Thursday, March 1, 2018

Console Corner: Review of Bioshock

While the world of live-action film and computer generated graphics are essentially hand in hand these days, it remains the remit of video games to be 100% computer generated.  One of the things this means is that developers have near perfect control of every aspect of aesthetics.  Motifs to tiny details, all that matters is how well programmers and artists are able to capture the vision being sought (and, of course, the technical limitations of the console).  Developers can ask: what would the tap in a lunar colony toilet cubicle be like?  Or, how would a fantasy version of 19th century Japan look?  Or, as is the case with 2K Boston, what if we implemented an Ayn Rand socio-economic social vision in an underwater city?  2007’s Bioshock would be the result. (To be clear, I played the 2016 remastered version, but as much as I have read there is no difference to the original save graphical and speed improvements.)

Jack is flying innocently over the Atlantic Ocean one night when his plane suddenly goes down.  Left floating among burning wreckage, a nearby island lighthouse seems his only refuge.  Swimming to its steps, Jack enters the lighthouse to find a submersible vehicle which whisks him downward into the dark depths of the ocean.  The lights of a city appearing on the bottom, he is deposited in a leaky, neon tunnel with only a voice on a radio to guide him.  The man behind the voice is Atlas and he tells Jack the name of the city is Rapture, a former utopia now in dystopian disarray.  Soon after, Jack encounters people genetically upgraded to the point of agro-insanity and is forced to trust Atlas to guide him—the number of crazed people springing from doorways and hallways only seeming to increase.  From location to location Atlas guides Jack, trouble is, where is he being lead?  

In terms of gameplay, Bioshock is a straight forward, first person shooter.  Developers do, however, buck the Doom trend by adding additional ‘weapon’ functionality.  More than just pistols and tommy guns, shotguns and grenade launchers, Bioshock adds a DNA splice called plasmids.  Essentially magic, they render Jack capable of shooting fire or electricity from his fingertips, creating cyclones in the floor, or lifting and hurling objects with telekinesis, all of which makes Jack a spell-casting wizard with his left hand for as much he is a gangster with his weapon-toting right.  

While I know many gamers love the plasmids, they didn’t jive for me.  Throwing a dummy of myself in front of enemies, taking mind control of gun turret, blasting fire from my fingertips, or any of the other numerous plasmid effects felt more like possibilities added for gaming’s sake rather than ideas organic to the setting or story.  In terms of sheer mechanics, it was fun to shock an enemy then blast them with the shotgun, but at some level I felt like a wizard in a sci-fi world—an incongruent combination which perpetually jarred my experience.  As the saying goes, ‘when everything is possible, nothing is interesting’, had the plasmids been contextualized with the setting, their use would have been more engaging.

Another issue I had with the game is that enemies endlessly respawn.  There are moments to stop, catch your breath, collect the loot, and think about your next move.  But anytime you exit an area for a certain amount of time, the baddies will be back in similar numbers.  Re-killing them felt like a waste of time, a waste of gameplay, and ultimately an unnecessary obstacle toward advancing the story, which, after all, is supposed to be one of the main pillars of the game…  

But enough negativity.  As mentioned in the intro, the main pillar of Bioshock is its art and design.  Fully realizing the vision of what an art deco/modernist city would look like underwater, many of the game’s visuals elements are burned into my memory.  The gorgeous theater and entertainment district, the bizarre markets, the minimalist penthouse apartments, the lush gardens—every level is distinct yet adheres to the art deco style in colorful neon form.   Without this aspect (for example a bog-standard science fiction space colony setting), I do not think Bioshock would be as regarded as it is.

As mentioned, 2K Boston based Bioshock’s setting on the ideas of Ayn Rand.  (For those not in the know, Rand purported her own “philosophy” called objectivism, which places personal gain and pleasure through industry as the individual’s right and aim.)  Rapture portrayed as the leftovers of what such an objectivist society might have been, I’m sure more people than just me will find it ironically humorous that one man’s tyranny ends up being the end game—literally and figuratively.
In the end, Bioshock is somehow one of video gaming’s more renowned games, but for me this is largely centered around the vividly portrayed art deco motif, and to some minor degree, the story.  My strongest memories of the game will be the graphic design.  Otherwise, the first-person shooter aspects and general gameplay are quite standard, and at times repetitive.  (I suppose there are not many games that do not at some point become repetitive, and Bioshock is not the worst sinner in this area.)  I enjoyed playing it through completion, just don’t feel the urge to play it again, or any of the sequels. 

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