July 31, 2014

That's A Wrap: Bioshock

warning: may contain spoilers

When I first saw the promos and commercials for Bioshock my reaction was, "I don't care what this is, I have to play it." This is a somewhat rare occurrence for me, made even more outstanding by the fact that I learned Bioshock was a first-person shooter, and that didn't deter me at all. Something about that Bobby Darin tune mixed with the violent images of a Big Daddy just had me dying to know more. I feel like I can't emphasize enough how important that is to me... I really don't enjoy many FPSs. Actually, I'm not entirely sure Bioshock deserves the "First-Person Shooter" designation because the game as a whole is truly the antithesis of that genre; there's so much more to this game than killing people and blowing stuff up! It's a story- and character-heavy drama that incorporates aspects of many genres into it and kind of ends up being its own… thing. I've recently tried pitching Bioshock to some friends who don't play many games - and certainly few from days gone by - and in spite of their disinterest, every time I mentioned something like morality, multiple endings, and chemical throwers they seemed to suddenly light up with interest. I feel like Bioshock can appeal to any gamer, and it remains to this day, one of the very few FPSs I will not only give the time of day, but replay again and again. And again.
Playing Bioshock is easy:
Step one: Watch the intro and meet Rapture
Step two: Appreciate the little things, like the piano notes as you select your difficulty
Step three: Meet Jack!
…n-no, no that Jack. Granted he talks a little more. It's interesting to note that I remember that intro video being a lot longer, but I guess that's just my head making this game even more grand than it actually is. Or the Jack. That's saying something though… Bioshock has left a marvelous impression on me, and I still feel the same as I did after my first foray into Rapture.

At the time of its release in 2007, many people were really astounded by the graphics that Bioshock had to offer but I think you'll find by today's standards... they don't really measure up. No, the real beauty of Bioshock is the way the graphics pull together the atmosphere, the story, almost horror movie setting, suspenseful sounds and the frequent reminder that all you've got to rely on is a bloody wrench.
The 1950s art deco motif and general artwork and propaganda scattered throughout Rapture is largely what makes the game such a joy to play. It's important to remember that this was a time when radio was big and television was not, so the use of projectors and ads is wonderful. While the graphics themselves are a bit dated, the way the levels are designed really helps the game to retain its saturated, spooky, war-ridden aura.

Audio in Bioshock is simultaneously my favorite and least favorite thing; the use of radio and mag tape recordings, and the soundtrack are both incredible, however the sound effects suffer from a severe lack of realism at times. In most levels, you will hear the chatter of nearby splicers, however many of them aren't even in the same room and often behind walls or doors (that would surely muffle the sound?). Regardless of your proximity to the baddies, you'll hear them as though they're right next to you.
To add insult to injury, the game's subtitles do a piss poor job at showing up WHILE you're listening to the person speak. The way they are bundled together in long paragraphs means they are often early, late, or altogether non-existent. Considering the effects used for speech for the better part of this game, subs are pretty much mandatory, so it's sad that they weren't better executed.
Other than that, the game masterfully manages sound in a way only a suspense movie can: you will hear talking but see no source, and random things will periodically scare the shit out of you while you're trying to explore and eat potato chips. I think this is the hardest thing about Bioshock: learning when you're in trouble. Oftentimes you are safe to continue exploring, but your instinct will say flight, and ultimately you'll miss out on a few things.

But by far, the most outstanding features of Bioshock are the plot, environment and character development.
The story of Rapture and Bioshock is very dense and endlessly entertaining, but for the purpose of this article, I will try to highlight only the super important bits. Now is the time to take note of that spoiler warning.
It all begins with Andrei Rionofski… better known as Andrew Ryan. Ryan was born in Russia at a time when the region was experiencing great change, and he wasn't feelin' it. He made his way to America with the understanding that there, all you need to be successful is work ethic - and he wasn't wrong, he went on to find great success and made a fortune - but it wasn't long before America's less-than-attractive political and religious agendas began to clash with Ryan's own, and that's when he began to conceptualize Rapture: a "parasite"-free environment where the world's elite wouldn't be weighed down by government, politics, morals or religion. With his massive fortune and the help of a few like-minded individuals, Ryan succeeded in building Rapture, submerged in the North Atlantic ocean - in complete secrecy - and invited the world's brightest artists, scientists and businessmen to experience a world where their success was their very own, and no one else's. For a decade or so, Rapture thrived and was the birthplace of amazing scientific discoveries such as ADAM. But when you isolate a group a people, sooner than later community will form, and suddenly Ryan was faced with a rather sizable army of people who no longer agreed with his ideals. Eventually, Rapture broke into civil war. Fast forward to 1960, and Jack Wynand has just survived a violent plane crash. He happens to surface in the vicinity of a bathysphere - a unique transport system that carries people to and around Rapture. Seeing this as his only option, Jack boards the capsule and disembarks in Rapture for the first time. The first thing we see as Jack is the nasty death of one unfortunate soul, and it becomes clear that Rapture is not a safe place to be. Luckily, a man called Atlas chimes in over the pod's radio and vows to help you survive. Thus begins your journey of discovering Rapture, its history, its populace, and frankly, yourself.
Suffice it to say that Rapture is possibly the greatest video game setting of all time. The story borrows generously from the works of Ayn Rand, including several names and visuals, in addition to the concept of objectivism, or Ryan's "political" point of view.
There is also heavy emphasis on morality all throughout Bioshock. Some of the issues you will face include deciding who is truly the bad guy, and who are the accessories to their crimes?; Is the discovery and development of ADAM and plasmids a good thing?; Did Rapture ever really stand a chance, and what of the classes?; What to do with the Little Sisters - join Tenenbaum or ignore her?; Does objectivism have any merits?; Who is Andrew Ryan truly, and does he want to die?

To sort all this out, you play as Jack, a silent protagonist with virtually no knowledge of who you are or why you're in Rapture. Instead, your focus is drawn to two outstanding men, and the morality battle begins. Upon docking in Rapture, you're introduced to a man called Atlas, who promises his aid in surviving your mysterious trip, and quickly asks for help securing the safety of his family in return. On the other side of things is Rapture founder and business magnate Andrew Ryan - a most fascinating character and the driver for all things Rapture. It would appear the two represent two sides in the civil war that tore the once thriving city apart, and finding your place between these two men becomes the moral objective of the game. As you explore, you'll find and/or meet various other key figures in Rapture's history, including Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum, who may be your best friend or foe, and Rapture staples Dr. Steinman, Sandor Cohen, Peach Wilkins, Sophia Lamb, Dr. Suchong as well as Ryan's various leading ladies such as Diane McClintock and Jasmine Jolene. All of these characters help explain the rise and fall of Rapture, its citizens, and the various curiosities you discover while under the sea. You also learn a great deal about a notorious criminal who is largely credited with the rise of the "lower class" in Rapture, Frank Fontaine. In spite of his death many years ago, Fontaine still manages a great presence in Rapture.

While Ryan and Fontaine are both brilliant characters, I think my favorites are some of the less talked about albeit equally integral figures in Rapture's history. The entire level headed by Sandor Cohen remains the most exciting, and certainly speaks to the creative artist in me. In my exploration of characters, I find Yi Suchong to be most interesting. Often overlooked, Sucking is actually largely responsible not only for the development of ADAM, plasmids and tonics, but was also instrumental in the creation of the Big Daddy and Little Sister programs. Most importantly, Suchong is the one responsible for mentally conditioning Jack to respond to the phrase "would you kindly…" among other hiccups. Easily the most memorable (and heartbreaking!) moment in my Bioshock playthrough history is the moment you find the audio tape in Suchong's realm, which features the doctor demonstrating Jack's conditioning by asking him to break his new puppy's neck. That moment will never leave me.
Earlier I nodded to the fact that character development is one of Bioshock's best features, and I wasn't exaggerating. The game alone offers great insight into the magnificent characters, especially Ryan and Fontaine, and actually makes you want to learn more. You almost wish someone would write a book about these people - oh wait, someone did. Bioshock: Rapture is a novel written by John Shirley which elaborates on the history of the city and its key people before the events of the game. You can also seek a bit more information by investing some time into Bioshock 2, which is more or less a direct sequel.

But surely Rapture once hosted more than just a small collection of scientific masterminds, right? What happened to all the citizens? They effectively became your enemies. Naturally. The discovery of ADAM in Rapture meant the populace quickly became dependent on the substance, and with addiction comes desperate behavior. To continue to unfold the story you must wade through various types of citizens, now called Splicers, who come with a handful of different specialties: Thuggish splicers are the first to attack you, and they like to kick it old school with melee attacks; Leadhead splicers are - as the name suggests - gun carriers. In the beginning they wield pistols and later you meet the machine gun variety; Spider splicers are exactly what they sound like: scary pain-in-the-asses. These Edward Scissorhands-type baddies possess the ability to defy gravity and climb walls and ceilings to complicate combat; Houdini splicers like to attack with fire, which doesn't sound so bad until you realize they also have the ability to disappear and reappear with a simple "poof!"; and lastly you meet the explosive projectile-wielding Nitro splicer, who typically master fire or ice.
Splicers serve as your main enemies in most levels but you'll also come across the game's mascot: the Big Daddy. They also come in a couple of varieties, namely the Bouncer - the iconic version with the giant drill for an arm - who attack melee-style but with powerful charges and nearly unsurvivable attacks; and the Rosie, who carries a monstrous rivet gun and also throws projectiles at you. Later on you'll face even tougher versions of these already difficult enemies in their "elite" form. Battle at your own risk, although if you want the ADAM upgrades you'll have to take on all who have a Little Sister in tow. Little Sisters are not exactly enemies, but you won't have access to them until you've taken down their protector so, hop to Mr. Bubbles! Little Sisters also come in some variety: red, blonde, freckles, etc..

Like so many other action and first-person shooter games, general gameplay and combat go hand-in-hand, so always being prepared for battle is a must. That said, the constant fidgeting with weapons or "sparking" of plasmids gets a bit old after a while. I would have appreciated it if our man could have held his hands at his sides unless prompted or in danger...
At the top-left of our screen, we have two meters. The red is our tried-and-true health meter, and the number next to it indicates the number of health kits we have ready to heal with. You can carry a maximum of nine, and those are never a bad idea. Beneath that is a blue meter which indicates our EVE, or mana, if you will. Again the number next to it is our refill count of "EVE hypos" and again, a maximum of nine. You will automatically use an EVE hypo if you should run out while battling but your health kits must be prompted. EVE is depleted with the use of plasmids which you will find on the bottom-left of the screen if you've instigated plasmid mode. Otherwise you will instead see your available ammo for whichever weapon you have equipped.
Occasionally, a bar will pop up at the top of the screen letting you know you have a new goal. Goals can be reviewed at any time in your menu, but whichever goal is currently highlighted will affect which direction the little arrow at the top of the screen points you, to keep you on track.
It seems enemies sort of respawn after a while. If you leave an area and return or simply spend too much time loafing around, it's likely another splicer or two will show up. In some areas, Big Daddies continue to spawn regardless of how many Little Sisters are left for the level. That said, if finding all the Little Sisters in the game is your goal, you're going to be spending a lot of time waiting around for Big Daddies to show. Jerks...
The rest of your time is spent exploring Rapture, hacking tools for your benefit and stocking up on items which are often found laying around, or can be purchased from the vending machines scattered about. You'll want to be wary of items like alcohol and cigarettes. You will find these in abundance throughout Rapture (it is 1960, after all), but they will affect you if you consume them! Alcohol will cause your health to rise, but your EVE to fall (unless you have the tonic which suggests otherwise) and suddenly you wake up in some guy's condo and can't find your- wait. Nope. Wrong game. It will blur your vision though. Smoking will cause the opposite. Eat all the chips, pep bars and cakes you want, though. Those can do no harm!
There is a decent variety in the levels, particularly towards the end. Sometimes levels can feel long and tasks seem repetitive and "dragged out," but I find in the end I always want more. I'd argue that the length of the levels and the game as a whole is "just right." In addition to your normal "explore and fight" levels, there are a couple of boss-only levels, and a level where you must escort a Little Sister. Nice to switch things up every now and then.

In between chapters, you'll meet the loading screen, which offers you a slide show and some quotes, factoids or super helpful hints like, "aim for the head, you'll do more damage." Well, damn! Who'd have known?!

At some point early in your journey, you'll have the pleasure of picking up a research camera. This presents one of the many side quest-y mini games/tasks in Bioshock. You access the camera much like a weapon, and taking pictures of your enemies offers you some benefit. Each of your photos is graded, and higher grades add more to your research bar. Once you've fully researched a particular enemy, you'll have a power advantage against them! You also sometimes gain tonics from your research. Speaking of which…

Tonics come in three flavors: Combat (green phial), Engineering (yellow) and Physical (blue). Combat tonics, as I'm sure you can guess, offer you boosts in battle. Things such as the defense-boosting Armored Shell, the never useless Electric Flesh - which causes enemies to be electrocuted and sometimes stunned when they hit you - and various more that increase the usefulness of your research camera. Engineering tonics are your best friend if you've taken a shining to hacking. They provide countless hacking privileges such as reduced 'overload' and 'alarm' tiles, slowing of the random, unidentified goo, and easing up of the difficulty to hack in general. Of course, that means that physical tonics improve your overall physiology. These can help, for example, your health and EVE meters, your ability to avoid detection, and your alcoholic tendencies.
There are also eleven plasmids to collect, some are totally badass, some are totally useless. Powers like Electro Bolt and Telekinesis are used repeatedly, but others, like Security Bullseye or Cyclone Trap are much less helpful unless you've got your combat plan figured out down to the tee.
Of course there are also eight weapons at your disposal, mostly guns, which can host a number of different ammunitions which may or may not be beneficial in certain situations. Your pistol, machine gun, shot gun, grenade launcher, chemical thrower and crossbow can all host multiple types of ammo, some of which you can buy and some can be invented. Such ammunitions include Exploding Bucks or Anti-Personnel rounds, and you'll have to experiment to decide when it's best to employ these bad boys. Bare in mind that you can only keep a certain amount of ammo on you at any time (varies for each type), in fact, all items have a limit, which is a real pain when you consider auto-hacking tools (you can have a max of five). The acquisition of these many tools is not necessarily mandatory. Many plasmids and tonics must be sought out or achieved, making the acquisition of them a game all its own. Furthermore, you can upgrade your weapons if you take the time to seek out the rare 'Power to the People' machines. There are two possible upgrades for each weapon, but finding enough machines to get them all is a sneaky chore, so choose wisely.
If you press pause at any time, you will find at the bottom of the game menu, a series of badges indicating the number of possible Little Sisters you can find in each level (you can also review your wallet and ADAM bank here).
Hunting Little Sisters is yet another optional side quest in Bioshock but of course, it bares great consequence: with every Little Sister destroyed or saved, you acquire ADAM. ADAM can be spent at 'Gatherer's Garden' machines, which offer you amazing personal and plasmid upgrades.
During one level, the game requires you to gather items and seek a 'U-Invent' machine to create the Lazarus Vector. Afterward, these machines are at your disposal to "invent" a number of other useful items using the materials you collect, rather than spending money.
And lastly, you can hack stuff! You hack various objects by playing a mini game similar to Pipe Mania. That is, you have a limited amount of time to assemble a pipe path for a substance to move through without short-circuiting or setting off alarms. Successful hacking provides you with certain benefits depending on the machine you've hacked. Hacking 'Circus of Values' or 'Ammo Bandito' vending machines will offer you an often much-needed discount and/or a hidden item you could not purchase otherwise.
Hacking RPG and gun turrets, cameras and security bots turns Rapture's security enforcers against it, attacking your enemies rather than you. In the case of security bots, the little fighters will actually follow you around and protect you until it meets its demise or is deactivated. You can also hack health stations for a discount, and safes, which obviously hide goodies.

The menu for Bioshock is very short and simple:
On the first tab you have your map of the level. I've never particularly loved the map in this game. It's successful enough but it's an eyesore to look at and the scale is a bit off. I usually just "wing it."
The 'Goals' tab keeps track of all the missions you've started, and you can select which one you'd like to actively pursue (which redirects your on-screen arrow). You shouldn't be overwhelmed by goals at any time, as most of them are linear in fashion and not hard to keep track of.
The 'Messages' tab repeats all your radio communications in addition to breaking down of all the audio tapes you collect along the way (by section), in case you didn't catch it the first time through.
Lastly is the 'Help' tab, which keeps notes on how to use controls, explains the unique offerings of Rapture (such as plasmids), reminds you what certain items do or are for and so on.
You cycle through your menu by pressing LB and RB.

Ah, predictable controls: your left stick is you, and the right is your eyes. Pressing start pauses the game and brings up your game menu, while pressing back brings up your in-game menu! Back - when prompted - will also call up an explanation screen in the early game to help you get to know what's what. Y is jump, A is input, X will reload your weapon or your EVE gauge (if you have hypos) depending on which combat mode you're in, and also instigates a hack when applicable. B will have Jack use a health kit. Clicking your left stick causes Jack to crouch. Clicking the right stick changes your aim perspective.
On LB is your plasmid cycle, and if you press and hold, the game pauses to bring up your plasmid wheel so you can use your left stick to choose the one you want. LT uses the plasmid you've chosen. Similarly, RB cycles your weapons (you can press and hold, too) and RT uses (fires) the weapon.
And they all lived happily ever after. I'm not really the one to consult on FPS controls, but I find the controls for Bioshock are easy to learn and adapt to, and I don't even find the camera that bad. I'm quite happy with the controls on 360. Of course, being a FPS means that once you adapt to the controls, they become an extension of you; sometimes your instincts take over… whoops.

Bioshock offers its magnificent story to you in three difficulty modes: Easy, Normal and Hard. Joke, meh and yikes, respectively. Upping the difficulty increases the health, strength and speed of your enemies, as well as making useful items rare, especially EVE hypos which are now an even greater commodity.
Sadly the game does not clock time for you, but general consensus seems to suggest it takes about 12-15 hours to conquer. Personally, I like to play Bioshock in small doses - a level or two a day - so that I have time to review everything I've seen and collect my thoughts before carrying on. I also explore excessively to make sure I find all the goodies, so I reckon I played about an hour or two for around eight days.

I think Bioshock succeeds in scaring me more than any other horror medium, simply because its suspense element is handled so masterfully. And because it's first-person, so I can never tell if the cause for concern is a splicer or myself. Regardless, this is a game I'd recommend to most any gamer, simply because I feel it has something for everyone. Consider my disdain for shooters, I still love the shit out of this game, and happily suffer the genre elements to re-experience Rapture. While it has a few flaws, it's an incredible title, and also easily accessed on all popular platforms (the game was originally released for PC and Xbox360, and later ported to the PS3, which I hear has several improvements!).

LOTIPS
  • If you find the analog stick to be a bit cumbersome when quick hand work is needed (hacking), not to worry, your D-pad can be used!
  • Towards the end of the game, you'll face a level in which FF can (and does) periodically drain your max health. This would be an excellent level to hurry-the-fuck-up in. That said, once you find your second dose, your health does return to normal, so don't panic!
  • Don't kill Sandor Cohen… yet.
  • If you're about to embark on your first playthrough, pay particular attention to the characters Yi Suchong, Jasmine Jolene and Diane McClintock.
  • The ending you get depends on how you react to Little Sisters. There are technically three possible endings, but two are virtually identical. 
  • I find it useful to go back and listen to my entire library of audio tapes from time to time, especially towards the end of the game. Tapes that maybe didn't make a lot of sense when you picked them up will start to present their true purpose and upon replay, you'll really appreciate the strategic placement of each tape throughout the game.




SIDE QUEST
Bioshock: Rapture

I admit it: I waited entirely too long to pick this up. For anyone unfamiliar, Bioshock: Rapture is a prequel novel written by John Shirley, meant to detail the events of the Bioshock story prior to the game. In this side quest, I'm going to give you a little rundown on the book and what I thought of it. But first, I want to clarify three things:
1. I really, really love Bioshock. Really.
2. There will be spoilers and/or information that won't be clear unless you've played the game(s).
3. I consider myself something of a bookworm. I enjoy reading a lot and I feel I am relatively "well read". Of course, books, like all other entertainment mediums, are subject to the participant, so naturally everything you're about to read is my own opinion and interpretation. Just something to keep in mind.

My first impressions of the book were that it certainly feels familiar! I wasn't so sure of the writing at first but as you progress through the novel it really becomes less noticeable. In fact, as you're introduced to the characters you know and love, the book becomes terribly engrossing! I would not rate the level of writing terribly high - which is to say, most people with a good command of the English language will find it easy to read. There may be a few instances in which you'll find yourself looking up a word or two (even I had to define a few!) but most of the strange language is in context and easy to understand. There is a great deal of styled dialogue, by which I mean a character from New York does not demonstrate perfect grammar or speech and it shows in the writing. Personally, I much prefer this style of writing; it adds so much more to the character.

Of course the purpose of the novel is to provide insight on the happenings before the game and how the city of Rapture came to be. It does just that. You get both a very intimate introduction to Andrew Ryan, a more clear understanding of the workings of his mind; why he holds off on Fontaine for so long; his business decisions, stubbornness and convictions, and a tantalizing history lesson on Frank Fontaine. The novel brilliantly emphasizes Ryan's booming personality and Fontaine's slimy genius. As a fan of the game, this is incredibly entertaining and fulfilling!
But Ryan and Fontaine aren't the only characters greatly expanded upon in Bioshock: Rapture, Bill McDonough, Brigid Tennenbaum, Sandor Cohen, Dr. J Steinman and even minor characters from the game all receive their fair share of attention. One of the most interesting additions are the Wales Brothers, Simon and Daniel, who designed Rapture and were integral in its construction.

The novel makes much use of imagery, however does not do Rapture justice the way the game does. There is a lot of comment on smell however, which is decidedly welcome considering that's not a sense you have at your disposal in the games.

The real meat of the story showcases the downward spiral of the standards in Rapture at a good pace; the way people started off sophisticated and demure, and wound up largely vagrant and desperate and rude.
You definitely learn more about Sophia Lamb's involvement in the downfall of Rapture, and how Fontaine capitalized on her work there - which is where the story starts to separate from the game a bit, but Lamb is a much more crucial character in Bioshock 2 than in the original. The story arc still makes sense in the book, but is yet another stocky branch to keep track of. I'd argue that the Lamb arc makes for some of the weakest content in the book - the way she brainwashes others with no effort, and the quick change in Simon Wales were all underwhelming story elements.

Possibly the most interesting part of the whole book is how the story is largely experienced from the point of view of Bill McDonough. Bill's audio recordings pop up in the game and give you quite the discreet picture of Rapture, but the book is designed to help the reader really empathize with Bill, and experience Rapture from every understanding. It's really brilliant!

I didn't love the ending. I would argue it would have been more profound if the novel had ended with the beginning of the game - Jack's return to Rapture - but it definitely clarifies where some characters wound up and why, and who a few of those mysterious tapes came from. There are certainly a lot of loose ends, but this is to be expected… you tie them up in the games!

In the end, I can't say I adore the writing, and it can feel like a lot of characters and sub-stories to keep track of. This is definitely not the kind of book you want to read bit by bit over a long period of time. But! it provides enormous insight, never before experienced by Bioshock fans, and as someone who's played the game a great many times, I didn't find the content overwhelming at all. I insist any Bioshock fan check this book out, but I do recommend playing the game first. I think it will make managing the story easier. That said, I've already recommended Bioshock: Rapture to non-gamers and people who haven't (will not) play Bioshock, because the stories of Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine are so compelling, I think this novel would be a fun read for any fan of the genre.

Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley is 430 pages in 20 chapters divided into 3 parts:
Rapture's conceptualization and realization; Early life in Rapture; The beginning of the end.
I would classify this as adult level reading. I describe this novel as a "quick" read, which should be done in as few sessions as possible.

Have you read this novel?! Tell me what you thought!

3 comments:

  1. One of my all-time favorites, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I can replay it today and still have a sense of wonder. I'm not that kind of gamer; I keep my rose-tinted glasses locked away and seldom proselytize "classics", but this is one of them. I almost didn't play it in 2007; a friend happened to have preordered two copies by accident, and sold me one.

    I hadn't considered the audio issues you mentioned, but you're absolutely right. Is BioShock flawless? Certainly not; but it does so much RIGHT. I tend to agree with my man Tyler on game mechanics trumping narrative, but damn if it doesn't have them blended like a milkshake.

    Good call on Cohen, I found that out on my second playthrough.

    "I'm coming down there, Little Moth... coming down there TO TEACH YOU TO DANCE!"

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  2. Great review, Lo. I also agree with the closed captioning eff-up...so annoying! But the game was stellar.

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  3. despite wii winning the gen. the 360 had some good games. i also liked fallout 3.

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