Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Would You Kindly Pick Up That Shortwave Radio?

Abra Macabra 9 by ~betteo

This past weekend, I suddenly found myself with a plethora of free time, as the Heather Monster was running amok in Mexico and we had a sudden, unexpected snowfall (not a substantial snowfall - this is the Pacific Northwest, after all - but enough of one that nobody, myself included, felt like venturing out of their cozy little abodes.) So I decided that I would do something I'd never gotten around to doing in the past: finally finish BioShock.

(Please note that this entry will not shy away from spoilers, so if you don't want any of the major plot points of BioShock ruined for you, you may want to skip it.  I repeat: only click through to read the rest of this post if you have either finished BioShock already, or you plan never to do so.  Consider yourself warned.)

Up until now, I'd only ever played through the first few minutes of the first level: the plane-crash and swim to the light-house, the descent to Rapture in the bathysphere, the radio signal from Atlas, and a handful of encounters with Splicers. I'd obtained my first Plasmid, and seen a few Big Daddies and Little Sisters from a distance... But one thing or another would come along and I'd abandon the game for another couple of months.

This weekend, it suddenly occurred to me that I no longer had any excuse.

BioShock (Atari Modern Classics) by the sadly-defunct The-MinusWorld


For a guy like me, BioShock is a dream come true. It's high-concept right out of the gate: it's set in 1960 in the underwater city of Rapture, a capitalist utopia-gone-wrong that is equal parts Ayn Rand, Jules Verne, and Mad Men on Ayahuasca. In only a handful of months, Rapture has gone from an idealised underwater urban centre operating under the principles of laissez-faire capitalism ("Is not a man entitled to the sweat of his brow?") and populated by Plasmid-enhanced citizenry to a creaking, leaking, mostly-deserted aquatic ghost town, home to four types of individuals:

1. a remnant of relatively sane and unaltered upper-echelon humans, such as Andrew Ryan, Bridgette Tenenbaum, and Atlas;
2. various Splicers, driven mad by their addiction to ADAM, including the artist Sander Cohen and Dr. Steinman;
3. Little Sisters - female children who have been genetically altered to harvest ADAM from corpses scattered around Rapture; and
4. Big Daddies, who are only nominally human after having been permanently grafted into armoured diving suits and equipped with enormous, weaponised drills and rivet guns, who function as guardians to the Little Sisters.

And then, of course, there's you, the monkeywrench in the works. Your character is far from a cipher: in the opening cinematic, it's made clear that you have parents, memories, and a life, and the plane crash over the Atlantic is the result of simple bad luck. Who wouldn't swim to a nearby lighthouse if they were the sole survivor of a mid-Atlantic crash? Who wouldn't try and scrounge up a weapon of some sort if they were being attacked by crazies in rabbit masks? Who wouldn't, at the direction of the kindly, protective Irishman on the other end of the radio, inject themselves with a syringe guaranteed to give them superpowers? And ultimately, who wouldn't get caught up in the intrigues of Rapture as they attempted to make their way back to the surface?

Except, of course, that about halfway through the game, you are thrown a curveball unlike anything you have ever encountered in a videogame plot until now: you are not what you think you are. Nothing is what it appears to be. Friends are enemies, enemies are family, and the morality underlying every single action of every single poor soul sucked into Rapture's undercurrent is exceptionally murky and motivated by a host of factors.

But I'll get back to that in a minute.

If there is a point to BioShock, it is to tell a new kind of story through the medium of the videogame. It's the Seventh Seal of games, dealing with such diverse themes and topics as identity, scientific ethics, Objectivism, libertarianism, despotism, genetics, neurological conditioning, religious and economic freedom versus oppression, and so forth. But what BioShock hinges on, at heart, is morality, forcing players to make decisions, again and again, which are in turn based on misleading, incomplete or unreliable information.

Big Daddy Poster by Justin Russo

This is what really made an impression on me, the more time I spent in Rapture. Most first-person shooters have a fairly structured and goal-oriented storyline. In Half-Life 2, you must progress from checkpoint to checkpoint, battling your way past obstacles or rescuing individuals to assist in the rebellion against the Combine. In the Call of Duty or Medal of Honour games, you receive your orders and are dropped into an essentially closed environment to accomplish them. In Left 4 Dead, the narrative falls by the wayside in favour of simple survival. Even games that offer multiple paths depending on decisions that you make in-game, like Deus Ex or System Shock, generally provide enough information beforehand for you to be aware of, and accept, the consequences of your decision.  Not so with BioShock.

To put it bluntly, BioShock lies to you. Repeatedly, and in a clever enough way that you are unable to determine if you're a decent or a terrible person until it's far too late.

Case in point. The first time you encounter a Big Daddy in combat and defeat it, you are given the option to either harvest ADAM from the Little Sister it is protecting, or rescue her. The only immediate consequence here is that if you rescue her, you receive significantly less ADAM, which is used at various terminals through the game to purchase Plasmids and upgrades. This seems, at first blush, like a fairly obvious choice: you'll feel better about yourself if you rescue the Little Sister, but you personally stand to gain more reward from harvesting her.

However, as time goes by and you rescue more and more Little Sisters, they start to leave gifts for you - bonus ADAM, amongst other things. Suddenly, the cost benefit of harvesting is reduced, and harvesting ceases to be as appealing an option. You begin to feel bad about those Little Sisters you harvested at the beginning of the game, because you were unaware that you'd start to see additional benefits for being altruistic. You start to question whether the death of a small handful of innocents is truly necessary for the greater good.

BioShock Mockup for GameBoy by CroM (from the Pixelation forums)


When you first take control of your player character, Jack, you obtain a handheld radio and a guide on the other end, in the form of Atlas. The very first thing that Atlas says to you is a request to pick up the radio, so that he may assist you and help you out. He phrases it in a folksy, chummy sort of way: "Would you kindly pick up that shortwave radio?"

As you play through the game, it becomes apparent to the observant player that this phrase - "Would you kindly...?" - is a kind of catchphrase for Atlas. As your man on the inside, Atlas is in a position to ensure your survival, since he knows the layout of Rapture, the nature of Plasmids, the weak spots of Big Daddies and Splicers, and the precise order of tasks you must complete before confronting the tyrannical Andrew Ryan. And not only that, but he's polite! He doesn't demand anything of you, and when his wife and child are murdered by Ryan in a submarine explosion before you, or he, are able to save them... Well, your heart kind of goes out to the poor guy.

You actually start to think of him as a brother-in-arms, in a way. You learn that Rapture was torn apart between magnate Ryan and a gangster and rabble-rouser named Frank Fontaine, and that Atlas led the charge on the third front, motivated not by greed or pride but by genuine idealism. You want to see Ryan get his comeuppance for killing Atlas' family in what appears to be an unnecessary display of aggressive dominance, for feeding ADAM to Splicers to turn them into his willing foot-soldiers, and especially for what he's done to the Little Sisters, who can no longer be considered entirely human, or children.

But then, with very little warning, you find yourself on Andrew Ryan's doorstep, and a truth is revealed to you even before you confront the man himself:

This is scrawled on the walls - or rather, on photos of Jack's private recollections - outside of Ryan's offices, along with an audio recording. This recording is the second half of a one-two punch to the gut, as it reveals experiments done on Jack as a child in which he is instructed, using the code-phrase 'Would you kindly...?', to break his puppy's neck. Crying and resisting, the young boy nevertheless does so. It is a grisly but absolutely critical moment in the narrative, and sets up the confrontation with Andrew Ryan.

Ryan is a man in control of his own destiny, right up to his dying breath. Rather than being staged as a boss-battle - which a lesser game might have attempted - Ryan uses the trigger phrase on you deliberately and repeatedly, asking you over and over again to take his life. Control is wrested from the player (and, inversely, given to Andrew Ryan) and you are left to watch yourself beat this man to a bloody smear on the carpet with one of his own golf clubs. By choosing his own time and manner of death, Ryan manages something that no videogame villain has ever accomplished before: he beats you at your own game.

Of course, he reveals some key information before his demise, like the fact that you're his son (or a clone of his son, though in a game featuring resuscitating Vitachambers, the distinction isn't really important) and that you're only two years old, though genetically modified to age at an accelerated rate; that your mother sold you as an embryo to Ryan's nemesis Frank Fontaine, and was subsequently murdered by Ryan; that Fontaine implanted you with the trigger phrase, not to mention a few other nefarious controls, arranged for you to be on the plane that crashed near Rapture's lighthouse, and intended from the start for you to be his personal Manchurian Candidate.

Oh, and Atlas was Fontaine all along, if you hadn't pieced that together by now.

The manner in which these plot twists are revealed - all at once, raining down on you like blows, rather than as esoteric puzzle pieces slowly revealed to you over the course of the game - is an absolutely devastating gaming experience, and one that has never been achieved in such a monumental fashion in the past.

There's a reason why the twists make so much more of an impact in a game like BioShock than in a film like The Sixth Sense: in the latter case, the viewer has two hours to become passively invested in the narrative, the characters and their actions, while in the former, the player spends 30+ hours investing actively in becoming the central protagonist, deciding on their actions, and constructing the narrative, to greater or lesser effect. Finding out that Darth Vader is Luke's father or that it was Earth all along elicits a severe sympathetic response from us as the audience... but discovering that, for the last twenty hours, we have been inhabiting a(n albeit fictional) individual that we thought we knew, in a world we were beginning to make sense of, only to learn that we have been deceived on a fundamental level prompts a kind of recreational existentialist crisis.

BioShock Stickers by Shy Suiko


What 2K and Irrational Games have created with BioShock is a fully-realised world, with its own philosophy, progression and inhabitants, presented at a very specific point in that world's history. Rapture was once idyllic, an elysium populated by mid-twentieth-century businessmen and housewives bestowed by science with superpowers, which were used only for the betterment of their daily lives. Its downfall came about due to nothing so much as human fallacy: drug addiction, greed for money and power, and hubris.

When we consider the notion of videogames, we tend to have a very limited view of what they are, what concepts they may encompass, and what emotions they may elicit. They are designed for entertainment, they tend to map out typical and well-trod conceptual routes, and they may inspire fear, dread, excitement, and occasionally sentimentality.  BioShock has done away with all of these preconceived expectations and presents a model, instead, for what videogames are capable of.  It reinvents the inherent trope of the avatar in gaming and meshes it with that of the unreliable narrator.   And while it is certainly entertaining, it compels the player to consider certain philosophical and ethical perspectives that they might not normally have much of an opinion on.

In the end, I can confidently state that I have never experienced a game quite like BioShock.  I can see how it would work on a very surface level - it is an FPS, after all, and the game is played, for the most part, by pointing a gun at enemies and blowing them away - and it is not without its flaws (for example: the final boss fight against Frank Fontaine felt a little too by-the-books and simplistic considering everything that came before it, and the element of morality, although it was well-implemented, was largely restricted to a repeated choice between harvesting or rescuing Little Sisters) - but most games of this type only work on a surface level.  BioShock has considerable depth to it, if you're willing to dig.

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