Welcome to the general, spoiler-free BioShock post. The next one will be full of spoilers and cover the topics that everyone's talked about already. I hope you like reading about Objectivism!
BioShock, Part One
BioShock is a great game. Here's what's wrong with it.
Sorry to be so glib. But look how quickly I did that! Some blogs take paragraphs to choke out that disclaimer.
To be fair, what I'm about to discuss isn't an issue exclusive to BioShock, but it's something the game does quite frequently. The player has one goal for the majority of the game: get to this guy. That's driving the plot. And for all you've read about the game's philosophical undertones, it's a shooter. It's fast paced. Which is why there's no bigger buzzkill than this:
"He's right through that door! Go! Go!"
"The door's locked. You'll need to find a way to open it! Begorrah!"
Three hours later:
"It's open! What are you waiting for? He's right through that door! Go! Go!"
What happened in those three hours? I visited a new part of Rapture, I shot some splicers, I listened to some diaries, ooh, new plasmid. Much like the rest of the game except the plot was on hold. I might as well have been in a coma. Can I get back to the real game now? Thanks. Please don't do that again -- oh, you did it again.
Okay, in one sense, it doesn't matter. You're progressing from one level to the next as normal: no reason why Fort Frolic is any different from the Medical Pavilion. Clearly, though, it's a lesser part of the story. The writing in BioShock, by design, occupies such a high echelon in gaming: players are supposed to be into the story, it's not there as an excuse for them to shoot things. So if you're into it, and you can't wait to find Andrew Ryan, when this Sander Cohen douche says "I locked the door, come do something for me," maybe, maybe, he's not commanding your full enthusiasm. I understand that this is a video game, the levels are set in stone: I need to go to Fort Frolic. But the reasons the game gives me are ridiculous. I'm going there to remove the obstacle that you arbitrarily threw in my way. The story has not changed once I get past it.
"Well, if all the game was was chasing Andrew Ryan, then the game itself would only be three hours. No one would buy it." I don't know who I'm imitating there. But the story doesn't have to operate in such a transparently stop-start fashion. Why not rewire the narrative so traversing Fort Frolic is progress and not a chore? The way it's framed, I'm not enjoying it as much as I otherwise could be. The only way the player can really enjoy and take their time with these diversions is if they accept that this is an unavoidable part of the game and you need to spend three hours here before resuming the story. But how is that not unsatisfying?
Like I said, this problem extends past BioShock, but it's almost a Ken Levine staple. System Shock 2: I need to get to Deck 4 to meet someone, and to do that I need to active the elevators but to do that I need to flush out the radiation in the area and to do that I need to use the fluid control computer and because the fluid control computer is locked I need to go to Cargo Bay B to find the unlocking code and Cargo Bay B is locked so I need to go to Cargo Bay A to find the key to Cargo Bay B and STOP IT. You're padding the story and it's frustrating.
Steve wrote a post about why games should be shorter and I sort of disagreed with him at the time ("at the time", like it wasn't a couple of days ago.) I don't feel too strongly about whether a game is 6 or 60 hours, so long as it's the right length. What this BioShock post has prompted me to note is that "the story" and "the game" are such separate concerns. BioShock the story and BioShock the game aren't fully in sync. I'm not sure whether it's the story that needed to be longer or the game that needed to be shorter, but one of them should have acquiesced.
To be continued... after I write a post about Knights of the Old Republic that's completely unrelated to BioShock. Spot the metaphor.