On Bioshock, violence, and video games, An Essay
So, that Bioshock Infinite game everyone has been talking about. Oh, and HERE BE SPOILERS.
I’ve had a good few ‘experiences’ in gaming, and the quality of those ‘experiences’ has been that I can’t really derive much pleasure from straight-ahead action games any more. The visceral thrill has been replaced by a wanting of more, of something to engage me. For every Locust’s head I chainsaw in ‘Gears Of War’, I pine for that moment where I unleashed the white phosphorus on innocent civilians, fully knowing the consequences, on my intense journey through the Heart Of Darkness, via a generic shooter in ‘Spec Ops: The Line’. For every zombie I kill in ‘Left 4 Dead’ (as brilliant as it is), I want to be sat, in floods of tears as I tell a ten-year-old girl who sees me as the only adult she trusts to shoot me in the head before I turn into a zombie, and I want every second of that awful, heavy responsibility in Telltale Games’ ‘The Walking Dead’. For every Covenent beast I shoot in the face with a grenade launcher in ‘Halo’, I think only of the gut wrenching decision I had to make, deciding which of my crew mates to save - Ashley or Kaiden - in ‘Mass Effect’, knowing full well that one of them, these two people I had conversed with, knew their backgrounds, knew how they grew up, that one of them would die. In the realms of this game, this experience, they were my friends. Not because they fought alongside me in frustrating, over-long combat sections, but because I’d wandered around the ship, just chatting to them, getting to know who they are, and what makes them tick. And choosing between them was a hard decision, my stomach felt heavy, my heart felt like stone.
I want those moments where I sit, numb, in complete silence, my controller like a dead weight in my hands at the trauma I’ve just been put through, the decision I’ve had to make.
I still play the straight-up shooters. They pass the time in an agreeable enough manner. Just blast through them in a handful of hours, not much required apart from an itchy trigger finger and a nice cup of coffee.
More and more, though, I find myself gravitating towards games like Rez, or Child Of Eden, games that create an experience, a feeling, an atmosphere that is unique, and not bull-headed. Games that can make me soar, that take me to another world. The ‘Evolution’ level in Child Of Eden is incredible, blowing the virii from the Phoenix at the end of the level, as the music reacts to your movements, a voice ringing out in triumph, pure and clear signalling every tiny little victory, the face of the eponymous child breaking through and flashing on the screen - this is no longer just a game, it’s an experience. Still fun, and enjoyable, but it grabs every one of your senses until you’re immersed, and part of this world.
And then, games like Bioshock come along.
At the time of Bioshock’s release, I didn’t have an Xbox, and my PC was very shaky to say the least. Not that I didn’t try, of course. I installed it, turned all the settings down, and managed to swim to the lighthouse before it completely crashed and overheated my graphics card. I didn’t manage to play it until around 2009, when I’d got an Xbox.
My first steps into Rapture were ones full of trepidation. I was genuinely nervous. The world that Adam Levine and his team have created is genuinely unnerving, the sense of something being wrong coming the moment you step into the lighthouse and activate the bathysphere, even before you see any of the insane splicers.
I roamed around, just staring out of the windows at the underwater city, watching whales pass by, hearing the groan and creak of metal as the water bore down on it with intense pressure, listening to the audio logs of the guests to a tragic New Year party, seeing and hearing the Little Sisters for the first time, and witnessing the Big Daddy leap to her defense, getting a sense of sheer might and awesome fury, and hoping beyond hope that you’ll never have to fight one. Seeing one up close for the first time, and realising that it won’t attack you, as long as you play nice and don’t attack the Little Sister it is protecting.
The world built up around all this is engaging, traumatic, intense, and brilliantly written. Even the combat feels right. After all, this is a video game, and it needs to sell copies. It’s a competent shooter, but there is weight to every death you inflict, you’re never overwhelmed, nor do the Splicers appear from nowhere. You know they’re around, you can hear them, with insane rambling internal dialogue as they prowl the hallways in search of their next fix.
It was a feeling that sold the game. This sense of ‘other’. And it was a game of moments, of experiences. Realising just who your character is, and why you seem to blindly follow the requests of the men speaking to you through the radio. Understanding this was all by design, despite the seemingly random events that led to you visiting Rapture in the first place.
Bioshock 2 was similar enough, again selling this world well.
Bioshock Infinite feels like the true sequel, however. Instead of an underwater utopia, you visit a utopia in the clouds, all clean lines, bright colours, blue skies and barbershop quartets. There is still an unnerving sense that something isn’t quite right, still that sense that there is a greater purpose for your attendance in the city.
You are tasked with finding a girl, and taking her to New York City. You don’t know why, only that if you succeed, your character’s gambling debts are paid off in full. And your character, Booker DeWitt, has deep seated agony within him, over something he can’t quite remember, and that he can’t quite forget.
Ultimately, Bioshock Infinite fails, but also succeeds.
The ambitions of the series were very lofty, and Bioshock was subdued enough to then carry the grand ideas it set out to carry. The violence felt necessary, at no point did you feel like a God, destroying wave after wave of faceless enemies. It carried weight, and along with all the beautiful little details, like shrines to lost husbands, or audio logs from a crazed surgeon, it all came together and made the world seem real, vibrant, alive.
Infinite comes along and goes for grandeur. Waves of enemies pour into arenas, ready for your electricity bolts or bullets. Skyhook executions are vile and unnecessary. It all still has this sense of foreboding, but it’s more visceral, much more in-yer-face, while being impersonal and faceless.
But it’s the moments aside from that which make Infinite shine. It’s the moment where you’re searching a basement with Elizabeth, the girl, and you have the option to pick up a guitar. Your character sits, plays a simple melody, and Elizabeth sings a beautiful song. It’s a wonderful, wonderful moment of peace, and it’s moments like these that pull the whole thing together, and prevent it from being just another shooter. While you’re escorting Elizabeth, she roams her surroundings, looking under tables, running ahead in excitement because she’s been locked away for her whole life. These moments resonate, give you a sense of humanity. It’s these, along with the ending that will be discussed and mulled over for years to come that elevate the Bioshock series above other games. And I hope the sheer runaway success of this game will inspire game developers to push those boundaries, understand that AAA titles can have incredible stories, and reach much loftier ambitions.
I found myself wanting a version of the game with the violence stripped out. I literally spent the first half hour or so with my mouth open at the sheer detail in this world. It’s beautiful. The music, the dialogue, the sound design. When Booker rings the bells at the lighthouse, there is a herald of horns and red lights bearing down from the heavens. Even the blink of the lighthouse bulb is perfect, and just adds to the atmosphere. Running through it again, I start to understand why the man in the lighthouse was dead when I got there. I realised who the couple rowing me to the lighthouse in the boat were. What the ‘AD’ on my right hand stood for. Who Elizabeth truly was. To be able to enjoy that, without the ever-present pistol hovering around would be daring, and achievable. Some interesting puzzle mechanics, perhaps, and no-one needs to have their neck graphically broken with a spinning hook. Revisiting a time where ‘Myst’ and ‘The 7th Guest’ reigned supreme, beautiful graphics, engaging story, and bizarre puzzles as you unravel a mystery. I’ve got no real issue with violence in games, but it just sometimes isn’t needed to serve the story.
Story. That’s the main thrust. I’ve always liked a story that has ramifications outside of the universe which it serves. I like to see a million paths leading from the path I have just walked, whether in a book, or a movie, or a video game.
Not so much a review, as an essay. Just a ramble on what video games can mean, what they can do, what they can say.
I don’t want to delve into what Bioshock Infinite does say - that’s covered sufficiently in many places. I’m still thinking about that ending and what it could mean, and I will be thinking about it for Months to come.
NB -There are a series of articles here, which do a far better job than I ever could at delving into the myriad of themes in this game.