Sunday, September 9, 2012

Is a Man Not Entitled to the Sweat of His Brow?

Over the past week, I played the game Bioshock from start to finish. (On Easy mode.) For all my big talk about geekdom and video games, I don't actually play video games often at all. The last time I played was, oh, 2007? 2008? when the RPG Oblivion was new. I played that for hours and hours, and loved it. But I grew so invested in the nature of play that my emotions got way out of control, and I had to stop. Generally I sit and spectate while Matt plays, often very helpfully adding feedback. ("No, go over there first...what is that thing? Oh, it's just a floor light, never mind.")

I've watched him play a lot of games that were unique or interesting or worth thinking about, but almost none of them have I desired to play myself. I wish I could have played all three Uncharted games from start to finish, but they're quite long and I think the combat would have pissed me off. The Gears of War series is fascinating, but although I could discuss its meticulous bar-raising within the context of gaming for a long while, I don't think it really has cultural import outside of that context, and anyway it's so damn bloody that I don't even like watching it, much less playing. I'd probably like the Fable series, but I never really got into the stories when Matt went through them.

Bioshock, on the other hand, enchanted me from its first moments. Its premise is that an engineer industrialist named Andrew Ryan (whose shared initials with Ayn Rand are not a coincidence) built a city, Rapture, at the bottom of the sea, and attempted to create a society of supermen there using genetic engineering and the sheer force of his will. You, the player, make your way down to Rapture after a plane crash, and hijinks ensue. (There are many more aspects to the story and structure of this game, but I'm selecting the ones that made me fall in love with it.)

The game is almost a whole piece of art in its visual design, imagineered to the very smallest detail, an Art Deco paradise that has been wrecked by seawater and greed. Its beauty utterly mesmerizes me. Beyond that, the mechanics of the game are superb, the gameplay is endlessly diverting, and the story delves into philosophical issues that turn the very act of playing a video game entirely on its head. I won't call it flawless, but it's the finest piece of work that I've ever seen Matt play.

I decided to play it myself for two reasons: 1) the ghost of Rapture just won't leave me alone, its beauty and mystery and madness, and I can hardly command Matt to play it for me again; and 2) the third Bioshock game is being released early next year (supposedly; the release date has already been pushed back) and I want to play it. I was pretty sure I would suck badly at the game, and at first I did, but I got used to using the controller quickly enough and on Easy mode, it's pretty hard to die. For the record, shooting splicers in the face with my grenade launcher never got old.

Even though in real life, Rapture would be terrifying and dangerous (and, of course, impossible), during the hours I spent there this week, I constantly had that same looping feeling that I have when I read Harry Potter: I never want to leave this place. I just want to walk around in the environs of Rapture for days and days, looking at the advertisements and the wreckage and the remnants of the beauty that was. I want to imagine it's possible that such a place could ever have been built, even if petty human urges ruined it. I want to stay here forever.

And that, my darlings, is effective world-building.


Chad said...

It really was an utterly brilliant decision to set Bioshock in the past, so that the Art Deco environment looks at once totally alien and hauntingly familiar.

A review of Bioshock 2 that I read (I still haven't played the game, shame on me) said that there were significant faults to the game, but that when it all came down, it was an opportunity to spend more time in Rapture, and that was good enough. I can agree with that statement. Like you, I'd go to Rapture in a heartbeat. (Once all the Randroids were gone, at least. :D)

Katharine Coldiron said...

I agree with that masked reviewer. Other players were more impressed, and it was explained to me that Bioshock 2 had a great deal more impact if the player was a parent.

There were a lot of small reasons I wasn't as invested in Bioshock 2, but I think a big part of it was simply that it wasn't new anymore. I'd read The Fountainhead, but I hadn't really gotten the core of the Objectivist philosophy, and Bioshock laid it out with perfection. Bioshock 2 suffered from both a lack of novelty and a lack of clarity in my view.