The Bag Means Your Mind

A delightful mix of insightful comments and ignorant assumptions about screenwriting... and such.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Great Game That Almost Was

So I finished Bioshock the other night. There is no doubt that it is a good game. Great mood. Great action. Well worth the purchase. The start of the story is easily one of the best beginnings in the history of games. It introduces you to the world perfectly and sets the gruesome tone. At the onset your mind races with all of the possibilities that the story provides. It’s all so delicious. But as the action progresses and concludes you realize that the game’s creators miss the mark. They reveal exciting possibilities only to leave them lying at the bottom of the sea. For the remainder of this post I will outline where Bioshock went wrong and the solutions I believe would have elevated this game into a realm that few video games ever dare to go. The following is spoiler laden, so read at your own peril.

In Bioshock, your character enters the undersea city of Rapture where the inhabitants have all gone insane through the effects of gene splicing. It is apparent from the beginning that you cannot survive the ordeal without genetically augmenting yourself. This introduces some interesting prospects to the game. You have to become a monster to fight the monsters. I wondered how this could possibly end. Would your character be driven insane just like the others? Would he have to sacrifice himself, perhaps destroying Rapture to save it from the world at large? Could he really return to the normal world after undergoing all these augmentations?

Sadly, Bioshock addresses none of these interesting questions. What we are left with is an origin story that is needlessly complex seemingly to provide for an extra twist that isn't really needed or earned. The ending of the game has your character returning to the surface with all the Little Sisters* and they live happily ever after. So happy, that you die an old man, each of them comforting you in your last earthly moments. Sigh.

If I were king of the United States this is what I’d have done with the game:

The first decision made for you is that you need to be genetically augmented. While I understand that they felt it necessary, I think it should be the player's decision. If they absolutely want the player to be augmented throughout the story then make the game impossible without it. Put DNA altering machines everywhere, tempting the player. The player could try to get through the enemies but can’t and be forced to go down the genetically altered path which leads wherever the game's creators want.

The other possibility is to do away with the standard difficulty settings. Perhaps getting genetically altered is the player’s choice. If they chose to go the natural route then the game is very, very hard, but winnable. Maybe in this instance you do return to the surface with your peeps and all is fine and dandy. Give the player that choice, and put the machines around everywhere to remind them of the hard road they have chosen. Now that would be interesting!

Bioshock, like many other games, provides the player with a moral choice. That choice eventually decides the type of ending the player will see. Do you harvest the Little Sisters, taking their life along with the valuable Adam (stuff that enables your genetically created super powers) or save them releasing them from the zombie-like coma they are in? Now I have no problem with this choice, but they could have done more with it. Instead of just having a happy ending if you chose to save the girls, they could have had the consequences have a direct bearing on the game’s story. Near the end of the game the Little Sisters will guide you to the villain if you chose to save them earlier in the game (I’m not sure what happens if you didn’t). You have to protect the Little Sister. If she dies you have to summon another. I think a good solution would be that as you save the Little Sisters throughout the game, the number available to you at the end increases. The more of them that survive till the end, the more achievements you get (or whatever). If you elect to harvest them earlier in the game you will have no Little Sisters to guide you and it becomes very difficult to make it to the final boss. When you finally arrived you’d be depleted of ammo and health. That would be a tangible repercussion of your actions throughout the game. How novel.

How it should have ended:

First I will mention that in my version of the game you reach Rapture completely by chance and not brought there by design. This necessitates changes to other aspects of the story, but I won’t bore you with those.

1) Go through the game without augmentations, saving the Litter Sisters and you return to the surface after either destroying Rapture or giving it back to the remaining normal people (who were in hiding). This would be the happy ending.

2) Go through the game without augmentations, but kill the Little Sisters. You kidnap a scientist and head to the surface determined to make billions off of the technology in the real world.

3) Augment yourself and save the Little Sisters. By the end of the story you begin to lose your faculties. You are turning into a Splicer*. You put the Little Sisters into a bathysphere and destroy the city and yourself, protecting the outside world.

4) Augment yourself and kill the Little Sisters. By the end you are going insane and eventually ruling the doomed city.

The game would have been so strong if they chose to bring out the themes and situations that their original idea suggested. All the Splicers have gone crazy through genetic manipulation, but you remain clear thinking throughout the game even though you can do everything from telekinesis to shooting bees out of your arm. There are too many things that seem to be inconsistent with the ground rules they establish.

Despite all of this, Bioshock is still a very good game. I offer this analysis because I am interested in dissecting games like this and ruminate about where they fall short and why (and the resulting discussion). I can’t imagine that these things did not occur to the people making the game. I wish I was privy to how they arrived at key decisions. Pressure from the publisher? Logistics problems? Deadlines?

*Sorry can’t explain this here. Read up on the game.

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