Trite end-of-year thing #4: BioShock

And the series continues, delayed now well beyond the point of irrelevance. At this point, my fourth favorite game of 2007 — BioShock — is practically retro.

What’s that, you say? I already mentioned BioShock and disqualified it from inclusion in this list because I hadn’t finished it? Well, yes, that’s true. But I did finish it in 2007, and figured my original number six title (Illustlogic, an import-only DS game that’s exactly like Picross except vastly better) wouldn’t be terribly missed if I squeezed it out in favor of Irrational’s shooter/adventure thing. Sorry, Illustlogic. I had to choose a favorite, so I chose…


Irrational/2K | Xbox 360/PC | FPS, more or less

You know, it’s funny to hear that BioShock’s story was something that came together only at the end of development, something that evolved radically from its original concepts — a cult deprogrammer on an island of Nazis or some such — because it suggests that Irrational (or 2K Boston or whatever they’ve been forced to rebrand themselves as) spent most of its effort developing BioShock’s gameplay. And let’s be frank: the gameplay ain’t really that great. It’s good, no question about it. But overall the action sits uncomfortably at the intersection between pure first-person shooting, Metroid-esque exploration, PC adventuring and role-playing. It’s a little of each, but not enough of one to offer any sort of satisfying revelations or innovations.

In fact, BioShock is the furthest thing from innovative, since by all accounts it’s pretty much System Shock 2 meets The Little Mermaid — Shodan goes by another name, and you’re Under the Sea, but everything from the plot to the AI hacking is basically the same. Of course, most people haven’t played System Shock 2, myself included, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

Also, memo to whoever owns System Shock 2: please release for Xbox Live Arcade. Thanks.

The strength of BioShock’s gameplay comes in its flexibility; in an era where most entries in the FPS genre are content to bite Halo‘s two weapons, melee and grenades design — which, admittedly, is pretty fantastic for console shooters — BioShock gives you an impressive array of weapons and skills, and the ability to customize your setup at practically any moment. This is quite different from the Metroid Prime approach, where each power-up is required to surmount specific environmental obstacles; progress through BioShock is wholly story-driven, and doors are simply locked until the game allows them to be unlocked. It’s every bit as linear as a Prime title, but you have to make actual choices about how you play rather than simply using the latest gun or bomb to beat a new palette-swapped foe before they’ll let you out of the room.

My approach was to be a stealthy super-hacker with more emphasis on defense than on offense, turning every single security camera or gun turret into my loving ally against the splicers and lurking invisibly in the shadows while Rapture’s defenses did most of my work for me. Besides shocking foes into stunned submission, I rarely messed with offensive plasmids, preferring instead to beef up my combat efficacy through photographic research (one of the more impressive risk-reward structures in recent memory). But I could just as easily have become an elemental powerhouse, freezing enemies before shattering them with a single blow, or an invisible wrench god who earned special bonuses for unexpectedly smacking enemies in the back of the skull.

The only real limitation is the order in which plasmid power-ups are doled out — a disappointingly arbitrary process, as many of the plasmids I wanted to use didn’t show up until late in the game. Given that plasmids are similar in function to the different skill branches of an RPG and aren’t prerequisites to progress, I’d much rather have been able to specialize early on and earn advanced abilities in my preferred branch as opposed to having a bunch of unwanted low-level abilities to choose from. Even so, it’s good to be able to choose.

And choice, ultimately, is at the heart of BioShock. Or rather, the lack of choice — besides your power-up selections and of course the much-hyped decision over whether to harvest the Little Sisters’ ADAM or set them free, BioShock is a chokingly linear experience in which the player is goaded and guided through a series of challenges and “missions.” Just like most modern games of the FPS ilk, really — but the difference is that BioShock makes the player’s involuntary conscription a key plot point.

This is BioShock’s true victory: a compelling story built around a genre mechanic that gamers have taken for granted since Half-Life. Or, more accurately, since the original System Shock and its main competitor, Marathon. BioShock begins like any other FPS, with the player thrust immersively into a sticky situation and given instructions by a voice in his ear under the assumption that you’ll simply do as you’re told, because that’s how these games work. But as you begin to piece together the truth of Rapture (doled out in tantalizing dollops via audio diaries scattered throughout the city’s ruins), your own role in the story slowly falls into place. Ultimately, everything comes to a head in one of the single most powerful subversions of video game tropes ever crafted, with a major plot twist that comes off as boringly predictable next to the brilliant and shocking use of interactive narrative that accompanies it.

It’s at this moment that BioShock cements itself as one of the most brilliantly-conceived games in recent memory, a gripping fusion of story and action whose obedient observance of the rules of gaming makes its abandonment of those expectations all the more powerful.

And the one core narrative choice the player is allowed to make — whether to help or harvest the Little Sisters — leads into one of the most beautifully understated endings ever, a quiet minute of narration that brings closure to both the broad plot and the story’s underlying themes. (Unless, of course, you choose differently, in which case the ending is something else entirely.) In the end, BioShock’s ambitious-but-flawed gameplay and occasional moments of narrative triteness are vehicles for a series of memorable scenarios, punctuated in turn by two or three truly powerful moments… and it’s these moments that stick with you once you’re done with the adventure. It’s not the best game I’ve played lately, but it might be the most affecting. Which counts for a lot, it turns out.

25 thoughts on “Trite end-of-year thing #4: BioShock

  1. Okay I’ve played Bioshock and it’s great. Now tell me where I can get my hands on Illustlogic! I’ve been playing picross off and on since it came out and I need more .:)
    I can’t seem to find this game on import sites. is it out yet? if so can you link to a place that I can get it here in the US?

  2. System Shock 2 is safely sealed in the vaults of EA. Unless EA buys 2K sometime soon, I wouldn’t expect them to put that out any time soon.

  3. Ben, go to play-asia. Search for logic. You’ll get the what I’m guessing is the game Jeremy is referring to, plus the three import Picross games I’ve played through including an earlier 2006 Illust Logic (titled Puzzle Series vol 6.).

  4. Btw, how import friendly is it? are the rules difficult to learn if I don’t read Japanese? or is it pretty similar to picross?

  5. I R MR SLO. I’m guessing–since of the three other Picross games I imported, the Hudson one has the least confusing menu–the new one by Hudson should be okay. I’m also guessing that the rules will be the same, except that you won’t be penalized for wrong moves. Also, you will not get helpful english after solving each puzzle so you might not know what you just “drew”.

  6. Completely agree, it’s a good game with some great moments. I’d love to see System Shock 2 on Live, but I won’t get my hopes up. I started playing it back in the day and had to stop due to PC problems… never got back to it.

  7. I actually just beat Bioshock last night. Excellent experience, but I found myself a bit disappointed by the finale.

  8. Probably one of the biggest surprises for me about BioShock was that I didn’t spend as much time staring out into the ocean as I thought I would. I totally dig that sort of thing, so I figured that would stop me every time I came to a window, but I was so wrapped up in the story, I’d be running through windowed hallways without more than a cursory glance.

    I did stop in Hephaestus, however, when I heard what I thought was a whale and spent a frenzied minute or two trying to locate it. I never did.

  9. System Shock 2: scariest game ever.

    Bioshock was quite amazing, but looking back I would pick SS2, mostly because the pacing was a lot better. I agree that the subversion here was mindblowing, but even that owes a lot to the twist from SS2, and everything after it wasn’t nearly as interesting. At least in SS2 you had SHODAN taunting you along the way:

    “Your cybernetic implants are the only beauty in that meat you call a body. If you value that meat, you will do as I tell you.”

    Also the mood was WAY more amped up in SS2. ammo was frigging SCARCE – you needed to save every last drop for the important enemies and meele/evade the rest, unlike Bioshock’s abundant cash piles.

    *sigh* now i want to go play it again.

  10. My favorite shodan quote:
    “You move like an insect. You think like an insect. You *are* an insect. Take care not to fall too far out of my favor; patience is not characteristic of a goddess.”

    How’s the enemy AI in Bioshock?

  11. There are a few spoilers in this comment, so be warned…

    The rescue/harvest choice is extremely overhyped. The bonuses you’re granted for rescuing the Little Sisters pretty much make up for the loss of ADAM, in my opinion. But this really is a remarkable game, still my Game of the Year, by far. I’m playing through it a second time on hard difficulty, and am putting much more of an emphasis on exploration this time, since I know I missed a lot of little details the first time through (the Farmer’s Market area comes to mind). My tactics have changed, as well. The first time through on normal, I definitely took a more offensive approach and blasted anything that moved. But with the difficulty ratcheted up, I’m playing it more the way Parish did, doing a lot of hacking of the security systems and trying to stay out of sight as much as possible (the camouflage tonic really comes in handy, especially when you’re under siege by security bots). And after rescuing all the Little Sisters last time, I’m going the evil route this time around, just to see the other ending. (as I said previously, the benefits of this are pretty minimal). But just the fact that I’m playing it again so soon after finishing it speaks to how much I love this game (it’s pretty rare that I play through games of this length a second time at all, and at least not for a couple of years).

    Now I’m curious to see if today’s rumors about the prequel are true…

  12. To be quite honest, System Shock 2, even back in the day, kinda made me laugh because the graphics were horrendously sharp and square polygons from hell (90’s 3D). The gameplay was O.K., but nothing other games back in the day didn’t do, but maybe not in a sci-fi seting, or in 3D.
    So, Parish, you aren’t missing anything spectacular or even good. You would have to be a “classic gamophile” or something to enjoy it, or at least kinda like it. (You can get it at HOTU, you know).

  13. Yeah, but getting it isn’t the same as actually playing it. I know that I went through at least two different programs trying to get it to work. The XP shift was not good to System Shock.

    Of course, after I finally got it to work, everything in the world was that much better. My parents have their PC set up with a pretty good sound system, and they were out of time around the time I finished it. The first part is important because the sound design and usage in SS2 is absolutely amazing. The hybrids apologizing for what they’re doing? Creepy? Hearing it come from behind you when all you’ve got is a wrench and a pistol on the verge of destruction? Nervewracking. The enemies may have been ugly as sin (Which some of the user mods purportedly fixes), but the way everything sounds? Still top notch.

    Sadly, there’s the issues with EA owning it that could lead to problems. But it’s worth a try if you enjoy good games. I should see if I can actually get it to work on my lappy this semester, actually.

  14. Personally, I think Parish would love to play Phantasy Star IV. Maybe if enough people start saying how awesome it is a remake will be made. And, kids, way before Aerith and Cloud there was Alis and Rune, and believe us, the people from the early 90’s, when we say we were very sad when she died, a lot, not because she was a cute little flower girl, but because she was a badass character.

  15. System Shock 2 was not very good. I don’t like having to hit respawning enemies with wrenches because all the guns in the game can only fire like five shots before breaking.

  16. I have to say that my favorite part of BioShock was the research camera. As much as I loved hacking everything I could find and then tossing a security bug on some unsuspecting fool, the experience was incomplete without a series of sepia-toned snapshots. Of course, I started completing analyses by the bunch and the game lost a lot of its attraction. Still though, good game that kept me…enraptured (sorry).

  17. I do not think that word means, what you think it means. . .

    perhaps, captivated? enthralled?

  18. I love that movie.

    And what does “thralled” mean (besides a Scandinavian slave)? Enslaved? What’s with all the en- prefixes? Irregardless, anybody want peanut?

  19. Jeremy, you mention the gameplay in Bioshock isn’t that great…Yet I was a little bit surprised to see it top Mario Galaxy, which is all about gameplay. And my guess story-heavy games like Mass Effect and Halo might make your top 3 as well (Crackdown would be the third probably). Would you say your tastes have shifted now that you’re a little bit older? For some crazy reason I tend to think the Toastyfrog of just a few years ago was a little bit different.

  20. I’m certain Parish is not a stealth marketer, so, yes he is getting old but not in a funny way like that guy from Hot Shots!

    He seems to like more “western style” stuff now. And he started to change when he broke up with that cute japanese girlfriend he used to have, in my very biased and crazy INTERNETS opinion anyway.

  21. I’ve never had a Japanese girlfriend, and it’s really sort of pointless to make broad, sweeping generalizations based on a limited set of data.

  22. In that one screenshot where the guy is shooting a big daddy with AP auto rounds, he’s got 919 rounds in reserve! What the hell? If memory serves you’re only allowed 300 or so. Hax!

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