BioShock – A gamer’s perspective

We at Geek Buffet appreciate that each of us approaches our geekiness in our own individual way. In our efforts to embrace this diversity of perspective, this represents the first of two posts about the game BioShock. This one is a review of the game from the perspective of a gamer who has played it. The second will be from the perspective of a non-gamer who had the chance to see the game while I was playing through it.

As a gamer, I appreciate being able to read a review of a game that gives me enough information about a game to be able to help me decide if I want to play it or not. At the same time, I don’t want a review to spoil the game for me. I have endeavored to write a review of the kind I would like to read. I hope you’ll agree.

By way of brief introduction, BioShock is a first-person shooter. It starts out when the main character is in a plane crash in the middle of the ocean, and escaping from the wreckage, finds what looks like a lighthouse rising up out of the water. Inside is a submarine, which takes him to Rapture, an underwater city. The nature of Rapture, and the story of what happened to it, are central to the plot of the game.

While I am certainly willing to play mindless games, I appreciate a video game that has a well-written story to tell. In this respect, BioShock shines. As with most games, the plot plays out over the course of the game, with new aspects of the story being revealed as your character progresses through the game. This story feels polished and well laid out, without being too ham-fisted in its presentation of some of the basic moral dilemmas the game has to offer.

Where BioShock really puts itself ahead of the pack, however, is in the parts of the story that aren’t fed directly to you as you advance in the game. There are tape recorders scattered throughout the game which you can find an listen to. None of them are required, and it is entirely possible to play through the entire game without ever bothering to pick any of them up. If you are willing to take the time, though, there is a wealth of additional material to discover. These additional pieces won’t be found in any sort of coherent order, but over the course of the game, they help to fill in some of the aspects of the story that would have been too involved to be neatly dovetailed into the main progression of the plot.

Beyond helping to make the primary plot not bog down with too much information during the spaces between sections of the game, presenting this additional information in this manner means that if you’re the type of gamer who is in it for the storytelling as well as the action, each time you find another tape, you get the enjoyable tickle of the thrill that comes from feeling like you’ve uncovered another hidden piece of the larger storytelling tapestry. On the reverse side of this bright, shiny coin, unfortunately, is the dirtier reality that sometimes finding those tapes is difficult, and if you’re not willing to spend a lot of time in the game hunting down each and every one of them, you will end up missing some of the detail, and might be left feeling like you didn’t get as much out of the game as you might otherwise. Worse, unless you are willing to find a guide online, there is no way of even knowing if you’ve missed any. For those of you interested in such a guide, this one is a good bet, though it also contains the full text of each of the tapes at the end of the list. Be warned! The reading of the text script of the tapes, in addition to being exactly like cheating, will rob you of the very real enjoyment to be gained by listening to them in the game.

The story in BioShock is also appealing in that it works on multiple levels. There is the overarching story of Rapture and the search to discover what happened to it. Within that framework, there are several key figures, and the personalities and ideologies that drove both the creation and the destruction of Rapture. Winding through all of this is the more basic questions about the identity of the main character. He is nameless, and given that your perspective is always through his eyes, looking outward, faceless as well. The question of “who am I?” enriches the experience, and the lack of concrete knowledge about the main character’s origins, motivations, and history mean that you, as the player, are able to mold your character into the sort of person you think he should be. This ability to forge your own identity in the world is enjoyable to experience, as well as effective at building a connection between you, the player and you, the character.

A well-written story does a lot to drive my enjoyment of the game, but as with anything else, there is no getting away from the fundamentals. No matter how masterfully crafted the plot, a game simply isn’t fun to play unless the core mechanic is appealing. BioShock is a first-person shooter. Like any game in the genre, you spend most of your time looking down the barrel of one weapon or another as you move through the game world, and most of your problems can be solved by shooting them until they fall down and stop moving.

As a shooter, BioShock is a pretty good game. Playing it on the X-Box 360 (it’s also available for the PC), I found the controls to be forgiving enough to be easy to use, but still gave me the feeling that I had reasonably precise control over my character’s actions. The interface does a good job of putting the important information about what weapon you’re carrying, how much ammunition you have for it, and the current state of your health and other resources in front of you, without cluttering up the screen too badly. In short, the game was polite enough to get all of the technical aspects out of the way and let you just play, which is a lesson other game-makers would do well to study.

Of course, if every game were exactly the same, there would be no reason to play more than one. Like any game of its type, BioShock has a gimmick to set it apart from other games in the same genre. In particular, in addition to providing you with firearms and explosives, BioShock allows you to “genetically modify your DNA to create an even more deadly weapon: you.” The short version is that there are special injections you can find scattered throughout the game that effectively give you super powers. You can shoot lightning or fire from your hands, launch swarms of killer bees at your enemies from hives in your arms, use telekinesis to pick up and move objects (or even catch grenades and throw them back at your enemies), and generally raise havoc like something out of an X-Men comic.

To be honest, although this was intended to be the whole point of the game, this aspect of it didn’t really do anything for me. Sure, it’s interesting to be able to shoot a fireball from my hand, but if I also have a flame-thrower in my inventory (and by the end of the game, you will), I really just have two ways to shoot fire, and the only real difference between them is that the fire behaves in slightly different ways and depletes a different ammunition supply. Many of these abilities, called “plasmids” in the game, are useful, but they ended up feeling more like a gimmick than a natural and integral part of the game.

Plasmids allow you to actively manipulate your environment, and in doing so you deplete your supply of EVE, which is just another resource for you to manage. It works the same way as the “manna” or “magic points” that would power your special abilities in a different game. You can find more of it scattered around, and it ends up being just another ammunition type, from my perspective.

In addition to plasmids, the game also has “gene tonics,” which are more or less the same thing, but which offer passive, rather than active abilities. Tonics might make you better able to use a med-kit, healing you more when you use one, or make you more resistant to damage. While these abilities are very useful, the idea that they are because of some kind of genetic modification which makes your skin resistant to bullets is entirely besides the point. It could just as easily be an armored vest, which would have exactly the same effect without forcing anybody to explain how 1950s retro-science managed to pack superhuman genetic modification into an oversize syringe you buy at vending machines located in most public areas of your hometown. This, once again, ends up feeling more like a gimmick than a natural fit.

What all of this use of EVE, and its counterpart ADAM, which is used to buy the abilities in the first place, ends up doing is to set the stage for the basic choice of the game. You can get ADAM from “little sisters,” who are effectively slightly creepy little girls who gather it from dead bodies in the game. If you fight and kill the “big daddies” who protect them, you can take the ADAM from the little sisters. Big daddies are large and scary, tough to kill, and able to dish out a lot of damage. This makes them the toughest enemies in the game, which is reasonable, given that they protect the most limited resource.

Having killed a big daddy, you are left with a choice. You can “harvest” the little sister, producing a lot of ADAM but killing her in the process. Alternatively, you can “rescue” the little sister, generating half as much badly-needed ADAM but freeing her from the parasite that allows her to harvest it in the first place, and restoring her to a normal little girl. The game tries to set up a situation in which the obviously profitable choice is morally reprehensible, and then leaving the player to balance their own needs against the desire to make the right choice. The problem, in BioShock like in so many other games, is that it’s a false choice.

The game designers didn’t want to leave players who consistently make the “good guy” choice out in the cold. As a result, as a reward for saving little sisters, one of the characters in the game will give you a package of goodies once in a while. Each of these include a small quantity of ADAM, making up part of the difference between the amount you would have gotten by killing the little sisters and the lesser quantity you got for saving them, as well as some plasmids and gene tonics. The trouble is that this means that saving the little sisters forces you to accept less of a valuable resource, but in return, you are granted access to resources for which there is no other source. As such, the most selfish player, interested only in making themselves more powerful no matter what the cost, will make exactly the same choice as the genuine “good guy,” because saving little sisters is both the “right” choice and the path to power.

I am frequently annoyed by this tendency in games. If the idea is to put me in a situation in which I am forced to choose between profit and morality, make sure you design your game in such a way that the choice is a real one. Instead, BioShock puts profit and morality on the same side of the equation, meaning the only reason I’d make the other choice was that I was amused by doing evil for its own sake. This isn’t a difficult choice as much as it is a condescending gesture in the direction of difficult choices.

Being a next-generation game, BioShock faces a high bar in terms of visual presentation, and it clears it with ease. The game is visually beautiful. It delivers a well-wrought graphics engine which produces fantastic lighting and water effects. Given that the entire game is set in a dark, underwater city, this is exactly what the doctor ordered.

In addition, the game has a well-developed sense of style. The retro, art deco style is carried throughout the game. It even does a good job of presenting an obvious difference between the high-rent neighborhoods of Rapture and the more workaday districts while leaving a solid feeling of the overall design aesthetic in both. Simply put, the game looks well designed and expertly polished.

Some other reviewers have complained that there is no real penalty for dying in BioShock. If you are killed, you will be revived in a nearby machine, with all of your weapons, plasmids, tonics, and other inventory intact, and at least some of your health and EVE restored. This makes the game feel easier than it might otherwise, but I actually like this mechanic. It’s not really any different from the more normal system in which gamers just compulsively save before each encounter and reload their game when things go wrong. At least this way, there is some kind of semi-rational explanation for how the player manages to always bounce back no matter what happens, and in the infrequent events in which I did die while playing through, it spared me having to deal with a load-game menu, and allowed me to just pick up where I left off.

At least, those events were infrequent on the “normal” difficulty level. On the “easy” setting, the game is nearly an insult to an experienced player. This is a good thing, because it makes it accessible to those who struggle with the two-joystick control scheme that playing on the X-Box forces you to use, and which is difficult for some people to get used to. On the most difficult setting, your enemies are tough and deadly, which can be either an enjoyable challenge or a terrible frustration, depending on your level of skill.

Quibbles with weak moral challenges aside, the game was highly enjoyable to play. I found it to be well worth what I paid for it. Or, at least, no more outrageously overpriced than any next-generation video game is these days, with more to offer in return for the sixty dollar price tag than most other games I could have gotten instead. If shooters are your thing, BioShock is worth a play.

-posted by Mark

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16 Responses to BioShock – A gamer’s perspective

  1. Will says:

    What do you use ADAM for?

  2. laikal says:

    “The trouble is that this means that saving the little sisters forces you to accept less of a valuable resource, but in return, you are granted access to resources for which there is no other source.”

    What is this “resource for which there is no other source”? Reading the paragraph it doesn’t mention anything except a small amount of ADAM — whatever that does ;). The “care packages” or “gifts” or whatever sound like bundles of resources, but is there anything really unique in them?

    It also seems as though the choice is between *more* profit now vs. *some* profit now and a little more later. That seems like an authentic choice, and one that is faced by a lot of people in the real world!

    Certainly looks like a fun game, though.

  3. TheGnat says:

    Mark did make a better, more informative review than most reviewers do though! I was planning on getting this game for PC eventually anyway, since it’s from one of my favorite game companies and they have never failed me before. (System Shock 2 is still the best FPS ever until I play Bioshock and change my mind…)

    And Mark, it sounds like at first, a player will be making the choice without knowing that they’ll get these care packages later.

  4. laikal says:

    The PC version of the game has tremendous system requirements, Gnat! Make sure you’ll be able to enjoy it before you buy it :). I can’t really run it on my several-year old gaming machine, sadly — though I did struggle through the demo when it came out.

    Yes: thorough review, Mr. Mark!

  5. TheGnat says:

    “planning on getting it…..eventually” is meant to imply “once I have a computer good enough to handle it” =P

  6. Dana says:

    laikal,

    “resource for which there is no other source” = unique tonics the little sisters’ “mother” sends you in the care packages, along with ADAM and ammunition. ADAM is the resource you need in order to buy regular tonics and plasmids from the vending machines that sell such things, so it is essentially genetic money.

    You and Gnat bring up a good point that a player just coming into the game probably wouldn’t know that there would be such care packages in the future to make up for choosing the apparently lesser option, but if you are a player like Mark, you already know enough about the background of the game to know the general premise of the savior vs. destroyer storylines. This is not to say he cheated and knew the plot ahead of time, exactly, but just to say that he paid attention to the reviews of the game that he read that talked about the mechanics. For him, there was no question about which side to take. For someone else, I agree there might be more of a question, and the choice is presented in a pretty high stress, high stakes kind of way, with people arguing persuasively on both sides. It’s just that the evil voice would be more persuasive if it weren’t urging you to kill little girls, in dresses with bows at the back and pigtails.

  7. Mark says:

    Will, Laikal, and Gnat,

    My apologies if I wasn’t sufficiently clear. I will attempt to sum up, though Dana has already done a good job of doing so:

    ADAM is the currency you use in order to purchase more genetic modifications. You use regular money to buy health kits, ammo, and similar mundane items, but ADAM is an entirely separate currency that allows you to buy more plasmids and gene tonics. In any other game, ADAM would be a placeholder for experience points, in that collecting ADAM allows you to buy the things that make your character more intrinsically powerful (as compared to equipment, which merely makes you more heavily armed, which may or may not be a worthwhile distinction).

    The resources that the “care packages” include are unique in that they contain several plasmids and some gene tonics that you cannot acquire by any other means. The trouble is that even if you save all of the little sisters, you will have enough ADAM to be able to buy not quite everything sold in the vending machines that accept that currency, and in addition, you will also be given access to the contents of the care packages, which leaves you with a wider array of abilities than if you take the “dark” path to personal power. In short, you end up actually benefiting more from being selfless, which rather breaks the basic dynamic of choice the game attempts to create.

    Yes, Laikal, I agree that the game presents this choice to the player in a situation in which they have very little information about the ramifications of their decision, but that doesn’t really get away from the basic issue. Even if I hadn’t read about it ahead of time, I would certainly be able to play the game a second time to see how it worked out the other way. As it stands, though, I don’t even see that as worthwhile, because there is an obvious “best” choice, and on my second time through the game (in order to find a couple of the tape recorders I missed the first time through), I am making exactly the same choice as before, because it is obviously superior.

    Regardless of how much information the player has available to them, though, I would argue that the game should make the internal mechanics of the choice actually allow for some conflict of interest. Attempting to pit profit against morality, using the mechanism the game has selected, only works for as long as the player remains ignorant of the meaning of their choices. Relying on the ignorance of the player is no way to set up a meaningful conflict. In order for the dynamic to be worthwhile, it needs to still offer the player some kind of difficult choice even once they know the two outcomes they are selecting between.

  8. Will says:

    I’m not sure what you’re asking for Mark. One or the other path has to be better just because you can’t balance for all play styles. The moral decision is pretty moot just because the entire game is predicated on the idea that killing people is okay. That leaves just the ADAM/tonics, which seems to split pretty well into lots now/less later and less now/more later camps, which seems like a valid choice.

    Of course, if you don’t actually need more now, the choice is obvious. The same is true if you require more now because your personal skills aren’t high enough. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a real choice.

  9. […] A game review for non-gamers This here is the companion post for Mark’s gamer review of BioShock, which you should probably read first. As indicated in the title, I will be giving my impressions […]

  10. Mark says:

    Will,

    My complaint is that the choice is intended to be a moral one, and turns out to be an economic one. You can force it to be interesting if you tackle it from a “more now, less later” vs. “less now, more later” perspective. However, that’s not how the choice is presented. It’s set up to be you deciding between doing the “right” thing and doing the “profitable” thing. This is an utter falsehood, because morality and profit both encourage the same choice, once you understand the mechanic.

    Even as an economic choice, it’s not a very interesting one. By taking the “less now, more later” approach, you get slightly fewer advantages early in the game, when the going is easy anyhow, and more later, when it arguably gets tougher. Beyond that, if you take the “good” path, you end up with enough ADAM to buy not quite all of the items that require ADAM. In addition, you receive free items of the sort you would usually have to pay ADAM for, but which are never for sale. In the end, you end up actually having access to a larger number of tonics and plasmids this way.

    Certainly you can argue that taking the rapid-reward path will allow you to compensate for any deficit in your skill as a gamer to overcome the challenges the game sets before you. However, questions of how difficult the game are should be settled by selecting a different difficulty from the options menu. Relying on variations in the skill of the player makes the choice seem even more artificial to me, because it is predicated on a factor that is entirely external to the design of the game.

  11. Will says:

    It just seems like a weird “moral” decision to me, since you spend all of your time killing people anyway. To me, the moral failing happens earlier, in that you can’t really interact with anyone apart from killing them. At this point, you’ve already made your choice. Killing is moral. The later question of whether or not to kill the girls isn’t really about morals.

    Personally, I find that a general failing of FPSes, so it seems a bit odd to single out Bioshock for it. Although I suppose the fact that they seemed to sort of break away from that model makes it more obvious in Bioshock than in other games.

  12. Dana says:

    I guess I can see your objection to the whole killing people thing, Will, but it *is* a FPS, and this one, like many set in a pseudo sci-fi/fan setting, goes out of its way to make the people you have to kill in order to make the game advance (collecting tokens) seem inhuman. I mean, all they do is wander around, half-rotting, totally insane, and attack you as soon as they see you. So you kill them, because that’s what you do to advance the game. (Later you get an invisibility tonic, but it only works if you’re standing still, so that’s not much of a help.)

    By contrast, the little sisters don’t try to kill you. They pretty much ignore you, unless you get too close, in which case the Big Daddy attacks you. They are the most human unnamed characters in the game. They’re not rotting, they carry no weapons, and they’re the only children you ever see. They leave you presents inside teddy bears. Pretty much the only reason you would choose to kill them is because you made a conscious choice to play the game “dark side” for the heck of it, not because in any way it seems like the right choice.

  13. Will says:

    I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve only played the demo, so I don’t have your breadth of experience with the game.

    However, I think you’re making my point for me. Everything else in the game is set up so that you advance the game by killing people. By playing the game, you’re inherently saying that’s okay (and the game encourages you in this. I recall one part of the demo where there’s a woman who appears to be crying over her baby’s carriage only to pull a tommy gun out of it and start shooting you when you approach). Everything in the game trains you to kill things before they have the chance to attack you.

    While I’m sure you could play the game by waiting until people attacked you before attacking, I’ve watched some people play and nobody actually does that. If they can, they hack turrets, sneak around, or freeze people at a distance before those people even realize they’re there.

    It just seems like an odd rationalization to say that it’s okay to kill some crazy, grieving mother but it’s not okay to kill crazy children just because they look okay and they give you presents.

    I’m not saying that there isn’t a difference. It’s just a weird distinction to make in a game that is explicitly about killing people. If you really want to play a game that encourages moral choice, maybe you shouldn’t play in a genre that’s based on the assumption that killing is okay.

  14. Mark says:

    Will,

    Your point is a valid one, but only if I choose to accept its premise. In real life, the choice to just blow people away if they’re more than three feet tall, because you have decided that every person more than child-sized you meet is out to get you would be a completely unacceptable choice. However, in a video game, I’m prepared to make certain allowances for the genre.

    In most first person shooters, you deal with the overwhelming majority of your problems by shooting them. Preferably, you shoot them in the head, because this makes your problems go away much faster, and with a minimum of irritating side-effects. If you want to argue that first person shooters are morally bankrupt as a genre because they require you to kill people, that’s your right. However, this also means that you’ve disqualified yourself from having any opinion at all about the moral content of a first person shooter, because you have written it off by its simple inclusion in the genre.

    Color me desensitized, but I don’t mind killing people in video games. I find that I am still able to make a distinction between crazy, half-rotten people on my television screen and the real live human beings I interact with each and every day without resorting to violence. That being said, I think that it is completely appropriate to have a conversation about the moral choices that any game, even a first-person shooter, attempts to create for the player. Either you can accept the basic mechanic of the game or you cannot, but if you can, there is ample room to explore a wide range of questions within that context.

    As to your point about rationalization, I think there is another flawed correlation between video game characters and real people at its root, as well. In the game, I can feel free to shoot a crazy person in the back of the head from a distance when they have yet to even see me. In real life, I cannot. The reason for this distinction is that in the game, I as a player know *absolutely* that if and when that crazy person turns around, they will immediately dedicate the sum total of their efforts to killing me. In fact, I can state with confidence that they *exist* for the sole purpose of trying to kill me, and giving me something to kill in return. There is no other available means to interact with them, and this makes it exceptionally difficult to argue that killing them is not acceptable (once again limiting ourselves to within the context of the game).

    It is also worth noting that while that lady was crying over a stroller, she did, at the instant she became aware of my presence, whip out a huge firearm from the stroller and do her level best to spray my internal organs over the breadth of the far wall. And, for whatever it’s worth, I walked slowly up to her when I first saw her in order to determine if there was anything in the stroller that I would be upset by hurting. I’m not a monster. I’m just a gamer. And that lady was a psychotic killer (now deceased).

  15. Will says:

    I didn’t say the genre was morally bankrupt. You could have an FPS that deals with certain moral issues. And I certainly don’t think that it makes you an immoral person to play FPSes. I just don’t think you can really deal morally with questions of killing people in a genre that’s based on the premise that shooting people is okay.

    As you’ve said, the game trains you to kill people before they go after you, even ones that look harmless to begin with. Basically, you’re saying that it’s okay to kill these in-game people because they were created to be killed. That’s fine, but the same could be said of the Little Sisters. So why is it a moral choice whether or not to kill them but isn’t a moral choice when you have to decide whether or not to kill others in the game?

  16. […] Effect was created by Bioware, the same company that created Bioshock, which I reviewed earlier here on the Buffet, and for which Dana published a review from the perspective of a non-gamer. This is also the same […]

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