THROWBACK THURSDAY: BIOSHOCK SERIES

There be spoilers ahead, lads. Many spoilers.

When I embarked on this full-series review, I didn’t want to get too caught up in the “best design” / “wackiest twist” / “worst characters” debates. I just wanted to play the series as a continuous whole, in quick succession, and see how everything fit together. However, my muse is a fickle bitch, with a very short attention span, and I failed to avoid picking favourites. Case in point: Bioshock 1 took me 11 hours to beat. I really like digging through nooks for loot and I sought out every little sister in each level. Bioshock 2 took me 13 hours to beat - I had the same habits for exploring corners and herding sisters - but funny enough, the 2-hour difference there is only due to replay time following spontaneous crashes + infrequent saving. Bioshock Infinite took me two hours to completely abandon. I might pick it up again someday, just to see if... nah, fuck it. I really didn't enjoy myself at all. And if you think I need to beat it to enjoy it, then, well, I suppose that's part of my problem with it.

The Bioshock series has a slough of really consistent themes: Waves of enemies, punctuated by climactic, juggernaut-centered brawls; fabulous southpaw superpowers; constant resource attrition; audio logs which pedantically, yet deliciously, build the world you’re exploring; radical governments of isolated super-societies, rotted to their core by dogma; bizarre distortions of the father-child relationship, simplified to the tracking down of lost ladies; meta-narrative revelations on the illusion of free will; the need to become one’s enemy in order to overcome him; and, of course, always, lighthouses. Never mind that there actually isn’t, always, a lighthouse -- just shut up, it sounds cool. I would say these themes are the main pillars of the series, as each game seems to manifest all of them, but in different ways.

In Bioshock 1, you are the child come to kill the father. You kill 2 of them, really, after wading through the honorary uncles and lackeys who knew them. It wouldn’t be hard for the player to imagine Jack to look like themselves - the thought experiment seems to be “This could be anyone” - so the significance of patricide feels more personal. Though father-killing cannot be avoided due to your character’s brainwashed history, child-killing can be avoided, should you choose, and this choice, though transparently binary, affects the future of the world. Rewriting your genetic code with the ADAM syringe is a traumatic and overwhelming experience, given due significance. But it’s not long before shooting up on gene-twisting plasma becomes routine, and you join the ranks of shock-and-flame-happy Splicers that stand in the way of your mission. Big Daddy fights are tense, furious affairs during the early game, but as you gain strength and understanding of their nature, their deaths become more tragic and pitiful.

NOTES

  • elegance in the interplay of gameplay and narrative; you are an accidental survivor in a dangerous world, yet mistaken as intruder/invader by the powers here. scrounging for food, killing on sight makes sense.

  • everything presented over the course of the game is a Chekov’s gun; everything has a reason for being as freaky-deaky as it is. Bioshock 1 is like… a terrarium narrative, completely self-contained. like a good argument, all of Bioshock’s science fiction narrative is VALID, SOUND, and exhaustive

  • you become a Big Daddy protecting the little girls -- you splice the same plasmids as the maniacal splicers -- you become the monsters you fight throughout the game.

  • however on this second playthrough, I COULD NOT BELIEVE THAT KILLING Andrew Ryan at his own behest is not in the player’s control. I thought the whole point was the epiphany that everything you’ve willfully been doing in the game is mere puppetry through your psychological conditioning. At no point previously in the game has obeying commands been like watching a cutscene, so why here, now, at this crucial and significant reveal? it could be as simple as you cannot move -- try to move the camera away from Ryan and he shouts “WOULD YOU KINDLY LOOK ME IN THE EYE AND KILL ME, SLAVE!?” and even then… it should be the player who pulls the trigger. The game will still not advance until Ryan is dead, but putting that in the player’s hands is such a juicy narrative opportunity that I’m astonished it wasn’t included among all the other impressive risks taken in Bioshock’s story. Perhaps its determinism hard at work here?

  • for such a talkative game -- it’s possible to hear X lines of dialogue simultaneously: PA announcement; splicer banter; Little Sister banter; Tape Recording; Vending Machine; Record player -- the quality of dialogue is consistently extremely high. wonderful acting and writing. Everything is interesting to listen to, and well-performed; as quotable as anything from a Tarantino flick. The sound design is the real adhesive of this dystopia, giving the backdrop a tactile atmosphere.

In Bioshock 2, you are the father (and kind-of husband) of a shattered family. The game is careful to emphasize your masked appearance, allowing you to place yourself inside the Big Daddy suit. Bioshock 2 seems to recognize that rescuing little girls is really rewarding, and their gushing love and adulation really struck nerves in me. It also recognizes that choice was an exciting part of the first game. You can choose to spare multiple lives! Revolutionary! Leaping at deformed psychopaths, impaling them on a drill, then electrocuting and pistolwhipping them is really, REALLY fun. They’re monsters, you’re a monster, and most importantly, they’re after your little girl. Any extreme of violence would be justified to the distorted mind of a Big Daddy wouldn't it? Nimble Big Sisters are a terrifying leg up on BS1’s juggernauts, and even in this game, Big Daddies are non-threatening in comparison to the slender killing machines.

NOTES

  • Intro and title card have no impact. in Bioshock 1, we see the logo drenched in dripping seawater and the spiraling light source because that’s what’s happened to our character: the character and the player have been helplessly flung into the ocean, to find their only salvation in Rapture. Bioshock 2 lazily rehashes this introductory “splash” page without any of the narrative consistency, as you start the game already in Rapture. with this introduction, the game’s interest completely leans on your knowledge of the first game -- expansion pack sequel??

  • Graphics are way better! UI has been tightened up.

  • game crashed on PC within 16 minutes of first boot, during battle with big sister -- no autosave. Utter bullshit.

  • the political theme is brainier this time around, confronting the destructive extremes at which altruistic collectivism begins to resemble Andrew Ryan’s meritocratic utopia; the message seems to be “any philosophy of governance, taken to its extreme,will lead to anarchy.”

  • weapons and ammo types are inventive and amusing.

  • Most everything in narrative and gameplay is a refinement of the previous game with a few big exceptions. One being the non-optional bouts with the Big Sisters.

  • your relationship with the girls and their rescue becomes deeper, with more choices to make in dealing with them. I was impressed with how the game replicated in the player what happens to brainwashed, conditioned Big Daddies when they’re near Little Sisters. When a sick little girl tells you you’re the best daddy ever, after you’ve finished splattering her in the blood of the enemies who would take her from you -- you believe it. In Rapture, fatherhood is reduced to a chemically-dependent facsimile of love, what better emotional backdrop for the time-tested video-game reward cycle of slaying bad guys and rescuing princesses?

  • People say Bioshock 2 failed because it didn’t have the “shock” that the first had; but I was moved closer to tears by BS2’s surprise reveal than by anything else in the series. I won’t spoil it, but there is a change in perspective that adds a lot of weight to the events of BS1 and 2.

In Bioshock Infinite ( although most everything about the gameplay is linear and self-contained), you are trying to a rescue your sexy daughter from a time-shifted alternate dimension after selling her as a baby for gambling money, to another time-shifted alternate dimension version of yourself. I found it really difficult to put myself in Booker DeWitt’s shoes, even though he was probably market-tested to appeal to me, demographically. His name and backstory are too specific, too far apart from the setting of the game. And his constant muttering acts as stand-in for player cues: a chair unveils itself and Booker says, “Guess it’s time to go sit in the fucking chair now.” There is one person for you to save, and once you do, she completely takes care of herself - the game even tells you so. There is nothing to protect her from that is not resolved by a cutscene. You’re introduced to the beautiful and pristine world of Columbia in celebration, and yet as soon as the city’s dark secret is revealed, the killing begins and never seems to stop. Every cop knows your face; every cop has to die. The first bit of violence is in self defense, though any defense attorney who saw the corpse would emphatically disagree. This instantaneous descent into radical violence fell flat because I didn’t feel myself turn into a killing machine over the course of the game’s trials - which had been kind of a mainstay in the previous games. And your freedom of choice to prevent this violence is mocked. You choose a pendant for Elizabeth to wear. You’re told by a transdimensional telegram not to pick up a ball , and then pick up the ball anyway. None of this comes off as a serious meditation on the agency of the player, but rather some thematic window-dressing on an underwhelming story.

NOTES

  • though I hadn’t ever played it I came into this game with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. everything about it just suggests it doesn’t have that laborious attention to detail that makes Bioshock 1 so enthralling: the dude and princess on the cover; the fact that your character constantly chatters, throughout all the other wry chatter in the game; the beautiful, “living” city full of identical mimes and closed storefronts. People argue that it’s just as detailed, and yes, there are nooks & crannies full of coinpurses and lockpicks on each level. But with gene tonics and plasmids readily available, why hasn’t the city rapidly devolved into chaos? Isn’t that an interesting detail? Don’t you think a city ascended to the clouds to entertain constitutional literalness would have every single civilian armed with a gun? Shouldn’t the whole game have addressed the inherent flaws in each amendment of the US Constitution -- since the US Constitutition is presented as the theme?… anyway, disclaimer there.

  • Well through my first hour, I have no clue what the fuck is going on. Going to an island in sky city to get a girl to pay off a debt. What debt? What girl?? What the fuck is sky city??? Who brought me here???? I’m sure this all ties into the utterly brilliant reveal that nothing’s as it seems, that everything is a conspiracy you were in on all along, etc etc etc., typical of the series. But as an intro to a game it came off as jarring to me. In Bioshock 1, you’re gradually introduced to everything. You’re in an airplane; it crashes over the sea; you swim to a lighthouse, see a bit of freaky shit, and descend to Rapture, accompanied by a slow crawl of the city exterior, and a full explanation of what the fuck is up with this place. Then you pop up into the city, get attacked and rescued, and from there on, a friendly person contacts you by radio and guides you through the broken world. The game is extremely quiet through this early stage leading up to the Medical Pavilion, nudging one thing at you at a time. Acquiring Plasmids is a big deal that demands exposition. Encountering Splicers is a big deal that requires explanation. The game’s overall tone is melancholic, apologetic; weeping violins sing an apology that it has to be this way, that this had to happen to you, but that you’re gonna get out, somehow. The violence and pillaging is depicted as tragic and necessary, and somehow, this provides a strong narrative throughline to me, the human player behind the controller, which gives the game some kind of ethical relatability. You’re left wondering, “Am I gonna make it?”

  • In Bioshock Infinite, your character is going to the city to fuck shit up. And that you do. The game presents the city to the player as radical, unprecedented, astonishing. Yet the character, who intentionally came here on ridiculous, cryptic instructions, seems overall nonplussed. You’re on the sea; delivered to a lighthouse which shoots you into the sky because you rang bells; you wander through the town fair, robbing cash registers and collection plates for some reason, and generally enjoying the mirthful atmosphere of the fair; then, very suddenly, you are attacked by police for not being (or being) a racist, and quickly disembowel several of them with a buzzsaw-pistol called a SkyHook™. You walk into a nice scene, and promptly ruin it. Nothing is depicted as tragic or traumatic, because this whole city is populated by evil racists and deserves to be destroyed. Where Bioshock 1 is depicted as a desperate struggle for survival in a ruthlessly egocentric society, Bioshock Infinite positions you as the empowered rapist of a morally degraded community. I have played so many incredibly violent games, seen such indulgent gore in movies. But that first taste of violence in Bioshock Infinite’s happy-families fair scene -- you lose control of the game and watch yourself disintegrate a policeman’s face and brains for, really, no good reason -- had me screaming with horror and lurching in my chair. The game funnels you through more waves of murderous, sadistic policemen and you effortlessly slash them all to pieces in turn. I have not felt fucked up for killing videogame enemies in a long time, but I did in Bioshock Infinite. I was left wondering, “Is this supposed to feel good?”

  • Following the abrupt introduction to killing sprees, I swallowed it. I am a pacifist at heart, but I am a fucking psychopath when it comes to bullet-oriented virtual realities. Kill everything that moves. No problem. Not 10 minutes go by before I enter a room, and the game reminds me with a pop-up message: “There are some people it might be bad to kill.” Blood dripping from my hands, rabid froth at the corners of my mouth, my mind muddled by Infinite’s gore-frenzied tone, I growled “Fuck off!!” and headshotted the two civilians in front of me. The police aim to kill me on-sight already, so what does it matter?

  • So I’ve bought into it. About half-an-hour later, I’m on Comstock’s zeppelin, and I happen upon a side-room where a nun or something is praying at an altar. I fire most a clip at her head. All of them pass straight through her. She doesn’t even flinch at the noise. I enter a further room, and Comstock confronts me through the window on a small skiff. Then I turn around and the woman I just tried to kill sets the airship on fire. Seriously, fuck you, game. You gave me one way of interacting with the world, then made it impossible for me to benefit from it in order to walk me through some derivative fucking scripted event.

 I should review this game next.

I should review this game next.

Bioshock Infinite is the Phantom Menace of Bioshock games, at once beholden to honour what came before, yet diffuse and desperate to tell its own snowflakey story. It looks shinier, but feels duller; it’s a prequel, jamming itself chronologically ahead of its predecessors and forcing connections to the originals where they were never intended to be; it blows too much hot air, which is a doozy in a series that lectures you with exposition; it indulges in nostalgic callbacks whenever there’s nothing else interesting to do (Lighthouses! Plasmids! Tatooine! Lightsabers - Lots and Lots of Lightsabers!); and diverse new characters are thrown in to broaden appeal without really considering the relevant social issues (Phantom Menace’s and BSI’s depictions of slavery are among the strangest and most insensitive I’ve ever seen). The similarities should come as no surprise. Both prequels were made on inflated budgets and expectations for mass appeal. And both seem to have fallen under the shadow of unquestioned auteurship. Ken Levine and George Lucas are “Ideas Men” -- and it seems well-established that the Star Wars prequel trilogies spiraled out of control without the editorial guiding hands of people like Marcia Lucas to counteract throngs of yes-men. BSI has that feel as well - the feel that some mitigating creative force has been muted, eclipsed, and the mad captain at the helm has steered the ship neither port nor starboard but -- *Ken Levine looks back over his shoulder and says, “Ready for this, guys!?”* -- STRAIGHT UP! INTO THE SKIES!