Shock and Awe by Lewis Denby

In Features, Video Games on February 16, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Why BioShock, now available on all next-gen platforms, is still a work of art.

There’s a part about half-way through BioShock where you’re forced to assume the role of a temporary hitman of sorts, scouting out local denizens, introducing a weapon to the back of the head, and snapping a photo of the corpse.
The photo isn’t just for proof that your dirty deeds have been completed.  No, this whole façade is for the spectacularly lunatic artist Sander Cohen, who’ll grant you access to the area you need to be in if you help him complete his masterpiece: an astonishing statue, centre-stage in a theatre, co-functioning as a thoroughly disturbing frame for photography of the dead.  This is the sort of sick, warped world that BioShock portrays so exquisitely… but we’ll come to that in a bit.
I’ve played through BioShock three times now, and been mesmerised on each visit to the astounding underwater metropolis of Rapture, but it took until my most recent journey for the genius of one particular sequence to hit me.  Towards the end of the level, Mr. Cohen becomes suspicious and, believing you to be plotting against him, sends his dishevelled and murderously insane crew towards you in packs.
That crew happens to consist of psychotic ballerinas with hooks for hands, and Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers happens to be playing out of the PA system.  This time, I happened to be holding a shotgun.
You see, the first couple of times round, I’d tuned my character so well to melee combat that I ran around hitting all the Splicers with a wrench as soon as they came through the doors.  It had been a spectacular sequence, full of delicious, gooey blood plastered over a culturally peculiar backdrop.  But this time was different.  The shotgun changed everything.  Standing onstage in front of the statue, I waited just long enough for each foe to pirouette right up to me, before blowing their delusional brains all over the Nutcracker-drenched hall.
In this instant, I proved to old Sander that I was exactly the man for his job.  My perverse pleasure in this creative killing became a masterstroke in its own right.  We were two artists working towards a common goal, and I was duly rewarded with progress.
As I left, I shot him in the back of the head too.  He was the serious bad guy.  I was only pretending.

If there’s one thing I adore about videogames more than anything, it’s their potential.  I spend most of my journalistic life tagging scores on to the end of critiques, discussing gameplay and graphics and all sorts of other drab components that are the building blocks of this virtual escapism, and it leaves little room for excitedly pondering the medium’s future.  When I first ploughed through BioShock a year ago, I mistakenly claimed that it wouldn’t change anyone’s world, despite the mesmerising twenty hours of blasting it provides.  Since then, in a way I never would have predicted, it’s been difficult to shut me up about it.
BioShock didn’t revolutionise per se, but its forward-thinking delivery stuck at the forefront of my mind.  I have always suggested that videogames hold the key for next-generation storytelling: they operate in a totally separate way from film or literature.  It’s true that the best games do have to stick to a reasonably linear narrative path; the possible storytelling methods, though, stem far beyond.
BioShock operates on three very different levels, simultaneously discussing the past, the present, and the future.  The in-game narrative is as compelling as they come, but it’s the least interesting component of the trio.  The tale of how we came to be there, and what we have to do in order to leave, delivers one of the strongest emotional punches I’ve experienced in any form of entertainment, but I was surprised to find it didn’t emerge as my favourite lasting memory.  That praise goes to Rapture… but we’ll come to that in a bit.

For the uninitiated (and I hope, dear ones, that you don’t remain that way for long), a history lesson.  Soviet-born Andrew Ryan was raised under the horrific oppression of Tsarism, before the rise of the Bolsheviks led the country into the state of ill-devised communism he grew to equally despise.  Emigrating to the United States in 1919, he began to build an entrepreneurial empire in the supposed Land of the Free, but by the time the Second World War rolled around, he had learned that this ideology was still mere illusion.  No nation on the globe offered the true freedom Ryan so desperately desired, and so with his fortune he began the secret building of a spectacular new world, safe in the confines of the Atlantic Ocean floor.  That world was Rapture, and to it he invited those he considered to be Earth’s elites: artists, businessmen and scientists who dreamed of a world in where their work would not be constrained by the ethics that had overwhelmed the surface land.
All of this took place decades before we even set foot in the place.  This is quite a big back story.
Next came Frank Fontaine, a former crime lord, who shook up Rapture’s balance of power by forming a business enterprise to rival Ryan’s, funded by a secret and illicit trade route from the surface.  Next came ADAM and EVE: genetic manipulation devices developed by Bridgette Tenenbaum; providers of fantastic transformations to the human body; but fiendishly addictive and carrying the risk of horrific psychological defects.  Next came civil unrest, and eventually a blood-soaked rebellion led by the mysterious Atlas.  And then, only then, came 1960, when BioShock takes place.
For the benefit of those who believe videogames have no place in an art magazine (and, crushingly, these people will exist), let’s take some time out to consider a few points here.  Firstly, it’s absolutely brimming with references to the novel Atlas Shrugged.  It stems from the obvious – the name of the rebellion leader who serves as an in-game guide – to the masked – Andrew Ryan’s name is a semi-anagram of author Ayn Rand – to the symbolic – in a final showdown, the enemy transforms into the golden statue on the front cover of the book’s most famous edition.  Its central themes – realisation of identity, a struggle against oppression, the ethical battle between existential purity and advanced technology – borrow heavily from ‘Shrugged without ever being plagiaristic.  This isn’t the only sideways cultural reference BioShock plays with, either, and the gutsy social commentary is almost academic in its fluency and confidence.  What’s remarkable is that, at heart, this is a first-person shooter, the genre long considered a breeding ground for mindless action and potential violent influence.  It’s also arguably the most mainstream of genres: that it takes such a simplistic and accessible mould, and pours into it something so magically stimulating, is one of 2K Games’ greatest achievements.
Secondly, the delivery of all this – and this is the first of two facets that gets me extremely giddy – absolutely defines why this medium holds such promise as a storytelling device.  Games traditionally intersperse their interactive action with cut-scenes: predefined, pre-animated sequences that drive the story forward and explain the actions we’re forced, by the nature of the videogame itself, to complete.  BioShock has just one of these, around two-thirds into the game, and the concept of a cut-scene (and inherent videogame linearity) is used as a plot movement in itself.  The game’s huge sucker-punch twist is, in essence, a pastiche of what so many consider to be the unbreakable wall of videogame interactivity: you have to do what you’re told in order to complete the game.  BioShock, in one short sequence which I clearly won’t spoil, proves that the videogame narrative can work precisely because of this illusion, and the big plot movements all consider the concept of free will.  In addition to this, BioShock rarely feels the need to tell you anything: aside from a few hints from Atlas, and the aforementioned big reveal, it’s all up to you.  Tape recordings, diary entries, posters and videos litter Rapture, and you effortlessly form the story yourself, piece by piece.  There is, however, one big storyteller in BioShock, and its phenomenal nature becomes the third and final artistic point we’ll discuss.

That storyteller is the city of Rapture itself: a place of vast urbanity and staggering art deco beauty, encased in a rigid cocoon of thick glass and rusting metal.  As Rapture’s dreams leaked out, so the water leaked in.  The result is one of staggering effect.
If only one thing convinces you of the videogame-art link, it’ll be Rapture.  Aesthetically, it’s breathtaking.  It looks and feels like a place created by genuine architects and designers instead of game developers.  Even in its collapsing post-war state, the life it bristles with creates the sort of fully tangible environment we’re completely unaccustomed to in gaming.  I constantly have to remind myself it’s not real.
The city tells its own tragedy.  This was once the greatest place in the world.  Now, it’s falling apart because of the very ideology it represented.  The grand architecture is littered with picket signs, which are speckled with blood and soaked in ocean water, corroded by the salt.  Electronic adverts promoting advanced technology flicker and fail at every turn.  Its king has been reduced to a cowering, confused mess, and destroying his own Eden has become his only means of retaining control.  It’s mesmerising, haunting and heartbreaking.  Simply existing in it for a day, as an avatar on a computer screen, utterly drained me.
You could run through Rapture without listening to anyone or reading anything and still be able to tell exactly what happened there.  It’s an idea that other developers (namely Valve, and Ion Storm a little) have toyed with, but 2K Games have absolutely sealed it as an approach that just works.  After twenty hours with BioShock, I felt I had experienced something, something far beyond the usual confines of enjoying a computer game.  This sensation, since my first visit twelve months ago, has only grown and grown.
This is what excites me about videogames.  Literature provides the blueprints for us to conjure up our own version of a reality, while rigidly sticking to a predefined route.  Film shows us this reality in all its glory, visualised through the eyes of a creative force and providing us with a definitive interpretation, but it still distinctly tells us a story.  Games, traditionally, have done the same, but the likes of BioShock show us a new way, one that allows for our own discovery, our own exploration.  This is an enormously significant step towards serious recognition of the medium as a true art form.

And so, operating beneath these most commercial of mechanics, exists an understated work of genius.  It frustrates me to see some of the horrendous nit-picking that floats around the internet – are the weapons unbalanced? Is the pacing wrong? Isn’t it a bit glitchy? – because they totally miss the point of what makes BioShock so special.  It will be surpassed, undoubtedly, and it doesn’t yet represent a creative industry that has fully found its voice.  It is, however, the first time I’ve felt that, finally, we might be on to something.  Videogames exist in an audiovisual environment controlled by the Hollywood industry, and Bioshock is, in places, as cinematic as games come.  But, in not desperately attempting to mimic cinema, and instead embracing being distinctly a videogame, its beauty shines.
And this is beautiful, so beautiful that I want to cry.  A game made me feel like that.  Child’s play, eh?

BioShock is now available on Playstation 3, as well as PC-DVD and X-Box 360.


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