Friday, February 19, 2010

Rapture's Aftermath: BioShock 2's Reception, And The Franchise's Future

Observing the reactions to the newly released BioShock sequel has been very interesting, particularly because they have been so mixed. Generally speaking, BioShock 2's reception has been positive: the game has received an average review score of around 88% (360 version) on aggregate sites and most people seem to recognise it as a competent shooter that has justified its existence as a sequel to a game that most thought didn't need one. But, despite that general perception, further investigation reveals a whole host of different thoughts, both positive and negative, that have been really intriguing.

My regular readers may recall that I had anticipated disappointment in the reactions to BioShock 2, and, I think I can fairly say that in some respects, I was right in that assumption. While most can agree that for what it is, it's a successful installment, there are still quite a lot of people out there who have expressed their disappointment, expecting BioShock 2 to be a lot more than what it actually is. Some wanted it to render the original game irrelevant -- in a similar way to how Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Assassin's Creed II did to their respective predecessors -- while others wanted it to be a remarkably different game that isn't so familiar to the first. Since BioShock 2 doesn't achieve the former and is absolutely similar to the original game in terms of gameplay, mood and atmosphere, and indeed graphically, it's understandable that these people are disappointed that it didn't meet their own expectations. In my opinion, I believe these expectations were perhaps a bit too unrealistic and, as that older post of mine suggests, these people are now disappointed with a product that could never have met such lofty expectations -- but whether this is the case or not is, of course, subjective and only relevant to the individuals concerned.

Personally, on the other hand, BioShock 2 has met my expectations so far, perhaps because I chose my expectations carefully and kept them in line with what I believed a sequel could accomplish. As I mentioned in my brief look, I wanted BioShock 2 to maintain the atmosphere and personality of the first game, continue the story of both Rapture and its deranged inhabitants and, of course, give me the opportunity to return to a city and setting that leaves me in absolute awe. So far it has achieved all of this and more, and when combined with the gameplay improvements and other refinements BioShock 2 delivers, I'm left with a positive impression of the game that motivates me to continue playing and makes me eager to see what will happen next. This difference between my expectations and the arguably unrealistic ones of others doesn't really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but is something that has been interesting to consider as I observe how others react to the game and compare those reactions to my own.

To be clear for a second; as an opposing argument to my comparison it could easily be said that I have a bias towards the original BioShock, if not the franchise* -- I mean, this blog's name was influenced by it -- and as such, anything I suggest about the reactions people are having could be as a result of clouded judgment, but with or without that potential bias I still believe that the response people have had has been interesting and worth observing.

The last thing that I have found intriguing is this article on Kotaku, pondering whether Rapture as a city and game space that players get to experiment within can hold up a third time in BioShock 3, if not future installments altogether. The article questions whether it can, as well as contemplates the location and setting any further sequels should have if it can't by allowing the site's readers to weigh in with their say.

My instant reaction to that article is one of astonishment, but further consideration of the topic yields a similar response. As far as I am concerned, Rapture is BioShock and to have further games set elsewhere would be like setting a Mario game on the USG Ishimura (of Dead Space fame). You just don't separate certain elements or features from each other, and while I have no doubt that a BioShock game set elsewhere would be interesting, it just wouldn't be the same as one set in Rapture. The beauty of Rapture is that, as a city, it has a lot of potential to continually offer new areas that we haven't seen before, not to mention the characters and motivations that drive those places -- BioShock 2 is a wonderful example of how the perception of Rapture can be altered and continued in new and interesting ways, and I don't see any reason why that should (or would) change if another installment were to be created. Sure, after a while it might get a little difficult to maintain the consistency and flow of the narrative across each game, but if done right, as BioShock 2 has certainly been in the levels I've played so far, then there is no reason for Rapture to be replaced by another location. If, and perhaps when, Rapture loses its appeal and cannot be explored further, then, in my opinion, BioShock as a franchise should not be explored further either. When that times comes -- and let's face it, one day it probably will -- then the series should be left alone as a hopefully wonderful memory and a significant part of gaming history whilst a new franchise is created, hopefully as remarkable and compelling as the original BioShock was. I guess what I am saying is that some things are best left where they are, and when we have seen all there is to see with such an amazing and arguably important franchise, then developers and, more importantly, gamers need to know when it's time to move on.

If, instead, the BioShock franchise continues elsewhere as a reaction to some people's disdain with the familiarity, then the resulting perdition that will stem from that is surely much worse than anything we could ever see among Rapture's destruction. How would that be for the swan song of BioShock's insanity?

*I would actually suggest my fanboyism is directed at Rapture, rather than the game/series as a whole.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Brief Look At BioShock 2

Big Sister is angry with you...

It was inevitable that I would buy this game. Not only is it the sequel to what is easily one of my favourite games out there, it also gives me the chance to return to a videogame space unlike any other: one so unique in its theme and appearance; filled with attention to detail and personality; and set somewhere where few other games, if any, have explored, that I can't help but be excited to explore it once more. As far as I am concerned, Rapture is BioShock, so any opportunity to return to the underwater utopia is going to be taken immediately.

My first impression of BioShock 2 was one of relief. Within moments of loading the game, it felt like I was home, and while that sounds incredibly ridiculous or perhaps even hyperbolic, it's true. Those initial moments of control, when I (as opposed to who we play as: the Big Daddy original prototype known as 'Delta') was finally playing the game, were strangely calming, and I stood there for a few minutes, surveying my new surroundings and just taking it all in. This was undoubtedly Rapture, and I had undoubtedly returned, and the relaxing moments those two facts had inspired was exactly the kind of reaction I wanted from not just the sequel, but any installment of the franchise: prequel or sequel.

To take my fanboy approach to Rapture and thus, the BioShock franchise, out of the equation for a moment, it has been incredibly interesting to observe the reactions to the game that everyone else is having and correlate them with my own.* Personally, so far at least, BioShock 2 is delivering on the expectations I set upon it: it allowed me to return to Rapture, it maintains the atmosphere and personality that was so prominent in the first game, and continues to flesh out the narrative of both the city and those who populate it. Admittedly, I'm still fairly early into the game so it remains to be seen if things will change or continue, get better or get worse -- but in the meantime my impression of BioShock 2 has been positive and, more importantly, I'm glad 2K Marin, Australia and China (as well as Digital Extremes) were able to justify its existence and show that it wasn't just a cash-in but a genuine attempt to iterate on a remarkable game. It goes without saying that I'll have more about BioShock 2 soon -- this blog's name is influenced by the series after all...

*I'll have more on these observations in my next post as they have been rather intriguing and, I think it's fair to say, quite mixed too.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Space Invaders: BioShock's Rapture, Part Two

[Part of an ongoing series of posts exploring the way videogames use their spaces to convey their overall experience, ranging from design and dynamics to aesthetic and artistic appeal, and everything in between. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead.]

Yesterday, I took a look at the Welcome To Rapture level in BioShock to explain the ways in which it introduces us to its story, characters, gameplay and atmosphere. I discussed things like the subtle visual information the level contains -- such as the protest signs that lay on the floor when you first arrive in Rapture -- which enrich the experience and leaves the impression that this isn't just a level in a videogame, but a real place, one with a history, personality and culture that is now slowly meeting its demise. Every element that can be found in that level sets up the rest of the game superbly, and there are very few other opening levels in videogames which draw the player in as effectively as that one does. But it's not the only level in BioShock that uses its space in fascinating ways. A few of the other levels are really clever with the way they define Rapture as a fully-fledged city. Allow me to explain.

Aesthetic Ideals

An interesting thing to note is that each level provides an attraction to see or exemplifies a particular person's personality. Two in particular, the Medical Pavilion and Fort Frolic, stand out to me as really effective -- both in terms of how they flesh out Rapture as a whole as well as the ways in which they explicate the characters who essentially run the two places.

In the Medical Pavilion, Doctor Steinman is the prominent figure, and the level does what it needs to in order to ensure that the player knows this. As progress is made through the Medical Pavilion, we start to get the impression that Steinman -- a plastic surgeon specialising in rhinoplasty if posters on the walls are anything to go by -- has an obsession with perfection. Not necessarily in his craft but rather in his subjects and what he can achieve with them. Bound by no morals or fear of judgement from Rapture's fellow citizens, Steinman has the freedom to experiment, meaning that he has no shame in sculpting them until they are deformed to the point of no return, and it's quite common to come across his ex-patients dead on the floor of the Pavilion, surgical instruments still inserted into their bodies. Other artifacts such as framed photos showing "before" and "after" shots of patients; messages written in blood suggesting that the existence of Adam means there's no reason not to be beautiful; the frozen pipes and oil spills that remain unattended to; and the ramblings about precision and "surgical artistry" found in Steinman's many audio diaries all combine to convey the sense of an obsession that has gone too far, as well as the insanity that is derived from it. This obsession is most obvious when we eventually meet Steinman and find him working on a dead patient, with three others all hanging above him. As we watch he talks about how his patient doesn't stop moving and all he wants is for them to be beautiful, eventually ranting about how the three above him are too fat, full and symmetrical. After that he notices us, the player, and believes we are an intruder who is too ugly, engaging us in the mini-boss battle that ensues. You could argue that this moment is poignant, as we must fight and kill him just as his mentality has completely gone insane due to his obsession. Whatever way you look at it, it's an intriguing end to a character who we learn about through visual and aural clues found throughout the Medical Pavilion.

Fort Frolic is another level that superbly elaborates on its central character, Sander Cohen, through what we see and do within. A man of the theater, the eccentric, vain Cohen is obsessed with performance, and the level demonstrates this in a similar way to that of the Medical Pavilion. Interestingly, Fort Frolic is a hybrid level, catering to shopping enthusiasts as well as featuring a focus on the arts and entertainment. It is the latter that is Cohen's area of expertise, and we see his influence over the place the most in the Fleet Hall, which is situated in the middle of Fort Frolic. It's in here that we start learning about the man, his reluctance to meet us until he is ready suggesting he's not one to be seen in public unless it is under the right circumstances. Shortly thereafter, we watch as a pianist (splicer) called Fitzpatrick loses his mind due to constantly messing up the melody that Cohen is forcing him to play repeatedly, the objective that follows being to take a photo of his corpse and place it on 'Cohen's Masterpiece'. For the rest of the level, our goal is to track down Cohen's disciples, kill them and add their picture to the masterpiece in order to complete it. While doing this we learn more about him through what we hear in various audio diaries as well as what we see -- sculptures of Splicers in various poses; advertisements for his many shows; performance masks lying on the floor -- and, by the end of the level, we've got a clear idea of who Sander Cohen is, not just in terms of his personality but also his place within Rapture's community. *

It's a perception gained through the environment and our actions, and it's this detail that goes a long way in showing that Rapture isn't just about the ideals and motivations it was built on, but also the individuality and unique characteristics of its residents, providing insight into those whom we will meet later, as well as how they operate within Rapture's society. It's clever, effective and enforces the values that continue to define Rapture's walls.

The Sweat Of Our Brow

The levels discussed above are also interesting to think about from a design standpoint. The Medical Pavilion, for example, introduces us to the ways in which we interact with the Little Sisters, our choice to either save or harvest them defining our experience with the rest of the game. Shortly thereafter, the first Big Daddy that can actually be fought is seen stumbling around the level, Little Sister naturally in-toe. What's interesting to note is that the area in which you first meet him is relatively large, with multiple obstacles littered around the level to both help you once you've engaged him in battle (structures that slow his aggressive charges at you while also providing beneficial cover) as well as challenge you and your focus as you continually try to avoid his attacks and get the upper hand. The lack of confinement doesn't just make the initial fight potentially easier to prepare for, it also gets the player thinking about their approach to the fight -- a crucial component to future Big Daddy fights when added weapons and Plasmids allow for a variety of ways in which to engage the combat situation.

The Medical Pavilion also sees the player obtain their next couple of Plasmids, with oil spills and a tennis ball launcher allowing them to test their new-found Incinerate and Telekinesis abilities instantly after acquisition. But it's not just immediately that these Plasmids get used, either: access to the funeral parlour Twilight Fields is blocked by the aforementioned frozen pipes, requiring incineration before the small area is available to be explored, whilst a new form of enemy -- the Nitro Splicer -- throws grenades (and later the more effective Molotov Cocktails) as his main form of attack, Telekinesis providing the chance to catch them and throw them back for explosive, ironic damage. Combined with the Electro-Bolt Plasmid obtained in the Welcome To Rapture level, the player is slowly but surely introduced to the many varieties with which they can play the game, the Medical Pavilion's many locations ripe for experimentation. Throw in the introduction to hacking -- including security bots, vending machines and health stations -- and the level paves the way for the gameplay dynamics that will come in the future. The important thing is that these introductions are not overwhelming and go a long way in demonstrating what the player will be able to potentially do in the future, while also allowing them to play around and form their ideal playing style. It's subtle, but it's effective and continues the intrigue and compulsion for the player to continue as initiated by the opening level.

The remaining levels don't necessarily work to introduce the player to new gameplay elements or mechanics, but they are designed as a way to flesh out the perception that Rapture is a real place, once lived in by a civil society and now falling into chaos and ruins. It makes sense that there's a segregated yet accessible Medical Pavilion, complete with places for surgery, dental and even death; it makes sense that there's a garden-like level (Arcadia), providing a place for Rapture's people to be reminded of the simple pleasures of nature, as well as an attractive place to socialise; it makes sense that there's a shopping mall district (Fort Frolic), where the industry side of Rapture can combine with the creative, and where artists can mingle with consumers; and it makes sense that there would be a place specifically created for people to live in (the upper class apartments of Olympus Heights, as well as the lower and middle class residential areas of Apollo Square), or for people to work in (the industrial complex that is Hephaestus). It all adds up to suggest, indirectly, that Rapture isn't just a city full of people conditioned towards a certain mindset or particular ideals, but that it is also a fully-functioning city as efficient and productive as any of the ones you will find on land.

Whether these inclusions are necessary in terms of how BioShock plays is irrelevant; they exist as a means of creating a space, one that doesn't just project an atmosphere and personality onto the player, but one that is interesting to explore, has a history that's easy to relate to or understand, and one whose existence is entirely possible to believe, should the player allow their suspension of disbelief to accommodate Rapture's many pleasures. The end result, in my view, is a videogame place like no other, one that was at once dreadful and delightful, and one that was unlike anything else I had ever seen before.

The attention now turns to BioShock 2, and while I am interested in the improvements the sequel will no doubt bring, my anticipation and excitement isn't necessarily for the gameplay or exposition of the story, but rather the mere fact that I get to return to Rapture and see more of it. I couldn't ask for anything more, really, as it is exactly the kind of utopia that I'd want to visit -- it's up to you whether you deem it as paradise, or as perdition.

*We also learn a little more about Cohen in another level later on in the game, giving BioShock even more cohesion that's subtle but effective.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Space Invaders: BioShock's Rapture, Part One

[Part of an ongoing series of posts exploring the way videogames use their spaces to convey their overall experience, ranging from design and dynamics to aesthetic and artistic appeal, and everything in between. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead.]

When I last wrote about it, I referred to BioShock as a tour of Rapture: a game whose overall experience shows a dying city, each location illustrating a history, sense of community and utter insanity, as well as hints towards what used to be a once prosperous place, one which thrived until political and social turmoil caused chaos amongst its citizens -- the remnants of the past clearly obvious amongst the destruction and violence that seeps throughout the underwater tunnels now. That was then. Now, just before the release of the sequel, I have played through BioShock again as a way to reflect upon the game with the Vintage Game Club.

My description of Rapture above highlights what I believe to be BioShock's best character. The game wouldn't be anywhere near as good as it is if it weren't for the incredible attention to detail, design and personality that emanates from Rapture's foundations. Andrew Ryan, Fontaine and Doctor Tenenbaum may all seem like they are the key characters of the game -- and plot wise, they are -- but my interest in them doesn't come out of respect for who they are or what they might represent, but rather the parts they played in the creation, history and personality of Rapture. Their influence over the underwater city, as well as many other people, can be seen all over and its this ubiquitous presence that not only defines Rapture, but allows the player to be immersed in its atmosphere and gives them the sense that this is -- or was -- a living, breathing city that is as real as any of the ones you might find up on land. It's this overall perception of Rapture that fascinated me the most and is undoubtedly one of, if not the, main reasons why I love BioShock so much. Allow me to elaborate by using the opening level in the game as an example.

Welcome To Rapture

Bias towards the game aside, the opening level of BioShock has to be one of the best out there, doing everything it needs to in order to set a tone, atmosphere and fictional setting that compels us to continue. From the opening discovery of the bathysphere to the onslaught of Splicers at the end, the entire chapter not only communicates the information crucial to our experience, but demonstrates everything the player needs to know about BioShock's gameplay, the city of Rapture, the central characters within, and how to deal with the deranged Splicers. Not only does it do this with confidence and respect, it also nails the atmosphere that permeates the entire game, enticing you with its unique personality and instilling feelings of isolation, fear, wonder, and amazement at what is being seen. Throughout the entire chapter you are uncomfortable with your surroundings, experimenting with what you find whilst wondering just exactly what it all means -- exactly the kind of reaction to this weird, surreal place that you would expect anyone foreign to Rapture to have as they familiarize themselves with this unbelievable place. It's visceral, in a remarkably beautiful way, and it immerses you into the game like few others manage to achieve. It's also cohesive, which I believe is crucial to its success.

Right from the get go the game hooks you in, the "Would You Kindly?" phrase whose deceit we'd later discover clearly visible on the note that comes with the 'package' from Jack's parents. The plane's tail slowly sinks into the murky depths below, re-appearing a little later when we walk through Rapture's many tunnels. We learn about the political ideals that guide Rapture's civilization, propaganda banners serving as constant reminders -- but we also see the revolt against this, abandoned protest signs suggesting to us the turmoil that led to the chaos and destruction we now get to explore. We see signs of commercialism with the posters on the walls, the dollars we find and the neon signs we can see outside Rapture's many windows. The sea itself gives off the illusion of being distant, but water seeping in and leaking through cracks in the glass remind us of the reality that this is a city built under water, flooding and ruins only a moment away if the buildings we're in start to give way. Life and death is everywhere, the fish outside passing by as another body is found on the ground, blood everywhere and his/her belongings spread out across the floor. Elements of humanity contrast with insanity: the relationship between the Big Daddies and their Little Sisters highlighting the importance of companionship while deranged splicers are controlled by a mind that has lost its way. We're guided by Atlas, his articulate Irish charm explaining our surroundings as we progress, calming our anxiety and helping us through this uncomfortable environment. We learn about Andrew Ryan, influenced to believe he is our antagonist through what we're told and shown, our impression of him reinforced when Ryan himself speaks to us, questioning our presence in his domain and accusing us of being spies for the CIA or KGB -- he isn't sure yet.

Within this chapter are so many subtle moments that not only setup the game, but the whole experience: the mechanics we'll be using to interact with and explore Rapture; the prominent rivalry between Ryan and Fontaine, our own presence causing concern for the former whilst the latter secretly controls our every move; the personality the place once had demonstrated by things like the New Years Eve party that was held in the Kashmir restaurant, the billboards advertising products and events on the walls, and the artifacts (left-over bottles of wine, cat food, luggage strewn across the floor) showing the consequences of a once civilised city; the history of the political rivalry as well as the ideals and desires that formed the foundations of Rapture's signature; and the reality that the destruction of this city doesn't just leave it in ruins, it leaves it as a memory: the beautiful waters outside flooding the once prosperous society.

It's a remarkably powerful opening and really lays down the foundations of what the rest of the game's experience will be. This introduction alone is enough to make Rapture as a whole compelling to explore and really intriguing, but it's not the only element to do this, either. Tomorrow, I'll elaborate on the other areas of Rapture that define its society, as well as our tour throughout.

For a similar but different perspective on Rapture's opening chapter, I suggest you read Michael Abbott's take.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Brief Look At Yakuza

A year ago I wrote some brief impressions on the variety of games I was trying to play as a way of offering my thoughts on them without going any further, thinking that once I wasn't so overwhelmed I would be able to return to them with a more focused perspective and discuss them thoroughly here. Clearly, save for a few titles, that didn't really happen and all those posts ended up being was filler while I was trying to deal with my situation. I disliked that idea and regret the lack of exposition, but it was necessary at the time. Despite all of this, my intention was always to take a brief look at each game I play, offering my initial thoughts about the title before writing about it properly once I had finished it. My post on Uncharted 2 is perhaps the best example of what I want to do with these brief looks but, obviously, I'm yet to write about that game due to wanting to cover the original game first (which by the way, I haven't finished doing).

So it begins with another game I have been playing lately, Yakuza on the PlayStation 2.

My interest in the Yakuza series is inspired by other people's opinions on the game. Everything I've heard over the past couple of years, particularly about Yakuza 2, has piqued my curiosity and with the purchase of the original Yakuza, I can finally see what all the fuss is about.

The first thing that surprised me about this game is its combat. The moves you can perform aren't anything I haven't seen from other games, but what impressed me was how relatively simple and accessible it is. With the press of just a few buttons I can knock an enemy to the ground, giving me the advantage to continue pummeling him while he's lying there in agony; attack him as soon as he starts to get back up; retrieve a weapon (example: a sign post) for extra assistance; or, in the case of multiple opponents, turn around and focus on someone else. This makes the various fights with the game's enemies rather easy and if there is any challenge to be had, it's derived from the game's poor camera as opposed to enemy difficulty, which is disappointing but arguably expected from such an old game. For now it's something I can overlook, but it can be frustrating at times. Aside from that, the frequency of combat situations is already starting to grate which is a shame given the fact I'm still in the initial hours of the game.

Luckily the characters and narrative are compelling enough to keep me playing, which is partly the reason I was interested in Yakuza in the first place. Despite the abundance of fights, the game appears to be telling a mature story that isn't told with over the top dramatics or unnecessary humour. The characters so far are a mixed bag, with the key ones maintaining my interest and a lot of the others, particularly the various clan leaders, all going over my head. I'm not sure if it's my lack of insight into Japanese culture or their reasonably similar names, but I am finding myself confused at times when some characters are being discussed in conversation and I'd be lying if I didn't say that it was affecting my experience of the game somewhat. It's a little niggle that I might overcome as I continue playing and familiarize myself more with it's tale, but for now it's something I feel warrants mentioning.

Speaking of culture, that's the other main reason I'm interested in Yakuza. I'm curious to see if it can teach me about Japanese culture, or at least elements of it, during my time with the game. Part of the reason I enjoy a good story is because of how they can provide insight into something I might otherwise not be aware of, and Yakuza seems a good a place as any when it comes to learning about a lifestyle that is very different to my own. Whether it succeeds in providing this insight remains to be seen, but regardless of the outcome it will certainly be an interesting experience.

Precisely then, why I'm looking forward to playing it some more, so stay tuned for future thoughts once I've spent more time with the game. In the meantime, the next game to receive a brief look will happen next week with the release of BioShock 2. And we all know where I stand as far as that franchise is concerned...