Video games as a narrative medium have grown up, and here's the proof.
There's a debate going on right now as to whether video games can considered an art form. The naysayers such as Roger Ebert suggest that despite the artistic values that games can exhibit, the mere fact that they require player input to function discounts them as a legitimate art form. What if, however, a video game featured writing that was miles ahead of the generic crap that the Hollywood machine churns out? What if a game challenged not only your reflexes and skills as a player, but also your morals, your ideals, or even your idea of what is possible in video games?
Video games nowadays are at a crossroads. With the advent of high definition, near photo realistic graphics means that we are pushing the envelope on visual presentation for games. However, the video game industry is one that constantly demands innovation and originality. Since the graphical envelope is close to being pushed as far as it can go, developers are trying to find new and exciting ways to deliver a compelling game experience beyond fancy bump-mapping and particle effects. It's time for imagination and story telling to truly catch up to the technology that is already in place.
Since so much of the video game industry emulates the cinematic world, it becomes easy to compare a game like BioShock to classic film masterpieces such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca. Blasphemy you say? Consider this. When cinema was in its infancy, before the advent of sound and Technicolor, it was discounted as fluff entertainment incapable of providing an enriching and artistic experience. As the technology for sound, colour, and special effects began to emerge, the most talented artists in that industry began to utilize these tools in new ways to create something that is indisputably art. Sound familiar? Video games are following this exact pattern of development. We've gone from simple 8-bit graphics and midi-sound effects to being able to explore photo-realistic, immersive, living, breathing worlds. Now that the technology is there, the only real limit is the imagination of the game designers. All it took was a true masterpiece to come along to legitimize the entire medium. Films like Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane legitimized cinema, and now games like BioShock are doing the same for gaming. I guarantee you that in twenty years from now when the theory of video games is being taught at universities around the world much like film theory is taught today, BioShock will be one of the titles that will looked upon as a turning point for the entire medium.
But what is it about BioShock that makes it such a sublime masterpiece? A good place to start would be with the storyline. The year is 1960, and you begin the game in a seat on an airplane that is cruising over the Atlantic Ocean until something goes horribly wrong. Your plane plummets into the Ocean, and you come to amidst flaming wreckage of your former vessel. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, you see a lighthouse off in the distance that should spell salvation. Within the lighthouse you encounter a bathysphere that shoots you down to the underwater city of Rapture. While in the sphere a video starts playing in which Andrew Ryan, the man who built this city explains its reason for existing:
"Is not a man entitled to the sweat on his brow?
No, says the man in Washington; it belongs to the poor.
No, says the man in the Vatican; it belongs to God.
No, says the man in Moscow; it belongs to everyone.
I built Rapture with the sweat of my brow. With the sweat on your brow, Rapture can be your city as well."
In other words, Rapture's purpose was to be a place free of standard government, where the most brilliant minds and artists would be able to convene and create, having broken free from the chains of modern society. Sounds like a wonderful utopia does it not? Of course, like most cinematic utopias, something has gone terrifyingly wrong, turning the potential paradise into a dystopia of hellish proportions. It turns out that while all these brilliant minds were going about their work in this underwater city, they discovered a substance on the ocean floor called ADAM. Synthesized ADAM allows anyone who injects it to essentially rewrite their DNA to theoretically improve the human formula which took evolution millions of years to develop. The side effect to ADAM is that it causes nasty things such as insanity and death, and nearly everyone you encounter in Rapture has been completely transformed by this substance. BioShock's story is so deep and fulfilling mainly because it borrows rather liberally from classic dystrophic literature such as Brave New World, 1984, Animal Farm, and the like. George Orwell would be proud.
The other reason that BioShock's story is so great is that the player feels like a contributing factor to the story, and not just a passive observer. Even wonderful gaming experiences like Gears of War and Final Fantasy lead you along by the nose to a conclusion. No matter how you play it, the story plays out the same way. Even supposed non-linear RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire merely give the illusion of choice. In those games, evil or good, you pick one and get the corresponding ending. Not so in BioShock. The lines between good and evil are blurred. BioShock exists in a grey area that depends highly on the choices you make throughout the adventure that makes it feel like a more organic world than I have ever experienced in a video game. Yes, the game does feature two endings depending on how evil or good you were throughout, but the pathway will be different every time you play through the game. It's a very mature and intelligent way of going about a game story, and it is proof of evolution in game storytelling. As beautiful and immersive as a game like Gears of War is, the story wasn't up to par with the technology. With BioShock, it is.
BioShock is all about choice. You want to play it like an old-school first person shooter? Go ahead. Would you like to take a more cerebral approach and upgrade your ADAM reserves to give yourself some supernatural genetic enhancements? You can do that. Want to be a system hacker and turn the environment into a big trap for your enemies? Why not? Want to experience the story to its fullest? Pick up the audio logs and pay close attention as you piece together the fall of Rapture. Do you want to ignore the story and get right into the action? You can do that too. BioShock doesn't force you into a story you don't care about. It's your loss if you decide to skip out on this amazing story line, but that choice is yours. What truly fascinates me about BioShock's story is that it plays to the strengths of the video game medium to get the story across. This story wouldn't work as a movie or even as a book. BioShock is designed to make you question yourself with the choices you make, and the only medium in which to truly do that is in the world of video games. Every room in Rapture has multiple methods of approaching it, and there is no right or wrong way, there is just your way.
With so many choices to make, BioShock is a game that asks, nay demands, to be played through at least twice in order to see enough of what it has to offer. You could be playing this game for the tenth time several months from now and still be seeing something new and trying new tactics. One play through will likely take you around 20 hours to complete.
ADAM is quite central to the design of the game. This too, requires a significant amount of moral choices on the part of the gamer. Accumulating ADAM allows you to alter your DNA to make some very cool effects. With ADAM, you can do awesome things such as: fire bolts of lightning from your finger tips, use items around you as weapons with telekinesis, fire hornets out of your veins, light things on fire by snapping your fingers, freeze your enemies, or even turn your enemies on your each other. You acquire these skills by finding or purchasing plasmids. Your ability to use plasmids is dependent on how high your EVE reserves are. EVE is essentially the amount of "magic points" that are available to use your newly acquired skills. EVE is replenished by jabbing yourself in the arm with syringes of EVE that you find throughout Rapture.
Plasmids are not the only use for ADAM either. You can also find and equip a variety of tonics that give you passive effects such as running faster, dealing extra damage, extra defense, and lots of other cool skills that I don't want to spoil. Unfortunately, ADAM is at a huge premium in the game. Therefore, it is impossible to acquire every plasmid and tonic in the game, meaning that you as a player have even more choices to make as to how to approach your ADAM use. Do you spend your ADAM to increase your defense, or do you buy the ability to freeze your enemies? No two gamers will play this game quite the same way.
To acquire ADAM, all you have to do is find little girls running around rapture known as Little Sisters. The Little Sisters roam the halls of rapture drawing out ADAM from the dead bodies strewn about, and harvesting it within themselves. Here's where the most significant choice you as a player will have to make. When you have a Little Sister cornered, do you harvest her and take all 160 units of ADAM, killing her in the process? Or do you save her life and take half as much? Do you sacrifice your humanity in order to survive? BioShock forces you to make this decision for yourself.
Unfortunately, getting that tasty ADAM is not as easy as cornering a little girl. Every little sister in the game is accompanied by a hulking juggernaut in an old school diving suit known as a Big Daddy. Big Daddies are not easy opponents. They move faster than you do, wield wicked weaponry, and are heavily armored. Taking down one of these bad boys is no easy task, and will take several health packs and some cunning to defeat. However, ADAM is so valuable, and these encounters so thrilling that you won't mind one bit. Also, it bears mention that the Big Daddies will completely ignore you until you choose to start a fight with it. Don't need the ADAM? Don't get yourself into the fight. It's just one more freedom of choice that the designers have given you.
Big Daddies aren't the only enemies you'll find in the halls of Rapture either. Former citizens of the city who have been driven hopelessly insane in pursuit of ADAM will make their presence known to you quite quickly. These enemies, known as splicers, come in many varieties, including ones that can teleport, climb walls, and the common ones that come at you with guns or lead pipes. Defeating these enemies will yield tons of goodies such as health packs, EVE hypos, and cash. The AI that all of the enemies exhibit is outstanding. Enemies will hunt you in packs, outflank you, and lead you into traps of their own. If you set one on fire, watch them go running for a water source to douse themselves off. Enemies never stand around waiting for you. If you catch one unaware, watch them go for a while. Enemies will walk up and talk to each other, sometimes fight each other, and mumble to themselves. The behaviour that they exhibit really helps create the illusion that you are in a world that goes beyond you as a player. In particular, watching the interactions between the Little Sisters and hulking Big Daddies is a marvel to behold. It's fascinating to watch this metal monster who only seconds ago was blowing you full of holes walking around, exhibiting parental behaviour towards the Little Sister under its care. Only during a few major story sequences does the game ever feel scripted, and the wonderful AI is a big reason why. The AI programmers deserve a fat raise for their phenomenal work here.
You'll also have to contend with Rapture's security system that consists of security cameras, turrets, and hovering security bots; all of which can rip you to shreds in seconds. Luckily, you are able to hack every piece of machinery you come across. If you hack a turret, it will turn onto your enemies. Hack a security camera and it will send security bots after your enemies. Hack a health station and watch it blow up in your enemies face when they try to use it. Whenever you hack a device, a mini-game just like the PC classic Pipe Dream comes up. You are given a table of tiles with different shapes for pipes or trap tiles underneath. Your goal is create a path from the start of the circuit to the finish by placing the appropriate tiles in the appropriate place while avoiding the trap tiles. It sounds complicated, but in practice it is simple and addictive.
Once you've harvested some ADAM and/or collected some cash, you can "level up" at the myriad of vending machines throughout the game. Different vending machines allow you to do different things such as purchase items and ammo, upgrade your plasmids and tonics, and heal yourself. Even the vending machines can be hacked to sell you new products and to discount the prices.
What about weapons? BioShock has got you covered with an arsenal that should please any first person shooter fan. You're given the standard shooter staples such as pistols, shotguns, a tommy gun, and a grenade launcher. The fun doesn't stop there either. Every gun in the game has three different ammo types which can be switched up on the fly that have varying effects on different enemies. The sweetest of which is a chemical launcher that can launch napalm and liquid nitrogen. You also have in your inventory a research camera. The more pictures you take of the enemies you encounter, the more you will learn about them. You'll be able to see what kind of bullets and plasmids are most effective, while increasing your overall damage to them at the same time. Therefore, the camera can become one of your most useful and effective weapons.
With everything you can do in this game, you'd expect that the controls would be a confusing mess, but you'd be wrong. BioShock controls and plays like a dream. The game is a little easier to play on the PC due to the plethora of buttons available, which can be configured exactly to the players' liking. However, the Xbox 360 version controls very well. The left trigger fires plasmids, the right fires your weapons. The corresponding bumpers cycle through your plasmids or weapons. The D-pad changes the type of ammo you have loaded. If you have any experience with console first person shooters, you will feel right at home here. One area that the PC version has a distinct advantage is in the hacking sequences. Moving tiles around with the mouse is much faster and more intuitive than it is with a cursor and an analog stick.
BioShock's graphics are an absolute marvel to behold. The developers have harnessed to full power of the Unreal 3 engine to rival the mighty Gears of War in the graphics department. Everything from the enormous undersea buildings to the wrappers on the chocolate bars you find and everything in between are rendered in mind-boggling detail. Since Rapture is an underwater city, it was very important that the developers got the water effects right, and boy, did they ever. Water convincingly flows down stairs, gathers in puddles, reacts to the environment, and even sprays through cracks in the walls that effectively suggest the incredible pressure on the ocean floor. All the characters in the game are both rendered and animated beautifully. One particularly disturbing effect that I noticed was when you set a character on fire, once the flames go out, they are left with a mess of charred skin and unrecognizable features. The game always keeps a very steady frame rate on the 360 version, although you'll need a pretty beefy PC to run this game well. In the graphical hierarchy, the Direct X 9 version looks the weakest, the 360 version is the middle, and the Direct X 10 version looks the spiffiest thanks to its ability to render higher-than-high-definition resolutions. Make no mistake though; any way you play, you'll be playing one gorgeous game.
Complimenting the graphics are phenomenal physics thanks to the Havok engine. Nearly everything reacts exactly how you would expect it to when colliding with other objects, walked into, or shot. The environment reacts as well. If fire gets near a puddle of oil, then the whole puddle will go up in flames, which dance around very convincingly. The physics and graphics combine together to build a city that feels very immersive and almost alive.
Beyond the technical aspects is an art design that is second to none. Rapture is a world that is trapped in time, and the design of the period is very apparent throughout the game. Everything from the fonts on the neon signs, to the recognizable classic 40's tunes shine through. The art design creates a world that is at once beautiful and terrifying at the same time, a very difficult combination to achieve.
What really helps make this game terrifying is the audio. Featuring outstanding full 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound, every creak, footstep, and moan from water pressure shines through in crystal clarity. The music ranges from upbeat 40's tunes such as "Beyond the Sea" to adrenaline pumping orchestral scores that perfectly suit the moments in which they are utilized. The voice acting is also outstanding, particularly those from Andrew Ryan and Atlas, your friendly vocal guide through Rapture.
So after nearly 3,000 words of raving about how amazing this game is, are there any flaws? Sure, but they're small and inconsequential at worst. There's a small glitch that occurs every few hours in which your view randomly shoots off in a random direction, leaving you looking at the ceiling or the floor. Also, I wish the shotgun did more damage than it actually does. It just feels weird to unload a full load of buckshot into a splicer's face at close range and have them walk it off. The biggest flaw I can come up with is how the game handles your death. You will come across "vita-chambers" that are essentially save points. When you croak, you will simply warp to the nearest vita-chamber and continue on. All your enemies will have the same amount of health that they had when you died, which makes the game a little on the easy side. Also, since there are no real consequences to dying, it can occasionally suck the tension out of a certain situation since there is no threat of death. At the same time, I understand that having the vita-chambers in the game encourages you to live with the consequences of the decisions you've made instead of just loading up your old save and taking a new approach. These flaws are barely flaws at all, and almost never adversely affect the game experience one bit. Don't let them dissuade you; I merely put them into the review for completion rather than complaint's sake.
Make no mistake, BioShock is a masterpiece, as pure a gaming experience as exists today. It will take something beyond outstanding and phenomenal to take this game's rightful place as game of the year. My earlier comparisons to film classics such as Casablanca were not meant as a casual comparison and were not made lightly. I make those comparisons while still paying every compliment possible to those artful and important moments that those classic films represent within our culture. The comparison still stands; what Casablanca was to movies, BioShock is to gaming. There's nothing else to say except buy it now, and then buy another copy for a friend.