on August 5, 2013
Bioshock is a transcendent piece of workmanship. It is a whole package of arts from many media: visual design, architecture, acting, literature, direction, music, sound design, choreography, narrative, pathos, humor, emotion, philosophy... In my opinion, all art, regardless of media, is judged by only one criterion: how well it immerses the audience. It is highly difficult for a videogame to work well with all of the artistic elements it must from other media, but when it can, results are breathtaking. For videogames have an artistry trump card should all other elements come together brilliantly -
The audience affects them.
I can't begin to say how much this can add to the immersive experience of art. Fallout and Deus Ex and a handful of other games have had a marriage of elements that made in-game actions true epiphanies and sometimes truly difficult decisions, but no game has had quite such a successful integration of the arts and interaction as Bioshock.
To start, the world of Rapture, the undersea self-governing utopia of the late 1940's, is as fully realized as a fictional arena can be. The narrative begins with a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic. As the only apparent survivor, you swim to the only nearby shelter, a skyscraping spire jutting out of the sea. Upon entry, you're greeted by the larger-than-life bronze bust of the larger-than-life antagonist of the tale, Andrew Ryan. His austere face hangs just above a placard which succinctly states the vision of his that became reified with the construction of Rapture, "No Gods or Kings. Only Man." A later banner declaring "Altruism is the root of all wickedness" rounds out Ryan as a man whose will is singular and formidable and who believes that man's progress truly comes through serving one's self. I don't wish to divulge much more of him. He's somehow omnipresent. His dream world that became as abyssal as the ocean in which it sits, is clearly his world, a full manifestation of one man's vision. Ryan pulls off complexity in a singular character with aplomb. However much you might hate him, you admire him in equal measure. He's an iconic villain, who is actually able to perhaps shake your long held beliefs with surprising charisma, gaining with sheer will your empathy.
Ryan's dream is an art deco, mid-19th century cityscape with impeccable design. Neon signs with bold lettering mark every locale. 40's style public service announcements chime through speakerphones, littering propaganda from Ryan's mind and often featuring a domineering man speaking to an unsure woman as though she were a neurotic child. Heavy, steam-powered machinery powers the city, replete with worn and bulky looks of the period's real engineering. Posters of idealized men and women from the age paint the walls with advertisements for the newest products and services. A highly curvaceous and opulent architecture is present throughout; it's beautiful, beautifully realized and extremely cohesive. There are even cases in which period music plays, from Perry Como, Billie Holliday, and others, used to better effect than almost any feature film soundtrack.
The atmosphere is complete and compelling, but clearly crumbling. Hypnotizing trickles and even larger floods of water flow in through cracks of the foundation, most places are unkempt, or in ruins. There's evidence of a struggle between Ryan and an enterprising businessman named Fontaine. You find out about his smuggling ring whose importing of the "parasitic" ideals that Ryan so abhors caused a war between the two men over philosophical matters and financial ones. "Adam," discovered in Rapture and studied by parties supported by the two men, is a substance that changed Rapture, by allowing the grafting of stem cells that can radically rewrite DNA sequencing to give a man or woman virtually any characteristic they so desired.
A war over Adam is taking place. Fontaine and Ryan fought over its rights and nearly everyone else is fighting to obtain it, and as much as they can. Homemade weapons dot the underwater fortress. Genetically altered quasi-humans walk the city, ever searching the premises for Adam as though it a powerful drug, hurting and killing for it.
Inhabitants exhibit behaviors that are powerfully disturbing. They retain and relive memories of their former lives, giving hints of the trials and tribulations they faced before becoming hideously disfigured in every sense of the word. Some seem like they were broken of their former ways by force, some seem to have arrived by greed or the jealous need to usurp, some seem to have fallen in because of tragedy, and still others, such as the Little Sisters, were simply bred into their monsterhood.
Little Sisters are Rapture's Adam harvesters, and while the game allows for numerous and wonderful player choices in terms of evincing enemies, Little Sisters provide the moral choices. Your guide, a man named Atlas, encourages you to harvest them for the Adam they posses so that you might be better able to survive with the improved genetics by killing the filthy girls with glowing eyes, strolling through the halls with a syringe drawing the blood from corpses they call "angels." The woman scientist who developed the children asks you not to do so, but givesno immediate reward. The system creates a great dilemma both morally and from the virtue versus instant gratification aspect.
Though this is really the only immersive hinge in Bioshock, the story is so closely tied to the Little Sisters and the narrative so tight, this one recurring choice manages to be thoroughly compelling. Bioshock is the only experience I've had in recent memory, where I actually as the audience felt deceived, the effect of which I could hardly put into words. Suffice to say, it managed to find through a simple motif, a way to bring me to feel disgust, regret, hatred, and disbelief. Bioshock makes everything that occurs within it your real experience and it makes what is a brilliant social commentary into a frightening self examination.
Is it perfect? No. There are issues with immersion that remind you that you are playing a game. For instance, the penalty for death is nearly non-existent, which takes away from the feeling of fear and discourages tactical thinking. The physics, particularly in death animations, are quite wonky in some cases. There are clipping instances. Corpses twitch.
...That's it though.
Bioshock is truly Dynamic art and comes with my unequivocal recommendation.