One of the easiest ways to get game journalists lining up for a taste of your pud is by creating a sequel or “spiritual successor” to a long-dead series. Because game reporters derive a near-fetishistic joy from gazing at their navels, a well-timed update to a “classic” series that’s been languishing in IP hell will get them grabbing at your crotch like Filipina hookers at an expat bar. So it was with the BioShock games, a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, FPS/RPG hybrids where you’re tossed butt-naked in a hostile environment and expected to claw your way out.
I’m not hating on BioShock (the first one, anyway): it’s a decent shooter. But nostalgia and fellatio on the part of game journalists not only wallpapered over the game’s flaws, it indirectly led to the embarrassment that was BioShock Infinite. BioShock is a good game, but it’s a poor heir to the System Shock legacy, either because the designers had no clue what made those games great or willfully dumbed the game down to appeal to crybaby Millennials.
In this three-part retrospective, I’m going to take an unfair and imbalanced look at the BioShock trilogy, starting with the first game.
A Pathetic Creature Of Meat And Bone
BioShock’s story is really the only thing that it deserves credit for, mainly because it features probably the cleverest plot twist in gaming history. Admittedly, I saw a twist coming—but then again, unlike you impudent kids, I played both System Shock games (and beat the latter)—but the way the game throws it at you is incredible. BioShock ridicules the typical set-up of video game stories much in the same way Metal Gear Solid 2 did, but instead of slapping its scrotum across your face, BioShock folds its criticism into the gameplay itself.
Let’s just admit it: most games have dumb plots that stretch credibility to the breaking point. BioShock’s modus operandi is to (rightly) make us feel stupid for swallowing its fiction whole. It’s one hell of a coincidence for the main character’s plane to crash right over a secret underwater city, or for him to immediately encounter a friendly ally in the form of Atlas, or to find Vita-Chambers that instantly resurrect him (a complete outsider) but not any of the city’s residents. Because these kinds of cliches are common in games, we’re conditioned to ignore the truth in front of our eyes.
Where the plot falters is in its mishandling of atmosphere. BioShock is steeped in the culture of the late 1950’s: crooner pop songs, Norman Rockwell-style artwork, and benevolent patriarchy. But the game’s supposed “horror” falls flatter than a paraplegic at a square dancing competition. Part of the problem is that System Shock 2’s horror came in part from its Resident Evil-esque gameplay: the game carefully rationed ammo and other items. Since you never knew where your next bullets were coming from, you had to conserve what you had and be cautious about exploring new areas.
But the other reason why BioShock fails as a horror game is because its villains aren’t intimidating. Both System Shock games were defined by adversaries (SHODAN in the first game, the Many in the second) who were basically gods. No matter what you did or how much progress you made, they would mock you and remind you that you’re just an insect compared to them. BioShock tries to replicate this by having Andrew Ryan (and later, Frank Fontaine) taunting you over the radio, but Ryan and Fontaine are just men… and men are mortal.
You Damn Kids, Get Out Of My Hobby
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: BioShock is not an FPS/RPG hybrid. It is a shooter, full stop. The game has no RPG elements whatsoever. No, the plasmids don’t count, because as far back as 1997’s Star Wars: Jedi Knight, shooters have allowed the player to customize their character’s special abilities (in that game’s case, Force powers). Neither does BioShock’s much-vaunted “moral choices” of saving innocent little girls or murdering them for ADAM (the currency used to buy plasmids) make it an RPG.
System Shock 2 was an RPG. Your character began the game barely able to clobber bad guys with a wrench, let alone shoot, hack or pick locks. In order to get good at anything, you had to expend cyber modules (experience points) in the skills you wanted to improve. You got cyber modules by completing mission objectives or by finding them in the game’s levels. Their relative scarcity forced you to make hard choices about developing your character: you could be a stealth specialist, a run-and-gun warrior, or a crafty hacker, but not all three.
In contrast, BioShock lets you nail a splicer between the eyes from 500 yards with a pistol at the beginning of the game. Plasmids are almost ancillary: you can complete the game with just the ones you get as part of the plot. There’s no inventory system, so no stockpiling food and other items to save for later; your character scarfs down everything he finds like a fat chick in diabetic shock. You can hack every single machine from the first level to the last, and money is so plentiful that you’ll never have to worry about running out of ammo or health kits.
Most importantly, the game is too easy. I had to quit and restart System Shock 2 a few times after realizing that I’d screwed up in some fashion, like using too much ammo or expending cyber modules on the wrong skills. But because Millennials are blubbering babies who can’t handle losing, BioShock holds your hand from beginning to end. If you’re a decent gamer, at no point does the game challenge you in any way.
For example, take the Vita-Chambers. Both System Shock games had similar devices that would resurrect you after you got killed, but the catch was that there was only one per level, and you had to find and turn it on to get it to work. If you died before then, it was game over (and in the first game, you got to watch a gruesome cutscene in which your character’s corpse was recycled to build a cyborg).
In contrast, BioShock resurrects your dumb ass at the drop of a hat, half the time in rooms you haven’t even explored yet. Not only does this suck the difficulty out, it lets you wear down tough enemies like Big Daddies through simple attrition. It’s literally impossible to lose the game, unless you get bored and quit.
Finally, the game’s “moral choices” of rescuing Little Sisters versus harvesting them for ADAM is stupid. Not only is the dichotomy itself puerile, the “choice” is completely bogus: despite what the game tells you, you actually get more ADAM from saving the Little Sisters, as they’ll leave little gifts for you in certain levels. The whole point of morality is that being virtuous is more difficult then being evil. It’s easy to steal to get what you want, for example, but virtuous people have higher principles than material gain. By compensating players who take the high path, BioShock renders its moral choices meaningless.
A Is A
I’m not saying BioShock is a bad game: it’s a pretty fun shooter with a smart plot. But don’t shit on my shoes and claim it’s a Snickers bar. BioShock is System Shock Babies: a castrated version of the real thing. The “choices” it gives you are as deep and meaningful as the difference between going through the McDonald’s drive-thru lane versus ordering inside.
And the really sad part? This was the height of the series.