Sometimes, some things are just too good for their own good.
While that seems to be a contradictory statement simply on its own, it makes sense (but not too much sense) when you consider there are many things that haven't enjoyed any success when it is fully conceivable that they should. Critical success does not neccessarily mean popular success; sometimes art is made that is so advanced that the current generation can not accept it (the term avant-garde comes to mind). The public can only handle so much.
This may seem to be critical of the average layman, who can't be faulted for being who he is, a man--a laying man, at that. In that case, to put it another way (other than saying the public can only accept so much), beauty is the beginning of fear. You know that new sports car? That fancy expensive one, the one you fantasize about? If you buy that, you're going to worry about it all the time; you're going to worry about it being stolen, scratched, towed, and even targeted by malicious flying birds and their gooey excrement. You know that hot, attractive girl? The one you fantasize about all the time? Once she becomes your girlfriend ("oh yes, she will be mine") you may find yourself constantly worried that someone may steal her from you. Again: beauty is the beginning of fear, and some things are just too good for their own good.
While these two points aren't necessarily the same, the same point can be made: the public can only handle so much. So, that's where Bioshock lands, firmly on its capable and talented feet and stooping low to bend to the lowest common denominator so that even the most lay of the layest of layman will "get" this game.
Bioshock is a beautiful game that takes place in the undersea city of Rapture. Based on the philosophies of Ayn Rand, Bioshock is an exploration of Objectivism gone catastrophically wrong. In the game, a charismatic leader named Andrew Ryan founds the city of Rapture as a capitalist haven safe against influence and pressure from outside political and religious powers. Literally shut off from the entire world at the bottom of the ocean, the Objectivist experiment of Rapture fails due to internal problems; this is suggested due in part to Objectivist dogma where the scientist, artist and capitalist aren't constrained by ethics or morality.
This is quite an interesting basis for a story; furthermore, Bioshock would continue down the "interesting path" some more and spin a tale of betrayal, deceit and domination. However, the fantastic research and writing that went into making this video game comes at a price: it's too good for its own good.
When applied to video games many gamers could only shake their heads in disbelief. "How can a game be too good?" they may say. I suppose this can be someone asking how vanilla ice cream can be too vanilla-y, or how someone can have sex too often and have too many orgasms. Well, I can't complain about vanilla ice cream nor about orgasms that are too good to have, but there is something to be said about Bioshock: its story and game play are terribly unbalanced with each other. Bioshock can't make up its mind whether it wants to tell a story or let you blow things up; stuck as a compromise, Bioshock delivers an interesting story in a way only video games can tell at the cost of overpowered game play that is too easy even for the average layman.
The story is too good for video games. I admit this sounds insulting to all video gamers and layman everywhere, lying down, but when the news broke that Bioshock is getting the Hollywood treatment with "name" director Gore Verbinski attached, who made alot of money and fame making movies about a ride at Disneyworld, I suspect the excitement was mostly over the fact that the great story in Bioshock would finally get told properly - in another medium that can tell stories well.
How can a story be too good for a game? Well, the high quality of a story in a video game can be detrimental when the developers emphasize the importance of the story over everything else; what this does effectively is subvert every other aspect including game play, difficulty, and enemy selection. You know (you laymen guys), everything that makes a video game a game.
First, the game is entirely too easy. Of the three difficulty levels, the hardest level is about the same level as most other games' mild medium difficulty level; compared to a hardcore game like Ninja Gaiden, Bioshock's hardest difficulty level is on par with the former game's easiest difficulty level. Other elements add to this ease: the game pauses when selecting weapons or plasmids, basic enemies (splicers) are all the same and so similar stategies can be used against them throughout the game, weapons are upgradeable to over-powered status, after halfway through the game money becomes so easy to make that a 500$ maximum capacity is forced on the player (unlike my wallet in real life), a map and a directional arrow points to the objective so that getting lost in a level is an impossibility, and furthermore no penalty is ever exacted on the player for dying - the player is instantly resurrected at a Vita-chamber to redo a level until ultimately he succeeds.
Secondly, the game play is so unbalanced that not long after beginning you become a
unstoppable powered tank. The average enemy soon doesn't have a chance against the player, and in fact by the game's end you are pretty much just as powerful as the end boss. It appears the makers spent alot of time designing cool ways to blow things up real good that they forgot to give you a suitable opponent; while it may be argued that Big Daddies are tough mini-bosses, the truth is they don't appear often enough and once you learn the technique how to take down a Big Daddy quickly it actually becomes routine quite quickly. In fact, one of the biggest challenges in Bioshock is cycling through your weapons and plasmids regularly to use them all equally, whereas in most cases you'll stick with one familiar weapon and upgrade it to make short work of all splicers and Big Daddies.
The fact of the matter is that the game has been designed to be overly simple and easy for the simplest of laymen to ensure that absolutely anyone and everyone can make it to the end - to ensure that this story gets told, from beginning to end. In four (and a compound) words: great story, bad game play. This is the antithesis of most games that have a bad story but great game play. Video games have traditionally not had great stories because usually they have been about game play, the meat and back bone of video games.
Consider all the audio diaries scattered through each of the levels. When put together they weave together the complicated social tapestry of Rapture, a blend of unbridled ambition and treachery and despair. An interesting part of the story... that isn't an integral part of the game. In fact, listening to these audio diaries will commonly displace you from the immersion of the game, and in fact distract you from attacking enemies. These side-stories are entirely skippable for those who wish to simply blow things up.
And that's a problem too: as a straight-forward first-person shooter, Bioshock is strangely unsatisfying for not having unbalanced game play. Bioshock looks beautiful, sounds realistic for sound effects and dramatic for voice acting and has period songs of the era, and is a high class offering that should be a great video game - but it isn't as much fun as DOOM to shoot monsters and blow stuff up.
This is where Bioshock deviates from the norm (watch out, lying-down people everywhere!). As a game, it isn't much fun or challenging, but as a story and as a work of original art, it is fascinating and nuanced and fresh. As a top tier well-hyped video game with enormous production values, it's clear that sacrifices were made to this game to make it enjoyable and accessible to everyone; to anyone who has studied art knows, art is something that is for anyone, but not everyone. Bioshock could have been something really special and extraordinary, but instead we have something that allows the basest fan boy to blow stuff up.
This isn't to say Bioshock doesn't understand its medium and the limitations thereof; on the contrary, the single most genius fact of the design of Bioshock is the use of linearity. Long a bane of video game design, Bioshock whole-heartedly embraces linearity as the basis of the shocking twist at the game's mid-section. Without explaining it completely to encourage people to play it for themselves, the linearity of the game and lack of choice is used to turn the entire convention of video game stories on its head. This same type of head-turning convention was last used to great effect in "Shadows of the Colossus" (2005), in which, without the use of speaking script, the player realizes in horrifying dismay that the colossus you are slaying aren't evil - the sad, melancholic music that plays upon killing a colossus is in stark contrast to the happy, heroic music that plays when you finally mount them.
This perspective as a gamer progressing through levels to satisfy an objective only to realize, after the fact, the real ramification of what you have done can only lie within the realm of objective-reaching video games that feature a challenge/reward system that films, TV and books can't compete. However, films - the film adaptation of Bioshock, for example - aren't limited by the conventions and devices of video games and so aren't constrained in storytelling: films don't have power-ups, crates to smash and tutorials telling you how to cycle through your weapons. Unlike a video game, films have a set, finite duration of time and will finish whether or not you can kill the end boss who has cheap-ass attacks. Movies tell stories; video games are stories unto themselves that depend upon your mad video game skillz, layman or otherwise.
It is with this sad fact that the Bioshock movie, if it ever gets made, will be much better than the original video game and become the best video game adaptation ever made. This is not so surprising since Bioshock isn't as much a video game as it is a delightful story set awkwardly as a period piece masquerading as a first-person shooter. While its confusing that this story wound up being told first as a video game, it shouldn't be surprising that this video game was made as a first-person shooter - it's these fps games that get bought. Getting bought means money. And money is an end in itself that ensures compromise over integrity.
While we may never know to what end Bioshock was compromised, it's clear that the result is an unbalanced game that has a better story than its gameplay. For being innovative and challenging as a work of art in the field of video games is noteworthy, but laymen should now understand why I enjoy playing Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad more than this game. Chicks in bikinis using samurai swords to slice up zombies - now that makes a fun game; the movie... (Oneechanbara: The Movie (2008)) not so much.
There's hope for you yet, Bioshock.
Review: Pro's and Con's
+ great story - would you kindly get your foot outta my ass?
+ great visuals - water, that most intangible of elements, looks like water
+ atmosphere supports the story - immersive environment makes the 50's look hip again, no thanks to Marty McFly's dad
+ stuff blows up great - all underwater secret cities should have full tanks of flammable propane lying everywhere in case a video game gets made there
- way too easy - Bioshock has an invincable "god" mode - it's called default
- the movie will be better
- could have had more varied enemy selection, like that gigantic walking spider-thing mech from DOOM, but that wouldn't have "served" the story
- once again, the best weapon in the game - the crossbow - is also the most low-tech; development time spent on hells-yes plasmids may have been better spent on crowd favorite "2x4 with rusty nail hammered through it"
Rated: 3 out of three stars on basis of it being art (as a video game, just enjoy the explosions); but play it on hardest difficulty, finish it and reflect on why more games aren't like this one. Highly recommended - as a barometer of the quality of video games.
Played on the Xbox 360 - twice: once on medium difficulty then on maximum difficulty. Took more time to play than neccessary.