Friday, July 03, 2009

Mr. Funny Shoes

In the run up to the August 2007 release of Bioshock the game and its developers received a large amount of positive press, highlighting not only a new direction for the now mainstream First Person Shooter, but also a game that was seemingly steeped in ideas regardless of gaming genre.
The setting itself was a breath of air as fresh to the FPS as it would be stale and salty within Rapture itself. Whilst to this day many stable mates don't dare to venture beyond the well-trodden path of the space marine (see Gears of War, Fracture etc.) or WW2 soldier, the idea of an underwater utopia based on the principles of free markets and the stimulation of art and science is a large departure in and of itself, let alone envisioning this fleetingly proud city sliding into corruption and decay, and resulting in a mini eco-system consisting of psychopathic gene-altering survivors, sinister little girls who harvest corpses for valuable genetic-altering material (Adam) and their protectors, the hulking, diving-suited Big Daddies.

The aesthetic choice of the setting is interesting as it is firmly rooted in the ‘Golden Age’ of 1950s Americana, possibly the one period in which the US could lay claim to its own unique cultural stylings as in the centuries before World War 2, fashion, architecture and so on were heavily influenced by the myriad cultures that emigrated there, whilst from the 60s onward North American culture became more and more pervasive globally, leading to an inevitable dip in individuality as it became ever more ubiquitous. It is likely not a coincidence that one of the more aesthetically striking games in the short time since Bioshock achieved critical and commercial acclaim is Fallout 3, set in a post-apocalyptic 1950’s influenced America.
To be fair much of the architecture in Rapture itself is based on earlier movements, but the atmosphere of the 50s in terms of behaviour and dress is undeniable.

Aside from the visual stylings, the influence of Ayn Rand and Objectivism is central to the conceit of Bioshock’s world, and explicit in the naming of Rapture’s founder Andrew Ryan, whilst the setting is ripped straight from Atlas Shrugged with a character named Atlas supposedly leading the resistance against Ryan’s rule and Rapture itself peopled with ‘great minds’ invited by Ryan to a retreat beneath the ocean (rather than into the mountains of the novel). Laissez-faire capitalism is implicitly blamed as the root of the breakdown of the fledgling society as no one oversees the rampant research into gene technology or stops the populace from abusing it before possible consequences are understood. Objectivism is echoed in the ideas of freedom of choice and action and character progression within a scripted medium - is the man asking 'would you kindly?' and giving you the illusion of choice similar to the game programmer giving, via interaction, the illusion of choice that the audience does not get from more passive mediums such as film, music and literature?

After the integral philosophical and cultural influences on the game (the fact that it had any was a cause for celebration in itself), much was made of the moral choices that would be presented to the player on arrival within Rapture. Essentially this boiled down to your choice of whether to "harvest" (read: murder) the little sisters for their Adam, or save them from their apparently benign co-existent relationship with the Big Daddies. You could usually decide to opt for neither and leave them to their own devices as they wandered the sub-aquatic halls, but both options resulted in rewards to power up your plasmids (gene-alterations that work in the same way as magic, basically).

On reading all of the preview articles, I got an impression that the idea of freedom of choice was rather more free than it actually turned out – on my first encounter with a (gene) splicer, bent over a baby carriage and sobbing, I thought that I might have the opportunity to talk with the character, to perhaps try and appeal to reason rather than violence. But the choice not to fight is never an option (unsurprisingly as your avatar sticks to the usual FPS convention of being mute).
The chance to decide whether to be 'good' or 'bad' has long been present in RPGs, with varying degrees of subtlety, and has been extant on console iterations of the genre for years, with the most widely-known examples being in the two Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games and in the first Fable on the Xbox.
Being presented as the 'crucial' moral choice of harvesting in Bioshock rather overstated the matter, especially as the consequences of being the good guy and foregoing the power ups gained through murder were rather mitigated by getting gifts of power ups for being so gosh darned nice.

Regardless of the promises unfulfilled, Bioshock remains one of the high points in the evolution of the FPS since it began around seventeen years ago, standing alongside such greats as the Half Life series, mainly down to the attention to detail in creating an immersive world within which the well-honed point and shoot game mechanics could be enjoyed.
It will be interesting to see where they go with Bioshock 2 now that the ‘shock twist’ or Rapture’s story has been used and similar limited quandaries about freedom of choice and morality ultimately won’t have the same impact second time around. Making you the prototype Big Daddy smacks of the usual trend for sequels to have more and bigger bangs, but even if the new iteration follows the usual sequel formula it will still be refreshing to revisit Rapture after so many urban warzones, Normandy landings and bug hunts.

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