Tag Archives: BioShock

Best of 2013 #6: BioShock Infinite

BioShock InfiniteI take it as an indication of the quality of 2013’s games that BioShock Infinite, a game that seemed a shoo-in for copious awards come this point in the year, now looks likely to be frequently overlooked. I’m kind of the same now that the lustre has worn off and the rough edges – prosaic shooting, an occasionally annoying AI companion, bullet sponge enemies, that boss – have become evident.

But the original BioShock did very little… original, gameplay-wise. That achieved its plaudits through its setting and story, and while Infinite’s Columbia doesn’t grab me as firmly as the glorious Rapture and its rug pulls can’t touch BioShock’s, I played through the whole thing in two sittings because it kept me enthralled, keen to see what it would do next. The pre-release hype hinted at parallel universes and time travel, but it still surprised me in how quickly and to what extent it ran with those themes.

Just imagine the praise that would be heaped on its shenanigans had it been a Christopher Nolan film, say. Gaming as a mature storytelling medium? Never in doubt.

BioShock: Rapture – A Review

BioShock: Rapture Tasked with lifting a story saddled with Ayn Rand philosophy above the levels of mediocrity that many videogame tie-in novels can only hope to achieve, it’s hard to believe that John Shirley had a chance.

The tale of Rapture’s inception, construction and fall contains some interesting moments, but the best of them have already been heard in the game’s audio diaries, only stretched beyond the breaking point to fill a chapter rather than a 30-second audio clip. By the end almost every event has been taken from them, even going so far as to paste the dialogue from them in verbatim, leaving few surprises for anyone who was paying attention when they played through the original.

Characters who worked as enigmatic cameos feel like parodies when they and their philosophies are expanded like this; a feeling only enhanced by the author’s bizarre insistence on rendering every verbal tic and dialect on the page. Bill McDonagh, for example, is a working class bloke from Lahndahn, and then you’ve got the guido stereotypes for New York gangsters and, just in case you forget that the book is set in the 1940s, it’s loaded with deliberate archaisms so that people actually use words like ‘swell’.

Even if Andrew Ryan was less a nuanced personality and more a… well, an Ayn Rand character in the game, here he’s a pantomime villain. He takes every single opportunity to start monologuing about parasites, taxes and the Great Chain™. Within the first chapter he compares, completely without irony, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to socialism, and it’s downhill from there.

Fontaine, too, if he has a moustache would spend every scene twirling it. His character is built from the big book of villainous cliches, with an uncanny gift for disguise thanks to being brought up in the circus. No, really…

One thing the book does share with the games is that the true star is Rapture itself, and for those who gorged themselves on the details in things like the BioShock 2 ARG, the material here will delight. It still doesn’t make much sense if you think too hard about it, but moments like seeing the undersea city for the first time are nearly as potent as they were when you saw it for yourself. The game’s opening is still one of the best ever, and the book enjoys some of the reflected glory.

It’s not enough, though. The narrative and visuals in the games were strong enough to make you forgive some occasionally clunky mechanics, but this is just a bad reprise weighed down by dialogue and character development from a bad fan fiction. Fans will find a lot more canonical depth by spending a few hours exploring the BioShock Wiki.

But seriously, are games art?

Now this is a one-time-only thing, because although this is an important argument in a sense, it’s one that I’m sick to death of hearing about. Someone says otherwise, gamers variously trumpet the likes of Ico or flame the person in question, and then we repeat the whole thing again a few weeks later. Roger Ebert has done it again, with the prominent movie critic reiterating his stance that games can never be art. Some points I agree with, some I disagree with, and some of his statements are factually wrong; gamers’ responses have ranged from decent to predictably defensive and/or vitriolic.

So, are games art?


Any creative product is art, be it a film, a game, a painting, a sculpture, a novel, a poem, a play, or anything else. As far as I’m concerned, this is indisputably true, and if I could quite happily leave the argument there.

The difference comes in artistic merit. The Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David and the doodle on the back of my notebook are all art, but no one’s going to argue that the former two are worth far more, both monetarily and in every other sense. Likewise, Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey are both far more worthy than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but all three are art in some sense. Creating art is one of the primary motivating factors to all but the most commercial of filmmakers, and as a result there are a lot of films with artistic merit.

Artistic merit is where gaming can fall short, because it’s still treated as a commodity, an industry driven by sequels and following the leader. Shadow of the Colossus, Katamari Damacy, Okami, BioShock and Grim Fandango are examples of games that I would consider to be artistically important for various reasons, while I couldn’t say the same for FIFA or the latest movie-licensed game. FIFA is art, but I’d never show it to someone to show them what the medium can do beyond be a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

My personal opinion is that part of the problem is that there aren’t enough gaming auteurs. Too many are designed by committee and marketing departments, and while I could reel off dozens of great directors, authors or musicians from the last 30 years who have created true art within their media, there still aren’t that many in gaming. Miyamoto and Kojima are two who can be assured top billing and have the clout to get their pet projects made on their name alone, but beyond them you’re probably going to be struggling already, and knowledge of them outside those who follow the industry is almost nil. There’s also very little opportunity for people with big ideas to get their game through development and then into gamers’ hands through commercial channels, with the indie art project games usually either curiosities on the PC or, at best, a sleeper hit on the iPhone.

I’d almost say that the early arcade games did a better job of being artistic in their own right, because they were gaming in its purest form – interactive art, often made by a handful of people. Things like Electroplankton are their direct descendants.

I’m sorry if this seems like doom and gloom, but we have to remember that gaming is a young medium. It’s only 15 years or so that it’s been able to tackle the bigger issues by presenting us with something beyond bleeps and bloops – although my previous point on the artistic merit of those stands – and those gaming auteurs are starting to emerge, however slowly. Film wasn’t taken seriously as anything more than a technical gimmick at the beginning, and rock music was once the downfall of civilisation that games now are.

When today’s gamers are tomorrow’s art critics and we have more developers whose body of work is big and pretentious enough to be called an oeuvre, and maybe when you can make a go at getting an independent game on the shelf next to the new Call of Duty, then we’ll be the ones complaining that this new-fangled holographic VR nonsense isn’t art. That’ll show ’em.

Multiplayer Shouldn’t Be a Necessity

I adored BioShock, and while it lost some of its lustre and great ideas once it reached a certain point, one thing that I couldn’t criticise it on was the lack of multiplayer. It was never an issue as the actual FPS mechanics weren’t anything special, and it was the isolation and the experience of exploring this strange world on your own that really drove me forwards.

It reminds me of Metroid Prime, where a fantastic sort-of FPS that was about exploring a strange new world by yourself was met with criticism for its lack of multiplayer. And sure enough, where Metroid Prime 2 came with a half-baked multiplayer, BioShock 2 is set to come with its own effort.

Back when Metroid did it, I can remember making the argument that multiplayer is completely at odds with what makes both Metroid Prime and the Metroid series as a whole great. The games, up until then, were all about being isolated on a hostile alien world, exploring while hunting and being hunted, and even when it moved into the first-person perspective those were still the ideas that carried it. It was never a shooter, in other words, and therefore didn’t need deathmatch, and that description pretty much entirely applies to BioShock as well.

Just look at where Metroid has ended up. Hunters and Prime 3 aren’t bad, but Samus and her bounty hunter friends don’t feel like Metroid to me.

I hate this need to clamour for the bullet point on the back of the box. It’s disrespectful to the effort that goes into crafting a rewarding single player, and while I could understand it if, say, a Call of Duty came without multiplayer, it’s wrong to say that every game needs it. Complaining that a story-led FPS doesn’t come with multiplayer is devaluing a great work in order to appeal to people who don’t appreciate the work that went into the game anyway, like criticising Schindler’s List for not having enough action scenes.

I don’t like to sound like a pretentious twat, which I think is somewhere that this argument comes dangerously close to taking me, but I really think there’s a point here. Starbreeze makes fantastic first-person adventures and has had a great reputation for this since the first Riddick game on the Xbox, and both subsequent releases in this vein, The Darkness and Assault on Dark Athena, have had, respectively, shockingly bad and mediocre multiplayer modes that nobody plays anyway. The people who appreciate the games have no interest in the multiplayer, and the people who would whine about the exclusion have games that they’d rather play in Call of Duty and Halo. Developers should save the money and make an even better story.

To me, this is another example of why games aren’t taken seriously, and it doesn’t help when the gaming media is often guilty of marking games down for not coming with multiplayer, continuing to mix up objective consumer advice and a review, because they’re not the same thing. Games are art, are they? Well then we’d better mark down Hamlet for not having any musical numbers.

Feature-Length Cut-Scenes?

OK, so the Metal Gear Solid series is hardly known for its subtlety and brevity in storytelling, what with several 20-minute scenes in MGS3 and… well… the whole of MGS2, but the reviews of MGS4 are blowing my mind. Some of the reviews, notably Edge, are claiming that the game has two extremely long cut-scenes.

That’s a bit like saying that Metal Gear has a big robot in it, of course, but word is that these sequences are pushing the 90-minute mark. And Konami doesn’t want reviewers to mention it.

In the interest of fairness, GamePro is saying that it’s an exaggeration. We’ll find out for ourselves in less than a fortnight anyway, but I’ve always had respect for Edge and can’t imagine that such a prestigious magazine – possibly the only gaming publication that I’d use that word to describe – would make a claim like this about such an important game without there being some truth to it. And would Konami really care if reviews mentioned that the cinemas were no different to the other multimillion-selling games in the series?

True or not, it brings up an interesting question about storytelling in games. Would having 90-minute cut-scenes actually help games as a storytelling medium, or does it undermine it and defer the job to the conventions of film? Half-Life tells a story within a game and BioShock does it even better, and the irony is that the part of BioShock’s story that attracted the most criticism was the least game-like part: the ending. Continue reading Feature-Length Cut-Scenes?

Best of 2007 #6: BioShock


I almost get the sense that BioShock is destined to be overlooked, coming before the big guns of the year and really before the Christmas season began. I hope that I’m proven wrong because it deserves all the more recognition.

Since I seem to be taking this list as an opportunity to nitpick the best games of the year as much as to celebrate them, I’ll say that the mechanics of BioShock left me slightly disappointed. It didn’t feel like the open-ended jazz solo with guns that it was made out to be, and the showpiece battles with the Big Daddies happened too frequently to be the events that they could or should have been.

Nonetheless, Irrational/2K Boston is clearly one of the best in the world when it comes to creating an environment. It’s here almost solely on the strength of Rapture, such a glorious creation that the beautiful and tragic underwater metropolis becomes the impetus to keep playing. The design is so inventive, so different to what we expect from games these days. It might seem like a strange comparison to make, but it reminds me of how the sense of place in Shenmue enabled me to overlook the flaws and want to spend time exploring.

Rapture makes this one of the most unsettling (not scary) and haunting games of the year. If you haven’t played it yet, don’t let the torrent of quality that we’ve had over the last few weeks overshadow it. It’s one of the best.