A story so weightless it takes place under the sea
Hey poor players, it’s Jay Petrequin here again; that’s right, the kid who wrote that scandalous Ocarina of Time script a few weeks back that sent every product of ‘90s nostalgia into a justifiable tizzy. This time I’m taking the mic directly from I, who had a lot less to say about this particular topic than I myself did. On the good Dr. Coleman’s passionately-worded Half-Life 2 video, Youtube user Blu Skye suggested doing a video tearing into the original Bioshock. Having recently played through the newly remastered version of the original game and realized a lot of my own opinions on the game had changed, I knew this was one where I should once again burst in, unwanted, like an angry Big Daddy with a fully-stocked grenade launcher. Fair warning, albeit nine years late: spoiler do indeed lie ahead.
So, Bioshock. It’s often held up as a classic of last generation, and for a lot of reasons. It was one of the best first-person shooters to sport a dual-wielding system that really made the player think about how to combine elements and strategies. Its world was, frankly, really cool, as this Ayn Randian dystopia set in not only a specific time and place, but a particular philosophy and state of mind. If you clicked on this video hoping I was going to tear this game limb from limb, it’s my sorry duty to inform you that that’s not exactly what I’m here to do, because I think a ton of what Bioshock does has merit. That said, every time I’ve revisited Ken Levine’s watery nightmare world, I’ve noticed more and more leaky cracks in the scaffolding. Although Bioshock has some cool mechanics and an absolutely stellar sense of presentation and visual poise, it takes place in a world with no actual stakes.
The first big example of this comes a little ways into the game, when the player gets to deal with a Big Daddy for the first time. These hulking masses of terror are really well-designed on a visual level. It’s one thing to be threatening, but the Big Daddies manage to be so in a way unique to the world of Rapture. They carry giant drills, wear modified scuba gear more fit for the Incredible Hulk, and make haunting whale calls when angered, for god’s sake. They come off from the get-go as a prime example of everything that went so badly wrong in the city, with their creepy and talkative Little Sisters in tow.
Alright, so anyway, you go to fight one for the first time, and it riddles you full of holes. You wake up in a Vita Chamber, fully expecting to find the thing wandering around, back to full health and ready to repeat the process as soon as you feel foolish enough to give him another ol’ one-two punch. But then you see him, and, oh, wait; all the damage you did before kicking the bucket is still there. You got his health down by about a third.
Well, alright. Time to take him to town again. Maybe another quarter of his life chipped away before the rusty old boy runs you through again. You respawn, and attack again, and again, and again. Rinse and repeat.
This is an example of a bigger problem because it removes any actual sense of menace to the single most iconic enemy in the whole game. It’s not like any of the other enemies are anywhere near so visually threatening; they pretty much consist of “gun dude,” “blunt object dude,” “ceiling dude” and “firebomb dude.” Yeah, I still see what happens when the occasional mortally weaker enemy attacks one of them, but I know that every time I do it, it doesn’t actually matter in the slightest how many times I die. Taking down big daddies should feel like toppling the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, but instead it just becomes a meaningless loop. There’s no feeling of satisfaction from taking the Big Daddies down, so eventually they become nothing more than a necessary chore, all for a new plasmid or health upgrade.
But surely this can’t be only leg I’m standing on; my balance isn’t that good, and there’s plenty more to be said. The biggest issue with Bioshock’s complete lack of stakes is actually in it’s narrative, one of the things most often praised within the game’s watery halls.
From the moment the player plunges into Rapture until his final climactic battle with Doctor Manhattan, I mean Frank Fontaine, it’s made clear that the main character is somehow important. You’re the first new face down here in a long time, and a lot of people have their eyes on you from early on. All the way up until the iconic “Would You Kindly” reveal in Andrew Ryan’s office, though, the player is never really given much of a reason to think about the character they’re playing as a person, until WHAM! Suddenly, with a narrative turn that defined the series, you come to realize that you’ve actually been instrumental in the entire story of the game, as a cleverly mind-controlled pawn of Atlas, the one and only character whose voice you’ve been led to trust up to this point, who is, himself, nothing more than a sham created by a greater mastermind. Now, this works really well as far as manipulation of trust goes; the player feels genuinely betrayed, just as we should be led to believe the character is. Only problem is, oh wait, we don’t know anything about how the protagonist feels. Not really. Because he’s a silent protagonist.
It’s very fitting that this video was requested in reaction to Dr. Coleman’s Half-Life 2 Second Opinion. In that video, he made the very salient point that Gordon Freeman doesn’t fit within his own narrative, due to being a silent husk of a character surrounded by people who seem to completely revere him. What follows after the big reveal in Bioshock is a quest which presses upon players the need to break Fontaine’s control. This is the strange left turn the story’s narrative focus takes, where, suddenly, in its final quarter, it decides that it should be about the player character, and then acts as though it has been all along. We’re expected to suddenly buy these stakes that supposedly now exist for us as the controllers of an important protagonist. The onl y problem is, the person we’re supposed to be liberating from psychological enslavement has been silent the whole game, save for the occasional guttural scream. The twist surrounding the protagonist is surprising writing, sure, but that doesn’t actually make it good writing. Here, it’s weightless writing.
To compare, this choice was something actually greatly improved upon by Bioshock Infinite, a game which gave its protagonist a distinct voice, a stated goal, and many vocalised interactions with his surroundings. I don’t think Infinite’s writing is perfect either, with a post-twist climax which I think actually really falls apart at the end, but we’re given a sense of the stakes at hand. Bioshock Infinite opens with Booker Dewitt reciting the oft-repeated line: “bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.” What that debt truly entails is something we don’t truly come to understand until the end, but even that is a seed planted in players’ heads which sprouts into a sense of tension and value to Booker’s goal. In the original Bioshock, the protagonist just sort of shows up, grabs a weapon, and starts fighting off as many Splicers as are willing to come after his dorky sweatered self.
And in the end, what is the Bioshock protagonist fighting for through most of the game? Well, the simple answer is that he was coaxed into his own actions by mind control the whole time, but where does that leave the player? If anything, that gives us holding the controllers in our hands even less investment in the life of this character, or this world. Bioshock takes the main character we’ve thoughtlessly piloted for many hours away from us, and goes “no, this is OURS! Look at what we DID to him!” As the character stares onward with beady, dead eyes.
All of the build up aside, by the time that big clash with the weirdly naked and gold-soaked Frank Fontaine comes around at game’s end, what are we fighting for? It’s’ not for the salvation of Rapture, that’s for sure. There’s no stakes there. Rapture was a hellhole long before you rode the bathysphere down into the depths, and is no better off by the time you’ve left. You’ve mowed down countless dozens of genetically-modified Rapture citizens all in the name of following Atlas’ lies, and are never prodded to feel particularly bad about it. Frank Fontaine taking control of the city in the last act is big and flashy in the moment, but in practice it’s completely meaningless.
Funnily enough, this is another thing Bioshock Infinite swept in and did worlds better a few years later. In Infinite, everything’s fine when Dewitt first comes to Columbia; unsettling and vaguely culty, sure, but otherwise fine. Things fall apart around you throughout Infinite, and even though your goal has nothing to do with saving that city in the sky any more than this one in the sea, its destruction hits you a little more. Infinite is like watching someone burn an original Van Gogh in front of your eyes, and the original Bioshock is more like breaking into an abandoned museum where everything already got looted years ago. Still packs a punch, but doesn’t swing so hard.
So if we can’t pretend that the city is supposed to be the stakes, then what? Ah, the little sisters, of course. Those syringe-toting little girls with their horribly-distorted voices and bizarre turns of phrase as they suck the Adam out of fresh corpses. There’s a give-and-take system wearing the mask of a moral choice system with the little sisters, as the player is given the choice to either save or harvest each one they come across. The more brutal and gross option yields more immediate results. The “kind, caring and moral” one gives you less Adam off the bat, but with greater rewards if you’re consistent and patient with the little sisters as you save them.
Saving the little sisters is kind of like always doing the stealth options in Dishonored in order to get the “good ending.” Now, to be fair, this was a lot less common in 2007 than it is these days, so I suppose there must have been a bit more moral weight to it; at first. Going back to the Big Daddies becoming little more than another meaningless task, the little sisters become an equally meaningless upgrade stop. They don’t really have any character other than being grateful upon saving you, and seeming to have some vague desire to leave Rapture. There’s nothing endearing or memorable enough about them to make them the thing to fight for, though. The game’s multiple endings all seem to hinge on them, too; especially the gag-inducing cheese that is the “good ending” you get if you save them all. Ohhh , yeah, good for you. You helped that one get a college education. That one gets married. Ooohhhh, oh look, one of them even had a kid! Too bad they’re not the focus of the game in any way! All that, too, over a monologue about the protagonists’ desire to find a family. Fontaine says it too, right before he gets Julius Ceaser’d by a whole bunch of the little sisters. So are we supposed to gather that family is the thing at stake? Nnnno, that doesn’t really match up. It’s not a theme…anywhere, it’s…it’s just nowhere. Nowhere until the game decides it has to find a place somewhere.
At the end of this epic submarine voyage, I guess the real problem with Bioshock’s lack of any real sense of stakes is its lack of focus. What is Bioshock about? Most people would answer that question in a way that describes the setting more than the actual story of it’s run time. Players are given a functionally immortal character with no voice, and then asked to care about him. They’re given a city that has already fallen to dust, and then expected to care when a different angry voice in your ear is suddenly running it. They’re shown a bunch of characters who serve only as upgrade vessels, and then at the end are suddenly asked to give half a damn about their futures, because for god’s sake, they’re only kids.
I feel like I have to say it again here at the end: mechanically, the original Bioshock is still cool as hell. It’s a fun shooter with brilliantly well-executed RPG mechanics, and from a purely mechanical standpoint, I would still name it as one of my favorites within its genre. Look any farther, though, and you find a 12-hour campaign that just feels kind of lost at sea.