Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Duff: ‘Bioshock’ tests gamer morality in a dark deco world

Duff: ‘Bioshock’ delivers the gamer into a dark world where choices matter

It’s one thing for a video game to exceed our expectations. The real trick is to redefine them – to give us things we didn’t even know we wanted.

2K Games has done that with their latest creation. It’s called “Bioshock” – a game that redefines the first-person shooter and sets a new standard for storytelling and art direction.

“Bioshock” excels in an area that most companies neglect. “Bioshock” has a plot – a powerful, complex and deeply emotional story that takes us beyond the realm of “mere” videogames.

The story is basically a rebuttal to “Atlas Shrugged.” Lead Designer Ken Levine has taken Ayn Rand’s notion of a society of unfettered geniuses and turned it into an art-deco house of horrors.

In “Atlas Shrugged,” a group of heroic industrialists secedes from society and builds a mini-utopia called Galt’s Gulch.

“Bioshock” takes that same premise and gives it a horror-movie twist. The game is set in 1960, in an underwater utopia built by a heroic industrialists. But instead of paradise, the geniuses of “Bioshock” have created a new kind of hell. The heroes discover a genetic fountainhead that grants them extraordinary powers and, coincidentally, drives them insane.

“Bioshock” is set in the bloody ruins of a city driven mad by genetic engineering. The city’s founder refuses to indulge in the “vice” of government control, even as residents turn on each other and blood flows in the streets.

Most gamers will ignore the subtext and fast forward to the next explosion, but “Bioshock” proves that video games can be used to tell mature stories in mature ways.

And it is this very maturity that has made “Bioshock” the subject of controversy. At key points in the game the player can make a moral choice that dramatically affects the power of his character and the nature of the game’s ending.

The game features an army of little girls who have been turned into monsters. Players can choose to save these girls or kill them to make themselves more powerful.

The killing happens off-screen and the game doesn’t shy away from moral judgments. Players who save the girls will be rewarded with a powerful and uplifting finale, while those who choose to kill them will be condemned.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with this because they still think of video games as kid stuff. But “Bioshock” is not for kids. “Bioshock” tells a thoughtful story full of depth, emotion and moral gravity.

It’s easy to condemn games like this, to judge them based on a sound-bite description of the plot and jump on the censorship bandwagon.

I’ll admit that was my first reaction, until I checked out some videos and saw the game for myself. “Bioshock” is a horror story, but it’s a smart horror story, thoughtful rather than gratuitous, far above the depravity of “Grand Theft Auto” and “Manhunt 2.”

Ready or not, the future of video games has arrived.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 21, 2007 at 14:27

Posted in Columns, Games

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