this space intentionally left blank

August 7, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock

A Man Chooses

Note: This post is going to gleefully spoil a crucial scene from Bioshock. It will absolutely ruin the enjoyment of much of the plot if you haven't played. So if that's the case, and you're interested in playing it at some point, delete this from your feedreader and/or scroll past it. I'll try to stay fairly vague, in case your eye wanders, and try not to edit it too much.

I actually thought I had been spoiled for the twist in Bioshock before I played it, because I already knew that Jack (the main character) is actually Andrew Ryan's illegitimate son, suspected that Atlas was not who he seemed to be, and had heard that Jack was being manipulated somehow during the events in Rapture. In other games, these would be the twists.

Which is not to say that they're not in Bioshock, to some degree. The method by which Jack is controlled, along with flashbacks through the game to drive the realization home, is played for natural dramatic effect. Likewise, the game feeds you clues as to Jack's identity gradually enough that--even if you don't realize the full extent of his relationship to Ryan--you feel clever about figuring it out.

But the real killer scene is when, after revealing the method by which Jack has been manipulated throughout the game, Andrew Ryan uses it to take control of him. He delivers a short monologue (in the best tradition of his inspiration, Ayn Rand), repeating again and again that "A man chooses. A slave obeys." He demonstrates his ability to control Jack (at this point, and for the remainder of the scene, Bioshock takes over input and disables the gamepad).

And then, that plot point is still being digested, he hands Jack a club, and commands him to kill. The player is only able to watch helplessly as his alter-ego slowly beats Ryan to death, with Ryan shrieking all the while: "A man chooses! A slave obeys! Obey!" It's a tremendously shocking and disturbing tableau. I would argue that solely as a game, Bioshock doesn't provide much in the way of novelty. As a narrative, however, it is absolutely brilliant, and Ryan's death is the peak of that brilliance.

(If you don't plan on playing the game, or you want a refresher on what I'm talking about, you can watch it here. If you haven't played it, however, I suspect it'll be robbed of most of its context and resonance.)

There are several really thought-provoking things about the scene, the most obvious of which is its decision to make the player powerless. You could write the same scene in a movie, or in a book, with Jack unable to stop himself from murdering Ryan. But it's really only in a game, where the player is used to interaction, that the point can be fully driven home--a tendency Bioshock encourages by only very rarely using traditional cutscenes, generally eschewing them in favor of Half-Life's now-ubiquitous scripted events.

Immediately after Ryan's death, interestingly enough, Jack is given a new mission using the same mental control mechanism--but this time, the player is back behind the wheel. I suppose you could choose not to follow orders at this point, but you'd be forced to sit forever in a small room with no-where else to go and no plot available to you. Which is a neat way of forcing the player to bow to the plot convention, as well as a sly commentary on the nature of videogame storytelling--of course you're going to do what you're told, chump, because you literally have no choice. Interesting, too, that Jack is unknowingly coerced into following the game's missions, instead of allowing for the possibility that the player would have gone along out of altruism or curiosity if given a choice. Not to mention that no-one has to issue any commands before the player kills practically everything in sight (although I doubt this view of Bioshock's violence was intentional).

In his defense of the game against its detractors, Kieron Gillen seems to argue that designer Ken Levine is trying to send two messages in Bioshock: A) don't follow any ideology blindly, and B) killing (the Little Sisters) is morally wrong. The second point is a nice thought, but entirely speculation--Levine has stated bluntly that he never wanted to add the "bad" ending for players who harvested the Little Sisters instead of rescuing them, which would have left the game morally ambiguous if he'd had his way. The first stands on stronger ground, but I wonder if it's not undermined by the circumstances of Ryan's death. After all, if Ryan never forbade contact with the surface (a governmental control of the kind he claimed, as a Libertarian demagogue, to detest), Frank Fontaine might have never risen up to challenge him via a smuggling empire. The game isn't a ringing endorsement of Objectivism, but it's no refutation, either.

Levine himself is on record, I believe, as saying that he wanted the game's narrative to focus on how so-called perfect ideologies are invariably let down by imperfect humans. Again, I'm not sure that the narrative actually backs that up--in no small part because I believe it's a flawed premise from the start. My reading of it, backed up by Ryan's assisted suicide, is more along the lines of "be careful what you wish for." Ryan sets out to create an Objectivist state where laws are ignored and industry rules all, and Fontaine is the embodiment of that state--to Ryan's dismay (particularly since it moves him to betray those ideals in order to combat Fontaine). In the end, it's Ryan's own runaway ideology that threatens him, and rather than change his ways and live, he allows it to kill him.

Regardless of these interpretations, the fact that Bioshock can invite such investigation is a testament to the writing and the depth of characterization throughout. It's on the strength of that writing, and the uniformly excellent voice acting, that Bioshock truly succeeds, above and beyond the bare mechanics of the game itself--killing the same splicers and hacking the same machines over and over again soon becomes tedious. The promise of Rapture's secrets, on the other hand, may carry it past those problems more effectively than any straightforward gameplay could have done.

July 7, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock

Against the Current

Although it took a little while to get to it, and it's also taking me a while to get into its rhythms, I'm now comfortably working my way through Bioshock on the Xbox 360. It's the kind of game I'd prefer to play on my laptop, but 2K's insistence on SecuROM copy protection pretty much nixed that idea--astonishingly, even the Steam Bioshock install includes Sony's SecuROM, despite being already wrapped in a layer of less-offensive DRM. Maybe they just decided it wasn't annoying enough.

Obviously the game is a polished, well-crafted experience. The voice acting is particularly high in quality, while the enemy character designs are relatively lackluster. I'm not convinced that the plot's as brilliant that it's been made out to be, but it's good. Still, I keep finding myself struggling against a general sense of confinement, as if parts of Bioshock were chopped off to make it fit a console mentality. I had thought people were complaining needlessly when they called it "dumbed-down," but now I'm not so sure.

Take, for example, the almost inexplicable lack of an inventory screen. Bioshock, unlike its spiritual inspirations in the System Shock series, doesn't provide any way to manage the various objects that the player picks up in Rapture. Consumable objects are used right away, and there's no real limit on the number of weapons that can be carried. I don't really miss those "features" since cramming sprites into a grid and then rearranging them constantly is not my idea of a good time. What is limited, however, are the active and passive genetic powers accumulated during the game, and these can only be swapped out at specific Gene Bank stations. More importantly, the only place to view any equipped gene tonics is at the Gene Bank.

This is clumsy--noticeably clumsy, given the rest of the game's polish. I could understand gameplay reasons for forcing the player to stick with only a few tonics at a time, but why can't I see what I have installed? My memory only goes so far--what if I want to check what I'm currently using, since it's not always instantly obvious? What if (and this happens often to me) I haven't been playing in a while, and I've simply forgotten where I left off? When I first ran into this problem, I spent several minutes flipping between tabs on the help menu, thinking that I had just missed it. But no: there's no way to see what tonics are currently in use, except by trudging over to a Gene Bank, wherever that might be. It's amazing that a game offering instant reloads, hints, and even a guided arrow for navigation (which I quite like, honestly, in this kind of story-driven affair) doesn't offer a simple status screen.

Speaking of clumsy, how about that hacking mini-game? Somewhere out there, Pipe Dreams enthusiasts weep tears of joy. The rest of us curse at the screen. It's not that it's hard to play. It's that the mechanics of it--moving around a grid, constantly smacking the A button to uncover tiles and then swapping them with tiles in other, non-contiguous positions--are simply not well-suited to a gamepad. With a mouse cursor, the game is tolerable, if only because it's so much faster. Even giving gamers a faux-cursor controlled by the analog stick, a la Chu Chu Rocket would have helped. But as it is, it's a horrible frenzy of d-pad tapping that's out of sync with the rest of the game's navigation.

Which reminds me: the controls. Granted, I am a hostile audience for console shooters. I have joked, in the past, that people who enjoy playing first-person games with a gamepad are heathens who should be sent to live in a godforsaken wasteland like Montana, far from the rest of civilization. Bioshock works hard to keep the process painless--it boasts an auto-aim that will lock on and follow a target for a moment, as well as a turning speed that increases if the right stick is held left or right for a moment.

But these are all just lipstick on the pig. They're patches meant to make up for the fact that it's still tremendously cumbersome to control a first-person viewpoint using a thumbstick, and no amount of tweaking will change that. The gamepad alters the entire feel of things: instead of being able to whip your virtual head around naturally, you're constrained to something more tank-like and plodding. Environmental awareness is lowered, and reaction time increases. It feels like being back in 1998, playing Duke3D with the arrow keys.

(I will say that the one thing I wish PC shooters could steal from consoles is analog movement control. Going from a silent creep to a full-out run on a keyboard has the same jerky rhythm and mechanical feel as shifting gears in a car. Likewise, the ability to vary the strafe-to-run ratio on the fly gives extra fluidity to console movement. I suspect that many console gamers use this extra flexibility in maneuvering to make up for the deficiences of thumbstick aiming, but it's not enough for me.)

Fine! you may say. Take your whining and play it on your PC, if you're so frustrated by it. Hey, I'd like to, obviously. But 2K has decided, by putting SecuROM protection on the disc, that I can't trust their product to behave on my laptop. I'm just not willing to let it install an admin-level service, or to prevent me from using diagnostic tools like the Sysinternals kit. Indeed, I find it both suspicious and depressing that the programs I use to find and fix problems--and thereby keep the computer healthy for active use, including gaming--are systematically undermined by this copy protection.

This is a vicious cycle, as I've noted before. Clearly, between the two platforms, the publisher has decided to make one of them a second-class citizen. Given the choice, of course I'm going to play Bioshock on a console, where I don't have to worry about activations or rootkits, even though I find the gaming experience to be negatively affected. And when the PC version sells relatively little compared to Xbox sales, 2K will claim piracy, and use this justification to continue adding intrusive copy protection to their titles.

Other than that, the game's not bad.

August 22, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock

Lapshock

Because I know I was looking for this information and couldn't find it: Bioshock (the demo, at least) does run playably well on my Thinkpad, which is using an nVidia Quadro 140M (roughly equivalent to a destkop GeForce 6600). Obviously it doesn't run native resolution with everything turned up, but I seem to get good results from 854x480 and High settings, or native resolution and low settings.

Neither of these is an optimal solution, of course: replaying Halo and Half-Life 2 on the laptop, which runs them better than my old desktop, is a revelation in how much easier they are to play with high resolutions and smooth framerates. But Bioshock is certainly playable, especially considering that I beat and enjoyed both of those other games at similar view sizes (and without all the eye candy). If I were willing to try a combination of medium settings and non-native resolutions, I'm sure I could do quite well.

Actually, it does raise the question, though, of how well something has to run before it becomes unplayable or clumsy. When I used to play Counterstrike, before I realized that it wasn't much fun being beaten by obsessive players with better reflexes and equipment, I would always hear that the really competitive players turned off as much detail as they could, in order to boost the resolution and still keep a good framerate. The argument, I believe, was that it's easier to be precise when your view is sharper, even if it's not as pretty.

But then, I don't really play multiplayer anymore. So what makes the game "better?" Which side of the tradeoff between resolution and eye candy, given limited hardware (since I am never going to be the kind of person that spends $600 on a video card), works best for an individual? For me personally, I've been choosing shiny effects over more pixels, particularly for a game like F.E.A.R. where the graphics are kind of the point. I find that I don't notice the low resolution once the game is in motion anyway, especially on a 14" screen.

As for Bioshock, the demo is reasonably fun, but it's short (I downloaded two gigs for that?), and I don't really understand what all the fuss is about. It's slick and well-presented, but there are some jarring exceptions: I always thought System Shock 2's menagerie was odd-looking, and Bioshock shows that Irrational still can't do a human model that doesn't look vaguely like a creepy marionette. The hack minigame, also, is one of those things that yanks me right out of suspension of disbelief. Why am I suddenly playing Pipe Dreams? It's been thirteen years since the first System Shock game, and no-one can think of a better way to do this?

Future - Present - Past