Bioshock and Moral Narrative in Games (Part 1 of 2)
Bioshock and Bioshock 2 are great games, but for me they were just the right games at the right time. Nothing I’ve played or read or watched in the past decade has prompted a deeper, more personal examination of games, story, creativity, and craft. I decided I wouldn’t let this moment of intense self-reflection pass me by. Before I allowed myself to play the much-anticipated sequel, Bioshock Infinite, I would have to write at least one blog post on the subject. Not only would this allow me to voice something I found personally significant, it would force me to finish a written piece, something I’ve found deucedly difficult for many years.
I first imposed that rule on myself toward the end of 2012. Then Bioshock Infinite was released in March of 2013. It’s now August of that same year, I’m desperately trying to congeal my thoughts into words, and I still haven’t allowed myself to play Infinite. I’ve managed to avoid spoilers, but only by missing out on what was probably some great discussion and debate.
Oh well. Self-discipline was never easy.
Please be advised that this post contains descriptions of scenes from “M”-rated games, and so it includes what some might consider to be graphic depictions of cruelty and violence.
Also, while I avoid discussing details of the games’ endings, I freely discuss various other aspects of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. Some of this material falls well into spoiler territory. You’ve been warned.
And so, without further ado…
Bioshock is not my usual fare. In contrast, I was a huge fan of “Myst” and “Riven” back in the day. Works like “Ico” and “Shadow of the Colossus” have been more to my tastes and temperament. These are all games with strong narratives. They are slow, thoughtful, and ethereal; steeped in a mysterious, numinal aura and possessing a deep sense of history, tragedy, and loss. I can disappear into games like those for days or weeks at a time.
Now consider Bioshock: These are grim, dark, gruesome games. They’re unflinchingly violent. Many scenes are grotesque, both visually and conceptually.
Before I continue, please understand that I’m not opposed to violence in games. Violence can be a powerful and honest tool for conveying meaningful, resonant stories, stories that are important and well-worth telling. Where my eyes begin to roll and I lose interest is when the violence is spread thick and sloppy over the surface, like a heavy layer of mayonnaise on prime rib: Unnecessary, ill-matched, and distasteful.
Case in point: One of the secondary characters in the original Bioshock is Dr. Steinman, a surgeon who has been conducting rather sketchy experiments in alternate forms of beauty. Most of his unsuspecting subjects either die in the process or wish they had. When the player encounters the doctor, he puts on a surgical show in an operating theater, casting bright spotlights on three failed, expired experiments. Their bloodied bodies are strapped, arms akimbo, to cross-shaped surgical platforms suspended from the ceiling. The doctor delivers an impassioned monologue, ranting and decrying his subjects’ “flaws” as he repeatedly gouges his scalpel into a grotesquely disfigured woman on the table before him. She reacts to his onslaught, flinching and gagging, but is apparently too weak to resist.
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s so over-the-top. You could easily mistake it for something concocted in the puerile mind of an angsty little adolescent, unimaginative tripe crafted solely to instill concern and dismay in parents and teachers alike. It’s pure, unadulterated shock-fodder.
So I’m naturally curious as to why I now consider myself a fan of the series.
What’s the appeal? Why would anyone play this stuff?
I asked myself those questions many times this past December (2012), first as I played Bioshock 2 and again as I played through the original Bioshock. Each night for a week or so I waited until my kids were asleep in bed. Then I would park my recliner right up in front of our TV so I could plug in my headphones. I’d settle into my gamer’s nest with a mug of coffee on one side and an ample supply of snacks on the other (mmmm, pork rinds). I kept telling myself I would play through just one section—just one—and then I would be off to bed.
Yet every morning at some time past four a.m. I found myself wide awake, coffee cup drained hours ago, an empty bowl laced with pork dust at my side, and a sweaty sixaxis controller clutched in my tired and trembling hands.
Just going to play one…
Up until this past December I’d had, at best, a kind of begrudging interest in Bioshock. A friend had once brought it up in passing. He mentioned something about this new, undersea game where players had to choose between rescuing children or “harvesting” them for personal gain.
My first thought was, “Undersea? That sounds interesting.”
The rest of his description didn’t register with me. I dismissed it out-of-hand. Maybe it had something to do with the repugnant idea of players benefitting themselves by enacting the murder of children. In an unobservably small moment I decided I would not be playing the game and moved on.
I came back to Bioshock some time later when I found the PS3 demo. I didn’t remember much in particular about the game. It had high ratings, though, and the image of a person in a deep-sea diving suit reminded me of the “undersea” aspect my friend had described. I decided to give it a try.
As the game begins, I find I’m seeing the world through the eyes well-dressed man, a passenger on an airplane.
I hear screams and the sound of engines failing. I black out…
I wake up and find the plane has crashed into the ocean. I’m under water, struggling to swim upward. I reach the surface, gasp for air, and find I’m surrounded by flames…
Where do I go? Just swim, go anywhere.
I move forward, avoiding the flames burning on the surface of the water. I see a tower sitting atop a small outcropping of rock. I swim toward it.
I climb out of the water and stand at the base of a flight of stairs. Not far off, the fuselage sinks into the ocean. There are no signs of any other survivors.
I climb the stairs leading up to what is apparently a lighthouse. The doors are open and it’s pitch black inside. I walk in, the doors close behind me, and I’m left in darkness.
A moment later, the lights come on. I’m standing in an entryway beneath a large, stern-faced statue. There’s a banner that reads “No Gods. No Kings. Only Man.” I find stairs and follow them down. That’s odd, isn’t it?. I’m in a lighthouse; shouldn’t the stairs go up?
When I reach the bottom I find a bathysphere. The door is wide open. I step inside and pull a lever. The vessel seals itself and begins to descend.
During the drop, a small television appears and I’m treated to a prerecorded message by a man named Andrew Ryan. It’s some kind of objectivist tirade.
The message ends just as the bathysphere finishes its descent, and…
I’m looking at an undersea city named “Rapture”, all neon glow and art deco splendor. There are sea creatures everywhere: schools of fish, a giant squid, sharks.
A blue whale wends its way among the towers of glass and steel.
A short distance away, I see a man in a heavy diving suit plodding along a walkway.
I can hear voices on a radio inside the submersible, something about the “splicers” coming.
The bathysphere arrives at its destination. Someone is outside. He’s nervous, frightened.
Someone or something else arrives, and things get very ugly. The thing leaps at the man, tearing at him. I catch a momentary glimpse of a shower of blood and hear his choked screams.
Having eviscerated its victim, the thing inspects my sub. I see the glint of metal hooks on its hands.
It leaps on my submersible. Lights blaze and flicker, there are shrieks of tearing metal and bizarre, enraged screams.
For reasons I don’t know, the attack stops. My assailant leaves, retreating into the darkness. A moment later, the submersible door opens…
Taking that first step was tough. I seem to remember loitering in the submersible for a minute or two. I checked it very, very thoroughly for weapons. If I had to step out into the darkness where I’d just witnessed a cruel and gruesome murder, I’d liked to have been able to defend myself, but I had no such luck.
I stepped out.
I loved that part. I was too jittery at the time to notice, but I savored it. The nature of that moment, its rich mix of nervous anxiety, anticipated thrill, and the need to exercise one’s will to proceed, is one of many reasons I love good narrative games.
I think of it this way: If movies are roller coasters, where everyone in the audience moves along at the same pace and all the shocks, jolts, and thrills are delivered at a steady, predetermined rate, then narrative games are roller coasters with cars having accelerator pedals, brakes, and steering wheels. You might still be on a more or less fixed course, but you control the pace—and whether or not you manage to stay on the tracks. This experience isn’t unique to Bioshock, but Bioshock executes it creatively and well.
The first thing that caught my eye after getting off the submersible was the floor-to-ceiling window at the far side of the room. I walked over and looked out into the ocean. I couldn’t see much, but it was enough to call to mind the grand, neon-lit cityscapes I had witnessed during my descent. I wanted to see more, to explore. Sure, the situation had been a little hectic, and maybe I had been just a little frightened as that deranged, hook-handed freak tried to pry me from my sub like a sardine from a tin. Things had mellowed considerably since then (two whole minutes later).
It made sense to have something exciting right at the get-go. The game’s designers would naturally want to kick off the adventure with a nice little adrenaline rush. Now, with that out of the way, I was certain to have some time to look around, see what curiosities were to be found.
The rest of the demo plays out as you might expect: You have to creep around in the dark, trying very hard not to die. Your goals and path are conveyed to you via radio by the disembodied voice of a man named “Atlas”, a stranger you have little choice but to trust.
As you proceed, you find that the city of Rapture is breathing its last, letting out a long and rattling exhalation of excess. It appears to have been remarkable once. It’s littered with sights and sounds that recall rich, decadent times. But however magnificent and alive Rapture looked from the exterior, things have clearly gone terribly wrong inside. Everything is in decay: Windows leak profuse quantities of ocean water. Once-grand chambers have deteriorated. The lights flicker and buzz or have gone dark. The few remaining citizens have been altered for the worse, both physically and mentally.
Of particular note among the inhabitants of Rapture are the “little sisters” and their guardian “big daddies”. You meet only one such pair in the demo, but their distinctiveness and staging—not to mention their appearance in so much of the game art and advertising—make it clear they’ll play a prominent role later in the game.
You first encounter them from a distance. As you make your way around a balcony, you see a lone little girl in the room below. She’s kneeling next to a corpse, humming serenely to herself in a strange and unnatural voice. She has a large syringe in her hand and is repeatedly plunging it into the lifeless body before her. Atlas, the voice on the intercom, warns you to steer clear of her, and you soon find out why.
As you descend the stairs from the balcony, you enter a hall that is sectioned off from the room occupied by the little sister. You still have a clear view of her through a row of picture windows, and just as you reach the landing, one of the semi-mutated, psychopathic denizens of Rapture—a “splicer”—enters the room and begins to advance on the litle girl. She shrieks, and the hulking form of a man in a modified deep-sea diving suit drops from somewhere above. This is the little girl’s protector, a “big daddy”. There is an enormous drill mounted on his right arm. He lets out a moaning roar and rushes the splicer, who fires several rounds from a pistol. The bullets have no effect. The big daddy makes quick work of the splicer and then tosses his limp body through the window before stalking off, led along by his small, syringe-toting charge.
I waited until I was sure they were gone, then followed after.
I found myself asking a litany of questions as I wandered the city’s mouldering halls: What is this place? What happened here? What was that little girl doing to the corpse with that syringe, and why was the figure in the diving suit protecting her?
Who is Andrew Ryan, the city’s apparent founder?
Who is Atlas, the voice on the intercom, and where is he leading me?
What’s going to happen to me?
This is another area where Bioshock shines: it drops you squarely into a good, solid, interesting story. The moribund city under the sea is dark and dilapidated, but beautiful and mysterious. You have only a glimpse of the main characters at the outset, but what you see is intriguing. The plot is woven evenly and creatively throughout the world, both in the grand, climactic events that serve as gateways between chapters and also in the subtle, sometimes hidden ways you find only by diligent observation.
I especially liked the way Bioshock presented its backstory. Tape recorders containing short audio excerpts are scattered throughout the game. The recorded entries give players additional insights into the city, its citizens, and the betrayals and corruption that led to its fall. Some of the recorders are in plain sight, others can be found only through concerted effort: The player must gather clues to access them. None of the messages are required listening; you can choose to skip every one and still complete the game (so far as I remember). I found as many as I could. They added another degree of depth and richness to the story. By making them optional, the game’s designers provided a simple and effective way for players to tailor their individual experiences.
Bioshock is also a decent first-person shooter. It has all the bits an FPS should have, though some critics balked at the repetition in combat. The weapons range from the piddly “I’m gonna whack you wit’ mah stick” wrench up to big, bulky jobs that deal out devastation with every pull of the trigger. There’s a fair number of weapon types and a variety of enemies with corresponding weaknesses. Savvy, strategic players can pick and choose weapons so as to do the most damage to the particular baddy before them. Or, if you’re like me, you can favor one gun over all the others, switching only as needed when you run out of ammo.
On top of all this are the “plasmids”: genetic self-modifications you find throughout the game that grant you special abilities. Using plasmids, you can electrocute your foes, burn them, freeze them, or toss them about like rag dolls, among a variety of other assaults. These abilities don’t come for free, of course: you have to maintain them via regular injections of a substance called “eve”.
For those who rate games by the extent and variety of the havoc they let you wreak, Bioshock does well enough.
Unfortunately, much of this is lost on me. I’m not overly fond of first-person shooters. I don’t hate them (or else why would I play Bioshock in the first place?) but I’m not good at them. They make me tense. So, as much as I wanted to follow the story through to its end, each combative encounter, one right after another, gradually dampened my enthusiasm and eroded my patience.
In the last scene of the demo, I found myself trapped in a very small room with no exits and a horde of splicers shouting and breaking through the windows and door. When the screen finally faded to black I put down the controller, nerves frazzled, perfectly content for the moment to not find out what happened next. It couldn’t possibly be good.
And with that, I nearly missed out on what has become one of my favorite video game series.
This post is continued in Part 2.