After my unpleasant experience with System Shock 2, I moved on to BioShock. I wasn’t worried that I might have the same problems with BioShock that I had with System Shock 2: I remembered from my prior experience that BioShock took the Easy difficulty setting seriously (enough so that I was thinking of trying Normal on the replay), and the RPG aspects were dialed down and didn’t allow for the same sort of missteps I’d made in System Shock 2.

As it turns out, though: I stopped playing BioShock after the Medical Pavilion level. Not because the game was too hard (I made it through okay on Normal, certainly more easily than I did with System Shock 2 on Easy), but because of narrative reasons.


Which is a pity, because there were two aspects of the game that were flat-out amazing, one grand and one a little more localized. The grand aspect was the setting itself: the idea of an underwater city, the execution of the architecture (both in its original and ruined aspects), the music and sound design, etc. And the localized aspect was the idea of a cubist plastic surgeon: that’s a wonderful concept to build a level around.

I would have loved a game that went all in on those aspects. Given those two elements, probably the most natural way to flesh them out would be as a slowly paced horror game: one with enough breathing room to let you drink in the environment, but that still lets Dr. Steinman and subsequent characters show through in their glory. And, of course, the actual game does contain horror aspects; but there’s just too much shooting of guns or plasmids, too much hacking of turrets and health stations, too many vita chambers for the horror game to have any conviction. Basically: there’s a part of BioShock that wants to be an RPG with class choices, that wants to be Deus Ex, and that part wins over the proto horror game.

Or, indeed, over any other potential realization of the game that would leave you more room to drink in the mood and setting. If only games would learn from Shadow of the Colossus that it really is okay to leave space…


Still: that alone wouldn’t have been enough for me to stop my playthrough. What really got to me is the treatment of the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies. I said more about this in my first playthrough of the game, but: the entire treatment of the Little Sisters is awful. When you meet a small child that you’ve never seen before, the two choices that should go through your mind should not be “should I kill this child or should I use this magical shiny thing I’ve been given to perform surgery on the child despite the her screams of protest?” Now, admittedly, this sort of iffiness isn’t without precedent in video games: it’s also the case that, if you happen to find yourself in a strange location and come across a gun, then you should not use that as justification for mowing down everybody you meet! But at least that choice has history normalizing it in a video game context, and at least you’re being attacked so you can reasonably consider yourself to be in a “kill or be killed” situation. Whereas with the Little Sisters, the game forces you to commit child abuse, and then has the gall to present one form of that child abuse as the “good” choice.

That’s bad enough, but it then follows it up with a Big Daddy encounter. And here, the situation gets, if anything, even worse. Again, people: if you’re in an unfamiliar, dangerous location, if you meet a small child wandering around, and if you meet an adult whom that child clearly knows and loves and who is protecting that child (and doing so remarkably capably, given the extreme danger of the environment), then the correct choice of action is not to kill that adult. The correct choice of action is almost certainly to treat it as none of your fucking business; if, instead, you decide to treat this as some sort of clever environmental puzzle encouraging you to figure out how to use the many tools at your disposal to dispatch the protector most efficiently, then you are a monster.


So no, I really wasn’t in the mood to go further with BioShock after the end of the Medical Pavilion. I’m willing to consider the idea of playing games where I’m a monster, though honestly I would generally far rather not. I’ve got a lot of respect for what I’ve heard about Far Cry 2 or about Spec Ops: The Line; but those games put you in a much more self-consciously morally complex situation than my reading of BioShock does, and they don’t have the player being actively complicit in child abuse as their main theme. Having said that, the Little Sisters aren’t even the main overarching plot aspect of BioShock; maybe those other plot themes are reason enough to go forward?

I didn’t go forward, so I can’t say for sure, I’m just basing the following on my memory of my first playthrough. But my memory says this: the overarching theme basically comes down to two things. One is a poisonous presentation of father/son dynamics: arguments about whether the father gets to tell the son what to do, or whether the son gets to do whatever he wants, killing the father in the process. And the second is, of course, Objectivism.

And, well, fuck that too. Both of these basically boil down to the same thing: man-children who are fighting among themselves about who gets to have their own way, with the rest of the world as collateral damage. And that fits in with the whole Little Sisters / Big Daddy treatment, too: women and children are subhuman pawns for those man-children to use and dispose of as they wish, and men who try to build relations and families are slightly more worthy of respect (they’re men, after all, and if they’re successful in a role of protector then at least they’re participating in the fight) but ultimately need to be destroyed.

If this were satire, it could be a depressingly biting portrait of certain aspects of society. (Including, I suspect, the AAA game industry; I’ll throw Silicon Valley startup culture into the ring, too.) But it sure doesn’t read that way to me: the game isn’t a pro-Objectivism presentation by any means, but the game structurally buys into enough of Objectivism’s conceptual prerequisites that, well, see above.


So: no more BioShock for me. I’m curious about Minerva’s Den, but not curious enough to dip into BioShock 2. (And I’m very glad that people involved in that game have moved in a different direction.) Everything that I’ve read about BioShock Infinite makes me think that that game would drive me crazy as well: a glorious environment combined with way too much shooting and an offensive and hamfisted treatment of narrative themes.

Instead, I went through Monument Valley as a truly lovely palate cleanser, and then started a replay of the Phoenix Wright games. And that was absolutely the right choice.

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