Thursday, July 15, 2010
Top 50 Games - 14. BioShock
System Shock 2 was a masterpiece of intelligent, forward-thing genre combinations. BioShock, its 2007 spiritual successor, is not quite as innovative, but it is many times more powerful and memorable. Taking the story-driven FPS template from Half-Life and System Shock and running with it, BioShock is a certifiable artistic powerhouse, the kind of game that is talked about years after its release. By now I'm sure you've heard of Rapture, the game's setting, but either way, I'll briefly describe it for what may be the hundred-thousandth time. Rapture is a glittering Art Deco Atlantis, the work of one man's singular vision and uninhibited creativity. That man is Andrew Ryan, an ex-Soviet mad genius whose faith in Randian objectivism appears stronger than the Pope's faith in God. A plane crash over the Atlantic circa 1960 leads player-character Jack to discover a bathysphere leading into the failed utopia. This intro sequence, narrated by a lo-fi voiceover from Ryan himself ("Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?"), is easily one of the greatest in all of gaming. The direction, the exposition, the sounds and sights and ability to move and look around. It's a breathtaking display of new-generation techno-wizardry and designer artistry. Once you dock (rather violently) and enter into this beaten and bloodied underwater dystopia, the real adventure begins. The game's cannon fodder, encountered as early on as said bathysphere docking, are splicers: once-sane citizens who have taken to excessive genetic modification in order to survive the civil war between Ryan and his rival Frank Fontaine. The player is able to genetically modify himself as well, with what are called plasmids. These plasmids can give you powers beyond the realm of belief, from telekinesis to shooting a swarm of bees out of your hand. You can use plasmids and conventional weapons in conjunction to deal with the splicers, and doing so is at once chaotic, sad, and fun. Much has been made of the game's Big Daddies and Little Sisters: hulking monstrosities that emit whale moans from deep-sea diving suits and pale young girls that drag around large syringes, respectively. Together they patrol the dilapidated halls of Rapture searching for Adam, the city's precious sea-slug derived resource for genetic modification. Their relationship is fascinating, with the Big Daddy passionately protecting his Little Sister at all costs, engaging the player in awesomely destructive and frightening "boss" battles when he attempts to intervene. The words printed and breaths expelled about these two characters are not for nothing; they are iconic creations, now-legendary symbols for well-executed artistic ambition in video games. While I don't think the save/harvest moral mechanic for the Little Sisters deserves as much recognition as it's gotten, the first time you're presented with the choice, it's pretty harrowing. Rapture is a detailed environment full of things to play with, from hacking cameras and turrets to experimenting with plasmids. The levels are very well designed, with Fort Frolic, the residence of batshit insane 'artiste' Sander Cohen, becoming one of my all-time favorites. It's so creepy, so full of clever exposition, disturbing circumstances, and great acting that I couldn't get it out of my head for days. Audio diaries are scattered around Rapture's unique districts, and where they might be a storytelling crutch for a lesser developer, in BioShock they're absolutely haunting and superbly voiced personal accounts of Rapture's fall. Of course, we all know the greatest storytelling moment BioShock has to offer. When the player reaches this point and is struck in the head by the epiphany, he may very well never look at video games the same way again. A relatively high-brow game about unoriginal but interesting topics like objectivism, idealism, failure, and genetics becomes a deeply philosophical commentary on the nature of the video game. For all of these reasons and more, BioShock is and will remain one of this industry's few true masterpieces.