The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Audio Logs

bioshock audio diary

Audio logs. I’m sick of them. Stop using them. Tell the story through the narrative, or don’t tell it at all.

What is it with one good game using a mechanic, and every video game after it copies them, but totally misses why it worked in the other game. Not that it really worked in the other game. Okay, now I’m rambling.

Here’s why audio logs don’t work. First, they don’t make sense in the world. They’re ludonarrative dissonance. Those things have got to be expensive. Who the fuck is lugging around these giant tape recorders and record players, and leaving them there in freezers, bars, barrels, trash cans? Just to record thirty seconds of random thoughts? People don’t write journals/diary entries like that. I know the joke has been made before, but seriously, why isn’t anyone learning that?

And that dovetails into my next point: they interrupt the gameplay. I know the point of audio logs is that they’re not supposed to, but they do. You’ve got two choices when it comes to audio logs — listen or don’t listen. If you don’t listen, you miss the storyline, potential secrets, necessary hints. In Doom 3, most tell you the code to access whatever item cache is nearby. No medkits for you if you don’t listen to some technician complaining about lack of weapons or insane soldiers. If you’re that kind of person, you’re just going to blaze through the game anyway and miss half the content.  Not to mention the context of why you’re there in the first place. You might as well be playing a Flash game.

If you do listen to them, you have to sit there and stare into nothingness while you listen to whatever ninny is droning on about their scientific breakthrough or petty issues (that happen to conveniently relate to your situation). 

I know the point of audio logs is that you can keep playing while you listen, but that doesn’t work. Because if you get in a firefight or activate a cutscene in the middle of the log, you miss what’s being said. Or it gets cut off. And you have to listen again. So really, an audio log is no different than a cutscene. Worse actually, because you get no visual.

I’m not sure where they evolved from. Clearly Bioshock was the most famous for it (but maybe because it was the most ridiculous implementation). Maybe they came from the seamless cutscenes in Half-Life. You know what? I don’t mind cut-scenes. God of War did them well — short, poignant, meaningful, and content-rich. Why don’t video games duplicate that, instead of the quick-time events?

Late to the Game: Bioshock: Infinite — The Wrap-Up

bioshock infinite title screen

It’s not been too long since I wrote my “Initial Impressions” but I had some vacation, and this was a much shorter game than I thought. I’ve had some time to think about it, and I don’t think I’ll be saying anything new, but here’s my two Silver Eagles anyway.

Why do I keep playing games like this?

Here’s the thing. Bioshock games are well-put-together. You can tell someone thought about them. A lot. You can tell there’s a singular vision behind them, an author’s voice. You are promised a story that’s more complex than “Save the Girl, Kill the Big Bad”, and it is delivered. But that’s all content that could be put into a novel.

The thing about a video game is that you play it. You interact with it. You make decisions, judgments, and choices that affect the outcome. I don’t even care that the storyline is linear, but don’t pretend to give me the illusion of choice. I’m smarter than that.

bioshock infinite daisy fitzroy

What am I talking about? Well, I’m talking about a few things, which I’ll get into. But here’s what I’m not talking about. I’m not talking about the racism thing. I’m privileged, but I think it was handled plausibly and realistically for the situation. The thing is, with historical fiction, I think you can’t use the present to judge the past, even when it’s fiction. No matter what Courtney Stanton says.

bioshock infinite cover
Box art that’s apparently controversial

I don’t care about the box art. I didn’t even buy the box — I bought it from Steam. Box art is determined by a Marketing Department.  By people who are trained how to deliver a message in a single image. As far as I could see, the box art delivered the game it promised (keyword: game, not story).

I don’t care about Elizabeth. I don’t care that she acts like an immortal idiot in battle — ducking right in the line of fire. Better that than she gets killed every 20 seconds, through no fault of my own, and I have to start over. That’s like the computer playing and beating itself. I’d rather fudge realism in the interest of fun. When you’ve got a city in the sky, you’ve forsaken your claim to realism. In fact, I’m rather endured to Elizabeth. Anyone who’d stay with me after she saw me shred a guy’s face off with an industrial meat grinder is okay in my book.

Bioshock Infinite elizabeth book
Said book

No, what I care about is the “ludonarrative dissonance”. Big fancy word, eh? Let’s break it down. Ludo is from “ludology” which means “video game theory” (not the mathy kind). Narrative means “the telling of the story”. And dissonance means “a harsh, disagreeable combination of sounds”. In other words, it’s when you mix your peanut butter and your tomatoes. Its when the game pulls you out of the experience with indications that you are playing a game.

All games have this, to some degree. You can take a rocket to the face and run around like nothing happened. No one questions why people burst into song during a musical — it’s part of the genre/style. Dying at the first bullet would take the fun out of the game.

Bioshock Infinite skyrail

Here’s a Bioshock Infinite example — skylines. The skyhook is your melee weapon. You can separate someone’s spinal cord with it OR you can use them to jump onto zip lines at certain points around the game. I thought they were great fun, especially when you can drop fifty feet and launch someone over the side of Columbia. Does it matter that I’m certain my player’s kneecaps would shatter, his shoulder pulled out of socket? No, because the coolness of the act makes up for it. It pays for its ludicrosity by the fun factor.

Another one: the game is filled with linear levels that feel like Disneyland. That’s fine. I like Disneyland. I like the idea of being transported to a totally different world, even if it’s a guided tour. Disneyland is beautiful, it’s alien, it’s full of wonders and horrors that stimulate the senses. But the theme park can be grand as cake, and it won’t matter one whit if the rides are crappy.

I don’t need to see Booker eat a bag of potato chips. I don’t need to see him pick up each one and crunch it. I don’t mind that. What I do mind is when A) potato chips repair bullet wounds B) you eat massive amounts of them, and C) you found them in the garbage, along with live grenade rounds, a pack of cigarettes, and a bottle of wine. I’ve tried this in the real world. Maybe I combined them wrong, but the Pringles + Night Train + Kools recipe had, in fact, the opposite effect.

potato chips cigarettes beer
DR. MELIK: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
DR. ARAGON: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
DR. MELIK: Incredible.
Sleeper (1973)

Of course, it’s a video game staple that food = health, but that’s the thing. Bioshock: Infinite’s gameplay is full of staples that remind you this is a game. Not just from previous Bioshocks, but all kinds of cliche features. Keep in mind, I’m talking gameplay, not story (we’ll get to that).

I played this game on easy because as I get older, my VG skillz go down. In the middle of playing Black Mesa, and jumping onto the same tiny railing, falling, reloading, falling, reloading, etc. for the 27th time, I just cheated. (Why did anyone put platform jumping in a 3-D shooter? How can you measure your jump if you can’t see your feet?) I realized that I didn’t really want to play the game, I wanted to see the sights and experience the story.

I wonder if that makes me partially responsible for those hand-holding mechanics. As part of the gaming populace, am I the guy who’s making it so the game’s so easy it feels like it’s playing itself? You’ve got a regenerating shield, gobs of ammo and weapons, highlighted targets, a magic system that stuns enemies, a helper that throws supplies at you when you run low, and magically appearing cover/depots.

It’s a game that promised innovation and delivered Bioshock with a different coat of paint. There’s no difference between Vigors and Plasmids, Gear and Gene Tonics, EVE and Salts, Elizabeth and Little Sisters, Handyman and Big Daddy, skyhook and wrench/drill. I’m not sure why this game got the hype it did.  Especially when it uses some of the most basic cliches like bullet sponges, “teleporting” enemies, convenient plot items, fetch quests that pad the game (what did Finktown have to do with anything?).

All I’m doing when I’m not shooting is running around, hammering space-space-space, grabbing anything that flashes. None of it hurts me, and Booker leaves it if my inventory’s full. I don’t even see what I’m picking up (which is a waste of code).

Why can’t Ken Levine make a game as well as a story? Because this is really just John Steinbeck combined with Call of Duty.  Actually, strike that. It’s more like a Christopher Nolan movie. It’s a puzzle where you can’t solve it unless the author spoon-feeds you the pieces. Then you put them in and wait for the next piece — there is no process of intuition/deduction/solving. The easy parts are easy and the hard parts are so damn incomprehensible (the “infinite” part) that it goes over your head.

bioshock infinite blood elizabeth scissors
Hey, you got a little something on you there.

But my biggest beef is with the illusion of choice. I know that’s supposed to be part of the theme, but the way it’s integrated into gameplay is even worse. Even Bioshock 1 wasn’t as bad as this. Even though it only gave you the option to be messiah savior or cold-blooded child-killer, it gave you the option. Here, they just provide you a stopping point until you press a button to perform some inescapable action. And the narrative doesn’t proceed unless you do. That’s not a choice, that’s making me turn the page.

There’s plenty I wished I could have seen more of too. I love the Songbird. It’s apparently supposed to be an icon of the game, but it’s barely in it. I would have loved more interaction with Elizabeth. You’re supposed to bond with her, why not little events where you can buy her cotton candy, or dance with her, or some kind of Mass Effect dialogue tree?

Here’s the thing: if people want to consider video games as art? Things like Bioshock: Infinite — a penny dreadful disguised as great literature — are not going to help. Bioshock: Infinite is Inception. It’s great, until you pause the game, go to the fridge for a beer, and say “…That didn’t make any sense!” The story and game seem so separate from each other. It’s a Taco Bell burrito in a Don Pablo’s restaurant.

Late to the Game: Bioshock: Infinite

bioshock infinite

Hey, I’m not that late. Am I? Am I? I haven’t accidentally read any spoilers yet, so I must be okay.

After 10 minutes of benchmarking (gotta get that frame rate just right), I was able to dive in. The first thing that happens is you’re on a boat.

No, not that kind of boat.

bioshock infinite rowboat

Yes, that kind. Someone is rowing you out somewhere, and you appear to be in the middle of the ocean. I sure hope we launched from ashore, because these guys are going to have some tired arms. Given that we’re going to a lighthouse, that appears to be the case.

And immediately images of Bioshock 1 and 2 float in front of your eyes. Vast ocean, lighthouse, little-to-no idea of what you’re doing or why. There are some of the same trappings I mentioned in the previous games–things like jamming strange chemicals down your throat with windy caution. And there’s lots of wind in a flying city.

But for all that, I find it more enjoyable than the original. It’s a nice change from the horror movie style of Bioshock with mutated freaks, robo-giants with drills for arms, and infanticide. No binary moral choices, no faceless main character.

What I’ve loved the most about Infinite is that you have plenty of time to get to know the environment. World-building is tricky, especially for what’s basically a different planet/alternate earth. And the game’s tutorial level gives you plenty of time to wander around, read things, hear conversations, and introduce everything without overwhelming you. And it’s not boring because there’s so much interesting stuff to look at (although at some point I was wondering when I’d get something to shoot).  I feel like everywhere I go I’m missing something important, because there’s so many details. I want to experience all 31 flavors.

ice cream many flavors

In Bioshock one, you’re pretty much thrust into jamming syringes in and killing psychos, but you don’t really get your motivation beyond “don’t die” until the end of the second act. And even then, you don’t know why/how you REALLY got there. Infinite has… less of this problem, but it’s not gone.

You get your reasons in flashbacks when you get knocked out. And that happens occasionally. Infinite is trying to dispense the backstory in snippets like in a movie. The problem is, this is not a movie. This is a video game. I’ve said time and time again, if I don’t know why I’m there, I can’t relate to the main character. 

And that’s important in this game, because, unlike Jack, Booker DeWitt has a personality, has a past, has an identity. If the developers want me to be Booker DeWitt, they need to tell me who he is, why he’s there, what he wants, from the first second. And I really want to be him — the history I have gathered so far (Wounded Knee, Pinkertons, absent wife) make him sound like an interesting character. They certainly did better than Jack or Subject Delta.

But so far, motivation is my only big problem, and it’s very common in video games. They want you to get to the action instantaneously. Everything else still has that Bioshock flavor — isolated dystopia, guns and magic, philosophical themes. And I like the lighter color scheme, the Americana and earlier timeframe, the lighter environments. I think if you liked Bioshock 1, you’ll like Infinite.  And if you didn’t like Bioshock 1, Infinite fixes many things that went wrong, which makes it worth a try.

The Books I Read: November – December 2012

bookshelf books

room emma donoghue
Room by Emma Donoghue

Oh my god. This might be the best book I ever read. Certainly the best book I read this quarter, and maybe the best all year. From the moment I saw its description, I was too intrigued.

Room takes place in just that: a room. The entire novel revolves around a woman locked in this 12×12 space that she never leaves.  Just that alone had me hooked — what happened?  Was there an apocalypse?  Is this a survival story?  How do you write an entire book that takes place in one room? Much less a book that keeps getting onto “best of the year” lists.

How do you keep that intriguing? How do you keep it from being claustrophobic torture porn? Answer: you make it from the POV of a five-year-old boy. Everything is fascinating to a five-year-old. (As the parent of one, I can attest to this.)  And this boy has lived all of his life in “room”. Every inch, every crack.  Can you imagine what would happen if he ever got outside of it? Would it be like Tarzan? Would he just freak out? Would he need to be fostered?

Somehow, even though the walls never change, you are never bored. The novel is intense, psychological, full of horror and despair and optimism. I had to re-read the middle-of-the-book climax because I was too afraid of what was going to happen, so I was speed-reading to find out. I never do that. Only once I found out, I had to go back and re-read it.

Sometimes I just had to stop reading altogether because it got too intense. Some of that probably comes from being a parent myself, and part of it from my own life. In college, I rarely left my dorm room. That year I spent without a roommate was one of the best of my life. I’ve often thought I might be happy if I could just live in a single room with just the computer and a bed, etc. But then, there’s a difference when you get to choice versus no-choice, no matter what the contents of a room are.

Definitely read this book.

bill cosby fatherhood
Fatherhood by Bill Cosby

It’s a short book. Most of its material is from “Bill Cosby: Himself” which I’ve practically memorized. And reading it in narrative form tells you how good of a comic Bill Cosby was. But mostly that he was a performer, not really a narrative writer. If you already know his material, it’s highly skimmable.

The mediocrity gets compounded by the fact that it’s remarkably out of date. At the time, it had a lot of forward-thinking ideas about the presence of the father in a child’s life. It’s nice to know that the things he was fighting for in 1986 are common  today. But it remains a book  written in 1986. And there’s no way around it. Stick to the albums.

robert cormier i am the cheese
I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

This book was on my “to read” list for quite a long time. So long, in fact, that I forgot why I put it up there in first place. I think it had something to do with “Looking for Alaska”, but I’m not sure. My point is that I went into it with no expectations, besides a silly title.

And after reading it, I’m still not sure what I thought of it. I felt like I needed to read the book twice, because it’s one of THOSE books with the twist ending like “The Usual Suspects” or “The Sixth Sense”. So a second read lets you see all the signs and understand what was really going on. The good thing is that it’s short, so it’s easy to do. That or you can just read the cliff notes.

It’s also an old book with some archaic elements. For instance, the witness protection program was a new innovative thing.  It wasn’t even named yet.  And the other anachronisms, especially the way mental health is treated, seem downright barbaric now. It feels like watching those racist Bugs Bunny cartoons as actual entertainment, rather than a historical reprimand.

If you need to complete a collection of some kind, then go ahead and read it. It’s not horrible. But I didn’t feel more fulfilled by adding it to my library.

self-editing for fiction writers
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

As I read this book, I didn’t think it would be useful. Then I got to the second half, and it got a lot better.

The first discusses a lot of standards that orange-green belt writers should already know. Like “showing vs. telling” and point of view. If you’ve read the good writing books like “On Writing”, “Characters and Viewpoint”, and “Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction”, then you know those basics.

However, some of the later tips do come in handy for reaching that blue belt, like proportion, unsophisticated prose, and the writing exercises. You’d be amazed how often you write something, know in the back of your head that it’s stupid, but still fail to fully recognize it. That’s why I still check out the writing books from time to time, even though I now see that “On Writing”, the first and basically my bible, has screwed me up somewhat.

It’s certainly better than “Bird by Bird”.

bioshock rapture
Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley

This is… not terribly great prose. It reminds me of when I wrote “Mortal Kombat”, my first fan fiction. And actually the first thing I ever wrote. This is not a compliment.

The structure is all over the place. Characters get introduced, then forgotten about. There’s about a thousand stories happening at once. In a book like “The Stand”, each character was introduced slowly. Here there’s no slow development. It feels like they’re thrown in when they need to be. There’s no quest, no viewpoint character, no antagonist. This really feels like badly fan fiction, written solely to make money. I think the author literally read the BioShock Wiki, all the dialogue and audio diaries, and simply wrote a story in a way to include all those bits.

The thing is there are more than a hundred diaries in Bioshock alone. And the author tries to include every one. It’s character soup — a hundred stories, plotlines upon plotlines, crossing over characters. There’s simply too much here to make a novel, unless you’re making “Les Miserables” or “War and Peace”.

There’s no interlocking, no crossover. The “Finding the Sea Slug” event is written basically word-for-word. No attempt to incorporate or connect events or make story flow non-linearly or give some flesh to people that otherwise only exist in snippets of spoken dialogue.

No attempt to innovate or enhance the storyline like good fan fiction should do. I was hoping for some explanation why everyone’s walking around carrying giant tape recorders, or why society didn’t immediately collapse when people discovered they could have psychic powers.  It brings nothing new to the table.

The thing about Bioshock is that it’s up to you, the player, to connect the storylines. And the more I read this book, the more I felt I could do better (that is, if I could handle the historical aspect). The culture is great, but the characters and story are practically plagiarized. The people who didn’t play Bioshock won’t understand anything and the people who did would be better off playing the game again.

the giver lois lowry
The Giver by Lois Lowry

Like “Remember the Stars”, this kept catching my eye on those wire swivel racks in my elementary school library. But I never wanted to check it out — what nine-year-old boy wants to read a book about an old man and “giving”? Plus a stupid, pretentious award? No thank you.

And again, like “Remember the Stars”, I finally got around to reading it now. The result? Well, it has good points and bad points. It’s easy to read, but the story doesn’t start until almost at the halfway point. Before that it’s all world-building. Once you get into the “giving” that the complications start setting in. And they are good complications.

But that ending… Oh, that ending. I hate, hate, HATE ambiguous endings. That stupid “was it a dream or wasn’t it?” that belongs in art films and stories with no plot. 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, The Matrix, The Black Hole, Inception, Half-Life. There’s only two reasons to do that: the writer doesn’t know how to end it and gives up or the writer wants to fuck with expectations — to create arguments and analyses. In either case, it’s disrespectful to the reader. Do I truly believe Lois Lowry set out to do that? It’s not outside the realm of possibility.

But I’ll say this. That ending soured me on reading any further books in the “Giver” series, and any books by Lowry herself even. Think about that, authors. A carefully, crafted exciting ending isn’t as necessary as you think. The fun is in the journey, not the destination. But that journey does need to conclude.

(Bonus note: while searching through the archives, I found this gem.)

the forever war joe haldeman
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This is really good. Much better than I expected for a space opera novel in the seventies. It deserves all the accolades it got. Still extremely readable, extremely entertaining. It’s like reading proto-Scalzi. The best thing about it is, like Halo, it delivers what it promises and doesn’t add anything unnecessary. No stupid romances, no bureaucratic filler. It doesn’t bore you with constant space battles, idle thinking, or meaningless conversations that go on too long. It gets the battles right, it makes the science entertaining and understandable. I feel smarter for reading this book.

One thing I wasn’t sure about was the themes of sexuality. In the beginning, soldiers are expected (even required) to have sex with each other about every night (the army is now co-ed). As time goes on, the world’s polarity swings away from natural breeding towards heterosexuality becoming the deviant behavior. I find this twist delightfully ironic, but does it really have a place in an allegory about war?

Maybe it’s just me — I’ve never been in a war — but including this sort of thing seems extraneous. I don’t get the associations of war or of evolution losing its sexual identity. It reminds me of when every future story thought we’d be taking our dinner in pill form by now. If anything, I think sexuality would end up becoming more extreme, more carnal. As mankind’s brain reaches higher planes, the body will need to satisfy its natural instincts harder. That’s why we have all this weird stuff today like furries, futanari, and porno that would make a sailor blush.

But that hardly ruins the book. I highly recommend this one.

Bioshock 2 and Windows Live Can Suck My Big Fat One

games for windows live logo crossed out

Dear Windows Live and Bioshock 2,

Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.

Fuck you and your broken-ass, DRM-filled, update-begging, time-sucking software.

I bought Bioshock 2 a few weeks ago on Steam, and was looking forward to playing it on my night off from the kids.  The first time I tried it, I hadn’t installed it.  Then I found out I had to download 9 gigs worth of data which takes 3 hours, so the first night I wanted to play it, that was a bust.

Fast forward to last night when I pressed the “play” button for the first time. First, it’s gotta update. Then it’s gotta update the Microsoft C++ 2005 redistributable, whatever that is. Then it’s gotta update DirectX, as always. Then it’s gotta update Microsoft Live, whatever that is redux. Then I have to enter a CD-key, so I think I just gotta re-enter the activation code below it to prove I’m not a robot. That doesn’t work, but I don’t have a CD. Fortunately, after some searching, I see the link for CD key in Steam, and that works.

Then the game finally starts, and there’s something new and unexpected — a Games for Windows Live dropdown. It tells me I’ve got to enter my CD key again to register my game. This involves a little searching for how to get this without minimizing the game, and then shift-tabbing back and forth to enter it. I think I’m done, but no, it tells me I’ve got to sign in with my Games for Windows Live account. Which I don’t have. I say no, I don’t want to do that. Why should I have to? Oh, because the game won’t save unless I do.

Fucking fine. I go through like eight screens to get to sign up screen, then it has to open a web browser to keep going, so it has to minimize the game, which always has a 50/50 chance of crashing it, and open fucking IE. No, we can’t open my default browser, we have to use your dumb-ass product because you’re Microsoft. After a whole bunch of misleading screens that make me think I’ve already got an account, I finally am able to make one.

Then I re-maximize my game and try to sign in. Now I can play? Oh, no wait, Microsoft Live has to download an update. Game re-minimizes again, while some more shit installs. It never tells me if it’s done or not, because its just a progress bar. After a minute of nothing happening, just the sounds of my computer churning, I try the game again, and try signing into Windows Live. Again, it tells me it needs to update. Probably the update didn’t take.

Fuck this, so I close Bioshock 2, and try starting Windows Live from the start menu. Maybe I can start Bioshock 2 that way. No. Something’s corrupted and after three minutes of a flash screen, it says it cannot find an Internet connection. Which is bullshit, I’ve got my browser open right now, looking at stuff while I wait for all these things to finish their little dowloading/loading/installing dance. It says I need to install a hotfix for Windows XP. I do that. Nothing. So I try downloading Games for Windows Live straight. When I run that, it causes a BSOD. Great.

When my computer restarts (one of the many I’ve done that night), I try uninstalling all the Windows for Games Live shit I downloaded, and try Bioshock 2 again. But when I click the launcher, nothing seems to happen. So since something’s fucked up, I uninstall everything. I started this at 6:00 and now it’s 7:30. I redownload Bioshock 2, but again, it’s 9 gigs, and it’s going to take hours.

This morning, when the download has finished, I try starting Bioshock 2 again, hoping I can start from the beginning. No, it still doesn’t launch. And I have no idea why. No error messages, no processes, no nothing. So now I spend the morning looking on the Steam forums for any help, verifying my 9 gig game, and seeing if I have to re-register my Windows Installer.

So thank you Bioshock 2, who thought it was a good idea to include Microsoft’s magic wand to prevent piracy into what all the reviewers say is a mediocre game. And thank you Microsoft for your broke-ass software that does nothing good. I could play the game fine, except that I couldn’t save. Now I can’t play it at all. Now I’m going to have to pirate the game in order to play it. Thanks a lot, and fuck you in the ass with a spiked dildo covered in maggots.

Update: Last night, after the kids went to bed, I worked on it some more. After re-registering my msiexec installation file in the registry, I got Bioshock 2 to start again. I signed into Windows Live successfully and after it downloaded a looooong update (seriously, I got my book and read it while it was going on) it told me to close the game down again so it could continue.

I did, and it did, with a new “Bioshock 2 Setup Wizard” that I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t much of a wizard because it didn’t ask me any questions, but it finished. After that I was able to start Bioshock 2 again, sign in, and I could play and save my game. So the terror is over.

Rapture Radio is Now Off the Air

So I heard on Joystiq there was this thing called Rapture Radio–a broadcast coming from Rapture (the city under the sea in Bioshock) that plays the music you hear throughout the game (lots of ’30s and ’40s hits from Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and other big bands). I guess it was the precursor to New Year’s Even 1959. And at 12 noon (12 midnight in Rapture), all hell broke loose, just like in the story.

The problem is now, I tune to it and everything’s already blown up. I was all excited to listen to this, because I think just a radio station with this music alone would be awesome (there probably is one, I just haven’t looked). But now it’s just static, with a repeated message that things have exploded, please return to your homes. I wish it would go back to the music. I would love to listen to something that feels like it’s coming from Rapture, feels like it’s a real world.

Plus, I think this is awesome marketing. There should be more marketing like this, not just billboards and commercials. I love desktop wallpaper (I’ve got a wallpaper of District 9 on my work computer right now) and music and blogs and trailers and ARG games. Stuff like this lets me immerse in the work, make it personal. Stuff that can integrate into the world, not just act like a pop-up ad into it.

Bioshock: The Wrap-Up

I have finished playing Bioshock and can now talk about it with some authority. If you read my earlier post, you know there was a lot of implausible things that were unexplained at the time – little sisters, plasmids vending machines, injecting yourself with a foreign substance for shits and giggles. Now that I’ve finished the game, I’ve discovered there are a lot of layers that I didn’t even know about, which is both a good and bad thing.

Bioshock’s biggest flaw is that its too hard to deconstruct the story from tapes that are randomly distributed all around the level. They all take place at different times and with different character storylines, so its impossible to piece it all together, unless the kindly goons on GameFAQs write up a plot summary for you. So by the time I got to Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine, my head was already swirling from the jigsawed history I knew. The only motivation to continue onto the real bad guy was to seek vengeance for being manipulated. But I didn’t know why or what the bigger picture was.

Speaking of Andrew Ryan’s death, I hope I wasn’t the only one confused as to why he was making me kill him, especially in such a brutal, painful way. I thought after he showed me the truth, he’d have a little more survival instinct. Throughout the game, he seemed like he wanted to live to me. Even as I was bashing his head in with a putter. But go figure an objectivist.

In an interview with Bioshock’s creator, Andrew Ryan Ken Levine, he says that he made the storyline in the form of audio diaries so as not to interrupt the game. People who wanted to find out the story could do so, and people who wanted to play the game can skip it. This is like trying to please everybody, which I don’t much care for. Square didn’t make games that everybody liked. They left that to Nintendo . A good novel doesn’t give you the story in bits and pieces. You could make an argument that since this is supposed to simulate an experience, its a more plausible way of giving story than interrupting the game with cutscenes. But I ended up having too disjointed a story experience. And I like cutscenes. Why does any of this matter? Because the more you know about the game, the more you can appreciate it.

They did address things like the Little Sisters, vending machines, and other things with some Objectivist hand-waving. I still say that no one would tolerate kidnapping or scientific experiments on little girls, but I guess by that point, things were pretty anarchic. One thing that no one addressed was the sharp difference between cultures of Rapture and the civilized world. People have trouble letting go of their old ways. I don’t know if Andrew Ryan was that good in his selections, but it was like Rapture became a functioning Objectivist society with a snap of his fingers. Maybe that’s why it collapsed.

Overall, I enjoyed Bioshock, and I look forward to playing it again now that I know a bit more about it. Of course, that should have been done on the first playthrough. I’m not sure if it should have won story of the year, but I don’t play enough games to make that call.

Late to the Game: Bioshock: The First Impressions

bioshock logo

I bought Bioshock on Steam for five dollars a week or two ago. I remember it won the GameSpot story of the year award, so I thought “Hey, five dollars. Can’t pass that up.” (Portal was $2.99. Jesum crow, now you have no excuse!) Unfortunately, my five dollars only went so far, as I found out my computer was too old for the game. So I had to buy a new video card to play the game decently, which cost me as much as if I’d bought the game new. Oh well, at least I’ll be able to play new games as well (where’s HL2: Episode 3? Come on, I wanna see how it ends!).

First off, I love the sets (if I can call them that). I’ve never seen such elaborate decoration. Half-Life had detail, but a lot of it was outside. Bioshock takes place underwater in the 1950’s. That alone should be enough to suck anyone in, but these places have bathrooms, kitchens, shops, elevators, ashtrays, and searchable corpses. The enemy movements seem a little stilted – not as fluid as Half-Life, and I miss the ragdoll physics. But the world is rich and detailed. I wish I had the time to appreciate it fully, but the pressing nature of a family makes me feel like I have to finish the game as quick as possible to get back to my other stuff.

So far, the story-telling has its good and bad points. There’s virtually no intro – you don’t know who you are, besides a guy on a plane – but so far that seems largely irrelevant. It’s the “Trapped in Another World” scenario with a nondescript hero – a standard VG trope.

My problem is, because the world is so rich, and because it’s a video game, they move you along fast. You don’t have time to appreciate the fantastic stuff before you get to even more fantastic stuff. For example, your plane crashes and you swim to a menacing black tower, then down a bathyscope to the underwater city of Rapture, where humpback whales swim under the sign for “Dr. Morley’s Tobacco Emporium”. The guy who comes to get you out gets attacked by a Splicer (the common enemy grunt), and you’re on your own, except for a guy on a radio. He doesn’t explain what’s going on, he doesn’t tell you what you’re doing here, and he sure doesn’t help you get around much. The guy lives in Rapture, you think he could give you some directions.

The “what’s going on” is revealed from the advertising (great story-telling device) and narrative diaries (bad story-telling device). You have to basically wait and do nothing while you listen to the diary. This interrupts the experience. I guess the idea is that you keep playing while you listen, but its hard to hear when my shotgun’s going off. Or concentrate when I see a Nitro Splicer coming at me. And those diaries don’t pause.

Very shortly after the game begins, before you even pick up a hitscan weapon, you get your first psychic power. From a vending machine. And the first thing you do with it is inject it into your veins, without any provocation or instruction from your radio buddy. This causes your genetic code to be re-written and makes you black out and fall over a railing, leaving you cold on the ground while all manner of Splicers, Little Sisters, and Big Daddies come up to sniff your potential corpse.

Now, I’m operating on the assumption that this world is completely alien to the main character – there are no plasmids or ADAM on the surface, no one knows of Rapture, and Dr. Ryan (the head honcho) is dismissed as a reclusive Darwinian Mad Scientist. Granted, these are pretty large leaps of faith, but the introduction gives us no knowledge of the current environment, save the year. Therefore, I must assume that everything in the world is as it is in ours, with the exception of the game’s macguffin.

So if the idea is that I’m playing as myself (almost, at least), the first thing I do with a foreign substance I got from a broken vending machine is not to stick it in my wrist. Especially if no one tells me to. In my humble experience, playing god in a mysterious underground city where the people who did the same thing are now attacking you is not the best survival strategy. I’ll stick with my boomstick, thanks.

I’m not complaining about the plasmid game mechanic, mind you. I love setting things on fire. It’s just the way that it’s introduced to the player is implausible. And the fact that these things can be found in vending machines, dentist’s offices, and tennis simulators is a stretch too. In my world, this would be a valuable substance, not something to be doled out willy-nilly. Imagine the chaos if everyone suddenly became telekinetic, pyrokinetic, super-strong, super-smart, and able to shoot lightning. And for clarification, the problems down below came from people messing with their genes in the first place, not the powers they gained. Most people are attacking me with grenades and shotguns, not ice blasts.

In fact, nearly everything you do is via vending machines. It incorporates some more interesting play mechanics (hacking, money management) that you don’t typically see in shooters, but I find it more comically ludicrous than satirically plausible. Granted they sell iPods via machine, but not electric shotgun shells and genetic enhancements.

Finally, Little Sisters. Now, this is an interesting idea – it takes the concept of morality in video games to a new level. But what’s their role in Rapture? In one of the diaries, Dr. Ryan says that the Little Sisters are necessary to their way of life. This means they’re not a new thing. So what did they do before? Man the fry daddy at McPlasmid’s? Right now they have a symbiotic relationship with the Big Daddies – harvesting ADAM in exchange for protection. Surely they weren’t going around and doing this before. Not to mention that I find it hard to believe that ANY modern American society would allow experiments on little girls. They’re described as having a “terminal illness” and “they’re not little girls anymore”. Maybe the storytellers are being vague on purpose, to make them scarier, but I don’t see how declaring their role would take away from the fear.

As you can see from this, and my review of Half-Life 2, I don’t like being kept in the dark for the sake of gameplay or atmosphere. If the main character would know, then the player needs to know.

Nonetheless, I am enjoying myself in Rapture. I just think it’s moving a little fast, and some of the environment wavers between ridiculous and unrealistic. I’ll let you know how it turns out.