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Entries in BioShock (12)


Bioshock Defense Review

*To listen to a complete recording of this article download the MP3 podcast from the link at the bottom of the gray column to the right under Critical-Casts Download*

Being a critical-gamer means having a discerning eye not only for games, but for reviews and other pieces of game writing such as defenses. By not assuming a given argument is true, by questioning an challenging it even, we can gain a deeper understanding over the issues and of the speaker. In BioSchock: A Defense, Kieron Gillen responds to the negative backlash on BioShock. The defense, under a close examination, is a poorly constructed defense that speak smore to Gillen's irrate, confrontational state of mind than to BioShock. What is more interesting is how Gillen's defense reflects the shortcomings of BioShock through their shared structured and forced incoherency of meaning.

I'll start from the top and move through Gillen's defense. As an exercise, I recommend reading through the defense first, then react, question, and challenge the material for yourself before continuing to see how your critical eye matches with mine.


Page 1



"BioShock is amongst the most critically acclaimed games of the year. In terms of Metacritic average, its only peers are Super Mario Galaxy and Halo 3."


Gillen opens the Defense framing BioShock by its review success.

If you can't choke down the saccharine standard Mario world or aren't convinced that Halo's combat mechanics are anywhere near as elegant as its devotees make them out, you're highly unlikely to play them. There's much to hate in both games, but their fans simply don't care and those who aren't fans will never throw away forty quid for something that isn't to their taste.

Already, Gillen's hostile edge is revealed. Though he intends on defending BioShock, he spends his time needlessly attacking Mario and Halo. It's worth noting how Gillen comments on these two games. He refers to them in terms of other players potential views. Being "convinced" and "devotees make them out" reflect a betrayal of opinions from some kind of community. Because this defense is written in response to an online community's reaction to BioShock, it can be said that Gillen has trouble listening or accepting the opinion of others without taking offense or becoming upset. For Gillen, supporting Mario or Halo isn't simply a matter of a difference of opinion, it's a matter of love-hate and intelligence-ignorance: "There's much to hate in both." I'm not sure what place "hate" has in a defense with any semblance of argumentative merit. For Gillen, it seems that anyone who's not with him is an ignorant fan of the contrary who "simply [doesn't] care." Being a Mario and Halo fan, I didn't expect to be attacked in a BioShock defense.

In other words, a BioShock backlash was inevitable as it's new. People bought it on the strength of the reviews (and the hype - always, the hype) and then, when this random selection of gamers played it and compared their response to the ejaculate-smeared reviews, a larger proportion went "I don't think so" and pointed at the flaws.

Gillen claims that the negatve backlash to BioShock was a consequence of it being "new." I'm not sure what Gillen means by new or why he felt the need to italicized it. Aren't all games "new" when they are released? Even so, if BioShock has flaws, what does it matter when this "random selection of gamers" points them out. (Also, by calling these gamers "random" Gillen attempts to diminish their opinions simply because they disagree with his love of BioShock.) Would he have preferred these "random" gamers point out flaws before the game's release? And even if Gillen meant that the backlash was only created due to the "ejaculate-smeared reviews" that judged BioShock very favorably, isn't reacting to other seemingly exaggerated opinions, thoughts, and arguments precisely what Gillen is doing in this defense?

But a game having flaws doesn't mean the emperor has no clothes, and the prevalent forum attitude to BioShock has wandered so far away from its merits to require a stern riposte. That I haven't done so yet saddens me a little.

Gillen identifies the interpretive community as being from a particular game "forum." I believe the wandering "attitude" refers to the current trend in opinions on BioShock. What does it matter if the prevailing attitude of a game is negative especially if it is supported by valid arguments. It seems that Gillen is taking it upon himself to push BioShock's supposed merits to the forefront in order to ignore its flaws. Being "sadden" that BioShock's merits aren't discussed, only adds to how much he's taking the issue personally.

You see, I was surprised to find BioShock's not my favourite game of the year... When I think of BioShock, I have to wipe away pages of forum nit-picking and genuinely bitter pub-based rows before I can even start thinking about, at its best, how clever and elegant it is and how on its own grounds it makes everything else released in this incredible year for videogames distinctly second-rate. For most of this year, I've been too tired to actually do this.

Here Gillen claims that his mental state is so easily derailed from the forum's "nit-picking" and "bitter" comments, that he even has trouble thinking. What does it say about a professional game writer who gets shaken up so easily by comments on an internet forum? Furthermore, how can BioShock not be his favorite game of the year when it makes "everything else released in this incredible year for videogames distinctly second-rate?" Perhaps, Gillen couldn't think straight when writing this section. Such a simple contradiction reveals more about Gillen's psychological state than he may have been aware. Perhaps he cant' give BioShock game of the year because he knows its flaws and shortcomings better than anyone else, and he feels he has to lash out not only at the gamers who also think so but Mario and Halo fans as well. Perhaps being "tired" is his minds' way of keeping him from confronting this issue.

"But when the response to a patch with free new content is just a shrug and a bunch of whining over free stuff, I can't help but think we - as a community - need a good slapping and a reminder that we should be a little bit grateful. I'll start with more mechanistic stuff and head increasingly into the art"

Winning about "free stuff" is annoying, but there could be more to this situation that Gillen has let on. BioShock does have many glarring flaws and issues with its design that could have been addressed with the patch. If I were a huge fan of BioShock and these issues weren't addressed, I would feel that there would be room for some complaint. It's hard to know exactly what the issue was. Though, Gillen's hostility shows up again through his diction: "a good slapping." At least Gillen's approach is clear: "I'll start with more mechanistic stuff and head increasingly into the art"

This is a difficult one, because I'm pretty much incapable of reading a paragraph with it in without immediately, out of hand, rejecting the person saying as having anything worthwhile to say.

Gillen tells us himself how quick he is to react to bold statements against BioShock. Granted, this particular statement is thrown around too often without proper backing. I commend Gillen for taking the time to break down a bold surface statement, into arguable points.

1) It's easier to play.
2) A load of interesting options have been removed so it's a much simpler game.

The first one's true. BioShock is both a more accessible and easier game than System Shock 2. But "easier" doesn't have anything to with it being "dumber", and hating "more accessible" is just petty elitism from people who'd actually like videogames to be a ghetto consisting of them - especially when some of the things to make the game more accessible can be turned off. As long as point two's not true, then the former really doesn't matter.

The argument Gillen makes here is pretty sound. I would only additionally ask if easier "doens't have anything to do with being 'dumber'," then what does it have to do with? Structure? Design perhaps?

And the second's not true. Mechanistically, you can do just about everything you can in System Shock. What was removed was either irrelevant, actual flaws or replaced with alternative methods to allow similar expression. For example, pre-patch PC fans were angry there was no option to walk on the PC. But - y'know - walking is about allowing you to move quietly. You can move quietly through the crouch, signifying creeping. In terms of the tactics allowed by your player, you can do the same. It's annoying when the Xbox has it, but it doesn't remove options. There's no leaning around corners but - really - if you're looking around a corner you're visible, and functionally a tiny strafe and back does the same thing. (I'll concede losing the cover of a corner is regrettable, however.)

Examining the differences between System Shock 2 and BioShock by looking at mechanics and their function is a smart move. The two examples that were given are also apt. However, "mechanistically, you can do just about everything you can in System Shock" is a statement that forces us to presume Gillen has actually done the work of plotting out and comparing all the mechanics of the two games. We only get two examples here that speak to Gillen's work. I would have liked more examples. "What was removed was either irrelevant, actual flaws or replaced with alternative methods to allow similar expression." I would also have liked examples for each of these. Perhaps if this were a more formal defense, they would have been provided.



But that said, some of the elements which have been critiqued by the purists are actually more complicated than Shock 2. The hacking isn't BioShock's strongest point... but in Shock 2 it was literally pressing buttons with no relation to player skill whatsoever. The photo-based research is, mechanistically, more interesting than Shock 2's system of just finding the right chemical and dragging it to the right bit of the User Interface. Hell - stuff like the invention and the weapon upgrade system has no parallel in System Shock 2. The formalised role-playing statistics are removed, but a system where you can create a build for your character allows you to vary the character in meaningful ways. There's also the added bonus of increased verisimilitude due to things like weapons degradation and the requirement for a player to have a certain level of a skill before they can use certain weapons being cut. These are elements of Shock 2 which, frankly, most people thought were a bit rubbish.

I'm not convinced how BioShock being more "complicated" makes it better than System Shock especially in the face of detracting from its accessibility especially when Gillen took time to make accessibility a point for BioShock. Though the basic "out with the bad" of System Shock is clear from this section, I would like to know how taking photos is "more interesting" or what "meaningful ways" BioShock addresses character variability.

It's a different, quicker paced, easier game, sure... but in terms of allowable player expression, it's not in any way a dumber shock.



In other words, it's too easy. They've got a point.

Stop. This statement means more than "it's too easy." It speaks to the lack of structure within BioShock that creates an absences of consequence. This is the beginning of how BioShock deconstructs itself. In other words, the structures in BioShock create a game experience that severely undermines consequences and therefore the gameplay of Bioshock. Because the game medium's strength is its interactivity, this statement has potentially exposed a fatal flaw in the game. Gillen moves away from this critical point of analysis, successfully ignoring the reasons why BioShock fails as a game.

That said, the actual quoted argument doesn't really. On the surface, sure, but on closer examination it falls apart. Sure, if you abuse the Vita Chambers in such a way, eventually you'll complete the game. But why the hell would anyone want to do that?

Gillen tries to separate surface and close readings of the argument. I feel he was largely unsuccessful in his attempt. What's worse, his counter argument fails for the same reason he accused the stated argument of: "on a closer examination it falls apart." First he agrees the Vita Chambers can be "abused," but then his counter argument is "why the hell would anyone want to do that?" The answer is, because we can; because the designers gave us the power to; why not? A game writer such as Gillen should know that examining a game is less about what you can do, and more about what you can't do. In short, rules not only restrict options, but shape the gameplay experience. The game rules set up the game system, and the player seeks increasingly effective strategies to beat the game because, for a classically structured game, winning is the goal. Winning is everything.

The alternate in a relatively freely structured level game like BioShock - quicksaves - still means that any challenge in pretty much every game will be eventually overcome through growing player knowledge of the situation.

Gillen fails here to counter BioShock's poor gameplay structure. He tries to defend Vita Chambers by considering an alternative game-save structure: "quicksaves." He claims that quicksaves would still result in the player overcoming all challenges because of their "growing player knowledge of the situation." Gillen's couldn't see that learning the rules of the game or situation and eventually overcoming it is gameplay. This is how all games function as a result of death (losing) and having to play a section over again. Even if Gillen's counter argument were true, it doesn't speak to the lack of structure that would create consequences that in turn would create gameplay by encouraging the acquisition of the knowledge of game rules.

In fact, in a normal play-through, the Vita Chambers mostly work fine. I'd have preferred them a little less common to make them more of a encouragement to stay alive, but...The actual punishment is you losing the resources you spent in the engagement before dying.

Besides an almost negligible amount of backtracking from spawning in a Vita Chamber, Gillen states that the "punishment" or consequence for dying is "losing the resources you spent." First, losing resources isn't a consequence. Even in a shooter game, the consequence isn't losing bullets, but what will happens when you don't have any bullets. Also, even if not having ammo in BioShock was a consequence, the player always has access to a wrench that has infinite ammo. This wrench can also be powered up, which further undermines Gillen's claim. Second, the Big Daddy's, the toughest enemies in the game, don't regenerate their health if you're killed in battle and respawn in a Vita Chamber. Clearly, with a structure like this, there is no consequence for wrenching your way through the game. When the game's structure doesn't prevent gameplay like this with consequences, then there's nothing to discourage the player from doing it. If the developers allow such gameplay, then aren't we forced to consider it as one of the many ways the player can "express" themselves in the world of BioShock? Gillen's aggressive ("hell") rejection of such gameplay speaks to his own desires for the game he wished the developers at 2K Boston had made instead of the inconsequential open world game where everything goes. Open worlds or "freely structured level games" are illusions of gameplay. Gameplay, expression, and fun are created from limitations (according to the classical game model).

Of course, this is a fault in BioShock. But it's not a fault which you will necessarily hit, and it's a fault that's far more easy to avoid than the equivalent unbalancing in Oblivion. Just don't go crazy with the camera.

Once again, Gillen expects the player to impose restrictions and rules on themselves to remedy "faults" in BioShock. I don't believe it's the gamer's job to fix the developer's mistakes.

The first part's simple: When you find a tactic that works, many people stick with it. If they've got too many resources, there's not necessarily a need to experiment so they stick with it. And the game, logically enough, becomes really bloody repetitive.

Gillen attempts to address the player's tendency to ultimately try and win in the games they play. Instead of confronting BioShock's structure, he looks to the gamer for the source of the problem. At the same time, instead of looking at the game and himself, Gillen focuses on all the gamers who aren't playing according to how he feels is appropriate.

The second part's a little more complicated: I think some designers believe that players like to do interesting things in-game. BioShock is based around that - in that you're given a wide toolset, with lots of weapons and approaches and ways to improve your character and an environment to beat the baddies up with. Go have fun, says BioShock. But players aren't all - in fact, I suspect most aren't - wired to have fun in a world just because the tools are neat. They need to be pushed into doing neat things. Even if you haven't an excess of ammunition, there's simpler methods to taking people out rather than the more amusing ones. So they do them, and the game's repetitive.

Gillen reveals some of the supports for standard game design: "they need to be pushed into doing neat things." This is why games have to be designed. The player needs to be structured in a way where they have to learn and experience the game rules and apply that knowledge. Yes, most players (and people) aren't going to go out of their way to impose restrictions on themselves. That is the ultimate freedom; the freedom not to have to do anything else. Yes, this may become "really blood repetitive," but such is life. This is why restricting structures and consequences are so essential in game design. Gillen uncovered and explained this idea quite clearly, yet he still refuses to face the fact that BioShock isn't much of a game according to the fundamentals of human nature and game design principles.



It also picks up on the Meta level. You being programmed to kill on order is a critique of every linear shooter the world has ever seen. The final third widens it to everyone else - if you're stuck in a videogame, so is everyone else and... well, that's a really horrible thing. Even the (inevitable, in retrospect, but I was laughing at myself when I didn't see it coming) Protect The Little Sisters Escort sequence, if you've been following the fiction, has a resonance. Of course the girls are going to stop by each corpse. They can't help themselves, and your awareness of how they're trapped makes you falling into the role of protector make a lot of sense - you're fighting, on both levels, to end this videogame. Hell, you could expand that to the final uninspired boss sequence - this is what we're trying to get away from.

Gillen's comments on how BioShock "picks up on the Meta level" is a last ditch effort for Gillen to hold on to his wanning appreciation of BioShock (at least on an esteemed game-of-the-year level). His comments can apply to any game with a goal: "you're end this videogame."Considering the player's feelings and probable reactions falls more in line with Player Response criticism, but they can also speak toward the great imitative fallacy of videogame design. Like many other examples of Western game designed games, the experience is privileged over the gameplay. This is true of BioShock. Being forced to go through the same experience as the characters according to the game's story creates an illusion of immersion and parallel experience. Being forced to drive across a city in a game that is as large as a city in real life does create the feeling of driving across an actual city. However, driving in the game is also as boring. Creating an open world in a game does open up the possibilities for the player. Unfortunately, most of these possibilities are aimless, being lost, and worse, being bored. Classical game design focuses on limited scope from the outset of development, and easily avoids falling for these fallacies through the balance of mechanics, level design, and consequences. In the face of no consequential structures in BioShock, feeling "trapped" or the role of the "protector" ultimately detracts from the game.  

The truest critique of BioShock is that while it openly ridicules FPS conventions, it never finds a way from it. I'd say, so what? The argument needed to be posed, and BioShock is the first-person gamer working through its awkward adolescence. Hell, that it capitulates to the genre while seething at it probably might even make it some kind of gaming equivalent to Adaptation...

So what? We can't "so what" every valid criticism away. What Gillen does admit to is that BioShock is a game that exists in a state of "awkward adolescence." Mark Twain (Clemens) couldn't escape his own cultural biases when writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This speaks to the inability of Twain, the author, to understand his own situation. Because BioShock was created from many "authors," we can say that it is a failure of the developers to understand how to properly structure the game and its narrative. The answer is obvious. Game design. More specifically, Classical game design.

Is it acceptable to kill defenceless girls to stay alive, just because someone tells you do?

Perhaps it's acceptable for the same reasons playing with only the wrench his acceptable. There are no consequences for doing so.

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BioShock says no. The answer's just "No". It's not something with grey areas - if you do so, you're someone who prioritises your own existence over someone else's or an easily lead dupe. There's no moral excuse. You're an ethical monster, and are made of the same stuff of Fontaine. Or, alternatively, you're someone who treats it just as a videogame. You're not thinking about it at all, just the lovely Adam. In which case, yes, BioShock - a game that's furious that it's a videogame - doesn't think much of you either.

The commentary on ethics and morality is just weak here. What's wrong with treating a videogame as a videogame? By extension, if BioShock says it's wrong to do something, shouldn't there be consequences? Doesn't the lack of consequences in BioShock completely subvert every one of Gillen's claims that Bioshocks privileges morality over immorality? Sorry Gillen, but BioShock isn't "furious," and it's just a game. It's a game in which its story and gameplay (or lack thereof) conflict in the most detrimental way. Rapture was designed to be a world of freedom, a utopia even. But this same freedom in the game design created a world devoid of true expression as the lack of consequence destroys any meaningful action. What does mean to fight when you cannot die? BioShock tried to create a story with an overt morality, and yet being completely good or wholly evil yields almost the same resulting game experience (until the end of course). What results is the merging of right and wrong that falls apart almost as violently and inescapably and the flooding city under the sea.


With BioShock, the more you look, the more you see. The more you see, the more you have to think about. The more you think about, the more you understand the bloody thing. It's created, by far, the most novel setting for a mainstream videogame this year. Most importantly, while its narrative is of enormous importance to it, it never once betrays the medium. It doesn't - say - present Rapture in cut-scenes. It puts you in a room and puts things in a room and, by induction, you come to understand the place. This is what's most novel about games in relation to narrative - i.e. setting as narrative - and BioShock does it as well as anything ever has.

The more I look...the more I understand. This can be said for all visual mediums. It is nothing special to BioShock. The setting of Rapture is indeed quite interesting, but I wasn't aware that BioShock is a "mainstream" game. I wouldn't think a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 could be considered mainstream. Gillen claims that BioShock "never once" betrays the videogame medium. He continues by stating that Bioshock never presents Rapture to the player via cut-scenes. Gillen goes on to commend BioShock for letting the player understand the narrative through their own exploration of Rature. However, there are many scenes in the game where the player has limited or virtually no control. The story scenes in BioShock do play out in front of your eyes, however, because you can't interrupt or interact with them in any meaningful way, they might as well be cut-scenes. Apparently, Gillen thinks that interacting consistently through an entire game is the only way to stay true to the medium. But what about the hacking mini game? Not only does this diversion take players out of the setting of Rapture, but it also freezes time. If an splicer enemy is hot on your tail pelting you with attacks, when you activate the hacking mini game, they apparently politely wait for you to finish before resuming. Furthermore, "setting as narrative" is not what is most novel about games in relation to narrative. Interactivity is at the heart of the videogame medium. Therefore, interactive narrative is what is most novel about narrative in games (especially through refined game mechanics [Majoras Mask, Portal]).

People who are - say - against BioShock and in favour of Super Mario Galaxy (For the record, I love both), argue Mario is a purer game. It's not true. Mario, by dumping you in cut-scene after cut-scene you have to click tediously through, features an element which is a complete sidestepping of what games can and perhaps should be. I'd accept someone making an argument that Mario's a better game - but a "purer" one stinks of some kind of misplaced fascism. BioShock is nothing but game...BioShock believes in videogames and what videogames can be, and - if you go along with it - it'll take you to places we've never really been before.

Super Mario Galaxy is the best representative of Classical game design so far this generation. Because Classical game design privileges interactivity and gameplay, elements at the heart of the videogame medium, it is without question more "game" than BioShock could ever be no matter how many patches it goes through. His claim of Galaxy's excessive amount of cut-scenes is brash and unfounded. Gillen, games should be games. Narrative and story shouldn't come at the expense of interactivity, design, and gameplay.

What "stinks" here is how your defense has fallen apart.

I'm not convinced that hitting criticisms straight on is the way to defend BioShock. At best, you sound just as anal as the people you're arguing against. At the worst, you end up, as I did above, just calling some people ignorant. But sometimes people's positions are ignorant, and when you are, you've got no recourse but to say so.

In the end, BioShock is an overly ambitious game that fails to make a world with consequences, and therefore failed to create a game. Like the game, Gillen fails to defend BioShock as his own arguments worked toward revealing BioShock's deficiencies and exposing his own insecurities with the "game that could"... have been great. Like the game, Gillen practically swears by a morality that doesn't exist. It doesn't matter whether the player play the game without stopping to take in the scenery, listen to the recordings, do anything but wrench die and repeat, or harvest every little sister he/she comes across. The illusion of the utopia of Rapture is reflected in the insignificances of the gameplay. Without consequence there's not real strategy or expression. Like Fontaine's failed promises, BioShock's player customization is completely undermined in execution. Ryan used the dollar to motivate the goingson in Rapture. Similarly, Gillen admits to writing this defense for the money: "(And Tom offered me cold hard cash)." Like how the final third of BioShock fell flat, so did the final third of Gillen's defense. BioShock couldn't escape the FPS conventions, and Gillen couldn't escape misplacing his anger for BioShock on the gamers and other games such as Mario. Gillen boldly questions what kind of player I am. He invites me to question if I'm an "ethical monster" made of the same "stuff as Fontaine" And yet, he ended up the same as the people he criticized: "At best, you sound just as anal as the people you're arguing against. At the worst, you end up, as I did above, just calling some people ignorant."
"A BioShock backlash was inevitable. As was a backlash to the backlash."


As was my analysis.

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