Bioshock: Personhood in Enemies

The other big thing Bioshock does well is that it makes its regular enemies feel surprisingly like real people -in fact, in some ways it does this a little too well. I had someone overhear me going through the game and assume they were hearing some kind of Serial Killer Simulator 9000 game, thanks to the constant stream of enemies screaming in agony, begging for their lives, etc.

Some of the stuff Bioshock does in this realm is pretty normal for AAA titles and so on. Frequently when you first enter an area, Splicers will be in the middle of doing something -digging through valuables looking for loot, for example- and talking to each other with one-time dialogue exclusively used for that particular room. This helps give a sense that you're traveling through a world filled with people who happen to be hostile to you, rather than playing through a video game filled with foes to fight, but it's also fairly normal for such titles and in most cases the illusion is fairly fragile.

Bioshock, though, manages to take it a step further, seeping person-ness into gameplay proper. Parts of this are more aesthetic than anything else, such as how the game has a lot of dialogue recorded for a variety of 'personalities' to then react to a surprisingly wide variety of possible situations without repeating the same three lines over and over, but then there's stuff like how enemies react to being set on fire.

See, in Bioshock, when a Splicer is set on fire, first they start panicking. This is a not-very-unusual gameplay mechanic; they flail around in place, losing HP and playing freaked-out dialogue about how they're on fire and that's bad. But... if there's water in the area, after a moment the Splicer will run for the water to put the fire out. The mechanics are a bit silly -simply standing in a pool of water is enough to instantly put out a fire, including that if you hit them with fire when they happen to be standing in ankle-deep water they'll fail to light for even a moment- but the fact that enemies try to save themselves from burning to death does a lot to sell the idea that they're people rather than faceless Video Game Deathbots for you to cut through. It also makes a secondary layer of their behavior carry more weight, specifically that Splicers you set on fire will eventually start ignoring the fire and come after you, assuming there's no water nearby for them to put themselves out with. In most games, that would come across as a Sanity Check on game mechanics to ensure that the Incinerate Plasmid isn't a boring auto-win button against nearly everything forever. In Bioshock, it comes across like Splicers are making a deliberate decision to power through the pain and try to take you down with them if they can't save themselves.

Even more conceptually impressive is the game's handling of medical stations. The player can run up to these and heal themselves to full health for a small cash price, and in the vast majority of games that would be the end of the topic. In Bioshock, though, enemies that end up on low health will actually try to run to nearby medical stations and heal themselves using them! This helps sell the idea that Splicers are people and that the medical stations are in-universe objects, not a game mechanic you ideally ought to pretend isn't a part of the setting. It unfortunately falls a bit short on actual implementation, as you can 'hack' medical stations and for some reason this causes them to emit poisons if a Splicer attempts to access them, finishing the Splicer off, and the way hacking is handled the only reason to not hack literally everything is that it eats up your real player time. In-game-wise, though, there's no reason not to hack everything. And seriously, this is just a ridiculous mechanic: why do medical stations even have the ability to emit a poison gas cloud, and how are you hacking them to have friend/foe identification?

Still, every time I'm reminded that Splicers will try to seek medical aid I'm pleasantly surprised anew. One of the biggest reasons enemies in so many games don't feel like people is they show no concern for their own survival, simply throwing themselves at you to die because this is a video game and they're your designated Video Game Enemies. Bioshock averting that at all, even if the execution is a bit wonky, does a lot to counteract the problem.

And returning to the topic of audio, part of what's nice there is that enemies will, for example, notice new bodies and react to them. It helps sell the illusion that these are thinking beings who pay attention to their environment. Not very bright ones, admittedly, but that's acceptable given Splicers are all supposed to be more than a bit crazy anyway.


And... that's all the nice things I have to say about Bioshock 1. It's not like the rest of the game is terrible, but it rarely rises above a workman-like competency leveraging the larger industry's experience with eg making gun variety at least minimally decent, and a lot of the other potential compliments I could offer it pretty consistently come with fairly significant caveats.

So next time I move on to something better: Bioshock 2.


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