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October 07, 2007

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I think you can go for a blend between critique and review, and I try to do this in 400 words or less when I write for Play This Thing or JIG or my blog.

You should read Craig Perko's take on the game, he's coming at it from more of a systems perspective:
http://projectperko.blogspot.com/2007/08/bioshock-final-review.html

http://projectperko.blogspot.com/2007/08/bioshock-early-review.html

I think the dissonance you're describing here is what I call phantasm, and I don't think the problem is that it exists, rather that it exists assymetrically to the assonance, or flow, of the game. I'm doing something like this with CuttleCandy, hopefully its more in-hand.

Comparing it to a film, I'd say Bioshock is like Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Nice critique, Clint. You really captured some of the stuff I've just started to feel while playing the game (I have only made it to Neptune's Bounty yet).

First off, I agree that the point you’re referring to in the story was frustrating. They seem to dance around the prospect of giving you freedom of choice at some point, but ultimately leave you chained to following orders. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the game. If it hadn’t had such an impact on me, I either wouldn’t have gotten that far in the story or wouldn’t have cared what turns it took.

One part of me thinks that the scene where Ryan criticizes you for doing as you’re told is a 4th wall breaking indictment of our medium. For all the illusion of choice we can give players, ultimately they’re chained to the possibility spaces that we create. Even in a game with emergent systems, the players can combine elements in potentially unexpected ways, but they can never do something completely novel (barring meta-game factors like cheating and mods).

This reminds me of an interesting analysis of Ico I read by Peter Eliot. (http://www.rose-tainted.net/ico/essays/petereliot_annotation.html#battle) He talks about choice and linearity in gameplay, and how physical barriers in the game world are actually manifestations of the protagonists motivations. There is no choice, because narratively speaking, the main character wouldn’t do things differently. The player can’t turn around and leave in the end, not because there’s no worldspace path out, but because Ico wouldn’t leave Yorda to die.

Another part of me thinks they just ran out of time to give the player the branches that should have been in there. I personally found the forced Big Daddy sequence unnecessary. I felt like my choice to save the Little Sisters should have obviated the Big Daddy requirement to get their help in the end. Not to mention all the signs that the process is supposed to be irreversible, only to be swept under the rug in the end.

Rich:

As for the possibility that the sequence is an indictment of the medium, yeah, I reached for that too. I really tried to find a way to make that make sense, but it felt really forced to me. I didn't FEEL it as a criticism of game structure, I felt it as an awkward attempt to justify the story that mocked my intentional suspension of disbelief.

As for the idea that the player's choices are constrained by the character he is playing, I covered this in my GDC04 talk about Simulation Boundaries - it was the 'Hot Dog Stand Dilemma', wherein the vast majority of all possible actions in Splinter Cell are arbitrarily constrained by the fact that Sam is not permitted by his nature to (for example) abort his mission, quit his job, and open a hot-dog stand on Coney Island.

Hi Clint. Thanks for taking the time to explore this dissonance issue in a way that acknowledges what's excellent about Bioshock, as well as what's left to do. I agree with your notion that perhaps the real impact of this game is the way it serves that Moses-like function of leading us to the promised land, pointing at it tantalizingly, but not quite taking us there. Playing this game made me feel like we're awfully close, though.

Thanks also for reminding everybody what a landmark game System Shock 2 was. You may have already seen it, but Edge Magazine has a very nice feature this month devoted to the making of SS2 with lots of useful quotes from Ken Levine.

You have one of the best game-related blogs on the internet, and I truly appreciate all your efforts.

Best,
Michael
http://brainygamer.com

Comments:

- There is an interesting contrast between you using the mechanics in a Randian way (although I feel putting gameplay that way is a bit of a stretch), and your opponents (splicers, etc) being the result of the Randian mindset put to practice.

- If you agree with Ryan's philosophy, then you will do what's best for YOU, not him. That certainly includes opposing or killing Ryan himself if it suits your interest.

- "‘helping someone else’ is presented as the right thing to do by the story" - I didn't get this at all; it is the *practical* thing to do. You are helping Atlas because you need his help getting out of here. He makes it quite explicit right from the start that he helps you because he needs you as well, so this relationship is all about mutual benefit and nothing about morals. Your character in the game never responds emotionally to Atlas' plea for help, so it's up to you as a player to find your position here.

- I hope I'm not spoiling the game for anyone with what follows (but let that be a warning/disclaimer): In my view, the game *rewards* you for saving the Little Sisters. You get more toys to play with if you save them, compared to getting a little bit more Adam if you rescue them. I don't need more Adam, I finished the game with a few hundred unused Adam, but I can use more unique tools to have more options and more fun. In addition, there's an achievement for saving *all* of them, further cementing the game's encouragement to save them. The "right thing" and the "best thing" are made one and the same by the game's design. I thought that was the single biggest mistake in the entire game.

Clint: I see what you mean about the player having only systemic, but not narrative, choice as to whether he will follow the Randian ideal through play; I personally found the climactic reveal (spoilers ahead) to acknowledge the player's lack of narrative choice in a clever way, by illustrating that the player character also had no choice in his actions, re: Fontaine's mind control. It was a very interesting take on the standard relationship between the player and player character in action games: why do I only have one path forward? Why do I have to complete these received objectives to proceed? Why don't I really have any free will within this environment? And BioShock's narrative addresses this by saying: 'you were under mind control the entire time. We recognize this constraint of game structure, and we're going to rationalize it in a manner consistent with the setting and narrative thus far.'

What disappointed me, then, was that at this point you spend some time breaking the psychic link with Fontaine, and regaining (or gaining for the first time, I suppose) the player character's own free will. And I expected more paths to open up once this was completed: I get to choose! Will I help Fontaine, or Tenenbaum? I'm under no one's control anymore but my own! Right there in the narrative, they state that the bonds that normally constrain player choice in this sort of game are being broken!

But they're not. The player's range of narrative choice continues to be just as linear from that point forward as it was over the course of the game prior. While your critique seemed to indict the entire game, I only felt this dissonance was truly flagrant after Ryan's death and the subsequent reveal. Maybe I just felt that the stated mind control deus ex machina was a more valid excuse for the early game than you did.

Since it would seem that -Shock is getting franchised, maybe Levine will be able to 'make it to the promised land' in further installments.

I have to partially agree with steve. My initial reaction to the scene with Ryan was, "Ah! Very clever!" I had not noticed the repeated usage of the control phrase and all of that. However, when he says his whole thing about choosing and obeying right before he dies I immediately wanted a branch where I didn't have to put the chip in the reader to stop the destruction of the city. I wanted to be able to choose to end the game in a spectacular way by letting the city fall down around me, rather than just choosing to turn off the console, which I almost did. Not being given that choice, I resigned myself to continue playing just so I could see what happened next in the story. That was a bit unsatisfying. I really wanted the narrative to support the idea that Ryan's dying words could somehow break through the mind control.

I also had the annoyed reaction to the Big Daddy stuff at the end. I had saved so many Little Sisters. Surely Tenenbaum could have sent some non-zombie sisters out to help me, rather than me having to "trick" the zombified ones into helping me.

Clint, you're one of my favorite people to disagree with.

First of all, I don't see this game as making an argument about Randian Objectivism or the moral status of rational self-interest or absolute freedom or anything else. The game is about wandering through the dripping wreckage of a horrific dystopia, are you suggesting that we are meant to scratch our chins and soberly consider the merits of the philosophical premise that produced this nightmare? The game presents Ryan as a vicious tyrant spouting inane propoganda and the world of Rapture as a snakepit of Asperger capitalism run amuck.

Bioshock creates a series of nicely-rendered and rather original but ultimately pretty broad and cartoony settings and characters based on the themes of greed and power and freedom, not a referendum on these things. To say that Bioshock is an argument about Rand's philosophy is like saying that Godzilla movies are an argument about whether America was justified in its use of atomic weapons in World War II.

The player is meant to feel a natural antipathy towards the dissolute and decadent world of Rapture; its greedy, shallow inhabitants; Ryan; and the whole dumb Mall-of-America-by-way-of-Albert-Speer mess. This is a jumping off point for the story's twists and turns, which examine in detail some of the particularly nasty and entertaining *ways* in which greedy, shallow people can fuck themselves up in the selfish pursuit of power, it's not something held up for debate.

As for the conflict between the game's mechanics and story, I don't even *see* the game's mechanics in your discussion. You contrast the game's supposed underlying mechanics, in which the player can choose to help or hurt the Little Sisters, with the game's story, in which you are hypnotized and then have amnesia and then run some errands for a series of psychopaths. But wtf? The whole Little Sister thing is totally surface/narrative/theme. I don't see how the underlying mechanics of the game relate to selfishness or greed or altruism or anything like that *at all*. Those things are all just parts of the game's wonderfully melodramatic and overwrought narrative surface.

How is *anything* the actual PLAYER does in Bioshock more or less in his own self-interest?

What are the *player's* interests? Getting to the end of the game faster? Making it easier? No, his interests are obviously to enjoy himself, to be entertained. Which means in the case of Bioshock, to be scared, to be intrigued and startled and amused, to explore, to be challenged, to interact with complex systems, etc. Both branches of the rescue/harvest fork are equal in regards the *player's* self-interest. (In fact, you could make the argument that the player who chooses to subject himself to the unpleasant "bad" cutscenes in order to more fully explore the game's story and systems is acting less selfishly, but I won't!) The fact that both branches turn out to be roughly equal in terms of their ultimate impact on the player's combat effectiveness simply underscores the fact that this is all narrative.

I do think you are talking about a real conflict, but I don't think it's a conflict between mechanics and story. I think it's a conflict between different ways of integrating story with gameplay. One is more procedural and systemic (and maybe a little undercooked, a little rough around the edges) the other is more conventional, linear, and discrete (and maybe a little long in the tooth). The harvest/rescue choice promises a kind of narrative eco-system which just isn't there yet and the step and fetchit quests of the central plot are disappointing in contrast with what we imagine that promise to be.

Thanks, Clint, for the critique. This is a great discussion. And Frank, *you* are one of my favorite people to disagree with.

The narrative is not simply skin if it affects player choice. I agree that the Little Sisters thing is overwrought, but I also think it's not irrelevant to a discussion of the game's mechanic. On the one hand, you have to hit "X" to get more experience points immediately; on the other, you hit "Y" to delay your experience gratification and get other power-ups. But you also sacrifice or save a little girl. I don't think it's as easy as you imply to separate those things into player actions (advancing in the game) and character actions (deciding whether to slaughter children).

Implying that the narrative does not tie to other kinds of achievement in the game does not remove it from the mechanic. After all, achievement in the game is itself valueless except for my own ascribing of value to it. If I also ascribe ethical value to my actions in the game, that becomes part of my decision-making process. I don't see that as separate from my gameplay.

I'm a sucker for story, so my heart went out to the little girls and I saved them all. (As you described, Clint, that made the narrative much more palatable at the game's end than it would have been going the other route.) When I made the "rescue" choice the first time, I had no idea that I would ever get any other reward. I simply thought I was sacrificing Adam because I didn't want to kill innocent virtual children. That's kind of interesting.

The problem I have is that the game makes it so obvious when you do it that saving the girls is the right choice. The musical swell when you save them is unmistakably positive, and indicated to me from moment one that saving them was the right thing and Atlas was at least wrong to suggest otherwise. And the teddy bear gifts for saving the girls was a colossally bad design choice. The whole point behind saving the girls was to sacrifice my well-being for their survival; it insultingly cheapens my moral choice if I'm rewarded anyway. Why is it so hard for video games to put actual teeth in their morality?

It's not a deep game about Rand, but it's there, and I appreciated it. And as for the twist and the mind control, I agree with the critiques here that the scene with Ryan and the climax could have been better done. But let's give them credit for laying track well -- I did smile when I realized how many times I heard the phrase and how I should have been more suspicious.

I think even without the teddy bear gifts, the choice of rescue of harvest is solely a narrative one. The game should have given you no adam at all for you rescue. No gifts. No nothing. If they also removed the vital chamber, then the next little sister might be a more difficult choice, because the game would put you into the position where you're uncertain if you could continue without doing the morally reprehensible. In the game as it is, all choices after the first might as well not exist.

My main problem with Bioshock is it's more concerned with being an FPS than being a world in which firefights take place in. The result is very predictable in its events and flow, where the only thing it can build up to is yet another attack by maniacs. It could have used a few calm moments and a few groups still holding on to their sanity. I'm not sure if it was really needed to give you a choice between ideals since so very few games of any genre dare to do that, though it would have been nice. Personally, I've always wanted a remake of Deus Ex where you could choose to remain with the Agency after you discover their true nature.

This is a bit weird -- I was just playing Splinter Cell:Chaos Theory (my favourite, Double Agent sucked), and looking at the credit I saw the name "Clink Hocking", which I googled and subsequently found this blog. I have to say SC:CT was an awesome game, very balanced and enjoyable. BioShock was nice too, which I enjoyed playing. Unfortunately it didn't entirely live up to the hype, that is, it remain "just another linear FPS". Although some combinations of weapons and plasmids can be somewhat creative, the player is ultimately restricted to a very defined path -- albeit, an entertaining one.

As creating such games cost more and more, it is expected that the "Holy Grail" -- a game that would let the player actually expand the possibilities seems even farther away. Perhaps the way would be to game creators to release control over their creation, and accept the unpredictable. However, I predict the game industry won't go into this direction any time soon; what seems like a revolution, is also a huge financial risk. Expect instead another BioShock 2: more of the same thing, just like we had HL:2, Doom 3, etc.

Christophe:
Thanks for taking the time to watch the credits. I happened to really like Double Agent, but it was really the first Splinter title that I got to play 'cold', so that was special for me.
While I think distilling it down to 'linear versus non-linear' simplifies it somewhat, I see what you mean about the tendency of games to constrain more and more rather than liberate more and more as development costs rise.
I hope you'll pay attention to some of the things we're trying with Far Cry 2... maybe that's more in the directtion you're hoping games will go.

A little late to the party here, but..

My take on the "lack of agency" angle prior to the big reveal is that the player is not being taunted for following the game's unspeaken orders, but rather that the player is being made aware of the system of instrumental logic that (necessarily?) underpins the experience of playing a video game: that is, that the pursuit of power typically precludes ideology, a lesson that Ryan, in attempting to maintain control of Rapture, demonstrates spectacularly.

Having said that, I was bothered by the apparent philosophical smugness of the post-mind-control segments too, given how expressly they remained constrained by the game structure (I'd argue Earthbound chose the "empowering the player" option better in its endgame, and Metal Gear Solid 2 was more honest about the game structure's tendency to subtly disempower and disorient; both were wise to save it for the very end, when they stopped making other demands of the player).

Ah finally some people who dislike this game...

I found it technically brilliant, the design, etc was fantastic but as one of the earlier people said I would have prefered to just let the place fall down than ceeding it to Atlas. The game just left me feeling annoyed at the fact that I hated all the characters, myself included.

Because the game tried to do something more than just be mindless entertainment i enjoyed it less than if it was because I feel it failed so badly

I really enjoyed this thoughtful dissection of the dissonance between the themes and actual choices in Bioshock, it really hit on some of the things that struck me while playing it. I was most interested to read about your reaction of annoyance or feeling 'mocked' at the 'would you kindly' reveal sequence. Although the tone of the dialogue was obviously mocking, I didn't feel that this was intended to degrade the player, as you suggest. To me, at least, this is where the game's true genius lies -- in that scene, even the casual player witnesses an exposure of one of the most fundamental conceits in game design, even though, as you discuss, the game's structure was not able to fully reward awareness of this conceit. For you, the feeling of being insulted made worse the cognitive dissonance you experienced in the game's competing philosophies. But I disagree that the fundamental mechanic of the reveal was an insult to the player. I think it's a clever way to add emotional weight (the holy crap! reaction) to an otherwise standard scene, and among friends I played the game with, feeling insulted was really not a part of it. Even on a purely critical level, I think it's pushing a subjective experience too far to say that this particular mechanism was insulting to players.

Just the sheer number of comments alone proves you have struck a point. I have read it with a lot of interest...

Personally, I really love how Kojima Productions ties together ludic and narrative structures in the MGS series. Like for instance MGS2's Arsenal gear section leaving you naked and without items (but with weird codecs) at the point where the protagonist becomes completely confused on his objectives and motivations.

Good job, I'll be reading..

Very interesting take on Bioshock. A game with such great philosophical ambitions must be reviewed as such. The problem with game journalism is just that it refers to the games as products rather than experiences, some times thought provoking experiences. It's more copywriting than cultural journalism.
But, as you say the medium's got some limitations. Talking about deus ex machinas, there's no greater plot hole than the video game adaption of deatg. Wrote an article about the matter for a swedish video game magazine where I discussed the whole death thing with Passage developer Jason Rohrer. Think that I even quoted you in that piece.

And regarding Bioshock's mechanics. What's up with the whole health pack and "100 life" ordeal? It's game mechanics from the crypt.

So did you guys Harvest or Save? I saved all of them and the ending made me feel really good. I hope someday they make a movie, incorporate first person camera views, and stars The Rock.

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