December 10, 2008

Never Break The Chain

I don't have a new Hit Self-Destruct post for you this week. To make up for it, I have an unearthed a classic piece from the vault (there's only one thing in the vault.) This is an old article I wrote about Bioshock that was never published on this site. It dates back to either October or November of 2007, which means it's a fairly immediate emotional reaction to the game but not exactly timeless. Who even remembers Bioshock these days. You could substitute the word "Bioshock" with something else that has disappointed you recently, like Mirror's Edge, Little Big Planet, Far Cry 2, or a colleague, spouse or child. I dropped in some new pictures to subtly modernise it. This won't be a regular feature, incidentally; I'm uncomfortable reading any of my writing that's more than twenty minutes old. I accidentally looked at the top of this paragraph and shrieked.

Bioshock: the Game that Wasn't

Here's an impression of a preview writer circa June 2007: When I look at BioShock I see a great game. Ken Levine and his team are about to unleash a revolution that will change the way we think about video games. Is it too soon to call BioShock an unqualified masterpiece? We hope not. Game of the Year? Try Game of the Century. Prepare to be Shocked. We noticed some balancing and FOV issues but we're confident that these will be ironed out before release.

Uncanny. The thing is, I'm actually being a little bit serious. I really do look at BioShock and see a great game. Caveat: the game in question isn't actually there. I'm talking about the game that's buried somewhere in the design documents in Ken Levine's office, and that the version I played only hints at.

By "better game" I don't mean one where 2K "fixed" the vita-chambers or the hacking minigame or made it more like System Shock 2 in every way. I mean a BioShock that's as good as it deserved to be, if only it hadn't fell victim to a Xenian flame-out in the final third. Much like how A.I. could have been a good movie if only it had ended right at that moment. There's no similar consensus as to how BioShock should have ended, only that it shouldn't have been that.

Let's start at the beginning, by which I mean the ending. On a strictly narrative level, BioShock's ending is underwhelming at best. It inelegantly redefines what the story was all about: it was about an underwater dystopia, objectivism versus nihilism, rationality and free will, right? Well, the ending's not. Somewhere in that final third, this game about high-minded philosophy and critical metafiction becomes a game about wide-eyed little girls and uncomplicated megalomania. From Rapture to crapture.

Make no mistake, it's absolutely important that BioShock conclude the story of the Little Sisters and — to less of an extent — the player character, Jack. It does both of these well (in the "good" ending, at least.) Neither of these things are as relevant as what BioShock omits — and I know they're relevant because the game spent over half its length convincing me of their worth. The haunting and arguably game-defining moment of meta-game commentary: ignored completely. Any kind of a synthesis or resolution to the objectivism/nihilism debate: sorely absent, and the dynamic is reduced to simple martyrs and villains.

This is unusually academic territory. For a video game, certainly, this is Foucault. Even though BioShock proved itself fairly capable of handling this material, we're admittedly dealing with the more esoteric (though still glaring) of the game's neglects. And yet BioShock disregards the completely literal element of Rapture. How can there not be any resolution on this magnificently ostentatious experiment which is both the premise and the entire setting of the game? The ending avoids the topic, not in the form of a cliffhanger, but rather it briefly confirms your personal altruism or sociopathy and throws you back to the main menu. Apparently, it wasn't that subject matter suddenly became too difficult, it's that the whole game inexplicably went off the rails.

I've glossed over a rather important point. The Andrew Ryan scene is one of the best and most worthwhile statements ever made in a video game about video games. Sure, there's hardly any competition for the title, and the statement in question is not particularly complex, but that's no excuse for not saying it. If anything, BioShock raised the bar for other developers in that respect. What are they going to do with the point BioShock just made? Interesting question, but here's a better one: what's BioShock going to do with the point BioShock just made? Well, hmm.

After that scene the whole dialectic about slaves and free will vanishes from the game. Fair enough, one could argue: the game already made its point reasonably well, and you're still playing a video game. Within the context of the story, though, Jack is a "slave" because he's being mind-controlled. The story's not about that, of course, that's just how it legitimises the abstract point about player agency: that in video games your choices are so limited you might as well be mind-controlled. There'd be less cause to complain if Jack remained under Fontaine's control the whole game, but he doesn't. He breaks free soon enough and the rest of the game plays out exactly the same. The player takes orders from Tenenbaum, not Atlas, and that's the extent of the differences. Again: could be fine, if BioShock hadn't abandoned its excuse for being so constricted, and thus hadn't become exactly what it was criticising. Every thought, every idea that BioShock compels with that Ryan scene is soon forgotten, and that wonderful moment is marginalised instead of assuming its rightful place as the cornerstone of a better game, and a better story: BioShock's tantalisingly close to fully realising its idea about being held hostage to narrative — less Truman Show and more Sophie's World. Essentially, BioShock just made a great, incendiary point about video games. Now, what's the game going to do with it?

It's not going to do anything with it.

BioShock tells you something incredibly exciting and then refuses to discuss it. What we've just seen, says BioShock, was a video game. That goes for gaming across the board. Artifical. Restricted. The implication is, now that we're fully cognisant of our limitations and have the means to remove them, we're about to see real life. It turns out reality is a lot like a video game.

It could have even been the illusion of choice; anything that wasn't the exact same thing you've been showing us and that you just damned. It's excruciating that a game this intelligent and talented drops the ball so badly. The most important choice that's actually in the game is even taken away from you: the choice between the "good" and "bad" endings. Instead, BioShock presumes to know the player's character, and this seems very much the wrong game to assume that. It could have made sense if the ending depended on the Little Sisters' actions, based on your behaviour towards them throughout, but that's not the case. That's not the BioShock we have.

Perhaps I'm being na├»ve. After all, who hasn't, even once, bought into marketing over-hype and subsequently been disappointed with an above-average product? BioShock isn't Fable, though — it was over-hyped, sure, but my disappointment is in response to the quality of the game itself. That Ryan scene says "we're shooting for the stars," and I believe it. BioShock is better than this. BioShock is capable of more than this.

I believe that if any game was going to show us the video game version of "reality" (as opposed to the video game version of "video game" — I know this is confusing) it would have been BioShock. After the Ryan scene, that's when we should have had our revolution. That's when it should have changed the way we think about video games. You should have been showing us free will, self-determination, autonomy, as if it's all new to us. Maybe that's too high an expectation — but at the very least, that's when it should have become a better game.

The sad reality is what I'm proposing — and what BioShock itself proposed, frankly — is somewhat impractical. A lot of games flop in their final hours. Just as many stay consistent, and a select few save some of their best stuff for the endgame. I can't think of any game that completely reinvents itself at the two-thirds mark and eclipses everything that gaming has shown you to date. The end of a game is the area worst affected by crunch time, that's where the most debilitating and noticeable cuts are made. And nobody wants to hear that the game will really get good, honestly it will, once you've sunk ten hours into it. BioShock's introduction is probably the game at its most impressive, because once you've hooked the player it really doesn't matter if they see the ending. They've bought the game. BioShock painted itself into a corner — the only way to satisfy its promises is to deliver what in conventional game development simply cannot be delivered.

We can't blame it all on current marketplace realities. The fact of it is BioShock didn't even try and fail. Worse than that, it just didn't think it through. BioShock had a very clever idea but didn't know what to do with it. All dressed up and nowhere to go. Or rather, all dressed up and then goes home and won't answer your calls. Post-Ryan, we wonder what could possibly happen next. BioShock's wondering the same thing. Perhaps BioShock drops the subject so abruptly because it literally doesn't have an idea how to end that game; the game we saw in the Ryan scene and that we thought we were playing. Fortunately for BioShock, it does have an idea on hand for an ending to a far less compelling game. Levine's mentioned how late in the process the story came together. It's sadly self-evident.

BioShock could have done it, I really believe that. If only because of its single-minded determination in getting the player to that Andrew Ryan scene and then executing it so well. What we're left with is the BioShock that is and not the BioShock that isn't there. And that's the really special one. Try game of the century.


Steve gaynor said...

"Crapture?!?" Blammo!

Steve gaynor said...

Seriously though, a very incisive analysis, and one that seems like it would've been right at home running during the post-release afterglow. Why did you can it?

qrter said...

It was published at the time, just not here -

It's a nice piece. Irrational dropped the ball on BioShock, they didn't dare to go all the way (or hadn't even ever thought of going the whole way).

Duncan said...

Yeah, qrter beat me to it. I think it's the latter, by the way: that it didn't occur to them. Ken Levine said a couple of months later how he underestimated the reaction players would have to the Ryan bit (players like me, apparently.) You also heard a lot about that game's final story coming in really late, and the fact that parts of it ultimately don't quite cohere is maybe not that unexpected.

In unrelated news, Alex P wrote a reply to Friends Like These, the HSD post from a week or so ago at his blog:

So if you liked that post you don't have to wait a year for me to revisit it.

Alex P said...

I want you to know, you just scared the living shit out of me.

I started reading this post, got my usual chuckle out of your opening, and positively freaked the fuck out when I started reading the rest. Maybe its the lack of sleep coupled with the new pills(it's a legitimate prescription, I swear), but I was positive I had read these very words before.

But how, I asked myself? It says plainly that you had never published it here before. Of course, it never dawned on me that I could have read it somewhere else.

My mind raced. Naturally, I began to assume that I had inadvertently suffered some sort of time-traveling disaster. I considered the prospects that I had created this entire existence, some sort of bizarre videogame criticism solipsism.

These are the thoughts that go through my mind at 2 AM.

Of course, qrter to the rescue. I was able to breathe a deep sigh of relief after checking out the comments.

Anyway, I liked the post back when I read it on IT last year, and needless to say, I still do. Except for the fact that it terrified me the second time around.


Duncan said...

Shit happens.

qrter said...

Hold on to your hats, gentlemen, as my first name is Alex and my last name begins with a P too!

So we could still be dealing with a bizarre time-traveling disaster after all (and inadvertently with the required creepy lovemaking with future-self..)! ;)

Valentin Galea said...

What you are missing here is that Bioshock has perfect gameplay. All the way to the last boss.

Remember that? Actual fun, rewarding gameplay?

All the perfect stories in the world won't save you from a let-down, unfair and boring gameplay.

So what the story didn't end in the bang it deserved? That's for Bioshock 2 to take on...

Anonymous said...

That was definitely a missed oppurtunity there, although I haven't got the foggiest idea of any worthwhile alternatives to implement at that point. After being apparently cured from Fontaine's mind control, I'm still running along the same corridors following orders, but this time I'm apparently doing it on my own free will.

Although the scene in question itself is well done, I remember being encumbered by serious Rapture Fatigue at that point, even though the architectural high point - Fort Frolic - was just a few levels ago. More than the missed meta-point to be made, I was disappointed by the shallow gameplay that was way too close for comfort to the original Doom. Main quests consisted of fighting your way into a far-away place to get a keycard or flip a switch but - as we're living the 21st century - those flip-the-switch moments might just be accompanied by clever cutscenes where a florist gets gassed to death before giving us the thing we need. Too much of the game was: go to a place, find a object with a yellow halo signifying INTERACTIVITY, click mouse button (or maybe it was E). You now have a BOMB. You may now go to the CORE, which curiously enough gains a yellow halo signifying INTERACTIVITY. Click mouse button to place BOMB to CORE. A cutscene and taunting-by-radio ensues.

But man it looked good. As an aestheric statement, there was no stopping Bioshock that year. And you could shoot BEES! The splicers' reactions to the BEES were hilarious: "Oh no, not the BEES!" just like they had been mercilessly stung numerous times before and knew what was coming. Too bad it was such a EVE-drain.