I’ve always had a nervous apprehension about Bioshock, simply because I’ve adored pretty much everything this particular team produced, which is to say Irrational (yeah, I know they’re “2K Boston” now, but that’s a crap name, sorry), who were the legendary Looking Glass before that. These guys are in a pretty elite club when it comes to my rather cynical view of the modern game industry - one of the few teams that I can say I’m pretty confident won’t stoop to producing lazy ‘War Shooter 12’ or ‘Licensed Property Tie In 8’. More than that, they actually blend genres in a way I don’t see many other people doing. Thief and System Shock 2 really opened up what you can do with a first-person game, in a way that’s very, very rare elsewhere.
Here’s what most first person games do: primary objective is running about shooting people in the face, in various ways. ‘Variety’ comes from different weapons or vehicles, different enemies and different environments, but the premise is basically identical in every one. What story and characterisation there is is generally added like a sort of ‘gravy’ - it’s a justification, a reason for you to be running about using your reflexes, but it’s usually completely disposable. It’s pretty rare to give a flying toss what the story really is, who the characters are, or even who your own character is. Often when developers do try, they get it completely wrong - like Max Payne, which took itself so incredibly seriously in the backstory department, and yet whose plot was so derivative that it would have got you a C- in GCSE English. That’s fine for a while, but for me the interest wore off a few years ago when I realised I was essentially playing the same game over and over and over again since Wolfenstein, just with different skins and nicer engines. I needed more than just a twitch response and nice visuals to justify spending more hours in a virtual world.
Here’s what Looking Glass / Irrational games do: they immerse you. Not just by using fancy graphics and sound, but by creating a believeable world in substance rather than just style. A consistent, interesting world that you want to find out more about, a ‘page turner’ of a plot with some solid mechanics and a genuinely varied gameplay through which to experience it. I don’t give a toss about the plot of a WW2 game, I already know what happened, and the minutae of whether I’m taking strategic point A or B is completely irrelevant to me; if I want to experience history, there are a lot better sources. I’m similarly unmotivated by big ass American commander telling me I need to take out a terrorist cell. But give me a weird environment, a world that’s new and yet strangely familiar, with a genuinely new story to tell, and suddenly it’s interesting, if done well. Perhaps the only way I can describe it is that games like GRAW, Tom Clancey, WW2 Game 203 are like reading the generally depressing daily news; games like Max Payne are like reading trashy teen novellas; but games like System Shock 2 are like reading Jules Verne or Arthur C. Clarke. Screw realism, I get that every day - give me something that a genuinely creative person has crafted with uninhibited imagination and let me discover and explore that instead, it’s far more interesting. And for Gods sake, there is more to sci-fi than ‘Space Marine Tackles Alien Horde’, more games designers really should, like, read a book sometime.
This isn’t about whether graphics are more important than story, or vice versa, it’s about making sure every element pulls in the same direction to provide an overall experience. When playing FPS’s recently I’ve felt that all the whiz-bang effects are there to distract me from thinking about the fact that it’s a game, or trying to pull a magic trick: “Please keep playing, I know the plot was written by a nine year old and you’ve shot that same guy fifty times already, but look - ‘splosions!! Ooooo, preeettty..”. Irrational games have always felt different. They seem to nurture a suspension of disbelief from the player that transcends visuals, much like a book does - by making you care about it and invest your own imagination in the process.
It’s this kind of fusion of graphical style, writing, imagination and, well, everything that used to make me love games, as a pinnacle of creative expression, and the lack of it of late has been a factor in me losing interest in the contemporary ‘immersive’ FPS games, because they just don’t stack up, even with their lovely new engines. Immersion of the mind always wins over immersion of the eye, and I’ve found recent titles to be generally very hollow in comparison, all looks and no soul.
That’s why I was really scared of hoping for too much from Bioshock. I mostly ignored it, figuring I’d just wait and see. Reviews seem to indicate that they’ve done it again, and now I’m starting to get excited about it in a way I haven’t been excited about a game for a long time. Thank you Irrational / 2K, for keeping the faith and doing what few others seem to be capable of. And for re-igniting the spark of interest for a first-person game in one tired and jaded gamer.
360 already has a demo (tsk) but a PC version is due soon. Since I detest dual-stick first person control I’ll happily wait for the PC version anyhow.