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Bioshock: The Most Important Game of the Generation

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Posted by Tony Huynh.
Bioshock is the most important game of this console generation. Bioshock not only succeeds as a well-crafted game, but transcends being “just a game” by enticing the player to think about philosophical ideas like Objectivism and Altruism as well as important topics such as government oversight and stem cell research. Bioshock is a game that shows the promise and the flexibility of our industry. For those of you interested, I explore the topic of social commentary in games further in my article: Roger Ebert was Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet.

Andrew Ryan Speaks out Against Altruism

Bioshock is set in 1960 and is a “what if” tale that serves as a sequel to the events following the conclusion of Ayn Rand’s influential book, Atlas Shrugged.

The game is about what might happen in a society created from the very best and brightest that humanity has to offer coupled with the removal of all government oversight and restrictions. The result is the impossible. The result is Rapture, a city filled with wonder under the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

Without the yoke of religion or morality tying down the scientists of Rapture, they soon discover a substance called ADAM (stem cells) that enable the user to rewrite their genetic code to make themselves stronger, faster, smarter, more beautiful and even gain superhero-like powers. The price they paid was their sanity.

This is the utopia dreamed by Ayn Rynd gone horribly wrong.

This article is a collection of my notes and thoughts on a playthrough of Bioshock on medium difficulty. There will be spoilers and the write-up assumes that you have played through the game already, so stop reading if you have not.

Bioshock has one of the greatest openings in gaming history. You are the protagonist Jack and begin the game aboard an airliner over the Atlantic. The passenger plane crashes and you are the lone survivor. Bobbing in the middle of the ocean, you see a very out-of-place lighthouse jutting out of the ocean beckoning to you. Once inside the lighthouse you are greeted with a bust of Andrew Ryan, Bioshock’s stand-in for Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt and a plaque that reads “In what country is there a place for people like me?” – Andrew Ryan.

Proceeding further you find a Bathysphere. With nowhere else to go, you enter and it is here that you are introduced in dramatic fashion to the city of Rapture. Just how the game introduces you to Rapture is absolutely amazing. I still get shivers even after multiple playthroughs.

Bioshock Introduction

At its core, Bioshock is a mystery that the player unravels through the course of the game. The world of Rapture is as scary as it is beautiful. The atmosphere is oppressive and there are genuinely frightening moments. I played the game alone late one night with the lights turned off and I caught myself looking over my shoulder more than once. The contrast in the music from the period really adds to the disturbing mood of the game.

Enemy introductions in Bioshock are some of the best that I have ever seen. One of the difficulties faced by game developers is how to introduce enemies to players fairly. That is to show what an enemy is capable of before letting them loose on the player. The most common practice in games is to introduce new enemy types through a cutscene. There are many advantages to the cutscene approach. The main one being that you can never be sure which direction the player’s camera will be facing during the game, thus they may miss events that happen during gameplay. The disadvantage is that the control is taken away from the player and immersion is broken. The developers at 2K Boston chose the more difficult, but more immersive route of never breaking the first-person camera perspective. As Ken Levine said, “cutscenes are for cowards.” The spider splicer is the first enemy that is revealed to the player when they arrive in Rapture. While still behind glass in the Bathysphere, Jack witnesses a Spider Splicer kill a man before viciously attacking the bathysphere that he is in. This not only shows the attacks of the enemy, but quickly tells the player that there is something very wrong in the city of Rapture.

While many games have great enemy introductions, fewer have memorable weapon introductions. This is surprising because as a design rule when weapons are first introduced they should always be placed in a scenario where the weapon is the most effective to make the player feel success with the weapon. The shotgun introduction in Bioshock sets a new bar for weapon introductions. As the player enters into a room they find that the shotgun is lying in the middle of the room. As the players picks up the new shiny weapon the lights go out, leaving the player in pitch darkness. Completely turning lights off on the player is very effective in raising tension. Audio of enemy Splicers can be heard before a single downward pointing directional spotlight turns on illuminating only the center of the room. The player gravitates towards this column of light because it is the only spot that they are able to see. From there they must fend off waves of Splicers armed with melee weapons with their new found shotgun. This forces the engagement range to be close, where the shotgun is the most effective. This is simply perfect execution of the weapon introduction design rule.

The telekinesis plasmid introduction was also very well-done. Before the plasmid is introduced, the player stumbles on a curious device, a tennis ball launching machine. Once activated the machine constantly spits out tennis balls, which hit the player and bounce off. Not finding any real use for the out-of-place machine, the player continues past the ball launcher through the level and finds the Telekinesis plasmid and is forced to back track and revisit the tennis ball machine. The true purpose of the tennis ball thrower is then revealed. The tennis balls simulate thrown dynamite that Splicers are armed with later in the game. The player is then allowed to practice catching the tennis balls with the Telekinesis plasmid and flinging them back at the machine. While this is not as memorable as Half-Life 2’s introduction of the gravity gun, it is nonetheless a very effective introduction to a new mechanic. The Telekinesis plasmid really frees the designers up to place goodies wherever they want as the players can now use this plasmid to retrieve cleverly placed pickups.

Speaking of plasmids that enable the player to gain additional items, I really liked the pickups locked in ice that can only be acquired through the use of the Incinerate plasmid. This gave many of the plasmids dual uses, like the Winter Blast plasmid that would slow down the flow in the hacking mini-games. The plasmids also served as lock and keys to prevent the player’s entry into new areas without first acquiring a specific plasmid. An example would be a door that was frozen shut that the player could not travel through until they found the Incinerate plasmid. This is similar to the gameplay used in Metroid, where the player would gain access to a new area only after finding the double jump ability. I would have liked the developers to have incorporated lock and keys that required more than one plasmid to bypass. Zelda games do this very often where you would need the combination of both the grapple hook and the iron boots to cross a ravine.

The inhabitants of Rapture are disturbingly insane. The Splicers whistle, have conversations with themselves, take their imaginary babies on strolls and even dance with each other. This is one of the best examples of a game with the illusion of a living world. The AIs in Bioshock are never simply waiting around for the player to show up. They have lives and are going about their own business. This is not easy to do and requires tremendous development resources, which is why it is not often seen in games. It is this unwillingness to settle for the mediocre that makes Bioshock special.

The brilliant Fort Frolic level was easily my favorite of the game. Fort Frolic is controlled by the insane artist Sander Cohen who makes artwork by plaster coating human bodies. If the player strikes these statues, they bleed.

Another moment that stood out was a scene later in the game where there are a number of bodies laying on the ground. Up until this point Bioshock had always rewarded players for searching bodies of dead Splicers and these player expectations were reinforced dozens of times. These bodies in particular were not dead Splicers, but were Splicers that were playing possum and laying in wait for the player. As the player gets near them they hop to the feet and attack the player. Bioshock sets the player’s expectations to search the bodies and then turn’s those same expectations against the player. This is similar to Resident Evil 4’s use of snakes in the crates and barrels which had previously only dispensed beneficial items to the player.

“Would you please.” What a great plot twist. I should have been expecting a plot twist and paid closer attention to the clues considering System Shock II’s twist.

During the take down Fontaine level I really liked the mechanic of randomly giving and switching plasmids on the player. This forced the player to try out all of the plasmids that they may not have collected. It would have been better if this had occurred earlier, so that players could acquire plasmids that they may have forgone, but really liked after having tried it.

The true highlight of Bioshock, besides the superb story is the audio in the game. The ambient audio and the contrast of the period audio recordings lend themselves to the horrific tone of the game. The recordings found littered throughout the spaces are incredibly voice acted and unravel the story to the player. Arman Shimmerman’s voice work for Andrew Ryan stands out from the crowd and is some of the best VO I have ever heard in a game.

Andrew Ryan Monologue Collection

The soundtrack is also fantastic. Here is a link to the free Bioshock Soundtrack Download provided by 2K Games.

Improvements I would have liked to see in the game:
1. Visual Fatigue
Despite the beauty of Rapture, the sameness of the colors and environment started to cause visual fatigue by the mid-way point in the game for me.

2. Overly Frontloaded
Bioshock, like most games, is very frontloaded. There is very good reason for this. There is a finite amount of resources that can be used to make games and developers know that most players never reach the middle of games, let alone the end. By frontloading all the best moments in the first few hours of gameplay, they ensure that the greatest numbers of players see their best work. There is a noticeable shift in the game during the midway point where the game changed from being horror themed to a more action oriented one. This was partly due to players getting increasingly stronger, but mostly this had to do with the allocation of scripted scare moments.

By the middle of game the pacing is just excruciatingly slow. All the newness has worn off at this point and the game is sorely lacking in new enemy types and mechanics.

3. Lack of NPC Variety
While the fights with the Big Daddies were epic, the varieties of enemy types were very lacking. Where are the Splicers that are capable of using plasmids? Splicers that could wield the Electrobolt plasmid or Incinerate plasmid would have added variety.

More variation on the Little Sisters would have been nice. The masks and uniform changes for the adult Splicers added variety, but all of the Little Sisters were nearly identical.

4. Player Combat Tactics
The player’s tactics never need to change throughout the entire game. The Electrobolt stun to wrench combo is just as effective at taking out enemies at the beginning as it is in the end of the game. Giving specific varieties of Splicers resistances to specific plasmids would have added depth to the tactics employed by players. Imagine an Electrobolt plasmid using Splicer that was also resistant to Electrobolt attacks, but weak against the Insect Swarm plasmid. This would at the very least force the player to change their tactics on occasion.

5. More Ghosts
While portions of the story were revealed through the sighting of ghosts, this story-telling device was not used enough over the audio recordings. The latter half of Bioshock could have used additional ghost moments for better pacing.

6. Camera Research
I am sure that the developers were aware of the pacing and lack of variety problems setting in during the middle portion of the game and beyond. I am sure that the camera used to take pictures of enemies for research was an attempt at creating gameplay variety. It failed miserably. The camera was the most annoying mechanic for me in the entire game. What is this, Fatal Frame? The idea is to casually take pictures of Splicers as they unload their machine guns on you.

7. More Gameplay Modes
The inclusion of another gameplay mode would have helped to break up the tedium of one after another fetch quests. An example of a game that did this was Dead Space with their inclusion of the Zero Gravity gameplay sections.

8. Hacking is too prevalent
Hacking takes you out of the world and pauses the game. So if an enemy is attacking you and you run up to a machine to hack, he will wait patiently for you to finish before resuming his attack.

But the benefits of hacking were so great that I felt like I was forced to hack all the time. At least later on the game introduced auto-hacking items. I heavily stocked up on these, because I hated hacking after the 100th time.

9. The player is too powerful
There is a direct correlation from how powerful the player is to how scared they are. At the start of the game, the player had to ration bullets and money and every Splicer was a threat, but by the mid-point these resources are overly-abundant and the enemies were easily dealt with. With the inclusion of the Vita-Chambers bringing the player back immediately at half-health dying is nearly meaningless. This is just another reason to make the player weaker.

10. Keep the player unarmed for longer
The game starts the player without a weapon, but within moments the wrench is introduced. A player without a weapon is a very scary place to be. I wish that the developers would have taken greater advantage of this before introducing plasmids and weapons into the game. An example is the game Clock Tower 2. In that game, the player was defenseless against the lone stalker Scissorman and must hide or find ways to temporarily fend off the attacker. Now imagine how scary and tension filled the opening would have been being weaponless and pursued by the Spider Splicer and having to find hiding places or knock over bookshelves or other obstacles to buy time, before ultimately finding a weapon and turning the tables on the Spider Splicer.

11. Combat
The designers used very little cover to direct their battles and create fronts, most of the time it was just stand out in the open and strafe left and right while firing at enemies. There is very little half-cover in the game, so crouching behind cover is not an option most of the time. The game would have benefited having more vertical cover like columns used to add in an element of tactical cover use into the gameplay.

12. Replayability
The game suffers from lack of replayability. This could be remedied by giving smaller, but more frequent upgrades to weapons and plasmids and allowing these upgrades to be carried into subsequent playthroughs of the game. Resident Evil 5 does this to great effect.

13. Choice
I wish the decisions made were less black and white and landed more in the gray. The little sister choice was essentially meaningless and merely changed the ending cutscene and made me pine for choices with real weight of a game like Baldur’s Gate 2.

14. Clumsy Plasmid and Weapon selection User Interface
While the amount of choice available to players was being heavily hyped, the difficulty and clumsiness of selecting plasmids and weapons because of the radial interface made players less willing to switch weapons and have less choice.

15. Vita-chambers
I have heard a lot of people complain about the Vita-Chambers, but there is a trade off here. The experience felt cheapened for the hardcore player, but this makes it so every player can see the end of Bioshock which is very valuable. A compromise could be to have injured enemies regain a modest amount of health if a vita-chamber is used.

16. Andrew Ryan, why have you lost your way?
I would have liked to have seen Andrew Ryan follow the Objectivist ethical ideals more closely, such as not killing the stripper he impregnated and staking people to pillars [see “The Objectivist Ethics” Ayn Rand (1964)]. He is basically a cold-blooded murderer and in many ways deserved to be killed off. I felt because of this, the power of killing him was greatly diminished. If he was just a man clinging staunchly to his ideals while his world crumbled around him, it would have made the player’s act of killing him that much more impactful and emotional. This was a missed opportunity.

17. Golden Arrow
For as immersive and well-thought out the rest of the game was, the arrow used to guide the player is just shameful and really breaks the immersion of the player. Some other more fictionally relevant method should have been devised.

18. End Boss
Frank Fontaine as the end boss was a weak fight and felt rushed. A suggestion I have is borrowed from the Ganon fight in Legend of Zelda Wind Waker. In that fight Link is completely outclassed by Ganon until Zelda joins the fight by picking up her Bow and firing arrows to distract Ganon, allowing Link the opportunity he needs to slip under Ganon’s guard. Similarly, in Bioshock what if when the player confronts Fontaine, they are completely outclassed, until Little Sisters join the battle distracting Fontaine and giving the player the opening he needs to defeat Fontaine?

After reading through that improvement list, you might get the impression that I did not like the game. That could not be further from the truth. Bioshock is a response to those who call games “a way to pass empty time and nothing more.” Bioshock is that mythical mass-market masterpiece of a game that makes you think. Bioshock is a title that I can point to that shows that games can deal effectively with such topics as Objectivism, Altruism and human nature. Bioshock has proven that socially relevant games can be successful. I hope that more game developers are willing to take the path shown to us by Bioshock.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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