December 22, 2007

Commentary: Bioshock

Bioshock was one of the games that the games-are-art crowd got really excited about. Heinous acts like killing innocent girls have been seen in games before, but here, the game actually purported to care! That this was novel might be a sad reflection on the state of the medium, but I admit that I was excited too.

When I first encountered the vaunted moral choice, I was ecstatic. It was real! The game asked me to rescue the Little Sister and give up the extra Adam, and thus the game actually put value in the life of this character!

Except... It was never a difficult choice. I got plenty of Adam anyway, so it didn't feel like a sacrifice. And a few Little Sisters later, Tenenbaum delivered a huge bonus gift. Throw in the fact that I never really needed Adam to succeed and the choice was really just one of "which ending do I want to see".

I enjoyed Bioshock while I played it, and in my hype-haze I named it a masterpiece. I still think that the gameplay and the philosophical content of the game (i.e. the Objectivist society it showcases) is great, but I've since come to the realization that the whole "moral choice" angle is a lot weaker than it should have been.

The killer argument that ultimately changed my mind was in Jonathan Blow's excellent speech about how and what games teach. The lesson we learn in Bioshock, for example, is to kill everything that moves from as far away as possible, unless it's a Little Sister. When we actually have a chance to save them, the music plays and the girls first fight us and then looks at us with big eyes to say thank you and run off. But since there was no major sacrifice, all we can conclude is that the game is trying to clumsily manipulate our emotions.

Blow also makes a fantastic point about the Big Daddies. They're explicitly our enemies, but their whole purpose in life is to protect the defenseless. They make gentle, mournful moans and they are kind to the girls. Most importantly, they never attack anything that isn't hostile. Why do we kill them? Well, there's an obfuscated justification somewhere in the game about just how the Little Sisters are being rescued, but it sure seems like they go right back in the vents, and when we see them later, they're still programmed to harvest Adam. Ultimately, the reason we kill the Big Daddies is because the game expects us to, and because we want the goods they're protecting.

Contrast that with Portal. The Weighted Companion Cube is a box, but I (and others) honestly felt more sympathy for the torched box than for the Little Sisters. Bioshock's girls feel like just pieces of the game mechanics, and the only reason I ever felt bad for them is because I was told to.

The question of sympathy in games is one that we're definitely going to have to figure out. What made the Weighted Companion Cube work when the Little Sisters failed? The Cube protected us from the environment, depended on us to keep it close, and was integral to our success. The Little Sisters were dispensers of Adam.

With interactivity, it's what you do that matters. In order to make us care about a character, we have to interact with it more. I think that Alyx Vance from Half Life 2 is a step in the right direction; I'd mourn her death. But the lesson of Bioshock is clear: game designers can't depend solely on the representation of a character (as a helpless little girl, for instance) to generate sympathy.

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