I still have 5 million things to accomplish today, but I thought I’d comment briefly on Bioshock, which I recently finished. I will avoid spoilers for those that are adverse to such.
Bioshock is easily in the top 5 computer games I’ve ever played. It’s not at the top – Fallout or Thief, probably the latter, would take that title – but it’s close, up there with Deus Ex and System Shock 2, perhaps #3 or #4. By itself, it is a compelling argument that games are art. The art is gorgeous, it runs like a top on two-year old hardware, and it’s scary and intense. It’s not Shalebridge Cradle (Thief 3) or Return to the Catheral (Thief 1) scary, or SS2 scary, as your character is too powerful after the first 15 minutes or so to get really scared. Although I’ll admit that taking out that first Big Daddy was a ton and a half, an experience I’ll not soon forget – imagine a one-ton, 10-foot tall faceless armored 19th-century diving suit, every boot-step shaking through the bass spectrum, emitting sounds halfway between a blue whale and a garbage truck, carrying an giant, rusty electric drill approximately two feet in diameter – and with Lawrence Taylor’s time in the 40.
For all the art direction and atmosphere, the centerpiece of the game is the character of Andrew Ryan, who looks and sounds like Welles’s Charles Foster Kane and is fueled by a particularly insane version of Ayn Rand’s objectivism. Ryan is the mind behind Rapture, a objectivist dream-city built on the bottom of the Atlantic hat that has fallen into chaos and insanity via genetic research gone havoc, and in which the player is stranded, but able to use some of the same modifications to survive. These include electrocution, firestarting, telekenesis, hatching hornets from your blood, freezing people solid, etc, in addition to using the leftover homemade weapons from the city’s recent civil war. The climax of Bioshock is meeting face to face with Ryan, up until then a mysterious, unseen figure, about 2/3rds through the game, and it is as effective a piece of storytelling as I’ve ever seen in any film – Ebert never played a game like this. It’s an excellent story of a good idea gone wrong, with more than one effective twist along the way.
Honorable mentions in the character department would go to Sander Cohen, a quite insane poet/playwright/painter/socialite who has transformed Rapture’s former entertainment complex into a grotesque series of sculptures, and the tragic thread that follows Diane McClintock, Ryan’s former lover; there are also the Little Sisters, the identical prepubescent girls that have been turned into creepy harvesters of the genetic material of corpses, and their lumbering protectors, the Big Daddies, who, if you just follow their pairing them around and watch them, have a strange, almost touching partnership. “No one likes a slowpoke, Mr. Bubbles,” followed by an inhuman whale-like blare, never failed to make me chuckle.
Now for 2K games, I only have one request; would you kindly make a sequel?
Well, anyone who had played the System Shock games would know that Atlas was not who he seemed, and the only real candidate was Fontaine. The end of the Neptune level raised some doubts, though I was still sure I’d be betrayed. And I figured that Jack had blown up the plane. But I’ll confess that I didn’t link these two things together until Ryan started using the code phrase; that was a brilliant, nuanced reveal, even after the room just before where it was scrawled all over the wall. Fontaine’s confession was an anticlimax after that.
I only felt nervous two times in the game. The first was when Ryan decided to destroy the city, and that was pure psychological manipulation that set me up wonderfully for the delightfully paced climax. The second was when I realized that Fontaine was going to continue to use the kill-phrase until it worked; I started moving a lot faster and being much more reckless. The health bar never got below about halfway before I found the serum; I wonder if it would have gone all the way down had I dawdled.
In comparison, the ending was low-key; I was so heavily armed that Fontaine was a cakewalk. I might have used one first aid kit, if that.
I saved all the Little Sisters I encountered, and killed perhaps 5-6 more Big Daddies. I was disappointed on the labs level that I didn’t get to see the Big Daddies before they are converted, just giant yellow vats.
One other thing – I was amazed at my inability to kill Sander Cohen. I didn’t even try in Fort Folic; I walked away and left him with his painting. He did help me, after all – not considering the three or four attempts to kill me, of course. I didn’t lay a hand on him until I realized it was necessary to enter a part of the Heights level, at which point I set the dancers at the piano there on fire, which brought him out fairly quickly.
Of all the audio logs – still a great way to tell a story, SS2-style – the best two were Diane’s and Fontaine’s, in Atlas’s hideout, and the one of Ryan’s in the Big Daddy labs, where he honestly questions and then reaffirms his philosophy.