My Brother Plays Bioshock (Part 1)

My brother is also an avid player of the video games. We pretty much have the same taste in games, not counting some notable exceptions (Bayonetta, for example). Still, he’s had less and less time to play due to a shift in focus to his primary profession: political science and academia. As such, with limited time to gaming and devotion to his dissertation work, he wants to play the best of the best. World of WarCraft remains a fixture, of course, but what of other games?

Knowing him to be a fan of Ayn Rand, not just the novels but the philosophy as well, I felt Bioshock might actually be an interesting experiment to foist upon him. Unlike the rest of us gamers, he has no real idea what it’s even about, nor the spectacular twists and turns of the plot or the atmospheric world of Rapture. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually played much of the game. Frankly, I got bored by the first hour and I wasn’t much interested afterward. Am I weird?

No, I don’t think so. I can appreciate a good story, or a good shooter, but you need to have both if you want the game to work. I mean, by this, that first person shooters can work fantastically without plot of any kind, but a game with a good story also has to be an interesting game, not just a semi-interactive movie. I and him grew up on the twitch shooters of the 1990s – Goldeneye remains our gold standard, not only for multiplayer but for any kind of first person shooter. Halo was quite a lot of fun as well, so we’re really run’n’gun – who wants to play a realistic shooter? Give me a giant a machine gun, or sniper rifle, and call it a day. I can handle the rest with my skill. His expectations of the genre prove to be a downfall in Bioshock.

What’s interesting in watching him play, aside from what tactics he uses, is his complete refusal to read any of the directions the game provides. It certainly true that games have become progressively easier over time, but that’s only because they guide you. My brother refuses the guidance of the game; in fact, he was hilariously confused by the fact that he didn’t have a weapon, and didn’t know to look on the ground for a wrench. In fact, upon finding that this was the first weapon, he said something to the effect of “this is the first weapon? Seriously?”

Well, supposedly plasmids make up for the lack of weapon variety…but he also felt they were kind of boring. He refused to use them in any capacity, preferring to club people in the head with the wrench until they died. Although it’s a lot of fun, he quickly died and respawned at the Vita-Chamber. This didn’t sit well with him – although Bioshock tries to create an open world experience with a style designed for linear set-pieces, you can’t place checkpoints in a well-formed level. Hence, what we have instead are the cheapest way to ensure a player can make it through the game – infinite respawns!

My brother isn’t stupid – he abused the heck out of them, preferring to charge into the fray and let the game take care of his death. So far, there hasn’t been a single obstacles that you can’t overcome with brute force – sure, the game will take longer, but why bother with skill when you zerg the boss? Plasmids take too much time, and who cares about electrifying people or putting them on fire? You’re just gonna die anyway, and the wrench wastes less resources. There’s no concequence to death, like restarting a level or anything, so who cares about being good at it? Maybe some sequence later forces some actual skill, but not yet!

It’s also amusing to see him apply the “double-tap” principle from Zombieland for just about every enemy – as he said, “this is a zombie game”. I tried to explain the finer points of the difference between a Splicer and a zombie, but in the end he’s right – there’s no functional difference, other than that they shriek loudly. The ambushes also lend itself to that sentiment – ooh, scary, the lights went out, now I’m being attacked! It’s an atmospheric element, sure, but it doesn’t add anything interesting to the combat other than “more enemies! With more health!”

This brings up a further problem – combat’s not all that varied throughout. Sure, you’ve got lots of fancy stuff to play with (or, alternately, NOT), but the enemies in the first parts of the game do the exact same things over and over again. It’s not all that hard to find out that, yes, enemies DO randomly respawn at set intervals…just like any other game in existence. When you backtrack, they suddenly pop in, and you’re like “oh, so this is supposed to be somewhat realistic? Then how do the crazy Splicers magically find out where I am?” Am I not supposed to think when I encounter these sequences? It’s quite immersion breaking.

And the best part? For all the “plot” related hype surrounding the game, we really weren’t paying much attention. Nor was my brother – he was just killing things and running around to the next objective marker. All it does in the first two-three hours is provide justification for killing things. “Hey, go retrieve object X, or key Y, so you can go to the next area!” Why not just make linear levels so it’s more exciting? This just forces the player to waste time backtracking…meaning less time for the developers in making the game. Hence, respawning enemies. QED.

My brother’s verdict? “This game’s boring”. I guess that’s as good a summary as any. Not that I’m not going to force him to finish it (come on, it’s only ten hours or so), but I hope it gets better.

We were both surprised at the critical reception, really – is the story that good to justify the boredom? Does a great aesthetic and atmosphere make up for a great game experience? In my opinion, no; if it’s boring, why can’t we just go out and say it, and call it a bad game? I wouldn’t say Bioshock strikes me as “bad”. It’s well-crafted, but derivative. And the weapons, sadly, don’t excite my brother that much. It’s got a story, but it’s told REALLY slowly, apparently. It’s simply creating an atmosphere, and that’s not neccessarily a great focus for a game. In that respect, it’s a total success – but as a game? I beg to differ, digital world!

I Samuel  15-16 tells a story that, in telling the opposite point, makes this much clearer.

16 Now the Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have selected a king for Myself among his sons.” 2 But Samuel said, “How can I go? When Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 You shall invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for Me the one whom I designate to you.” 4 So Samuel did what the Lord said, and came to Bethlehem. And the elders of the city came trembling to meet him and said, “Do you come in peace?” 5 He said, “In peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” He also consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they entered, he looked at Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” 9 Next Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” 10 Thus Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. But Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 And Samuel said to Jesse, “Are these all the children?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, and behold, he is tending the sheep.” Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

12 So he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is he.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel arose and went to Ramah.

The Lord looks at the heart, not the outward appearance. In Bioshock, we have the opposite – appearance taking over the heart. There could have been a great game there, but it’s just not yet, I’m sorry to say. Hey, maybe we’ll see if things progress a little farther as we go along!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Bioshock got a lot of hype for sure. Bioshock 2 put a plasmid in the left hand so you could shoot and ‘magick’ your enemies simultaneously. It was as if to say, “whoa this was a missed opportunity from the first game.” Admittedly, there’s a lot of shortcomings for a lot of the most critically acclaimed games of this past generation. Fallout 3 has so many, it’s hard not to list them while playing. Yet both Fallout 3 and Bioshock remain as some of my favorites.
    My sensitivity to “true gameplay” (thanks especially to yourself), has been growing up and around my preference for narrative. As such, it’s kinda ironic that I recently rebooted Bioshock too. I decided to start it on the hardest difficulty. You see, I think I may have played it previously on either Easy or Normal. And one cannot truly decipher the game’s finer intricacies without such. I’ve been surprised. This turns the game into a survival horror – which I’m thinking was part of the core design all along. And if you’re going for a “true” playthrough, you should be going for the “no vita chamber usage” achievement. This should keep you honest. And challenge even yourself. 
    As for the heart? I don’t know that the ‘story’ was so much of the point. It’s more that the environment itself serves as a criticism of Modernism. As such, serves well as a staple of Postmodernism.
    Though, if that’s the whole story, it gets summed up in the first 3 minutes when you see Andrew Ryan’s mantra. You can quit and go home. Or, you can stick around for the rest of the experience, which might not go too deep. Though, the 4th-wall metanarrative is rather fascinating.

    • @Mjoshua I’m finding myself unsatisfied with games that don’t challenge me – and it’s not necessarily because I hate relaxing when I play a game. I did plenty of those already! I just find that you’re much more invested in the experience overall when the difficulty complements the task at hand. The sense of accomplishment makes the entire game satisfying, and not just a play through the motions.
      I’m doing a similar thing to yourself with Darksiders – I wanted to make sure my evaluation of the game wasn’t a whole lot of nostalgia goggles. I played it right before Bayonetta (which, obviously, I like a little too much), so I need to know whether or not my prejudices from a nearly perfect action game affect my judgement at max difficulty. It was pretty awesome dying to the first big enemy (not even a boss) three times in a row. I had to step up my game almost immediately or die. Good stuff!
      Can you actually turn the Vita-Chambers off, or is it more of a “one-credit clear” idea (that is, no dying at all)? I imagine that would also enhance the survival horror element exponentially – what if dying was REALLY dying? Similar to the hardcore mode in Diablo and Torchlight. I imagine the game wasn’t designed around that constraint, unfortunately, but I’d like to see that somewhere outside of that genre.
      I’m pretty sure my brother doesn’t have the time or inclination to restart, but I’ll surely do this at some point. Plus I need to get him to play more so I can write more about this (he’s a busy man)!
      As for the story/atmosphere/environment, perhaps I’m not good at scary games. Even this scares me. I could barely played FEAR before erupting in girlish shrieks (not to mention DooM3). A feat of endurance on my part, I suppose. I think you pretty much nailed it on the divide between postmodernism and nihilism – I feel the answers it provides aren’t really sufficient in the end. I already spoiled it for myself, so yeah.
      Is there a big difference between the “good” and “bad” endings, or does it really not matter that much?

      • @Zachery Oliver  If there’s anything I’ve learned about your play style it’s that you’re all about difficulty and pure challenges. Its’ cool that you’re trying that with Darksiders. I never played the first. Curious how it stands for you. I might one day finally play it.
        I don’t think you can turn vita chambers off. But you can obviously just forsake them by reloading each time you end up at one (how you get the achievement). I’d have to boot it up again to see if there’s a quicksave system (pretty sure there is). I’m guessing you hate those, too? 
        The Horror element is certainly my least favorite part of Bioshock. It was why I all but completely swore the thing off at first glance, and even after the first time I tried the beginning hour. But after I saw past that, I really liked what I found. It doesn’t happen terribly often that I like something with horror elements. 
        As for Postmodernism, are you agreeing with the idea that it provides two general outcomes? Tragic empathy and straight nihilism? A lot of people seem to forget the tragic empathy bit. Even then, for some like myself, a flowing interaction with Christ and his Church is kind of another possible outcome of Postmodernism – though maybe as double-irony? Not sure.
        As for the good vs bad endings? They are completely different based on what you do with the Little Sisters. But I’m realizing that varied endings are really little more than something tacked-on. You know what two games come to mind as having the best endings I can think of? Paper Mario 64 and the recent Thirty Flights of Loving.

        • @Mjoshua I really liked Darksiders when I played it – aesthetics, game design, everything. It’s a mish-mash of Zelda, Metroid, and God of War, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Definitely not as well designed as those game’s laser sharp focus, but it could use more than a few sequels (I have II, just need to get around to it. It has a Hardcore mode – goodie!)
          Save and reload for an achievement, heh. Not sure what I think about quicksaves – I think it’s just a casualty of game design that you can reload a particularly tricky segment. In other words, you’re not forced to learn it. by failure. Obviously, games are designed around it now, so I suppose it wouldn’t be too bad if the game’s hard enough. Not usually the case, unfortunately.
          Yes, I am agreeing with you. Although I’d say Christianity MIGHT BE less of a category – whether modernism, postmodern, you name it – and more a thing unto itself. Like an irruption of love from a transcendental plane, not so much a human cultural framework. Easier to use categories, though!
          I played Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door and liked it, but I never finished the first. I should go back to that! As you said, it’s all about atmosphere, so I suppose the ending would have to be tacked on (much like Mass Effect 3, games don’t know how to end their narratives well or effectively).

        • @Zachery Oliver I meant my cliffhangers about those two games’ endings to stick out. Yeah. Paper Mario 2 was fantastic. One of my fav RPGs of all time. But the ending was crap. The firsts’ ending was the best part because it kept you in control of Mario. You went back through all the places where you were in the game and you saw how your defeat of Bowser made the world a better place. It validated the fight and the victory. More games should do that. 
          Thirty Flights of Loving did the same thing only it didn’t really have an overt “world.” So it simply continued the FPS experience in a strange narrative way. I don’t understand why it does all that, and you might hate it because it’s loose-form artsy fartsiness that’s almost half as long as the game itself. But at least it keeps you in the game instead of making you watch a video at the end of an interactive experience.

  • As I think about the intricacies of Postmodernism, I feel like you can see each value expressed in this game as you play through the whole thing. And of course, you can see that Postmodernism leads to two kinds of outcomes: Tragic empathy – despite being a sinful monster (save all the Little Sisters); and Nihilism (harvest the little sisters).

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