Having been a proud Xbox 360 owner for only a couple months now, I’ve been trying to juggle the recent flood of great downloadable games (both on 360 and the PS3) while simultaneously trying to clear out that backlog. Luckily there’s a big lull for me in September before the big holiday games hit — except Rock Band 2, arguably the biggest release this year…but since all my Rock Band peripherals are PS3 I have another month to wait — so I decided to take the opportunity to tackle the game I’ve been wanting to play the most: BioShock.
I still have quite a bit of the game left, but so far I’ve been most impressed with the game’s aesthetics and presentation. I deliberately avoided reading too much about the game before its release knowing I wouldn’t be able to play it for a long time; all I really knew was that it’s quite good regardless of whether or not you like first-person shooters, that it’s set in a city under the sea, and that there’s something involving huge robots that protect little girls. Imagine my surprise, then, to find that Rapture is a dystopia absolutely drenched in 1950’s art deco. Even more surprising is how creepy the game has been so far; I hadn’t expected BioShock to focus quite this much on, well, mood.
The short amount of time it took for Bioshock to wrap me completely around its finger has had me thinking a lot about how important the aesthetic of a game can be. It’s very, very rare for me to even give an FPS a chance these days, let alone become enthralled with it; yet BioShock’s art direction and insistence on creating an evocative atmosphere has me completely under its spell. Team Fortress 2’s character design is another great (though stylistically different) example of this. Meanwhile, Guitar Hero 3’s ugly character models helped push me into Rock Band’s camp, and I’m sure way back when I was a kid the graphics were at least partially responsible for me not liking Zelda II.
That isn’t to say it’s always necessary for a great game to have great looks. Gears of War is pretty much everything I hate about American design: big, burly men in space armor with oversized guns. Once I gave it a shot, though, the gameplay shone through and I was able to appreciate it in spite of itself. Heck, Metal Gear Solid is probably one of my favorite series ever, and it’s come dangerously close to that the line between “fun” and “army man” a few times. Outstanding gameplay can more than make up for a lacking in art style, but it’s often going to be a hard sell. (And I think it’s pretty telling, then, that I never learned to love Zelda II anyway.)
Sometimes it’s an easy sell — Zack and Wiki, and the upcoming Valkyria Chronicles, are both channeling the same aesthetic Mega Man Legends offered (which, in turn, was borrowing liberally from Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky). Of course I’m going to buy into that. Similarly, LittleBigPlanet’s fantastic art design had me excited as soon as I saw it in motion; I hadn’t even learned what the game was about, and I was already ready to give it a shot. On the other hand, BioShock stands out for me and likely always will because it caught me off-guard. I’m sure I’ll always look back fondly on that first glimpse of Rapture and remember how surprised — and immediately intrigued — I was. Whether this is an argument for not hungrily digesting each and every big of information about a game and preserving the mystique, or simply for expanding what a genre can offer, I’m not sure. Probably both. Yeah, let’s go with both.