Bioshock: Incredulous

I've actually been working a bit backwards as to how I experienced Bioshock 1's problems. The issues I raised before were problems later in my experience: my first, most immediate problem was this topic's post:

A complete inability to maintain my credulity. Or, if you prefer, to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

This isn't for any of the reasons you might expect. It's not because the game is set in an underwater city in the late 1950s, or because it involves genetic modification-based superpowers in the 1950s, or because an Objectivist city lasting as long as the plot needs it to last is pretty ridiculous on the face of it. I'm perfectly able to suspend my disbelief over even fairly ridiculous premises.

No, the issue is that Bioshock 1 goes out of its way to stab itself in the believability. Over and over and over.

Let's start with the beginning of the game: you being the sole survivor of a plane crash at sea is fine. The (apparent) premise of the game is someone stumbling upon Rapture by accident, and when it gets down to it there's some stupendously unlikely things that have happened in reality. A man surviving a plane crash at sea is an acceptable part of a premise.

The issue is that once you're in the lighthouse, the process of going in and entering the bathysphere that takes you into Rapture is predicated on the fact that this is a video game and so the developers have complete control over what you can and cannot do. You, as a character, are not provided a reason for why you decide to go into the bathysphere. Realistically, there should be supplies, a radio. The option to hole up in the lighthouse and try to call for help. These elements don't exist because it's a video game centered on going to Rapture, and for that reason alone. And no, it's not like the explanation is provided later in the game. There just plain isn't an explanation.

This could be taken as quibbling over details, and if it were the only such example, I'd place it as a minor hiccup in the beginning of the game, something that ideally would've been ironed out but didn't need to be.

However, it is a sign of things to come, not an unfortunate anomaly.

Once you enter Rapture, two dire issues arise. One is a mechanical issue, one is a narrative issue. Together, they offer no place to hide to excuse the flaws.

The mechanical issue is that of glass. Bioshock loves to show off its underwater city through glass windows and glass tubes, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to be doing -it lets the game engage in shades of Corridors: The Video Game like so many of its contemporaries, with the attendant design advantages (eg having control over the player's progression in a reasonably organic way, as opposed to using invisible walls and whatnot), while escaping one of the primary disadvantages. (To wit: that normally Corridors: The Video Game gets very visually repetitive very fast)

Unfortunately, there's an extremely early moment attempting to act as a horror moment where a random not-even-super-strength enemy punches a chunk of glass and it cracks badly. This is A Problem: Rapture is in a state of post-apocalypse, with looters running around shooting each other up with weapons fire and magical powers. If the glass that makes up so much of the city can be so badly damaged by a punch, then stray bullets and explosives -which are absolutely in use by the Splicers- should've buried more or less the entire city in water months before the player character ever showed up.

Prior to that point, the player could reasonably assume that the glass was some kind of super-glass, up to the task of not only keeping out the massive amount of water pressure but also shrugging off stray bullets. It would even be possible to accept that explosives would 'realistically' break it and in-game explosives failing to do so is an acceptable break from reality to avoid essentially arbitrary instant game overs, a case of gameplay/story disconnect for natural enough game design reasons. But no, the plot punches a hole in the idea that the glass is adequately tough for the setting to be even marginally believable.

So that's an early mechanical problem. What's the narrative one?

Atlas. Your radio buddy. The guy who gives you orders you obey without question.

Why do you do that?

Last post, I covered what the explanation provided by the game is, but above and beyond the fact that the explanation is a stupid mistake that worsens the story... it comes far too late, somewhere around 2/3rds of the way into the game. You can't do that. The player needs to know what motivates their character, what drives them, what makes them listen to their radio buddy as early as possible. Even if the Twist was perfectly executed, the fact that you have to wait until 2/3rds of the way into the story to have any understanding of why you're doing anything would be a significant problem.

To a large extent, the game seems to expect it to be okay that you listen to him because... this is a video game, and that's how video games work. This would be tolerable if Bioshock was the kind of video game where the plot took a backseat to the gameplay. In that scenario, having a radio buddy you obey the orders of Because It's A Video Game is an acceptable compromise, a somewhat lackluster story element slapped atop the core gameplay that's the real point.

But Bioshock wants you to take its story seriously. It wants you to take its world seriously. It wants you to take its characters seriously.

So it's a very, very big problem that the player character's willingness to go along with Atlas is so thoroughly mystifying.

But it gets worse than that. Atlas always seems to know exactly what you're doing and where you are -when you're talking over old-timey radios, and there's no GPS or anything to justify knowing what's going on with you. Oh, sometimes the game remembers to frame Atlas' dialogue in a manner appropriate to the knowledge he should have, such as happening to ask you if you've found The Final Widget immediately after you have, in fact, found The Final Widget, but much more often he just magically knows what's going on with you in bizarrely intimate detail.

And so does everybody else who ever talks to you over the radio.


This is a constant problem that makes it really hard to sit back, shove my disbelief into a corner, and pretend everything makes sense anyway. There is no point where you're deep enough into the game that you can forget this particular problem, because it never goes away. A given scene might avoid the problem, but in a way it makes it worse; why is it sometimes people are able to magically see you and your environment through your radio, but not all the time? If it was consistent I could shrug and try to explain it as Bioshock radios having built-in cameras or something the story just failed to mention. Since it's inconsistent, it's obvious it's just bad writing, and there's no way to defend it.

Then there's broader setting/gameplay intersection problems. We're in the late 1950s, and the only superscience-justifying element added to the story is genetic modification for giving humans superpowers or turning them into monsters... yet somehow there's closed-circuit cameras that can autonomously identify some humans as enemies and others as non-hostiles. Automated turrets that also can tell friend from foe on sight. Flying robots that can do the same. Where did any of this come from, aside the non-answer of "Gameplay"?

Or there's the audio logs, which slant heavily toward "No person would actually create this audio log under these circumstances." The most egregious by far is the one with Frank Fontaine gloating to himself about how he's faked his own death and is living as Atlas now, but while that one is particularly bad it's actually fairly representative of how the audio logs are handled: no-way-this-would-ever-exist.

And the thing is, even if I could shove my disbelief into a corner and pretend these particular problems didn't matter, the game just keeps adding in new problems as you go forward. At one point, you meet a lady scientist who is trying to do something Andrew Ryan doesn't want her to do, so he remotely seals the room and releases deadly neurotoxin to kill her. Okay, fine, it's his city, I can buy that he has a scary level of control over it...

... but later you return to that area, and while you're in the exact room she was killed in, Andrew Ryan radios you up to let you know how much he hates you and wants you dead, and instead of sealing the room and flooding it with deadly neurotoxin, game over, you instantly lose, he sends hordes of Splicers in to attack you so you get a defense mission.

Which is it? Does he have remote, deadly control over this exact room, or not? Pick one!

This kind of thing just keeps happening. There's an extremely early, jarring sequence where the game expects you to run from about 3 Splicers, and then not ten minutes later, with nothing having changed, you're suddenly intended to slaughter your way through somewhere over a dozen Splicers. So why did I run from the earlier, smaller group?

If I made a bullet-point list of all the times the game stabbed itself right in the believability anew, it'd probably be the length of a half dozen of my longer posts on this site, that's how consistent it is.

When it gets down to it, such a persistent insistence on undermining my ability to believe in the story is fatal in a manner that isn't simple to fix. The game can't rework any one scene and suddenly function as a good story.

It needs to not have the writing team have that initial compulsive need to stab their story in the believability.


Next is one final post about Bioshock 1's narrative failings -specifically, talking about Little Sisters and Tenenbaum, and how they're handled as you get deeper into the game.


Popular Posts