Into the Bowels of Rapture

I’m an Xbox 360 gamer, but not a very good one. Of late, I have been enamored with the culture and process of game building more than the actual playing. I find it particularly fascinating how like film making the process has become, and how much is riding on some of the games being produced, and how long they remain in gestation before birth.
Unlike my life on the web, I don’t know anyone who actually gets their hands dirty making video games. I can therefore only imagine what it must be like to sit in front of your screen and meticulously create characters and worlds that must be both interactive for the player but also move the plot forward, in those games requiring a plot (which is nearly every game released today, other than Massively Multiplayer Onlines — AKA MMOs — like World of Warcraft or the continual stream of mini-game oddities that Nintendo specializes in). Then there’s the whole years-in-development cycle that can doom a game because technology is moving forward at such a rapid pace that a game that you were designing for a platform three years ago has suddenly outlived its intended platform altogether.
Think about the frustration that must cause by itself, and then consider that a game you’ve devoted years of your life to goes out onto the shelves and no one buys it. That carefully crafted character is lost in a bad, pointless, derivative plotline, or saddled with ordinary weapons and uninteresting facial expressions, or worst of all, does “nothing new” to advance the science and art of video gaming.
Because today, “fun” is rarely enough of a driver in order for someone to plunk down their $50 or $60 to spend a couple dozen hours with your creation. Fun is everywhere. Fun is ordinary. The bar keeps getting raised and the longer you sit on your ideas, the better the chance that someone else is going to beat you to the punch.
Which brings me to “Bioshock,” 2K Games latest salvo into the world of First Person Shooters, or FPS. A First Person Shooter is exactly what it sounds like: your main goal is to wield a weapon of insane caliber and unheard of potential destruction value and aim it at a variety of bad guys (or, in some cases, the general and annoying populace) and kill them all before they kill you. You’re often a loner, but sometimes you get a team of soldiers to help you out, or hinder you depending on how bad their AI (artificial intelligence) happens to be, and lately each game in this mode is looking for its own particular spin on that fairly simple formula.

After one starts playing video games for an extended amount of time, one can easily begin to see the usual patterns taking place, the clichés that inhabit the plots and the bad dialogue that gets repetitive and the even worse voice acting that can become so predictable that you can recitate the words before you ever hear them. An FPS tends to be linear by necessity, because you have a series of goals to complete before moving on to the next cut-scene that will explain what’s happening in that plot you’re not actually advancing at all, other than by successfully killing everything that stands in your way.
“Bioshock” doesn’t completely deviate from that formula. It’s been necessary for console-based games (i.e. Xbox 360) to behave this way because there are limitations to the amount of data that can be encapsulated on a single disk, or even multiple disks, and to provide too many threads in a plot would make it difficult to string them all back together at the end for the Boss Fight, where the player gets the satisfaction of blowing away the biggest baddest meanie of the whole game, once and for all (or at least until the sequel).
One of the clichés of FPS and of video games in general is the cut scene. This is a place where all the action suddenly stops and you can put down the controller and watch the animated talking heads talk to each other to explain what just happened, and what’s expected to happen next. It’s kind of like the scenes between Harry and Dumbledore at the end of every Harry Potter book ever written. You read through hundreds of pages of twaddle about owls and spells and evil versus good, but it all comes down to a dozen pages of dialogue between two characters at the denouement to actually be able to understand what the hell all that twaddle was about. So it is in video games, except it happens over and over and over again.
“Bioshock” manages to avoid most of that be providing cut scenes in the form of recordings you find strewn about its world, and you can elect to listen to them as you continue moving forward or simply keep them to listen to later — or never listen to any of them at all.
And what a world they’ve created. Rapture, the city you occupy for the duration of the game, is a art deco museum of a world living (or, more accurately, dying) 85 feet under the surface of the Atlantic ocean. It’s 1960, and your plane has just suddenly crashed, leaving you stranded in the middle of the ocean with nothing around for miles, except the towering bathesphere station that leads down into Rapture.
On your way down, you get some background about the builder of the city, and your new antagonist, Andrew Ryan. A super-egotist and electronics genius, Mr. Ryan’s complete distaste and distrust of humanity has lead him underwater so he could build his own world free of the limitations and prejudices of our world, and by prejudices I’m talking about things like playing with genetics and mutations and taking advantage of and credit for everything your brain can imagine or create.
The hook in “Bioshock” is that the weapons you’re given aren’t limited to the steel and bullet variety. Sure, you get those, and plenty of them, but you also get to genetically alter your own (player) body to emit Plasmids from your hands. And it’s the combination of the two and the seemingly endless variety of destruction that these provide that manage to bring “Bioshock” a step above your average FPS.
Imagine being able to point at someone and set them ablaze, or freeze them, or most creepy of all, emit a hornet’s nest of wasps at them that are crawling all over your hand as you wander about. Or maybe you want to do all three! And you can — assuming you have enough Adam and Eve to accomplish it.
Adam is the biological currency of Rapture, and it allows you to buy more powers and more slots to slip those powers into. The downside is that there is only one way to get Adam, and that provides one of the most interesting moral dilemmas within this game.
That, in itself, would normally be enough. One does not usually suffer moral dilemmas playing any video game. Even in open environment (sandbox) games like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Oblivion,” it’s rare to feel a twinge of guilt about shooting everyone you come into contact with. Kill or be killed, right? Except for yours truly, because I can’t help but feel that karma extends even into these make-believe worlds, and you get what you give, and the random and bloody annihilation of bystanders and the unlucky who happen to get in your way will bite you in the ass no matter what, even if it’s just that stupid woman with 14 items in the 12-item or less line at Safeway.
I’ve learned that games can provide you with a way to explore those feelings of violence and vengeance, and even pointless cruelty, without resorting to acting out in real life. Maybe we’re genetically coded to destroy things. War is inevitable and it’s easier to build walls than doorways. That kind of thing. So why not blow away that babbling hag who just will not shut up by driving over her in the car you just stole by physically throwing the driver into the street before you capped him with your machine gun? It actually took me a few months of gaming to get to that place, so I can be a little smug about it. Still, here I am now, and virtual killing is just second nature to me now.
Getting Adam in Rapture, though, gives one an interesting choice, because it’s held within the bodies of little girls. Cute little girls with glowing red eyes. And their protectors, the Big Daddies.
If you know anything at all about “Bioshock,” you’re already familiar with the Big Daddies. The little girls call them Mr. Bubbles, which is both cute and annoying since basically you want to kill them. The Big Daddies are hard to kill. Very hard. They’re lumbering behemoths encased in iron with drill bits for arms and the ability to suddenly charge at you like a mad bull. They’re protective of the little girls but otherwise will leave you alone unless provoked. Only thing is, you have to provoke them, so the challenge becomes how to do so without suddenly finding yourself dead.
Much is being made about this particular aspect of the game, because some members of the media either can’t separate fantasy from reality (what we’re killing, if we elect to kill anything at all, is an animated collection of pixels, and a rather comically rendered collection at that, and bloodless to boot) or they need something else to grab onto here to start raining on someone else’s parade.
For me, what it came down to was “game enjoyment,” and the question was never “would I really kill a little girl?” the question was “how much do I need some extra Adam in order to survive the next onslaught and make it to the end.” For those keeping track, I killed half the little girls and saved half. So that only makes me half a monster, by my calculations.
It’s difficult for me to talk about “Bioshock” without giving away its secrets, and that in itself is its biggest reward. Unlike most games, the plot of “Bioshock” is on a par with its gorgeous environments, its imaginative characters, its superlative voice acting and its fun and fast gameplay. In short, somehow and miraculously, “Bioshock” gets everything right.
One aspect that can redeem or doom a game is its voice acting. “Oblivion,” in particular, was marred by the use of the same set of four or five actors doing all the voices in a variety of accents, and after a very short while I learned to ignore how they were saying anything and only pay attention to what they were saying. “Bioshock” is leagues, leagues above almost any other game I’ve played in this regard. The characters all have that subtle almost-English but not quite elocution that we imagine everyone in the 40’s and 50’s managed to attain, probably from watching endless hours of theatre-trained actors on the telly. The vocal talent is amazing and varied, and as over the top as everything else in Rapture.
Another amazing piece and one that can’t be ignored as one traverses this world in search of the next goal is the world itself. It’s gorgeous and detailed and at times disturbing to the point of causing my balls to shrink inside my body cavity. (Too much info?) Like “Gears of War” before it, “Bioshock” glories in the beauty of decay, though where Gears colored everything in earth tones, here 2K painted in candy-coated neon shades and underwater greens and blues. The overall effect is both jarring and calming, so that when something unexpected does happen (“Hey! Who put this corpse in the locker?”) it’s even more frightening.
If you’re a 360 owner, there’s no reason not to get this title immediately and kiss goodbye the next few evenings — because it positively, absolutely must be played in the dark. Also, if you don’t have the surround sound hooked up to your 360, go get another optical cable and get that Dolby pumping, the sound design alone in “Bioshock” is worthy of awards.
Excuse me while I get back to the game — I’d tell you where I am and what I’m doing, but why spoil the surprises?

August 23, 2007

One response to Into the Bowels of Rapture

  1. Tom said:

    I’ve been debating taking the Bioshock plunge (pun intended).
    You’ve convinced me.

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