Mr Bubbles' Nostalgia Trip

by Arthur B

Bioshock, when weighed in the balance against System Shock and Deus Ex, is found wanting. But that's like saying that vanilla ice cream isn't as good as chocolate ice cream - in the end, it's still ice cream.
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Bioshock is a better homage to System Shock 2 than it is a spiritual successor; where System Shock 2 had massively innovative gameplay coupled with an excellent plot, Bioshock presents an extremely competent implementation of a tried-and-tested formula, and a plot which, whilst head and shouders above that of most FPS games, falls short of the stellar standards of System Shock 2 - not to mention Deus Ex, which I would seriously argue is the true successor to System Shock.

Alas, such arguments necessarily involve massive amounts of discussion of the plot of Bioshock, so if you don't want any spoilers WOULD YOU KINDLY exercise discretion about reading this review? Thanks.

Right, as just about everyone who pays mild attention to videogames will be aware Bioshock is famous for being a romp through an underwater city crammed with people gone psychotic through overuse of ADAM and EVE, genetic engineering drugs which give the user a vast ability to manipulate their physical and psychic capabilities coupled with a few unfortunate side-effects like massive disfigurement of body and mind. It's a hysterical, heartless skewering of Objectivism and Transhumanism, two of my least favourite philosophies, which includes a game mechanic where you are given the weighty moral choice as to whether you want to protect or eat little girls.

But this is just the packaging, a set of aesthetic decisions which were reversed time and again in the development process; aside from the whole underwater schtick, every other factor I mention in the above paragraph was switched about time and again during the production of the game. Peel back the packaging and underneath you have a love letter to System Shock 2, with just about all of the gameplay elements from the latter present, although often in a simplified form, aside from character customisation at game start (which I miss sorely) and the way weapons in System Shock 2 would fall to bits after a handful of uses (which can go fuck itself in a dark hole).

Many of the plot elements are also here - you're guided from the beginning by a mysterious individual who turns out to be the main villain in disguise, but have to follow their lead if you are to destroy the other major villain, following which you very predictably turn around and do in your former guide. Along the way, you explore a sealed environment which has undergone a horrendous disaster, the details of which come out in the audio diaries you collect along the way. The intriguing twist is that along the way the game starts to muse to itself about the nature of choice in linear first person shooters; "A man chooses, a slave obeys!" declares Andrew Ryan, plutocratic creator of the Objectivist-Transhumanist undersea commune of Rapture, as you are forced by your mental conditioning to drive a golf club into his skull in one of the better cut scenes.

Unfortunately, there's already a spiritual successor to System Shock out there that was designed by veterans of the System Shock design team and which tackles complicated questions of choice, and that's Deus Ex. And in just about every respect, Deus Ex is the better game; it presented a streamlined version of the RPG elements of System Shock that nonetheless managed to retain most of the enjoyable details that Bioshock jettisons, it expanded the scope of gameplay offered by introducing proper interactions with live, in the flesh NPCs, with actual dialogue options and everything, and at its climax it presented the player with three equally meritorious, equally terrible options for the future of the world, and gives the player carte blanche to pick any of them, in the full knowledge of the implications of their decision, without passing judgement on that decision. Couple this with nonlinear gameplay and plenty of different and equally viable approaches to tackling in-game situations and you have an instant classic, and a true rarity: a computer game which gives the player the ability to choose what sort of person their character is at every turn.

The only choice that Bioshock provides you with is whether you want to kill the Little Sisters, genetically altered 5-year-old girls who harvest the gene-drug ADAM from corpses, or spare them; if you kill them you get all the ADAM they harvested; if you spare them you get a little less, free them from the parasite that makes them what they are, and get the occasional treat.

This, in itself, is not so bad, although it is an utterly cheap shot that System Shock or Deus Ex would be ashamed of; for what it's worth, I chose to kill all of the kids as my way of saying "fuck you, this moral dilemma isn't even a dilemma". However, at the very end the game takes a look at what you have done and commits the mortal sin of deciding what sort of person you are based on it, which is a wild and grotesque violation of the guiding principle of player choice that informed the development of System Shock, Deus Ex, and Bioshock itself. Essentially, if you are not the sort of person who murders small children for candy, you clearly do not want to become the benign overlord of Rapture; no, not even a cleaned-up version of Rapture which doesn't have an economy based on child abuse. Similarly, if you kill all the children, it necessarily follows that you must want to become God-Emperor of Rapture, because the most logical thing for someone who wanted to take over the town to do would be to piss off a lady who is clearly part of the power structure here, and wants you to spare the kids, and obey the man who is presenting himself as an average joe who wants to kill them.

Now, I am being very slightly harsh here; Ken Levine, the brains behind Bioshock, has said that he didn't really want to have multiple endings to the game at all, but the suits at 2K insisted. Unless 2K put out a patch that changes the ending, however, we're stuck with the game we've got, and I can only hope Levine gets more of a free hand for Bioshock 2. (Incidentally, based on the trailer for that it looks like the "evil" ending is the canonical one for Bioshock). Oh, and it would have been nice to have the option, once you utterly break free of Fontaine's mind control, of saying "I'm a free man, I have no desire to fight Fontaine, I'm just going to fuck off back to the surface and leave you assholes to your idiotic civil war", because it's slightly meaningless to say "You're free! You can do whatever you want!" when once you've won this much-vaunted freedom you don't get any additional choices or freedom of action you did not previously have.

Now, don't get me wrong, actually playing the game is a blast, although I do have a few niggles - switching between weapons and psychic powers nanotech implants plasmids is a bit fiddly, and the iconic Big Daddies cease to be scary once you realise that their behaviour is utterly, unfailingly predictable, and the map screen isn't as clear as it might be. Nonetheless, it's an extremely adeptly-presented FPS with plenty of non-linear gameplay and freedom to choose your tactics (although not the basic parameters of your mission, obviously.) That said, the last quarter or so of the game, once Ayn Rand Andrew Ryan has bitten the dust, is frankly not up to the standard of the early game. (There's even a fucking escort mission.)

A lot of that has to do with Frank Fontaine, the mob boss who challenged Andrew Ryan for control of Rapture, because he is simply not as interesting an adversary as Ryan; he's a bit too much of a cardboard cutout. There are characters in Grand Theft Auto games who hang around saying nothing in the back of a single cut scene who prove to be a more convincing and three-dimensional portrayal of a Mafioso than Frank Fontaine. It does not help that his voice is the worst mobster drawl I have ever heard, a jarring change from his previous voice as Atlas, which granted is a fake Oirish accent but is at least soothing and not like fingernails on a chalkboard. It's like the voice actor has suddenly had a stroke or something, and it's extremely silly because there is absolutely no reason it had to happen - if the designers had just taken out the single audio diary of Frank's you find before the big reveal, there would have been no need for him to have a different voice. What's more, the writing just gets lazier and more obvious; there's a Frank Fontaine audio diary where he carefully and obviously points out the game's central argument against Objectivism (any Objectivist society would manifest inequalities in economic power, which would play into the hands of anyone who was willing to get their way through physical force and the manipulation of people's resentment) in an utterly needless way, just in case the player is too idiotic to work that out for themselves from the earlier portions of the game.

It is, of course, lovely and wonderful to see a game that brings the play style and thoughtful plotting of System Shock 2 into the next-gen age. But at the end of the day, Bioshock does not actually innovate, it does not experiment, it is in fact extremely unambitious, especially when you compare it to its half-brother Deus Ex; there is no element of Bioshock, apart from the child killing and multiple endings, that was not present in System Shock 2, and the multiple endings and shady moral choices in Deus Ex are ultimately more compelling (perhaps because they are a bit more nuanced than "EAT CHILD? Y/N"). It is ultimately this lack of ambition, drive, purpose and innovation which makes me a little disappointed in Bioshock - Andrew Ryan would not approve. That said, it is a fun ride so long as you don't let the glories of other games in the same vein raise your expectations too high, and I'll definitely pick up the sequel, especially since it's meant to be partially a prequel, and one of the things the audio diaries managed to instil in me was a passionate desire to experience Rapture before it went to shit.
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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 10:30 on 2009-01-13
Interesting review ... to which I feel quite ambivalent.

I mean I really loved Bioshock; I know it's not fashionable to feel passionate about Bioshock, but I genuinely do. Yes it has flaws: you're right, the final portion of the game is made of fail and tedium, and Fontaine never really acquires the level of interest Ryan does (although I'm not sure whether that's deliberate?).

Since I don't have System Shock enshrined in my memory surrounded by glowing light and heavenly music, I didn't care to what degree Bioshock lived up to it. I think "inspired" by SS is probably right, but I approached it very much as its own game.

I personally had no trouble with the controls - I found swapping behind guns and plasmids pretty intuitive actually. And, bear in mind, I am crap at games. Also, although I dashed through the game on easy to see the plot, I re-played again on hard to do it properly; in w hich case the predicability of Big Daddies ceases to be a niggle and starts being a lifesaver. The fact that they have quite rigid patterns of behaviour means that you have a hope in hell of taking down by using your Leet Human Brain Skillz to lure them places and use their weaknesses against them. Again, I emphasise that I am crap at games so perhaps other people were blowing them up like crazies.

Also I don't think killing the little sisters is meant to be a moral dilemma in the traditional sense - however I have already spoken about this at length elsewhere (most noticeably In The Pub) and so I won't write pages on it here and hijack your review. However, I do think dismissing it so summarily ignores the interesting dimensions to the decision - specifically, the game encloses you in an Objectivist framework so that the choice is not "is it okay to eat little girls" but "to survive in a Objectivist world, do you adopt Objectivist ideas or cling to the values of a different world" and what are the consequences of either decision. The ending tie in with this as well.

For what it's worth, when I played through on hard I did end up chomping the kids to survive. I basically wanted the ADAM and I reasoned myself into doing it by listening to the game.

Oh, one more thing: I don't think *the game* judges you for what you've done. A character in the game judges you. That's a very different thing. If you've chosen to snack on kids, you've already decided "fuck Tenenbaum" so her condemnation at the end is meaningless. I object to games judging you arbitrarily with the judgement situated nowhere; I'm quite happy for individual characters within it to tell me I'm a monster / a god.
Wardog at 10:30 on 2009-01-13
Shit. Sorry. That was epic.
Arthur B at 11:47 on 2009-01-13
Since I don't have System Shock enshrined in my memory surrounded by glowing light and heavenly music, I didn't care to what degree Bioshock lived up to it. I think "inspired" by SS is probably right, but I approached it very much as its own game.

OK, so I'm clear where you're coming from: is it the case that you haven't played the System Shock games, so you're coming to Bioshock fresh, or is it the case that you have but weren't impressed?

In the former case, I think it's going to be very difficult for us to compare our experiences, because whether or not you've played System Shock 2 is going to impact how you view Bioshock; in my case, I found it quite jarring, because in many respects Bioshock is an interesting Objectivist-themed mod for SS2 and the parallels really do leap out at you.

However, I do think dismissing it so summarily ignores the interesting dimensions to the decision - specifically, the game encloses you in an Objectivist framework so that the choice is not "is it okay to eat little girls" but "to survive in a Objectivist world, do you adopt Objectivist ideas or cling to the values of a different world" and what are the consequences of either decision. The ending tie in with this as well.

Except I don't think this is a very interesting way to approach the question of "What do you do in a society where there's no rules?" (I'm going to set the specifically Objectivist aspects aside, because I still think the specifically Objectivist flavour is just that, flavour - one of a dozen aesthetic choices the team tried out and eventually stuck with). The thing is, it's the only time you're called on to make such a choice, and I don't find that very interesting: thrusting the most vile and disturbing manner in which you can choose to accept or reject the social mores of Rapture (or, rather, the utter lack thereof) is a bit too easy. What I would be more interested in is a gradual series of choices where the stakes get higher each time - do you choose to accept the plasmids and join Rapture's genetic economy or stay clean? Do you choose to help Atlas find his family out of the good of your own heart or do you demand that he offers you something in return? - until the "Do you eat the kid" choice is the climax. If the player has been consistently a bastard up to this point and refuses, the game then has a decent opportunity to throw all of their past choices back in their face and say "Well, you've not given a damn about anyone to this point, why does it change when it's a small child?"

Oh, one more thing: I don't think *the game* judges you for what you've done. A character in the game judges you.

Except it definitely does; if you're a nice person the game decides that you reject control of Rapture, if you're a bad person the game decides you become the Objectivist Hitler. Tenenbaum praises or condemns you at the end, that is true, but she's also narrating actions that the game - not you, not Tenenbaum, but the game designers - have decided that you will necessarily take as a result of your decision to eat the kids. And frankly, I think there's a very very poor correlation between willing to fuck over anyone and anything when personal survival is at stake and megalomania when personal survival is no longer at stake.

I sincerely wish Levine had stood up to the suits on this issue, in fact; Tenenbaum's judgement of you at the end is utterly needless since she already calls you a saint or a monster over the radio during the actual game. It would also have meant they don't have a continuity headache when it comes to game 2; as far as I can tell from the trailer, you have a situation where someone from Rapture (possibly the main character from game 1) gets holds of nukes, hence the mushroom cloud on the horizon, whilst someone else (maybe Tenenbaum, maybe the main character from game 1) managed to get at least one of the Little Sisters out of Rapture (hence the older girl with the Mr Bubbles toy watching the fireworks on the beach). I actually hope this isn't the case and they just plump with one or the other of the endings (or, even better, go the KOTOR2 route and let you pick which ending was true in the previous game), because saying "Everything happened!" seems like a copout, and one which renders the actual choices made in the previous game meaningless. (This is precisely why I spurned Deus Ex: Invisible War.

They're talking about it being part-prequel, part-sequel: what would be really interesting would be if in the prequel parts you could influence the spawning and development of the Bioshock 1 protagonist, in turn influencing whether they grow up to be a fucker or a saint, which in turn gives you one of two different post-B1 scenarios. But that would be a headache to design.
Arthur B at 12:06 on 2009-01-13
The other problem I had with the ending, now that I think of it: it presents a "good" vs "bad" setup, whereas the main conflict in the actual plot seemed to be idealism vs. pragmatism, as represented by Ryan vs. Fontaine.

What they could have done was have a setup where the rewards for harvesting or exorcising varied from Sister to Sister, and you were told upfront what they were - sometimes you would get more for harvesting, sometimes more for exorcising. Then you could have a "Frank Fontaine" ending for the situation where you mixed harvesting and exorcising, and an "Andrew Ryan" ending where you settled on one of the two options and stuck with it rigidly throughout the game, foregoing the pragmatic benefits of mixing them up a bit.
Wardog at 12:19 on 2009-01-13
I missed the System Shock bus so I'm standing in the cold with no System Shock to take me home. But then the Bioshock mobile came along and swept off into the sunset with an extended metaphor.

I think "society with no rules" is a bit of a simplification again and, equally, I think the Objectivism is more than flavour - or if it is a flavour it's a very important one that saturates everything in the game, like in a good packet of crisps.

What I would be more interested in...

But this isn't what Bioshock is trying to do. It doesn't offer a triangular narrative in the way that something like Deus Ex does; what you seem to be saying here is that you would be more interested in Bioshock if it was a different game, which is fair enough but I think Bioshock - on its own terms - does something interesting within the narrow, seemingly linear scope it offers. Also, essentially, by saying (sorry I keep telling you what you're saying - probably I'm getting it slightly wrong but this is what it seems to me that you're saying) that you would have been more interested in Bioshock if it had been a triangular narrative, this implies that games that present TNs are better / more interesting than games that don't.

I genuinely found, through its repetition in new contexts, a lot of emotional resonance in the seemingly simple choice Bioshock offers. Even though it's the same choice I do believe the stakes get higher - I mean on my hard game I was really low on resources and every kid I saved was a little bit harder than the last until I eventually thought "oh fuck it, we're in an objectivist dystopia here, the highest moral good is to myself and I need to damn well survive" and chowed down. And, you know how it is, you have one kid, you have another kid, you think you can stop at any time ... it was only a few level laters when, drunk on plasmids and power, I was blowing things up with bees and a chemical gun that I stopped and looked at myself and thought "holy shit, I'm a monster".

I think the endings contextualise this choice nicely. In the 'bad' ending you rise to the surface with your nuke on board but considering you've entirely embraced Rapture by that point *of your own volition* it's not like you can just put your kid-eating ways aside and settle down on a farm somewhere. I don't know about correlation between personal survival and meglomania but the point is that the will to power is, you know, pretty damn important for Objectivists and that's what you go off to do. Similarly, the good ending is not exactly happy either is it? I mean you're reduced to a shadow of a person who has lived is entire life for others - as befits someone who rejected all Ryan's philosophies and all of Rapture's potential.

Also I think the fact that we're both head over heels in love with Rapture and want to go back probably says something meaningful about the success of the game's philosopy. I mean, even in its heyday, Rapture was still a dystopia to a rational person.

And one final comment: you based on your decision on whether to eat or not to eat on the fact you were playing a game and you wanted to punish the game for not being the game you wanted it to be. I based mine on ... y'know ... being involved in the game and the world. Which might be why I got more out of it.
Arthur B at 13:01 on 2009-01-13
I think the endings contextualise this choice nicely. In the 'bad' ending you rise to the surface with your nuke on board but considering you've entirely embraced Rapture by that point *of your own volition* it's not like you can just put your kid-eating ways aside and settle down on a farm somewhere.

I think this is exactly where I part company with you on this. People do terrible things to other people when personal survival is on the cards, yes, but sometimes they are doing that because personal survival is on the cards. Castaways drifting in lifeboats club each other to death with their oars and eat each other, but they don't come away from the experience having become budding Hannibal Lecters; there are folk who will turn to robbery and looting and pillage in times of famine who will sit happily at home playing Scrabble in times of plenty. History is littered with tales of people from prison camps, stuck in sieges, trapped in the middle of warfare and stuck in all sorts of other horrible situations, who have made the choice to prey upon the weaker prisoners/refugees/castaways/whatever in order to survive, and yet when the heat is off have returned to perfectly ordinary lives. On a fundamental level, I just can't agree with judging people's entire moral character based on how they behave when the chips are down and there's a gun to their head; some people might say that that's when your true character becomes clear, but I just don't see it. In your own case, it wasn't a matter of the will to power, it was the will to survival. I think comparing the one to the other takes us down an extremely dangerous path, because there are a million things I would forgive someone for doing if they did it in order to survive that I would not if they did it simply to get ahead.

It's not just the bad ending I object to; to look at the other side, the game doesn't let you choose to take over Rapture even if you've been perfectly lovely to all the little girls. This robs you of an entirely legitimate choice: to decide that your character is the sort of person who thinks they can manage Rapture ethically, who thinks they can dismantle the Little Sister system and make things right. This is an intriguing option which would tie in neatly with Andrew Ryan's arc, the holier-than-thou son believing that he can tame and reform his father's flawed creation (hell, it would even work nicely alongside the various Biblical references), and it's a shame they didn't explore that.

Also, the good ending involves you living to a ripe old age surrounded by a family that loves you. A shadow of a person?

And one final comment: you based on your decision on whether to eat or not to eat on the fact you were playing a game and you wanted to punish the game for not being the game you wanted it to be. I based mine on ... y'know ... being involved in the game and the world. Which might be why I got more out of it.

This is precisely where I think the similarities to System Shock worked against the game, which is I suppose an argument against trying too hard to make heavily disguised continuations of a previous series. I simply was never able to be immersed because you actually can't walk down a corridor without noticing two or three things and thinking "Ah, I remember that from the last game". I was constantly reminded that I was playing a game, because there's a certain aspect of homage

Essentially, you were able to approach the game on its own terms because you hadn't played System Shock 2. I wasn't, because I had; moreover, I'm not 100% sure that the game designers were able to approach it on its own terms, because, you know, they made System Shock 2 and were deliberately trying to make something that harked back to it. I think Bioshock 2 will be a vast improvement over 1, if the design team say "right, we've done our tribute to System Shock, now we can forget about that and concentrate on making Bioshock stand out". Ken Levine has said they want to do something very different with it, so I'm hopeful.

An analogy: Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is tied in so intimately with Hamlet that Stoppard doesn't even pretend to the audience that it is not, in fact, a play; from the coin tosses to R&G simply vanishing into thin air at the end, it emphasises that a) we are watching a play, and b) because we are watching a play, everything these characters do is scripted and they're not free in the slightest. The play works, in fact, because it sets fire to the 4th wall and flings shit at it, and because the audience has just enough familiarity with Hamlet to follow along; Stoppard doesn't assume that the audience consists of Hamlet scholars and does his best to make sure nobody is left behind, but the fact remains that if you come to the thing cold you are probably not going to get as much out of it.

Bioshock has, to me, a similar relationship to System Shock 2, only in reverse: you get more out of it if you aren't aware of the earlier work, because the game is trying to be immersive: it's trying to get you involved in it and not treat as playing a game. But whilst this is trivial for someone who hasn't played through the earlier work, it's difficult in the extreme for someone who has, because, again, the parallels are that blatant. The plot compensates for this to an extent by playing with the idea of free will in a game, but at the same time it's a plot which works a lot better if you are actually immersed.

I imagine, of course, that someone who had played Bioshock but not System Shock 2 might have similar issues getting immersed in SHODAN's playpen. (And let's face it, the more dated computer game graphics look the bigger the barrier they are to immersion; I can't immerse in Doom today in the same way I did back in the mid-1990s when it represented the cutting edge of realism).
Arthur B at 13:05 on 2009-01-13
I was constantly reminded that I was playing a game, because there's a certain aspect of homage

Sorry, didn't finish this sentence: I meant to say "there's a certain aspect of homage, especially of the sort Bioshock indulges in, which involves frequently asking the audience to look back to the work being paid to. This inherently moves you away from treating the homage as a self-contained world to immerse yourself in and pushes you towards treating it as a tribute to and commentary on the previous work."
Wardog at 15:59 on 2009-01-13
I am interested but also afraid this discussion is OF DOOM, since we are both clearly passionate and epic :)
Arthur B at 16:09 on 2009-01-13
Then let us join in amusement at Objectivists who think Andrew Ryan is awesome. Now, I do think the Bioshock team did an excellent job of portraying a philosophy they don't really agree with in a manner that its proponents could still embrace with Ryan's speeches, but drawing attention to cutting satires of your personal philosophy seems... unwise. It's like watching a Stalinist rave about Animal Farm.
Wardog at 17:07 on 2009-01-13
Actually I secretly think Andrew Ryan is awesome ... I can't help it, there's something weirdly appealing about Objectivism even though you know it's a lot of bullshit really. Also Rapture is such a *wonderful* place (I was so in love with it) that you can't help but admire the man who created it.

Also, check out Taggart Transdimensional it's an objectivist EVE Online guild!
Arthur B at 20:12 on 2009-01-13
I think Andrew Ryan is an attractive figure because he's a successful Objectivist, who actually manages to make the myth reality (er, in the fictional world he inhabits, at least), which is a refreshing change from most of the more vocal Objectivists (with the exception of Rand herself, who clearly did quite well for herself out of the deal, I wouldn't trust many of them to build a garden shed on the bottom of a duck pond, never mind a city beneath the Atlantic). It's the difference between someone who happens to be going through a bit of a Nietzsche phase during Sixth Form and secretly hoping that they are actually the Overman and someone actually being the Overman.
Arthur B at 13:16 on 2009-01-14
A cheeky thought that just occurred to me: "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?" could be seen as a take on the publisher's position on DRM, which Shamus Young railed against at length when he wasn't being brutally unfair to the game itself (and you thought I was a System Shock cultist...). Not only are the publishers entitled to the sweat of their own brow, but they own it in perpetuity and you can only install it on your PC a maximum of three times before there's no sweat left...
Arthur B at 09:32 on 2009-04-24
Bioshock 2 looks like it's going to be one enormously long escort quest if you decided to be a good guy, and a mildly dull retread of old territory otherwise. Seriously, just about the only new idea I see there is the Big Sister, which sounds like something invented for fanfic.

I will console myself with hilarious parody comics.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 15:17 on 2010-02-22
Bioshock 2 looks like it's going to be one enormously long escort quest if you decided to be a good guy, and a mildly dull retread of old territory otherwise. Seriously, just about the only new idea I see there is the Big Sister, which sounds like something invented for fanfic.

I’ve been watching some Bioshock 2 playthroughs, and that seems to be a fairly accurate summation. The basic plot has you as “Subject Delta,” the first Big Daddy to be bonded to a Little Sister (IIRC you’re the guy who impaled Dr. Suchong with the giant auger). About 2 years before the first game, you’re killed by Sophia Lamb, who’s apparently the actual mother of your Little Sister. You come to a decade later (in 1968 and I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE JORDAN THOMAS) to find that Lamb’s trying to build a transhumanist collectivist order among Rapture’s remaining population, and that her daughter is an integral part of that plan. Naturally, your job is to rescue her. Overall, it sticks close to the fundamentals laid down by the first game, usually feeling more like “Bioshock done right” than a completely different experience.

Still, there are some nice innovations. The “morality system” has been deepened, with the outcome of the game depending on how you treat the Little Sisters and a couple NPCs, which can allow you some way to redeem yourself if you’ve been harvesting like crazy. There’s also this mechanic where, if you save a Little Sister, you can get her to harvest more ADAM from one or two bodies, though you have to defend her while she does it. It’s basically a trade of ADAM for ammo, and it adds a bit of profit-and-loss calculation to the morality thing. (It’s also worth noting that being good has consequences; even with gifts and tonics, you won’t get as much ADAM as a completely evil fucker that harvests the corpses and the Sister). And if you though Rapture was a pretty damn cool place, there’s still plenty to explore.
Arthur B at 17:21 on 2010-02-22
You see, that morality system sounds more nuanced, but it's deeply flawed: I would cut the throat of an actual five-year-old girl, never mind a fake five-year-old girl who's only sounds and noises on my television set, if it will get me out of doing another damn escort quest. I haven't seen a decently-implemented one since ICO, which worked because you could basically drag the person you were escorting into a corner and trust them to stand there until you needed them again.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 23:44 on 2010-02-22
You see, that morality system sounds more nuanced, but it's deeply flawed: I would cut the throat of an actual five-year-old girl, never mind a fake five-year-old girl who's only sounds and noises on my television set, if it will get me out of doing another damn escort quest. I haven't seen a decently-implemented one since ICO, which worked because you could basically drag the person you were escorting into a corner and trust them to stand there until you needed them again.

Ah, then you're in luck. The escort quests in Bioshock 2 aren't escort quests at all.

They're piggyback rides.

Seriously, when you rescue a Sister, you hoist her up on your shoulders where she stays, safe from all harm. The only time she's in any actual "danger" is when the hordes of splicers are coming after her while she harvests ADAM from a random corpse, and you're always close at hand to deal with the problem with some well-deserved auger-to-the-face.
Arthur B at 00:21 on 2010-02-23
By sheer coincidence, it was the bits in the first game where you have to protect a Little Sister from hordes of splicers whilst she harvests ADAM from random corpses that irritated me the most. I can just about look after myself in FPSs but I'm crap at doing that and protecting some other schmuck (invariably a schmuck incapable of actually seeking cover themselves) at the same time. One of the splicers would invariably slip past me and kill the girl whilst I was trying to not get killed by two of the others.
Dan H at 13:39 on 2010-02-23
I would cut the throat of an actual five-year-old girl, never mind a fake five-year-old girl who's only sounds and noises on my television set, if it will get me out of doing another damn escort quest.


No no, Arthur. That's the *point*. It highlights serious moral issues in a way no other medium has or can. I mean think about it, you - Arthur - believe yourself to be a moral person, and yet you would let somebody DIE just to get out of doing an escort quest in a video game. Just think what that says about YOU as a person, and by extension about SOCIETY and the WORLD. Perhaps now you won't be so quick to judge people who do terrible things in real life, because now you UNDERSTAND what it is like to BE that person.

It's ART man ART and certainly not evidence that escort quests suck scat-encrusted arse.
Arthur B at 14:03 on 2010-02-23
Just think what that says about YOU as a person, and by extension about SOCIETY and the WORLD.

It means I'm a lone crusader fighting for what's right in a society crippled by the evils of escort quests?
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 15:56 on 2010-02-23
Okay, so, I thought Bioshock was really good. Then I always remember the caveats:

It ran out of ideas after the first third, and it was incredibly stupid that even after you've been freed from the "would you kindly?" stuff the game is still 100% linear. The Little Sisters were a huge cheap shot, and it's particularly annoying that the dilemma doesn't even work as stated, since you can get just as much ADAM if you save them because the doctor lady gives you sweet rewards. The final boss and the Big Daddy Escort Quest were pretty awful.

I still think Rapture is a pretty awesome creepy place, and the fun of Bioshock was exploring it all and seeing how it is now, how it was when it was a paradise, and learning how it fell. Which brings me to my reservation about Bioshock 2:

It seems like it has absolutely nothing to offer.

Rapture and "would you kindly" were the two most interesting things Bioshock had to offer, and both of them were completely and fully explored and presented in the original game. So, what's left? Well, you could make some iterative sequelly improvements to combat, tweak the minigames around, and cram in some "badass" stuff that I don't find particularly compelling. Also worrying: The fact that Ken Levine isn't involved AT ALL with the project, the fact that you've got like five developers working on the game, the fact that they've added a multiplayer for no reason besides "hey guys sequels need multiplayer."

I've heard that the game spends the first ten hours being a careful, ultra-respectful retread of Bioshock, and in the last three hours becomes actually interesting and distinct. Can anyone confirm/deny?
Arthur B at 16:14 on 2010-02-23
It ran out of ideas after the first third, and it was incredibly stupid that even after you've been freed from the "would you kindly?" stuff the game is still 100% linear.

A good point. Of course, most FPSs are inherently linear. Arguably the WYK element is there to point this out. I don't know how helpful it is to point this out, though.

Of course, by the time you get the WYK stuff resolved, you've probably either decided to consistently save the Little Sisters or consistently eat them, or at least erred closely enough to one extreme or the other that the ending you get is more or less set. So the only significant choice you make in the game happens when in theory you don't have free will. In theory, this is ironic or something. In practice, it means that if you harvest the Sisters then Tenenbaum becomes just as much a monster as you are for not saying "Would you kindly stop that?" once she worked out who you were - that would tip her hand and show Fontaine that she knows who you are, but if the Little Sisters were really that important to her she'd prioritise their lives over her schemes.
http://webcomcon.blogspot.com/ at 21:01 on 2010-02-23
A good point. Of course, most FPSs are inherently linear. Arguably the WYK element is there to point this out. I don't know how helpful it is to point this out, though.


Sure. I thought the WYK stuff was an excellent way of pointing it out. It really surprised me when I first heard it, and then the next time I played I was constantly checking to make sure that they didn't cheat on me. But it was really good, it really tied the story into the linearity of the gameplay.

My problem is that once you DIDN'T have an awesome in-story reason for the game being completely linear, they kept it linear anyway because open-ended stuff is haaaaard. It would've been cool if the sudden free will had had actual in-game ramifications. I was blown away that the linearity was due to a solid plot point, but then they just drop the game/story connection after the revelation.

Plus it's not like FPS have to be particularly linear. There's nothing about the "shoot stuff from the first-person perspective" that says the game has to be a railroad.
Arthur B at 22:00 on 2010-02-23
Well, for me it was a bit like watching a Western where they come up with a clever in-character reason for why all the buildings in town are just propped-up cutouts somewhere scenic in Italy. :)

It's doubtless clever to demonstrate an understanding of the limits of the medium you're working in. But it strikes me as being the smart thing to do not to draw attention to them, unless you're specifically trying to get metatextual. For me, at least, metatextuality kills any sense of immersion I have in a game (or book, or film, or whatever) - it's a blunt reminder that I'm playing a game which takes me out of the moment and rattles my suspension of disbelief.
Dan H at 11:26 on 2010-02-24
it's particularly annoying that the dilemma doesn't even work as stated, since you can get just as much ADAM if you save them because the doctor lady gives you sweet rewards


I'm kind of stealing Kyra's thunder here, because she actually wrote a relatively well-recieved paper on this very subject (what her ability to walk into geekademia whistling says about the field I will refrain from considering).

The Little Sister thing falls flat if you look at it the wrong way. If you think like Peter Molnyeaux and assume that it's about being tempted to do evil then yes, it's a pile of hooey, not least because there's no interesting moral question there - it wouldn't matter how much or how little Adam you got from it, Eating Babies Is Wrong. In fact harvesting or saving the Little Sisters isn't about being "good" or "evil", it's about accepting or rejecting *the philosophical underpinnings of Rapture itself*. Rapture was all about creating a world where exceptional people could do exceptional things, without the constraints of conventional morality and that's *exactly* what it allows you to do.

The fact that you get *almost* as much Adam from saving the Little Sisters is also very misleading - there's a big difference between getting a reward *now* and getting a reward *later*. Nobody in their right mind would prefer a job paying £5000 every quarter to a job paying £2000 every month, even if it's "almost" as much money - it's not just about the amount of Adam you get, it's about whether you do a particular level with many resources or few resources. It's the equivalent of grinding in an RPG - yes by the *end* of the game you'll hit the level cap, but even so there's an advantage to being a couple of levels higher in every area you pass through on the way.
Arthur B at 12:02 on 2010-02-24
Kyra and I did, in fact, sort of debate this point earlier in this thread but we were hampered by the fact that I didn't grasp the "buying into the underpinnings of Rapture" thing. I do think it works better that way. I'm still not convinced that it's a truly fair choice, precisely because it's almost always a choice you make under duress. Choosing whether to get the ADAM now or later is invariably going to be impacted on what you reckon your odds of surviving the next five minutes are, and ultimately I suspect that most people get a bit Objectivist when it's their own neck at stake. Then again, that's probably the point.

On the other hand, I was killing the Sisters because I was rejecting the design underpinnings of the game, not because I was engaging with Rapture, but that's because I found it literally impossible to get any kind of immersion in the game due to having played System Shock 2. Like I said in my last comment, nothing lurches me out of immersion faster than being reminded that I'm playing a game, and in the case of Bioshock I had constant reminders of that because I kept bumping into parallels with System Shock.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 05:35 on 2010-06-14
I know this isn't exactly the China Miéville fan club, but recently came across a piece he wrote about the failure of contemporary experiments in utopian libertarian projects that was pretty damn interesting.

'Course, this is interesting to me since I just finished playing both Bioshock games, so it's fun to compare Ryan's Objectivist city to these giant libertarian floating fortresses. The thing I found most intriguing is a trait Ryan shares with his real utopian contemporaries in mid-century Eurasia that he doesn't share with his descendents; Ryan believes that utopia can be achieved through effort and willpower, wheras the people working on Freedom Ship just want to hide from the world.
Rami at 06:55 on 2010-06-14
Never having played Bioshock I didn't know this -- are you telling me it features a giant floating tax haven?
Arthur B at 09:33 on 2010-06-14
A giant underwater tax haven. But the principle's the same.

Under the sea
Under the sea
I'll withhold taxes
Kill folks with axes
More ADAM for me!
Shim at 11:38 on 2010-06-14
I'm kind of stealing Kyra's thunder here, because she actually wrote a relatively well-recieved paper on this very subject (what her ability to walk into geekademia whistling says about the field I will refrain from considering).

Any chance of a link or citation? I'm actually quite interested in reading that, but even my information retrieval skills can't track down a paper of unknown title or subject area by someone called Smith.
Wardog at 14:44 on 2010-06-14
Dan exaggerates my cred - we presented and wrote the paper but then I sort of fell out with my co-author so I don't know what happened after that.

I am basically too lazy for academia - even geekademia :P
Arthur B at 19:45 on 2010-08-12
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 20:40 on 2010-08-12
Ah, you saw that trailer too!

It's like a Hayao Miyazaki film, only instead of winsome pastoralism, it has murderous robots.

I'm still trying to formulate an opinion on this one, but so far I'm intrigued (though a small, petty part of me wonders why we can't ever play around in a crumbling European utopia. Heck knows the continent's had enough of them in the past century).
Arthur B at 21:39 on 2010-08-12
a small, petty part of me wonders why we can't ever play around in a crumbling European utopia

I think part of that is because of the particular political points Ken Levine wants to make - it looks like he wants to take aim at the idea of American exceptionalism just like Bioshock went after Rand, and that sort of demands an American dystopia.

What excites me is that a) it looks like we're actually going to be able to meet and interact with potentially friendly NPCs, which is a major gameplay advance over System Shock and Bioshock where you just get talked at, and b) Levine's examining an idea which is a bit more complex than Objectivism (and had a lot more traction than Rand in its day), both of which answer most of my issues with the first game.

Plus I'm glad to see them taking the franchise in a Final Fantasy-like direction rather than being completely married to Rapture, which to me seems kind of played out.
Arthur B at 15:09 on 2016-08-10
Almost a literal decade after it would have been timely, someone at Ars Technica is trying to argue that Rapture would have been OK had Andrew Ryan not betrayed the principles of Objectivism.

This misses a whole bunch of points, not the least being:

- Robertson is misrepresenting Rand's own philosophy there. A very basic idea of Objectivism is that builders ought to retain control of the things they build, rather than being compelled to hand them over for the public good. Andrew Ryan built Rapture; therefore Andrew Ryan should get to set the rules his guests follow in Rapture, and anyone who doesn't like it should fuck off and build their own undersea Utopia.

- Indeed, it's not wholly correct to absolutely identify libertarianism with Objectivism. Objectivist ethics demands an absolute separation between good and evil, and holds that even a little concession corrupts everything. Thus, the sort of isolationism Ryan tries to enforce in Rapture is, in fact, entirely in keeping with that. The Objectivist Messiah in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, sets up just such an isolationist, fuck-off-we're-full community in the form of Galt's Gulch, after all.

- Even if you go with the very libertarian interpretation of Objectivism John Robertson is running with here, you still have the basic problem of any lassaiz-faire system, which is that as soon as someone like Frank Fontaine starts taking actions which will undermine, disrupt, overthrow or destroy the system you have set up you kind of either have to let them go ahead or put social order ahead of your principles and crack down - and the longer you stick to your principles, the greater a violation of them will be needed to finally stop someone. (It's like how AnarchoCapitalist fantasies of small communities operating entirely on the Non-Aggression Principle don't really have much of a cohesive answer to "What happens when people decide to go fascist?" beyond "Uuuuuh... we'll have private police forces which totally won't be an excellent front for anyone deciding to go fascist.")
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 20:13 on 2016-08-12
Honestly, his discussion reminds me of nothing so much as the decades of argument among scholars and propagandists about whether or not the Soviet Union was a betrayal or the fulfillment of true socialism. Like a lot of those guys, the fellow you linked seems to be comparing Rapture to an nebuously-defined ideal Randian community rather than considering in the context of an underwater city-state that has to operate according to Randian principles.

Also, just look at all those old comments we made before we found out the truth about Bioshock Infinite. I was reading the one you made about how good it was that Infinite was getting away from the paradigm of the first two games, and it's pretty depressing in the light both Infinite and the "Burial at Sea" DLCs, where the first Bioshock slowly grows into a inescapable singularity that consumes both the setting and characters of Infinite.

Man, the more you dig, the more Infinite just falls apart, doesn't it? I've even seen one or two reviewers revisit it years after the hype and find it noticeably lacking.
Arthur B at 11:32 on 2016-08-13
Honestly, hearing about Burial At Sea was what tipped Infinite over the edge for me from "That sounds disappointing, I'll probably get it if/when it is cheap" to "They really don't have any ideas left at all, do they? I won't bother." That reassessment is pretty good and just confirms my decision to pass it by.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 18:27 on 2016-08-13
Infinite is definitely one of those games, like the Thief rebootquel, whose creation is far more interesting than the finished project. It's going to be years (if ever) before we find out what happened behind the scenes, but my own theory is that Infinite had the same sort of improvisational experiment-focuses development the other Bioshocks had, with the concept of the game radically changing during development and major new features appearing, being built, then disappearing when they don't fit the vision, but this time around there was too much money, too much time, and the whole thing was built on a central concept that didn't fit together. In Bioshock, Objectivism and bioengineering fit together with the whole idea of 20th-century political utopianism; the new society and the new man and all that. I still haven't found anyone who has explained to me what the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics has to do with the American national identity, and suffice to say Infinite never does either.

I've also found that Bioshock 2 has improved in retrospect, partially because I liked more of the characters (particularly the abused no-longer-human Subject Delta), but also because it works as a final endpoint to the Bioshock story. Rapture is dead, but Bioshock 2 is about what its final legacy to the world will be.
Robinson L at 18:00 on 2016-08-15
I've only skimmed the article, and not made any kind of study of Objectivism, but there seems to be another contradiction in the author's argument. He invokes the maxim “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely,” which I tend to agree with. That being the case, though, isn't it the case that any society where one person (or a small group of people) wields absolute power at any point is practically guaranteed to devolve into autocracy? You're blaming Andrew Ryan for acting against principle in a situation which we both agree engineers unprincipled behavior in people, without any kind of checks and balances to stop him? That sound to me more like a systemic flaw than a personal flaw of Ryan's.
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