While I don’t deliberately live (at least) six months in the past, it invariably seems to work out that way. Which brings me to Bioshock. Everyone else played and finished it a long time ago having been wowed by the pre-release demo. Although the plane crash opening was indeed stunning, the demo nevertheless left me decidedly underwhelmed thanks to a combination of oddly varying visual quality and dubious narrative techniques.
The crash and interiors were certainly beautiful, but the first view of Rapture was fumbled beyond belief, almost making me think that the PC demo was missing some textures and crucial lighting information. The jarring mixture of full-screen cut-scene, letterboxed cut-scene and interactive storytelling felt like a developer throwing every idea at the screen without any regard for cohesion or good judgment.
Some time passes…
There will be spoilers from this point onwards. Do not continue to read if you have not already experienced Bioshock‘s big twist.
A few months afterwards Steam convinced me to give the game a second chance thanks to a nifty discount. While the opening through to Smuggler’s Hideout left me largely unengaged, the game suddenly took a turn for the better once I reached the green pastures of Arcadia. Rapture had never felt more immediate and real, with the abundance of flora contrasting fabulously with the art deco architecture. Both the storytelling and design continued to improve drastically, with the icy artistic madness of Fort Frolic proving even more satisfying.
Then, last night, I walked into Andrew Ryan’s lair in Hephaestus and was privy to gaming’s greatest plot twist since that one about Darth Revan in Knights of the Old Republic. That the plot twist had been so glaringly apparent throughout but had been hidden through the clever use of dialect and character quirks was was wonderful: this plot twist was about the player character, which is always good, but it was also rooted in dialogue and subtlety, rather than just missing history, amnesia and secret agendas – although it had all three of those as well, of course.
A good twist needs to shed new light on everything that has come before, without undermining it in the process. Bioshock‘s twist does this flawlessly, engendering an immediate urge to replay the game from the beginning and putting some of the narrative’s more strained concepts (why would you trust a random guy who’s contacted you on a radio, given that you just crash-landed and have entered a nightmare undersea world? Let alone do exactly as he says…) into sharp relief. Not only is the twist itself shocking, fun and clever; it also improves the game as a whole.
I suspect there’s also a mischievous commentary on games in general at work. The “would you kindly…?” mentality infuses almost all games – you always have a purpose, you’re normally told what to do by a third party, and you almost always do as you’re told. To shine a critical light on the inevitable hand-holding in games while simultaneously being an extremely linear game is a brilliant sleight of hand: it’s downright cheeky.
I’ve yet to complete the game and am slightly fearful of th ending, which I have heard is rather lacklustre. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have played the game simply for the twist and story so far and I’m decidedly grateful to have somehow avoided spoilers despite being a few months behind the rest of the world.