I finally finished Bioshock. Only, what, three years late? I've got some thoughts about it, but if you, like me, are a slowpoke, do yourself a favor and do not look below the jump. There are spoilers galore and I find the game is very much enhanced on the first play by not knowing the twist(s). I managed to stay unspoiled for those three years (I don't know how), and I recommend you do the same.
So seriously, if you haven't finished it, walk away now.
First things first: yes, I liked it. The world of Rapture is brilliantly realized and the atmosphere is incredible. Just when you start to forget where you really are, you come to a window, slowly leaking, with fish swimming by. Brilliant! And the art-deco, hint-of-steampunk aesthetic is perfectly executed, as so many before me have articulated.
The first time I played any of the game, it was new, and I was using an ex-boyfriend's 360. I played about the first hour, and I was amazed -- really, very blown away -- by how you could look around during nearly all of the cut-scenes. That level of interactivity was great. And I knew the game had hooked me when very early on, I went down a flight of stairs next to a theater, saw a cut-scene with a Big Daddy happening in the room next to me, and ducked down to watch it from behind a pillar. I knew it was a cut-scene, I knew it couldn't hurt me, and yet still I was compelled to protect myself as much as I could.
That, I thought, meant the game had done it right. But no: when I really knew the game had done it right was when I was playing through those opening stages again now, three years later, and I still hid behind the pillar, even knowing in advance how that would turn out.
I thought the interactivity was neat. But I didn't realize it would end up being a meta-criticism tool until I reached the end of Hephaestus. Wow, Hephaestus.
The night before I got to that part of the game, my husband asked me what I thought about it and about the characters so far. I told him I never entirely trusted mysterious guiding voices on the other end of a radio, especially when I hadn't met them in person -- so that I was dubious about Atlas's motives and intentions. Score one for me on that front, haha. But I never actually expected to meet Andrew Ryan.
And I never expected to kill Andrew Ryan.
The concept of interactivity as the defining point of games-as-art has come up a lot lately in gamer circles. (Thanks, Roger Ebert!) And Bioshock is the game, I think, that really makes the point. They give you the freedom of motion, and of perspective. They draw you in by letting you explore the (admittedly linear and constrained) world pretty thoroughly and then, right when you're really grooving on the theme... they take it away.
"A man chooses! A slave obeys!"
And right then, when you most want to make a choice, when you, the player (and possibly the character), most want to walk away (or at least, want neatly to dispatch of Ryan with a single, well-aimed shot), you lose control of the game. You're forced in to a first-person cut-scene. You can't skip it, and you can't look away, and Ryan orders you to kill him, slowly and messily, with a golf club.
The import of that scene really hit me the day after I played through it. I had a feeling almost like a betrayal, or a disappointment. "The game wouldn't let me do it my way," I thought. It rankled. And I loved and hated, all at once, that I could tell the designers designed it for me to feel that way. I'd been played, just like our man Jack.
And that, for me, showcased the brilliance of interactivity in gaming. It's not just a feature; it's a tool. It's the core of it all. And by playing with those tools the same way the artists of the 1960s played with the actual, physical medium of their film, to bring awareness, the designers of Bioshock have indeed brought another layer of artistry to gaming.
And I'll thank them not to do it again. :-P
I think the next frontier of gaming is going to be about authentic, actual player choice. Games like Bioshock actively comment on the player's ability to affect the narrative (or lack thereof). Although there are two different possible endings, that's it. There's the binary option. A Heavy Rain wants you to feel that you have truly, deeply meaningful choices to make and, on a first play-through, that works. But the second you revisit the game to see alternate endings, make a better decision for a character, or round out achievement trophies, you begin to see the pattern of just how truly pre-scripted most scenes are. Even the scenes where you can fatally lose one of your four protagonists. A Fallout 3 lets you be good, evil, or neutral. The Mass Effect games let you be a paragon or a renegade. Games of the Fable ilk give you similar binary choices.
Gaming in 2010 still bears the artistic and technical legacies of the very first "if, then" programming statements. In some ways, almost nothing has changed since the Mean Streets era but the packaging: the graphics, environments, and sound.
We've come to the point where we're mastering the graphics and even 3D. The next technical frontier will be one of true interactivity, and meaningful player choice. So we and our characters can be real men (and women).