BioShock

Finished Bioshock on friday evening – got the happy ending, since I had been saving rather than harvesting the little gatherers. I’m playing through it again, being as evil as possible this time through.

The game has gripped my mind like few other games. The first round of play lasted some ten hours, and my dreams have for the past week been set in sunken cities filled with puzzles and giant diving suits.
A couple of things worth noting:

 
The design aesthetic is very strong. Both the city and the game feel like there was one idea, one mind behind it all. The architecture, the grand size and the narrative all reinforce each other. The megalomania shows in the size of what was built, and the location. Rapture-under-sea is breathtaking to behold. Each new area has a different look and feel. The hospital looks very much like any 3d shooter – tiled corridors and flickering flourescent lights. The mall/theatre district is much more open, much more dramatic in its use of lighting and space. The gardens are lush, alternating close-in areas and open spaces; with plants and flowers obscuring sight lines.
The claustrophobia of being trapped at the bottom of the ocean, with water seeping in everywhere is a good start for a scary game. Adding crazed, genetically modified homocidal maniacs, giant ambulatory diving suits and eerie little girls makes each new area a tense experience.
The sound design is fabulous. The ambient sounds help tell the story – announcements of curfews and news bulletins fill in the back-story if you care to listen. The audio diaries tell the story more explicitly, but I wish they could have been integrated more into the story. The diaries get the story told (again with the awesome sound design), but they are a prime example of telling, not showing. Showing more of the story in-game would require  either flashbacks or setting the story during the collapse, rather than a year later.

The diaries do manage to fill in characters over the course of the game, and they give you many different facets of the story, letting you fill in the gaps as you learn new things.  I felt sorry for the poor Dr. Suchong after hearing yet another experiment failing with him being mauled by his test subject. It seemed like almost all his diary entries ended with him screaming and blubbering.
The Unique Selling Point is that you get to choose whether to rescue or kill charming little vampire moppets. Moral choices in games (pace Black and White): ooh. Significant choices.

Or maybe not. Turns out it all evens out in the long run, so your choice has few consequences for you. Which kind of undermines the whole point.

The game enjoys undermining its own point, so maybe the fact that your choice doesn’t matter is part of the game. Andrew Ryan points out your lack of free will within the game. You must complete various tasks in the game in order to progress. These tasks are not done because you want to, but because you have to. The player lacks free will within the game. Ironically, this whole explanation happens within a cutscene where you have no interaction or possibility of choice at all. Your only alternative choice is not to play the game.
The game is a a finite game, but it uses this to its advantage. It makes the restrictions in the nature of being a game part of the game’s story. It does raise the interesting game design problem: how can you incorporate free will into a story driven game?