Talking Time appears to be suffering from host-wide MySQL issues, so please do not despair. If you get a 500 error, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It means Dreamhost doesn’t love you.
Anyway. I played the BioShock demo last night, and it left me wondering: Does storytelling have an Uncanny Valley, too?
There’s no question that this game is amazing on many levels; the art direction alone is pretty much mind-blowing. If this is what next-gen consoles are for, farewell to everything that’s happened between PlayStation and now. Lots of games do “dark,” but BioShock is the first game that manages to do it without sacrificing things like “detail” and “beauty.” The lighting is moody, sure, and that makes it spooky, but it also makes the colors richer. People toss around terms like “HDR lighting” without much thought to the actual benefits of the technology; who knew that it’s good for something other than shininess and blown-out faux overexposure? BioShock creates deep pools of blackness, but look within the darkness and you’ll see burnished metals and luxurious cloth, rendering an eye-popping world that perfectly creates the unique setting of an avant-garde utopia fallen into ruin.
And I appreciate the fact that the game doesn’t even try to be subtle in its lampooning of Objectivism. You’ve got a mad industrialist named Andrew Ryan (oh ho ho), a dude on the radio named Atlas, a self-sustaining capitalist society free of the shackles of religion and socialism and welfare, a legion of decadent me-first people undermined by their own excesses and their collective drive to become übermensch — all wrapped up in spot-on art deco stylings that echo the original dust jackets of the various works of Ayn Rand. How can anyone not love that, is what I’m asking.
Best of all, it’s less a first-person shooter than an adventure game that happens to make use of the standard FPS conceits. All in all, it promises to be a very welcome intellectual experience with enough visceral gameplay to appease players who totally hate intellectual experiences. The best of both worlds! Except that I still have some misgivings about the game.
I think the problem, perhaps somewhat ironically, is that the game world is so detailed, the story so thoughtfully crafted, that the contrived bits that enable the gameplay are thrown into high relief. The term Uncanny Valley only really ever seems to be applied to digital humans as an acknowledgement of the fact that the more detailed your faux-person becomes the more distracting the little ticks that betray his or her unreal nature tend to be. BioShock’s people are freaky and mutated — normal humans only appear as photos or other static images — so they get a pass. But the world itself is so convincing that its failures grate.
What really bothers me is that the game seems to suffer from the same problem I had with Half-Life 2 — that it’s basically one big scripted amusement park ride. The game is determined to herd you in a set direction from the moment you’re given control of your character, bobbing in the water and unable to do anything except drift over to a conveniently-located bathysphere that takes you into the depths. Later, you step through an opening blown in a wall to reach a new area, and the ragged hole somehow becomes impermeable, magically closing behind you against all logic. These game elements ring jarringly false and contrived in such an imaginatively-rendered world. It’s especially frustrating when every gushing preview I’ve read of this game has breathlessly proclaimed how open and free its gameplay is; the demo gives me none of that. It leaves me concerned that the final product will turn out to be nothing more than your typical Half-Life-inspired on-rails ride with “player choice” limited to what kind of weapons you use against the hordes of scripted enemies. I do not want this to be the case.
As for the spookiness… well. Games like this rarely do much to creep me out, since “crazy mutants caused by dabbling in God’s domain” is pretty hard to do without being trite, and I’m not sure from what I’ve seen that BioShock succeeds just yet. I definitely applaud little touches like the woman talking to a revolver in a baby carriage as if it were her own infant, but on the whole it still feels a bit like it’s trying too hard. The happy exception is the mutualistic relationship of the Big Daddy/Little Sister pairs, which somehow makes the tired horror trope of deranged little girls in summer frocks menacing again. Funny how a half-ton of heavily-armed superhuman protector will do that.
If this sounds needlessly churlish of me… well, you’re probably right. But I am bearing in mind that this is a demo of the earliest areas of the game, a training ground for new players, and can’t wait to see what the full game has to offer. I’ve heard that how you deal with the Little Sisters has some bearing on the game’s outcome, and since the Adam/Eve element is clearly tied into the freakish mutations that wander the game I’d really like to think that how (and how much) you use your Plasmids will affect what happens to your character in the end.
And really, if I sound cranky, it’s because I’ve fully anticipated BioShock to be a revolution in game design. To have a spookier, slower Half-Life 2 would be a letdown. I scathe because I care, and hope.