“What we’re trying to do is to redefine what it means to be a first person shooter. Our goal is to put a stake in the heart of all those clichés you’ve been playing for years in first person shooters. Linear corridors. The very static environments. And the Cookie cutter AIs. Now, we understand that that’s a pretty lofty goal. And it will really be up to you guys [gamers] to decided if we succeed.” Ken Lavine, creative director of BioShock.
Between BioShock’s story and its gameplay, there is more than enough material to fill multiple Structuralist essays. The transfer of masters from Atlas to Ryan to Fontaine to Tenenbaum and finally to a little sister is an obvious structure that governs both the story of BioShock and the narrative of the gameplay. Instead, I’ll spend my time analyzing the structures and their functions within BioShock’s shooter style gameplay to illustrate that the game Lavine created deconstructs itself revealing a product that is more comparable to an RPG than a modern shooter.
On the surface, BioShock appears to feature many of the same structures as a conventional FPS. Guns. Shooting. Strafing. Crouching. Players collect several types of guns that are analogous to the conventional repertoire of FPS ordnance: Pistol. Machine gun. Shotgun. Grenade launcher. Sniper. In battle players take on humanoid enemies called splicers. Like any FPS, head shots do more damage than chest or limb shots. And like any FPS, collecting and conserving rare and powerful ammunition is key to having the power to take on strong adversaries.
When these structures are put into the context of the game, however, they shape the gameplay towards functioning more like an RPG than a first person shooter. Like many Japanese RPGs, characters have a variety of attacks that generally fall into three categories. Attack. Tech/items. Magic spells. In BioShock the wrench is the players attack function. This object represents the most basic type of attack, and, likewise, is inexhaustible. Guns are like items or technical machines that have limited used. The only difference between these items and spells in a traditional RPG is that they draw from separate types of “ammo.” Items usually are collected by quantity with each unit representing a single use. Spells usually require the magic points, consuming a fixed amount per spell. In BioShock all plasmids draw from a supply of Eve, which are functionally analogous to magic points. The guns of BioShock consume ammunition. Like items each bullet has a one time use, and each type of ammunition is compatible with a specific gun.
One of the dominant strategies for battling enemies in almost every RPG is one I call “attack-attack-heal.” This strategy involves exchanging blows with your opponents and healing when your health falls too low. This strategy is also present in BioShock. Unlike conventional shooters like Halo3 or Call of Duty 4 in which players regenerate their health as long as they‘re not attacked for a shot period of time, in BioShock when a player is injured they stay injured until they do something about it. Without the ability to carry around health restoring food (gin, beer, chips, cream-filled cake, pep bar, scotch, vodka, whiskey, or wine) or any healing spells, First Aid Kits are the most convenient method of healing. This strategy is encouraged and made convenient by the “b” button that is exclusively designated for healing (based on the Xbox360 control scheme). Because the level design doesn’t create an effective cover system against the various types of assailants, taking hits is as unavoidable as falling into such an RPG like healing pattern.
After battling splicers or Big Daddy’s, players can examine the fallen bodies to obtain items or money. One routine that is quickly and easily established in BioShock involves searching these bodies to retrieve any goods they might hold. This routine mirrors being rewarded with money and items after battle that is found in nearly all RPGs. Furthermore, the ability to examine nearly every container in BioShock for small rewards, leads players into developing the habit of systematically checking every object in every room. Because BioShock has no consequence for such a meticulous habit, there’s nothing to discourage the player from this routine.
In BioShock characters can customize their abilities through four types of slotted upgrades: Plasmids, Physical Tonics, Engineering Tonics, and Combat Tonics. This feature is analogous to equipping armor or other accessories to increase player stats. Also, in BioShock players can level up the offensive power of their weapons by repeatedly photographing various creatures of Rapture: “Taking enough pictures will give you various bonuses against the type of creature you’re photographing.” This function is similar to grinding in a traditional RPG.
In the later stages of many RPGs, the separate functions between attacks, spells, and items begin to merge into one another. Some weapons will have magical properties allowing the player to strike and deliver the effects of a spell. Some items work like one time use spells. And some spells are just a series of physical attacks. In BioShock, the same overlapping of functions occurs. Some Physical Tonics offer bonuses for taking and dishing out physical damage: “Bloodlust heals your body and your mind as you swing. Be red in tooth and claw with Bloodlust.” Another tonic gives the player the ability to automatically shoot out an electric blast when he/she is struck by a physical attack. This blast has the same effect as using the Eletrobolt plasmid. There is also an upgrade that gives the wrench attack a random chance of freezing enemies. These upgrades that merge attacks and plasmids are analogous to the merged attack and magic functions from a traditional RPG. The Chemical launcher (tech/item) is a weapon that can launch fire, electric gel, and freeze gel, all three of which act like their respective plasmid (magic). The electric buck shotgun ammunition functions as a shotgun shot and the Electrobolt plasmid. The exploding buck overlaps with the Incinerate plasmid much in the same way. This overlap of function deemphasizes the design put into the separation of Eve consuming plasmids versus ammunition consuming weapons.
In BioShock the player can only carry 9 Eve hypos (refill packs) at a time: “An EVE Hypo fully fills your EVE bar, so that you can use your Active Plasmids.” This puts a limit on how many times the player can use any active plasmid ability. Eve Hypos are much harder to come by than food, First Aid Kits, and money. This scarcity naturally developers into a lack of EVE, a lack of using Plasmids, or players that use their plasmids cautiously. Also, the player is limited to how many different types of plasmids they can carry and use at one time. Until the player expands their plasmid slots, they’re stuck with a very limited number. It is common toward the beginning of the game for players to regret switching out one plasmid for another after coming across a plasmid specific event. Such a balance of limitations increases the significance of character customization. However, the overlap of plasmid functions in BioShock’s weapons deconstructs this balance. Because each weapon and each type of ammunition has separate (and generally higher) limits of use than plasmids, which draw from the same “ammunition” source (Eve), the dominant strategy shifts towards the heavy use of weapons over plasmids.
Finally, like most RPGs, BioShock features an overly ambitious story that is presented to the player in a way that is mostly separate from the significant functions of the gameplay. Unlike conventional shooters, and much like most RPGs, BioShock forces the player to run around the city of Rapture performing odd ball tasks. Throughout the game the player is a servant to their current master. Run and get this. Go and get that. Take a picture of him. Go kill her. The majority of the objective based gameplay structures fall under a few types. Fetch quest. Escort mission. And defend the zone. Though the latter two types are conventions for many modern first person shooters, the majority of the missions structurally are fetch quests, a mission type that are common in RPGs.
Ken Levine set out to “redefine” the first person shooter. He made sure to pack the game with many shooter like elements. However, in the end, BioShock plays more like a conventional Role Playing Game than a revolutionary First Person Shooter.