I play one or two video games a year, partly because I don’t spend many hours per week playing them, and partly because my tastes (and gaming abilities) seem to be different enough from the marketplace in general that I can’t find many I know I’m going to enjoy. (And also, of course, because they’re expensive, which puts me off too much experimentation.) I like, above all, games which tell stories — and I don’t just mean those which have a cutscene or two to explain why we’re moving from level one to level two, but games with some sort of genuine emotional content. Failing that, games which allow me to explore an atmospheric environment. Among the former, I’d place the Myst series (particularly Myst III), Final Fantasy VIII, and Ico; among the latter, the early Tomb Raider games. (I haven’t finished any of the more recent Tomb Raider offerings, but the first five are among the few I’ve played twice, all the way through.)
BioShock 2, which I finished recently, sits sort of halfway between.
The BioShock games take place in the city of Rapture, built in the 1950s by plutocrat Andrew Ryan, whose idea was to create a place in which people could live without government interference — specifically, without the government placing any limits on what profit-hungry businessmen and knowledge-hungry scientists could get up to. And as the only place to build such a city is the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, that’s where he builds it: a magnificent Art Deco temple to consumerism, leisure, and wild genetic experimentation. In its later, semi-ruined state, it makes a wonderfully weird game environment.
Ryan’s ideals are based on those of the writer Ayn Rand. What little I know about Rand comes from my one attempt at reading her brick of a book, Atlas Shrugged, which seemed to be mostly about self-indulgent industrialists moaning at how labour laws interfere with their profit margins. Rand believed governments shouldn’t get in the way of business tycoons by imposing such things as minimum wages and worker’s rights. Life, for Rand, was meant to be a fight for survival in which the strong impose their will on the weak as much as their strength allows. Rapture was conceived of as the living example of her ideals, but it quickly descends into chaos, and by the time you visit it as an outsider in the first BioShock game, it’s nothing but a once-beautiful ruin populated by deranged, feral “gene splicers”, and a handful of holed-in entrepreneurs clinging to their failed ideals.
But the core story of BioShock is about rescuing innocence. Fifties America, from which the games get so much of their look and feel, was one of the last modern eras to have a culturally-accepted idea of innocence. It was an era that allowed itself to believe in simple ideals. This tends to be seen, nowadays, as a veneer over the decade’s intolerance and repression — as typified by the image of the housewife going quietly insane trying to live up to advertisers’ ideals of perfection, or the awful race riots in the country at the time — and anyway it was all put paid to by a combination of Senator McCarthy’s paranoia, the fear of atomic war, the disaster of Vietnam, and the assassination of JFK, among other things. By the sixties, the belief in innocence was relegated to the hippie counterculture, and then was pretty much laughed out of court. Since then, cynicism has become the cultural norm, to the point that it’s often referred to as realism.
The ruined Art Deco beauty of the city of Rapture is ruined innocence in concrete, glass and formica. But it’s the figures of the Little Sisters who are the real focal point. The Little Sisters are little girls, dressed to the girliest in Alice bows and petticoated dresses, but who have evilly glowing eyes and go around draining corpses of the gene-modifying substance known as “Adam” with monstrous syringes. In this, they’re accompanied by their protectors, the Big Daddies — dumb, lumbering giants looking like old-fashioned deep sea divers, who tramp obediently after their charges and attack anyone who gets too near. But the Little Sisters are in fact real little girls — orphans, as if the screw needed a further turn — who’ve been genetically altered by Rapture’s scientists to harvest Adam. The story of both BioShock 1 & 2 is ultimately about freeing these little girls from the tyranny of Rapture, and returning them to being innocent children once more.
BioShock allows its players to make a few moral choices. You need to capture Little Sisters to get supplies of Adam, for instance, but having captured them, you can choose to rescue them, or harvest them (which gets you more Adam, but kills the girl). I, being an awful softie, just couldn’t harvest them, even to find out how it alters the game’s outcome.
Other than that, BioShock is basically a shoot-em-up. The story part progresses mostly through taped journals from a variety of characters you find throughout the game, but the gameplay generally consists of collecting a wide variety of ammo and blasting the hell out of gene-splicers and Big Daddies.
Which was fun.
As a game, I found both BioShock 1 and 2 to be wonderfully playable, and though the story never quite reached the heights of the games that really involved me in their characters (Final Fantasy VIII, Myst III), it at least had some thought-provoking ideas behind it. Games achieve their effects in a different way from films and books; the major factor is the time you spend in the game’s world, doing the same sort of action (exploring, puzzle-solving, fighting) over and over again. It’s in this area that the real meaning of a game comes out, not in the cut-scenes. And it’s in this area — the gameplay — that BioShock works best.
Nice to know there’s a bit of artistry as well as mere commercialism in games, still.