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RPS Advent Game-o-Calendar: December 23rd

Would you kindly open this calendar?

Come on gang, it’s time to open another window on our RPS-approved fairtrade advent calendar! Jim, you grab the edge. Alec, you push the little tab in. Kieron heave away. John, prepare the net to catch whatever might be inside. (Who am I, you ask – why, I’m the spirit of RPS itself).

It’s an enormous piece of chocolate for us all to share! Thanks, Fairtrade. Om nom nom nom.

But there’s only enough for four. For you…

It’s BioShock!

You've never seen this shot before!

John:

You know what? BioShock was really good. The ending sucked, and I was really disappointed when it turned out it wasn’t going to deliver on any of its commentary, but it was still really good.

And you know what was most wrong with BioShock? Me. And I bet it was you too. Kieron has a great deal to say about games offering us easy and difficult paths, perhaps mundane and complex paths, and how our choosing the former of either might explain why one would not “get” the game. I’m inclined to agree to a point. In so many games we’re presented with a challenge, and asked to solve the ‘correct’ way to complete that challenge. This is, invariably, the most simple way. In fact, I can think of many occasions when people have been laughed at, and very often it’s me, for having taken the most intricate and needlessly complex route to solve a gaming situation, when had we been paying attention, we’d have noticed the smooth, elegant solution. BioShock offers an easy path, but we’ll have a better time if we choose to ignore it. I’m not comfortable saying that this is entirely my responsibility, but it sure is interesting.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that I was often so very stupid as to fail to improvise with my surroundings. I never attacked an explosive to the side of a barrel, threw it, and blew it up. But if I had, I would certainly have had a much cooler time. I could have been playing MacGuyver with the game, but instead found a formula for killing Big Daddies, and no matter how dull it might have been, did it every time because it worked.

What does this reveal about me? Am I approaching games with such mundane ambition? Why didn’t I loosen up and allow myself the joy of playing? I’m determined to pin some of this on the game, and argue that it didn’t tempt me, didn’t flag these opportunities well enough. But even after this, I know I’m still guilty.

I can’t think of another game that has suffered so much through the passing of time since I played it. It was great. Really great. And yet its memory has rotted in my head, infected by the issues I had with it. BioShock deserves better than my dumb head – I think that’s my conclusion.

Kieron:

Sorry, guys. Got nuttin’.

Please sir, can I have some more (being alive)?

Alec:

You were a dick if you hated it, and a dick if you loved it. I just really liked it, but that doesn’t seem to be a valid option any more. Generally debate and controversy are a fine happenstance for gaming – any discussion beyond “OMG teh boss is rubbish / my favourite gun is this one but you like this one so you are ghey” is a sign that a game’s done something very, very right – but this keeps tipping into unpleasantness from both sides of the divide. I hope we can eventually look through it and, without having to declare unconditional devotion to the Cult of Levine, remember Bioshock for what it accomplished, for how it revitalised ideas we thought were lost to uncommerical obscurity and presented them to a broad audience. I once claimed I wouldn’t, but now I’m actively considering revisiting Rapture. I do miss it.

I may moan about it a little too quickly, but I had a ton of fun in Bioshock. I dug the setting, I loved the look, I was impressed by the twist, I experimented joyfully with the combat, and I was briefly obsessed by the soundtrack. The run up to its release was the gaming event of the year, and I had a super time riding the hype wagon with wild abandon. I’m stunned that anyone can actually loathe it. I’m as annoyed by the “dumbed-down System Shock 2” argument as the next man: games emulate other games all the time. This one is a game’s own creators revisiting and reinventing past triumphs with the entirely noble aim of bringing big ideas to a mass audience. I’m a big fan of Call of Duty 4, but I mostly certainly don’t want a world where Call of Duty 5 is the most anticipated game of next year. Bioshock promises more and gives us more. Hopefully it’s created an opportunity for even bolder games.

It’s just… its narrative was, for me, fatally fractured. Too much of it is riddled with glaring inconsistencies that require a ridiculous amount of player presumption and speculation to make sense – and not in a deliberated, Lynchian fashion, but in the way that so many action movies plunge into setpiece-laden incoherency in their final acts, throwing character and scene-setting out the window in favour of big explosions and sudden, melodramatic and often illogical resolution. I ever do replay Bioshock, I’ll stop just after the Ryan encounter, before the rot sets in, and while the game’s still undiminished by labouring to turn the remarkable scene it sets into a fully-fledged story. Complaining about the plot goes way beyond simple nit-picking. It grates as much as it does because, unlike so many other game plots, it veers so close to greatness on occasion, thus I invested in it that much more. I’m not going to give a rat’s arse that, say, Timeshift’s story is all over the place, y’know. That’s not a game which I’d ever play to chew on philosophical concepts, mull over character motivations or even just to Find Out What Happens, but Bioshock’s setting and setup was more compelling than in any other game this year.

In practice, it was like having a truly fascinating conversation with someone whose charm became increasingly erratic, and ultimately they descended into banging their head against the table and screaming about hair thieves or something. I wanted to finish that conversation properly, hence I was disappointed. I fully accept that most videogame plots are generally on a par with primary school nativity plays, or they’re pretty much incidental to the wholesome meat of shooting or stabbing or jumping or sailing or star-collecting, but here I actually cared, and that was my mistake.

Here’s Ken Levine in a recent interview:

“I underestimated how much people would care about the story. The 3rd act of the game is the weakest part. I just never realized how much people were going to invest in the climactic Andrew Ryan scene, and I think the remainder of the game can not equal that.”

Which means I have this to say to folk who claim anyone who has significant problems with the narrative just didn’t get it: shuddup, stupid.

Levine also comments:

“The twist about the player’s identity came fairly late in development. I’m way more focused on gameplay early on than I am on the story. Most of the best BioShock story stuff came in the final months.”

So, Bioshock’s plot was never its main focus, and frankly it shows.

However, it contains some incredible vignettes – many of my favourite gaming moments of the year are in here, brief nuggets of absolute wonder. The Little Sister snack-or-death machine, Sander Cohen’s bunny sculpture, the first strains of Django Reinhardt in the Rapture lobby, setting two Daddies against each other, “IT’S JUST… A STANDARD… PROCEDURE!”, and oddles more (so many, in fact, that I’ve been able to list entirely different examples in the two other best o’ the year features I’ve contributed to in the past few weeks). I’m happy to appreciate them outside of the bigger, more flawed picture. The hype and my own excitement about BIoshock was entirely justified. It’s a marvellous game, and between this and Team Fortress 2 we’ve got all the proof we need that a game’s aesthetic is as important as the technology behind it, if not more so.

Just don’t try to tell me the narrative isn’t mangled and incomplete, and then I won’t get angry with you and with Bioshock, a game I’m otherwise rapturous about.

We think it was suicide.

Jim:

A good deal of time during the last year has been spent standing about in my shabby rented house in Bath, England, discussing the critical reception of Bioshock with my comrade in habitation. All kinds of things have occurred to us during these discussions, but few of them seem as important as the fact that they’ve gone on for so long, and have covered so much ground. When we’ve remembered to go back to our computers and do some kind work we often end up taking note of just how much the wider gaming community seems to have been having the same kind of discussions, covering an even wider selection of Bioshock-related issues. Now, it seems, I can’t even embark on a discussion of Bioshock without taking into account just how much debate the game has engendered. As Gillen has observed, there’s a larger issue at stake here: something to do with what Bioshock meant as a game in the wider scheme of game development, and our hopes for the future of games.

There seems to be a kind of crucial issue about what games mean to us, and how they are processed by our imaginations. Never has there been a medium in which there is so much recourse to comparison with other, similar experiences. Films are criticised in everything from their lighting to their credit-sequences, and yet these criticisms seldom seem to lead to discussions about how films should have done things like another, similar film. Perhaps this is simply my own, warped perception, and my over-awareness of how games are now digested by critics, but I can’t help feeling that everyone has an opinion on how games should be different, how they could be better, and how X or Y game system could have been delivered differently. I feel like it’s something critical to do with the way that we experience games: we can’t help building an imaginative model of how the game could have worked, and yet does not. This might be because games are, innately, imagined models that we play with continually to overcome the problems they present us with.

All of which seems to leave the game itself – and the experience of playing through Rapture – somehow compromised. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the game I finally played. While I was in awe of the theme, thrilled by the soundtrack, delighted the continuous, unbroken first-person perspective, and quite satisfied by the solidity and violence of the, uh, violence, I felt as it was something of a wasted opportunity. And this, again, was by comparison with Stalker. It was a structural thing: I wanted to feel like there was reason to explore, and to return to places I’d already seen. If Bioshock had been a little more open, had used a hub system, and had given us more of “world” within the pressurised walls of Rapture, then I would have been all the more enthralled…

And there it was: I was judging Bioshock on the basis of what it was not.

What it was, and what it included – an astonishing piece of FPS design in Fort Frolic, and some of the most interesting sequences of visual design ever to appear in a videogame – seemed somehow diminished. And how ludicrous that seems when you hold it up to the hard light of day. There have been other criticisms – the most bizarre being the concern about the respawn tubes, which I simply didn’t bother to use – but I’ve been able to dismiss them all. (I couldn’t give a damn about the story, by the way: games have always been about the actual process of playing, and the raw experience of whatever comes along, rather than whatever plot the designers might have thought up. Bioshock’s plot was clever enough, but almost irrelevant in my judgement.) This was a wonderful construction – a real connoisseur’s choice on the all-too predictable menu of simulated violence that videogames offer us.

(If only we could talk to the monsters… Now, that would be a snide in-joke too far.)

Bioshock was one of the finest games of 2007, or indeed any other year.

The stern glare of Gillen.

Kieron:

Really, got nuttin’.

These guys have though…

“Similarities between Orson Welles and Andrew Ryan aside, BioShock is not our Citizen Kane. But it does – more than any game I have ever played – show us how close we are to achieving that milestone. BioShock reaches for it, and slips. But we leave our deepest footprints when we pick ourselves up from a fall. It seems to me that it will take us several years to learn from BioShock’s mistakes and create a new generation of games that do manage to successful marry their ludic and narrative themes into a consistent and fully realized whole. From that new generation of games, perhaps the one that is to BioShock as BioShock is to System Shock 2 will be our Citizen Kane.”
Clint Hocking, Creative Director of Splinter Cell

“What you’re supposed to do is kill the Big Daddy and capture the Little Sister, and decide do you want to kill her or rescue her – it’s supposed to be a big ethical dilemma. As it turns out it doesn’t matter whether you do either – the game throttles the rewards either way. The very idea of this save or kill dilemma is an architected idea imposed from the top… The game rules determine the actual meaning of life in the game, and it says whatever you do to the Little Sisters doesn’t matter, no matter how much the game tries to convince you that it does.”
Jonathan “Braid” Blow at the Montreal Game Summit.

“What is the crux of choice? When we make decisions in life, like which college to go to or what to do on a Friday night, it’s true we are deciding between disparate experiences. But those kinds of choices are actually fewer and farther between than you might think, and, surprisingly, are not the ones we remember most. Think back to a time in your life where you had to choose — chances are, the flashpoints that stick with you were times when you asked yourself not, “what do I want to do,” but “what do I want to be?” At those times, the cost-benefit analysis was almost irrelevant as you sought to reconcile your soul with itself.”
Leigh Alexander, SexyVideogameLand and have a nose at her Aberrant Gamer take on the divine Sander Cohen while we’re at it.

“And even considering all the horrible things I’m about to say about it, it’s probably still one of the best games of the year…”
Yahtzee Zero Punctuation, quoted out of context for the shits and giggles.

“The most salient fact about BioShock is that it’s different. If it doesn’t sell well, perhaps it’s time to abandon hope and resign ourselves to the eternal recurrence of space dungeons and World War II. Games like BioShock are what we need. They are what we deserve. This is one of the best examples of where we should go. It’s silly to argue whether games are art, which doesn’t matter one whit, when you can simply point to BioShock and say: “Games are this.” “
Tom Chick writing for Yahoo before going off and being the Master of Quarter to Three

“With BioShock, the more you look, the more you see. The more you see, the more you have to think about. The more you think about, the more you understand the bloody thing. It’s created, by far, the most novel setting for a mainstream videogame this year. Most importantly, while its narrative is of enormous importance to it, it never once betrays the medium. It doesn’t – say – present Rapture in cut-scenes. It puts you in a room and puts things in a room and, by induction, you come to understand the place. This is what’s most novel about games in relation to narrative – i.e. setting as narrative – and BioShock does it as well as anything ever has… BioShock believes in videogames and what videogames can be, and – if you go along with it – it’ll take you to places we’ve never really been before.”
Kier… oh, shit, that was me.

Bioshock is the most fiercely discussed game of the year because it’s the game that wanted to be most. That it’s so discussed is both a sign of how close it came, and how far away it ultimately was. This is not a problem. This is method. Onwards.

And – y’know – to me, perfection just implies what you were reaching for was a tad banal.

Aim for the stars. You’ll hit something.

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Hivemind

The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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