and are, in fact, often tragic. In fact, BioShock interweaves multiple tales of tragedy to tell not only a story but also argue philosophy and deliver a scathing indictment against Ayn Rand and her Objectivism. George Bernard Shaw, the great critic himself, would tip his hat to Irrational for BioShock. Finally, the game is a metaphor for gaming itself and the illusions we live under.
Half-Life and Half-Life 2, as great as they are, merely mastered the art of storytelling through gameplay. As good as their story is, it is merely a game story and has no greater message to deliver. BioShock argues on all fronts, and delivers.
But before we go into the spoilers and my gushing about how absolutely fantastic BioShock is, let us briefly discuss the gameplay since this is nominally a review of the game itself.
At his disposal the player has conventional weapons and plasmids. The weapons are nothing we haven’t seen before – wrench, revolver, Tommy gun, shotgun, grenade launcher, and so on. Each weapon has three ammunition types, which are generally specialized to hurt certain kinds of enemies. Plasmids are basically like Force Powers from Jedi Knight – they are earned as upgrades throughout the game and come in varying degrees of power. Many are designed to deal damage or help you deal damage, but in different ways, some quite clever. See enemies in a pool of water? Your electroshock plasmid is going to be quite effective in that instance, but your fire plasmid will be a waste. Plasmids can also have special effects, like Enrage, which causes an enemy to attack his fellows, or one that makes security cameras attack him. There’s also a plasmid that will hypnotize Big Daddies and make them defend you for a short while.
In addition to Plasmids there are Tonics which have passive effects that help the player in hacking, stealth, melee damage, damage resistance, and so on. The possible combinations of these along with the Plasmids can help specialize your character. Are you going to be a melee monster or do you prefer to deal damage from a distance? Will you take advantage of your hacking abilities or rely on scavenging materials to make automated hacking tools? There’s a fair bit of customization available and multiple ways to play the game. What seems like a useless plasmid or tonic the first time around can be a key feature the second.
The game’s story is told primarily through the radio and tape recordings, but really just about everything in the game helps say what happened. Advertisements, random commentary from characters, writings on the wall, writing in blood – they all help contribute to the story and your understanding of what happened and what is happening.
Although ultimately BioShock is really just a bunch of collection and FedEx quests, it is clever enough about it and the atmosphere is so engrossing that you never have quite the time to worry about it all. The developers are generous about losing – it’s almost like playing a LucasArts adventure game where you can’t really find a way to end a play session. If you die you can reload or the game respawns you nearby at a vitachamber. Enemies won’t reset in hitpoints after you respawn, so that Big Daddy that you blew the last of your ammo and health on can be beaten down with the wrench if you’re determined enough, though that rather destroys the tension and atmosphere.
BioShock is remarkably good at guiding the player through. There are hints on the map screen and an arrow guides you through the few times you really might need it, but it’s all put together so well that I was only confused at one point of the game and that’s when I didn’t know to press the call elevator button (and what a fine evening with Sander Cohen I had after that).
Not that it’s all perfect
BioShock isn’t a flawless gem of game design, however. In addition to the rather standard weapons, the lack of variety can also be seen in the enemies. Yes, Big Daddies are cool – wicked cool in fact – but the rest of the villains in the game are pretty much all the same archetype. There are five or six types of splicers and the sentry bots. That’s it. Even the boss at the end of the game is a bit of a letdown from a gameplay perspective, though the actual design is a fantastic in-joke.
Now before I go to the spoilers, for those of you who haven’t played BioShock yet, will you kindly let me exhort you to take your time. Yes, rushing through will let you see the big story quickly and the temptation is there to skip all the little pieces, but enjoy your experience. Put the pieces of the puzzle together, look around, don’t get tunnel vision.
Who is Andrew Ryan? In a world full of parasites and slaves, where Washington says the sweat on your brow belongs to the poor, where Moscow says the sweat on your brow belongs to everyone, and where the Vatican says it belongs to God, Andrew Ryan is the man who created an enclave for those who work, for those who want to earn their way through life. Andrew Ryan is why we have Rapture and thus, why we have BioShock.
Andrew Ryan is also the instrument through which Irrational’s writers have created a scathing attack on Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Ryan is Irrational’s take on John Galt, who is Ayn Rand’s hero of sorts in her philosophical novel, Atlas Shrugged. Rand, a fanatical laissez-faire devotee who is sure that government’s job is only to provide civil police and military protection, argues that society is full of people who take things from those who earned them – like looters who do it by force (like government), or moochers who do it by begging and claiming to be needy, which is apparently the majority of the population. Galt, like Ryan, creates a refuge for the productive members of society, where they can all work for themselves, unimpeded by moochers and looters.
Galt is part of Ayn Rand’s Atlas, who is the Greek Titan who in mythology holds up the world on his shoulders. Rand argues that the small but productive segment of the population is Atlas, and if Atlas should shrug, the world would tremble. And indeed in her book, the productive tire of fighting against the moochers and the looters, against collectivism, and simply give up and begin to disappear, and society does of course begin to crumble as this is Rand’s fantasy world.
Ryan, having created Rapture, creates this refuge for the productive, those who want to own the sweat off their own brow. Irrational argues though that Rapture, like Galt’s own enclave, would fall into a familiar pattern. There would have to be those at the top who own companies and enterprises, and those at the bottom, because no matter how talented and skillful everyone in Rapture is, there always needs to be someone to “clean the shitters”, in the poetic words of Frank Fontaine. In this perfectly free society, someone needs to gut and clean fish for food, someone needs to take care of trees, sweep the streets, and if everyone in Rapture is one of these productive people, none of them imagined they’d be doing it. Everyone wants to be Andrew Ryan, no one wants to be the janitor.
Frank Fontaine is a con artist, a common street thug with an uncommon ability to take advantage of people. He is the first to fully utilize plasmids and Adam, he begins to plot to take Ryan’s power from him, because like everyone else in Rapture, he came to be Ryan and not to be someone who cleans shitters. Unlike everyone else however, he has a plan of how to do it. Fontaine gathers the dissatisfied, the oppressed, the struggling, the poor, the ill, all under his banner. He strengthens his position by smuggling with the outside world, which simultaneously provokes Ryan because it exposes Rapture to the moochers and looters of the world (or in his words, the parasites). Thus a war ensues, a war where everyone makes use of plasmids and weapons and bots and Fontaine loses, is presumed dead, and Ryan is left to rule over the ruins of Rapture.
It is here that the player enters and is immediately thrust into the irony of the situation. Atlas contacts him. Who is Atlas? Frank Fontaine. But why choose the name Atlas? Why does Frank Fontaine, in the end of the game, look like the picture of Atlas on the cover of Atlas Shrugged? Because in the city of Rapture, Atlas isn’t the powerful and productive who are being oppressed by the masses. In Rapture, the Atlas who shrugs are the people that Fontaine gathers to his banner – the oppressed, the poor, the weak. Those who provide those vital functions the city needs, just as Rand’s Atlas was the society of the productive and powerful who were being robbed by the moochers and looters. Rand argues that if the productive leave, society will struggle. Irrational argues that if the weak and oppressed rebel, society is destroyed.
That by itself is a stunning achievement for a game, to argue philosophy in such a way, through the game. And Irrational wasn’t even halfway done.
Will you kindly is a metaphor for game design. We have freedom, as much as the developers give us. If we had more freedom than BioShock gave us, we couldn’t have the story we had. Freedom is something we all strive for in gaming, and yet the best game of the year has almost no choice at all.
Irrational mocks us. Andrew Ryan, confronting you, his brainwashed, programmed, mind controlled son who always responds to “Will You Kindly” with immediate obedience, figures it all out. He is a man who burned a forest he bought rather than let the parasites in Washington nationalize it into a national park. He admits he cannot raise his own hand against you even now, though you’ve brought down his defenses and exposed him to his enemies. At this point when you want to make a choice that goes against Will You Kindly, Irrational takes control of your character, and he has you stop. Turn around. Run. A man chooses, a slave obeys. Will you kindly kill Andrew Ryan, says Andrew Ryan, handing you a putter. And you do so. The truth is revealed to the player in one of the most brutal, moving, memorable death scenes ever.
Of course, you were never under mind control but the game played as if you were and you weren’t aware of it. When you finally become aware of this irresistible influence, when you personally feel the urge to rebel that your character does not, what little choice you have is taken from your hand. The game has you kill Andrew Ryan. And then when control is restored, Atlas gives you one last command, “now will you kindly insert that damn card into the machine” to stop the self-destruct sequence that Andrew Ryan began. Of course, you want to game to continue, so you smile at the situation and insert the card, obeying your last Will You Kindly, before the game changes the rules and de-programs your character.
It is as brilliant a bit of writing as the whole argument about philosophy. It is to gaming what Memento was to movies. It’s art, real art. It makes you think. It makes you admire the flawed visionary Andrew Ryan; the very character Irrational made to mock Objectivism takes on a dignity of his own that you have to respect. He chose death though he could have played “will you kindly” ping pong with Fontaine the whole time. With his defenses taken down, he would rather burn Rapture like he burned his forest than let it fall into the hands of Fontaine. He is a consistent, brilliant character – everything revealed about him thus far agrees with his final actions.
Half-Life 2’s story telling is subtle. It is in the background and around you but rarely in your face. The story is there in bits and pieces for the player to pick up or ignore as he chooses. What is Xen, what is the Combine, what’s going on? You can either piece it together or just shoot things.
BioShock has all of that plus the traditional story, the one thrust upon you, the one that mocks you and mocks gaming and mocks choice in gaming and provides an excellent experience despite it all. You can choose to pick up on these details, or you can simply revel in the mind job that Irrational did on us when we dropped down into Ryan’s sanctum and saw the words “Will You Kindly” scribbled on the wall in blood, lines connecting pictures, identities, ideas, the memories you found recorded on tapes, the puppy that died in your hands.
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