BioShock and Telling Stories Through Games

It might stun a lot of people that I haven’t played much BioShock.  I actually just started playing it.  You might ask, how can it be that I write about game design week after week without having played one of the best-designed games of our time?  Good question.  At least I’m talking about it now.

BioShock logo
The logo of the first BioShock. (Photo: ManuelSagra via Flickr)

I was turned onto it by a friend who’s a huge fan of BioShock, ever since it first released.  He enjoys partly because of the smart gameplay, but mostly because of the way it executes its story and character development.  I knew going in that BioShock is a great example for this aspect of design, but I didn’t realize how great.

Every moment of BioShock is rife with references to literature, history, and science fiction.  The twisted doctor Steinman is an echo of the narcissistic perfectionism of Frankenstein, Frank Fontaine represents the conniving mob bosses of the mid-1900s…and we can’t forget Andrew Ryan, the human embodiment of corporate ambition and libertarian idealism, balanced by a thirst for control over the society he created.

Without further spoiling any of the plot, BioShock is an excellent story-driven game in part because of its great story.  But what makes it legendary is how it ties its great story to its gameplay to involve the player directly.

Rapture tunnel
The tunnel leading into Rapture. (Photo: K-putt via Flickr)

From the beginning, the game’s HUD is pretty minimal.  As you explore the failed, ruined underwater utopia of Rapture, it feels alive and dead at the same time.  Most enemies are half-zombies, coherent enough to talk incoherently about their suffering.  In a way, every enemy has a story, because they were all human once.  It’s sometimes hard to tell if they’re angry or afraid.

It’s not long, however, before you realize that you will meet no friends in BioShock.  You’re alone in a sea of twisted bodies with lonely souls, a shadow of humanity that fills Rapture.   Its dark environments and creeping, ambient sound makes it feel more ghostly.  In my opinion, turning off the quest arrow is the true way to experience the game, because BioShock’s greatest weapon is sheer uncertainty.

This doesn’t mean that you’re powerless.  You can interact with the different environments of Rapture with your plasmids (artificial superhuman abilities) by shocking enemies with water, melting ice with fire, and so on.  The weapon types are varied, providing different types of ammo to suit various needs, like piercing armor or stunning opponents.  Tonics also provide special passive abilities like armoring or more health from food.  Some even help with hacking, one of my favorite mechanics in the game.  Hacking lets you access more items in Rapture’s vending machines for less money, or turn security bots against your enemies.  The research system is an offbeat but incredibly smart way of taking risks to unlock more abilities.

Despite these great options, resources often feel very limited at the same time, in a Resident Evil sort of way.  You have to pick up and use whatever’s lying around, or use up money to stay armed and alive.  Survival is always a question mark.  Here’s where BioShock inserts its strongest tie between gameplay and story.

Big Daddy and Little Sister
A Big Daddy defending a Little Sister. (Photo: Akiraman via Flickr)

Rapture is full of “Little Sisters,” genetically-altered immortal little girls tasked with extracting ADAM from corpses.  ADAM is the former miracle cure of Rapture, promising beauty and superhuman abilities.  However, it’s exactly what drove the citizens of Rapture to turn on each other.  The Little Sisters are protected by Big Daddies, extremely powerful robotic guards who must be destroyed to gain ADAM from Little Sisters and enhance your own power.

Once you destroy a Big Daddy, you have the option of restoring the girls to their senses for less ADAM in the short term, or letting them die in exchange for more ADAM.  By choosing whether to save the Little Sisters or harvest them for ADAM, you determine for yourself whether to abide by Ryan’s self-serving ideals, or choose to do the humane thing even if it doesn’t benefit you practically.  Bioshock is therefore a test to the player of the very question it poses: is altruism the way to prosperity or ruin?  By your own action, you determine whether you’re really the good guy in your own story.

It also explores themes like lost innocence, insanity, and how morality changes after essentially the end of the world.  In the world of Rapture, everyone fends for themselves and they all end up alone.  As you explore each environment looking for resources, you also find audio tapes.  These tapes are puzzle pieces to the greater picture of Rapture’s fall.  They tell tales of betrayal, loss, and broken minds.  Pulling on the threads of these stories is so interesting that exploring every corner of Rapture is all too enticing.

I didn’t expect BioShock, a story based on human decay, to be one of the richest games I’ve ever played.  I must say, though, I enjoyed the surprise.  This game made me confront a lot of ethical questions, and even question my own morality at times.  It was an unsettling jumble of scoundrels and monsters, but there was a beauty to it in the end.  And not just any beauty — a beauty that really matters.

Breath of the Wild Extended Thoughts

Last week I aired out my initial thoughts on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for Wii U.  I was eager to get those thoughts out in part to ease my own excitement.  But I also wanted to see how my thoughts after a few hours of playing would compare to my thoughts after dozens of hours.  Lots of reviewers have said Breath of the Wild is the best Zelda game of all time.  In a lot of ways I agree, but what makes a Zelda game a Zelda game?

This is the first truly open world Zelda since 1986.  Breath of the Wild is also different because there’s more space and something to find just about every few seconds.  You can basically skip the story entirely with enough determination.  Ocarina of TimeTwilight PrincessWind Waker…none of them have the same soul as Breath of the Wild.  And that’s not a bad thing.

Link looking out on Hyrule Field
Link looking out on Hyrule Field.

Breath of the Wild takes every ounce of 3D Zelda linearity and throws it out the window.  Instead of giving you a series of tasks, it gives you a few guidelines on what you’re doing.  Then it tells you to travel to every corner of the map.  And pick up eveything.  And take pictures of everything.

This is a massive change.  So massive that there’s really no point in comparing Breath of the Wild to any other Zelda games except for a few of the same basic tropes.  That being said, I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun with a game since Twilight Princess.

Every issue I’ve had with the game had ended up resolved, because a huge community has formed around this game already.  The fastest ways to get rupees, strategies for bosses, recipes, and interesting locations are turning up every day.  This game contains all the silliest, coolest, and most creative gameplay moments in all of Zelda.  It’s all thanks to this approach of giving the player several ways of approaching every situation.  The use of physics alone has hugely broadened the player’s input on how they experience the game. Breath of the Wild is a playground with a Zelda face on it.  In fact, if this game had completely different characters and equipment, it would be unrecognizable as Zelda.

I can see how this would rub lots of people the wrong way.  This game isn’t nearly as clean as other Zelda games.  It’s really difficult to work out early on, and breakable equipment means everything is fleeting.  You have to rely on your own wit more than in other Zelda games.  It’s a big change, as I said before, and change doesn’t always come easily.  Personally, though, I think this game is an escalation of an already great series.

Link pulling the Master Sword
Link pulling the Master Sword from its resting place.

The story is more engaging not only because it has good characters, but because you have to work for it.  The Master Sword is a better prize now that you’re not required to find it.  The game didn’t build me up, I built myself up.  I fail a lot.  Sometimes I get frustrated, but that’s part of the joy.  This game makes a triumphant return to the spirit of exploration and wonder that’s at the root of Zelda.  You obtain rupees, hearts, stamina, and items through exploration.  Then you use them to explore even more.

I don’t know whether or not this is the “best Zelda game of all time.”  It’s a different beast entirely.  But I don’t hesitate to call it great.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild Thoughts

I’m way late to the party for “early impressions” on Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  This bugs me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been excited to talk about this game for a long time.  Of course, it had to come out when my college midterms were in full force.  And then I came down with a fever.

Nevertheless, life…uh…finds a way.  I’ve played this game for quite a few hours now.  Breath of the Wild is like a game from the 1980s but still chock-full of modern design aspects.  So far the story has very little bearing on the experience, but that’s not to say it’s a bad story.  The voice acting is top-notch, and I like the fact that it’s an extension of another story.  You start knowing that you were once a great hero.   Starting from the literal bottom of the food chain feels more interesting that way.

That’s something I love and hate about this game — when I say you start at the bottom of the food chain, I really mean it.  You start with no clothes and a tree branch as your only weapon.  Granted, this changes pretty fast as you start completing shrines to gain Sheikah slate abilities and gathering materials to use and sell.  It doesn’t change the fact that you’re constantly working with very limited resources.  BotW is as much a survival game as an adventure game.  Every fight is more than a challenge, it’s an investment of resources.  You almost always come away breaking some weapons and losing some health, which means you have to eat some food to recover.  Everything from the Hylian Shield to the Master Sword can break in a fight (although they either regenerate or can be re-bought)

Enemy encounters are extremely stressful, until you obtain mostly indestructible items (which I personally haven’t yet).  Exploration, on the other hand, is an absolute joy.  You can climb anything given you find the right ledges and use jumps properly.  Then using the paraglider, you can convert huge vertical distance into huge horizontal distance.  Granted, you don’t want to go venturing into the furthest territories of Hyrule too early in the game.  Otherwise you’ll get destroyed, same as in the very first Legend of Zelda.

The cooking system is fantastically detailed and useful, although I should mention that the only way to combine ingredients to cook meals and elixirs is using a cooking pot, which can only be found in towns and certain encampments.  As I said, these are the only way to restore health.  You have to take advantage of the time when you’re able to use a pot.

This is just another of many extreme changes to the Zelda formula that Breath of the Wild creates.  Overall, do I like these changes?  I’m not sure.  Some are incredible — the amount of mobility you have in this gorgeous world is masterful.  But the fact that there’s so little you can rely on is a blessing and a curse.  A lot of times you’ll curse the game for being unfair.  The next minute, you’ll value the fact that you worked hard for your success.  Zelda has now shown that it doesn’t have to be the kind of game that delivers you an experience, and that’s important after Skyward Sword.  Then I go back and play a focused game like Twilight Princess.  And I kind of find myself missing that style.

My feelings on this game will probably change as I get further into it.  I will acknowledge that Breath of the Wild is masterful, just as the  reviewers are saying.  But it’s going to have to do even better to be my favorite Zelda.