For a New Classical critic the degree to which a game’s formal elements promote its primary function is a measure of its success. Such a critic views all games through the lens of the principles found in Classical game design whether a game is made under a Classical or Western design. When approaching a New Classical critique of BioShock, I ran into a number of issues. Because Western designed games prioritize game-story and the overall “experience” over its gameplay and mechanics, I had to consider if a New Classical critique misses the core of such games? On the other hand, I had to consider if I had enough experience to critique BioShock’s experience or story otherwise. With games borrowing from various other mediums (books, music, theater, movies), wouldn’t assessing a game’s overall experience require at least a working knowledge of these fields? For the purposes of this essay, I will begin with a New Classical critique of BioShock, and then move into a more free discussion of my BioShock experience in relation to other mediums (books & movies).
Hacking. Examining. Shooting. Listening. Photographing. BioShock equips the player with a variety of actions. Being classified as a shooter, shooting is indeed the primary function in BioShock. For BioShock, shooting includes anything from unleashing plasmids, launching ballistics caught with telekinesis, striking targets with a wrench, and shooting any guns. Between splicers, security bots, security turrets, Big Daddys, and the final battle with Ryan, battle is where the player finds the most meaningful encounters in the game. Comparing the range of functions by frequency of use and necessity (what’s necessary to complete the game) the hierarchy of functions is as follows:
- Listening/Playing recordings
Now that the primary and subsidiary functions have been identified, I’ll examine how BioShock’s formal elements promote or demote shooting. Open sources of water, puddles of oil, chunks of ice, short circuited devices, security cameras, and security turrets are all designed to promote the use of specific plasmids: “Turrets can be hacked when they are unaware of you, or when Shocked or Frozen.” By shocking the water with the Electrobolt plasmid, players can electrify multiple enemies at once. Short circuited devices can be shocked into action. Puddles of oil can be ignited by using the incinerate plasmid to create a flaming barriers. Likewise, ice can be melted. And security cameras and turrets can be frozen or shocked to temporarily disable them. In a Classically designed game, these functions would be used throughout the game their combinations, frequency, and arrangement gradually increasing in complexity by creating new strategies and objectives by layering their simple functions. However, after the first few hours into the game, these formal elements either became obsolete shortly after their introduction (igniting oil), were rarely encountered (melting ice), or became a dominant strategy used in the majority of encounters (shocking cameras and turrets).
The enemies in BioShock function as dynamically moving targets that fight back, run away, and even use healing stations to repair battle wounds. Though some enemies have more obvious strategies to dispense of them with like using telekinesis against a Nitro splicers, BioShock fails to create situations that promote the use of a specific guns/plasmids by failing to offer any kind of consequence or punishment for doing otherwise. Just about any weapon out of your walking arsenal can be used on any enemy at any time. In this way, many of the functions of the plasmids and weapons overlap demoting the potential variety of weaponry. BioShock seems to have attempted to create an open world where the players aren’t restricted to having to complete a challenge in a specific way. However, by failing to promote the use of specific weapons/plasmids, there is no incentive for the player to deviate from a strategies that use a limited selection of weapons from their arsenal. In other words, BioShock isn’t structured to curb or alter some of the dominant strategies found early in the game. For the majority of splicers, the dominant strategy is strafe and shoot. For turrets, bots, and cameras the strategy is to zap and hack.
The Big Daddy encounters initially serve to break up the monotonous application of the existing dominant strategies. The Bid Daddy’s non scripted free roaming AI allows for them to show up just about anywhere you can go. Fighting one is much tougher than fighting a splicer because they feature a boost in defensive and offensive abilities. A simple “strafe and shoot” strategy or a “zap and slap” (electrobolt then wrench) doesn’t cut it. To topple these foes, players have to utilize their more powerful weapons and ammunition. Strategies like laying mines down in the Big Daddy’s path or using the Target Dummy plasmid require the player assess their enemies as well as their environment. I wouldn’t be surprised if most players find the Bid Daddy battles the highlights of the game as they represent the deepest combat (shooting) in the game. Unfortunately, the significance of the various plasmids and guns is demoted somewhat because of the function of the Vita-Chambers. Because these chambers take away the penalty of death from battle, the base level of play needed to overcome the majority of encounters in the game consists of “wrench, die, repeat.” This strategy revolves around the conservation of ammo instead of the efficient use of time.
The level design in BioShock functions more toward creating the dystopic setting of Rapture than an environment where the mechanics of shooting can be fully realized. With the Big Daddy’s roaming the halls and splicers scavenging through the corridors of their broken world in nearly every nook and crevasse, a battle can take place practically anywhere. Because Rapture was designed as a city (a series of open rooms and halls), most of the battles exist in open environments. You won’t find many objects to hide behind for cover. And even when you do, the enemies aren’t designed to recognize that you’re in cover. The splicers, security bots, turrets, and Bid Daddys attack the player in, more or lest, a direct-straight-line approach. When these enemies appear to be flanking the player or using any other kinds of battle tactics, it is merely the uncoordinated result of being attacked at once from many different sides. Even the few battles that are staged (Coen’s attack, defending Tenenbaum’s research facility, the magma room in Hepheastus, etc.) also take place in environments that lack adequate cover, visual flow, and physical flow that communicate the dynamics of power struggle from the changing positions between the player and enemy that are commonly found in shooter games.
Because the combat strategy isn’t very deep, there is a limit to how much the sound design of BioShock can support it. In other words, the sound design can’t create a level of depth that exceed the depth and involved in shooting (or any other function). The splashing sound from stepping into water alerts players that they’re standing in a puddle or pool which can lead into an electrobolt attack strategy. The foot steps on the ground or ceiling can communicate enemy position when their position isn’t visible. However, the soundscape often falls apart in the heat of battle when the environment, yelling enemies, gun/plasmid sounds, gun turrets, and audio recording all melt into a horribly unbalanced chaotic experience, which in itself is often reflective uninspired gallimaufry of combat mechanics.
A New Classical critic considers BioShock’s story and narrative elements to be inconsequential because they don’t effect “shooting” in a meaningful way. The vast majority of what Ryan, Atlas, Fontaine, Tenenbaum, or any other citizen of Ratpure says provides little information that shapes how you combat targets in the game. Thus the primary function is unsupported by the story. For that matter, the subsidiary functions are largely unaffected by the story of BioShock, because there are no consequences for excessively examining, hacking, taking photos, listening to recordings, or watching the world unfold around you. There are no drawbacks to examining and taking anything you find. The player only has strength to gain from excessively taking pictures of enemies. To cushion the consequence of not having film to complete the few objectives that require the player to take pictures, the game finds ways to supply the player with film before it’s necessary. Even when Ryan discourages hacking public vending machines, the player knows he/she can continue hacking away at any machine they can get close too because that’s what they’ve been doing since the beginning of the game: “It has been brought to my attention that some citizens have discovered ways to…hack the vending machines…Parasites will be punished.” What is necessary for beating the game isn’t that you’re helping to complete Coen’s masterpiece, but that you follow the golden arrow to the next enemy, photo-op, or object you have to examine so you can progress to the end of the game.
After reading that last paragraph you might be just about ready to dismiss my entire essay altogether. Am I actually suggesting that BioShock’s story and setting don’t matter to the game? In some ways, yes. But writing in a New Classical mode, my assessment of BioShock is limited to what works for the game (the actual interactive experience bound by rules, challenges, and consequences). This is why it was necessary to define the primary and subsidiary functions of BioShock. However, I would be doing this essay a great disservice if I didn’t address BioShock’s story or narrative from view point somewhat removed from the New Classical mode. Many swear by the depth, mature subject matter, and complexity of BioShock‘s story. Personally, I’m much more skeptical about “high concept” stories. As a writer, I’ve come across more than my fair share of overly ambitious stories filled with “deep” and complex ideas that ultimately fail because of poor execution. I’ve learned that part of understanding how to write a good story is understanding the strengths and limitations of the writing medium. “Show don’t tell” was a popular meme throughout the various workshops I attended. “Show don’t tell” means instead of telling us that character X went to the store and spent 5 minutes picking out bananas, it’s better to “show” or describe this character at the store standing in front of the crate of bananas with her arms crossed, her eyes darting back and forth relentlessly between two signs: organic 2.99/lb and yellow 2.89/lb. A proper description placed in scene (time and space) works wonders for the reader’s ability to visualize and absorb the story more naturally. But the gaming medium is inherently different, which brings up interesting issues.
Unlike passive mediums like books, music, and movies, videogames are interactive. “Show don’t tell” would more appropriately be replaced with “play don’t show” or even “play don’t tell.” This is why cut scenes are generally frowned upon. Back in the generation of Sony’s Playstation, cinematic cut-scenes where often spliced into games, particularly RPGs like Final Fantasy VII. These scene not only were graphical leaps beyond the blocky, jagged, polygonal models that the actual game used, but they often displayed daring feats of action packed heroics that the gameplay couldn’t match either. Now, our current generation of systems are powerful enough to push such graphics, and many of our leading developers are smart enough to make the most spectacular feats possible through simple and intuitive mechanics. Because of these two advancements in game design, cut scenes are becoming more and more obsolete. Ken Levine, creative director of BioShock, said himself that cut scenes were the “coward’s way out.” The New Classical critic believes the same tenets. For such a critic, it is better that the story elements in the game support the gameplay than merely coloring it, but it is best that the story is what the player plays. Of course, by play I mean meaningful interactions. Having the freedom to move your characters eyes or even walk around during “story parts” isn’t very meaningful (unless the game‘s primary function is looking/walking of course). For interaction rooted in subsidiary functions, the range of player control can easily fail to be meaningful and therefore detract from the effectiveness of the story telling. Furthermore, if there is no reaction or interaction between the player and elements or fictional computer controlled characters in the scene, then these story scenes are functionally passive. This is why a New Classical critic seeks to delineate exactly what ways a game’s story supports its primary function. Because the primary function is the driving mechanic of a game, it most likely will achieve meaningful interactions because of the consequences already built into the game. Bridging story and function in this way yields the highest chance of creating consequential and interactive story in a videogame.
So if BioShock story doesn’t support its game Classically, then how else can we consider it? I believe it is helpful to consider BioShock’s story in two parts: premise and narrative. The premise includes all the details and facts about Rapture that occur chronologically before the beginning of the game. The narrative includes all the new events and actions that the player prompts from progressing through the game. Considering these two parts of BioShock’s story, I’ll first consider BioShock’s story as if it were a book.
As a book, BioShock’s story falls for a few fiction writing “don’ts.” BioShock sets the story (premise) in the city of Rapture and describes this city through a series of audio recordings. When the player enters the game, their experience composes the narrative as they actively progress through the setting and events in the game. As for the recordings, they fail to show rapture. Rather, the majority of the recordings of the various characters literally tell the player what happened. BioShock is a game that excessively switches back and forth between what has happened in the past and what is going on in the present. This incessant switching is analogous to frequently using flash backs in fiction writing. Doing this not only weakens the readers sense of time and place within a story, but it also weakens the ability draw strong connections through scene, space, and time. In other words, it’s hard to achieve sound, and compelling story telling when the past (the context) is ostensibly given to you right before you need to know it. Examples include Suchong’s recording about the telekinesis plasmid; McDonagh’s recording about seeing ghosts; LangFord’s recording about how the thieves stole nearly everything from the office. Besides the examples of recording closely preceding their context within the narrative, the other recordings usually contain general information about Rapture that the player is responsible for filing away somewhere. When the story of the game punctuates the alternative experiences (the narrative), the player is left to organize things for themselves. During the course of the game, the player has to keep track of the narrative of their play experience, the bits of story that give immediate context to the next objectives, and the bigger picture of how Rapture fell. Managing these three stories would be hard enough in a book that‘s read linearly. But opens up the progression of listening to these recordings. The player must find the abandoned ACCU VOX personal recorders on their own. This feature practically destroys the chance of the player following an order to listening to these recordings if one existed.
I believe the main reason for shuffling these “flash back memory recordings” into the game was because BioShock exists between two mediums (at least for the purposes of this particular analysis). BioShock is a game that essentially sets characters in the middle of the climax of Rapture. By destroying Ryan and then Fontaine, the player is the prime participant in the great and violent coups of Rapture. Unfortunately, the entry point in the game had to be at such a high action point. Being place in a time where Rapture is rampant with splicers, Big Daddy’s, security bots, turrets, and other such dangers makes the game more interesting to play especially in the context of the shooter genre. However, starting the narrative where it does presents a problem. The players have to somehow understand the exposition, which traditionally contains more information and material than the climax. This simple flip-flop of structure creates a strain on the story telling in BioShock that the developers had to find a way around. Setting the game before Rapture went crazy can’t be played like a shooter. Guns weren’t even allowed during those times. Such a decision would have changed the entire genre. With the limitations set by the video game medium and the book medium, BioShock falls awkwardly in between.
Considering the story as a movie, BioShock also falls into awkward space for the same reasons that it failed as a book. The exposition had to be made up after the start of the game, and the intercalary recordings failed to show visually the expository events. Indeed the game contain rich settings powered by an acute artistic style. However, what makes the setting most interesting is that human hands created it. The drive, inspiration, purpose, and reason behind Raptures conception stems from the dastardly Ryan. Seeing the world makes us wonder what kind of man Ryan really is, and what kind of people could/would live in such a place. Yet, the scenes involved the sane human characters are all gimped or truncated in some manner. Tenenbaum speaks to the player from a balcony in their first encounter. Toward the end of the game, Tenebaum could be seen smoking peacefully behind tinted glass. Besides these brief moments, Tenebaum (like most of the characters) hid behind their voices via the recordings scattered throughout Rapture. The encounter with Langford was also behind a veil. When attempting to save Atlas’ family, Atlas could only be seen from far away. And when Fontaine went mad throwing around large heavy objects with his new found plasmid strength, he was little more than a darkened silhouette. The encounter with Ryan before his death, the two dancing splicers, and smaller moments from the events in Fort Frolic are better examples of film-like scenes. However, these scenes don’t balance out the amalgam of insufficient story telling elements.
In the end, BioShock isn’t much of a shooter, and it doesn’t have much of a story. Years of sweat, radical ideas, and good intentions fell apart in their execution much like Rapture did. Even if BioShock’s story can’t be considered as a book, movie, or a game in the terms that New Classical critics adhere to, it is useful to analyze BioShock from these angles. Ultimately, creating a mood and throwing in a bunch of ideas into a work without consideration of how they come together or how they’re executed is taking the easy way out rather than crafting a narrative that takes advantage of a particular medium. I’m not convinced that the execution (story) of BioShock is as good as anyone says. BioShock would have probably made a better book than a game.