While the E3 hordes were bickering over Nintendo’s ‘new gen’ Wii spiel versus the teraflop-driven ‘next gen’ hype emanating from the Sony and Microsoft camps, one game being shown to select press behind closed doors was gaining that most valuable (and most difficult to buy) E3 endorsement – a genuine word-of-mouth buzz
That game was BioShock, being developed by Irrational Games, with 2K/Take 2 looking after publishing duties on the title. SPOnG had the pleasure of meeting up with a couple of the guys from Irrational, who gave us a thorough run through the game as it currently stands. Indeed, BioShock really should have won the 'genuinely - believe the hype' trophy at E3 this year, if there were such an award. This would simply be based on the number of show summations we heard along the lines of "Wii’s interesting, Sony’s all over the place, Microsoft’s a bit 'meh, whatever'… but hey, did you see
SPOnG was guilty of it, as were many of our peers. So read on to find out more about this 'spiritual successor' to Irrational’s PC hit, System Shock 2
– which, should you not remember that far back into the gaming past, won a raft of 'game of the year' awards way back in 1999 and is, without a doubt, one of the most frightening videogames of all time.
The basic story goes something like this. In BioShock you are trying to escape from a doomed underwater utopia called Rapture. Whilst trying to escape you are also trying to figure out just what the hell happened to this world and to its warped, genetically modified, population made up of frightening tiny girls who suck some weird genetic goo called ADAM from dead people, plus a whole host of other equally disturbing/insane characters. The first thing you immediately notice is that this game is both highly stylised and stunningly beautiful. As the guys from Irrational told us, "we wanted to create something a little different to the standard 'turd brown, military industrial complex, Quake-a-like, darkness'". They’ve certainly done that.
So what makes it so beautiful? Rapture has a decadent, 1920's art-deco feel to it. It feels, in a word, plush
. This was clearly a wealthy, capitalist utopia as you soon start to discover abandoned Cuban Cigar shops, well-appointed (if slightly decaying) old shopping arcades and lots of fizzing neon signs. The fizz, you see, is mainly due to the incoming water, which is constantly seeping into the world around you. That creeping sense of paranoia meanwhile, that’s just in your own brain.
But hang on a second? What are you doing here? How did you end up in this slowly-drowning, underwater, art-deco weirdsville? The background story is that you are the sole survivor of a plane crash, and just happened to land near a lighthouse in the middle of the sea, which just happens
to be the entrance to the genetically-modifying obsessed world of Rapture. This place, it turns out, was originally built in secret, as a home for humanity’s finest specimens. Unfortunately it would seem that humanity’s finest specimens became quickly hooked on sucking up too many genetic modifiers in attempts to make themselves superhuman. Got it? Good. That’s enough detail there then. Back to the game.
Speaking about the hulking Big Brother characters (the ones in the diving suits you can see in the screenshots) and the deeply unsettling, pale-faced and wide-eyed Little Sister characters, which are the first NPC’s you bump into in the game, the devs told us that they felt very strongly that bug-eyed monsters with blood dripping off fangs and the like are just not
scary at all. "We think what’s really scary is basically… fucked up, demented people," they added. Well, SPOnG often takes central London public transport late at night, so we can certainly vouch for that! As an archetypal 'fucked up, demented person' the devs name-dropped Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining as a model for the kind of dark, edgy psycho kind of characters they wanted in the game. It was at this point, only minutes into the demo, that SPOnG quickly realised that BioShock is going to be a very special, hugely original videogame.
So what’s the point of BioShock? What you have to do is find out what happened to these people in this world and try to discover what became of their humanity. So it’s really a story about the loss of humanity of both the characters you encounter in the game, as well as the loss of your own, as you gradually come to realise the deeper into the game you get that there is no straightforward good/evil dichotomy at work in BioShock. You are just as evil and, if anything, even more fucked up as those around you, as you continue in your search for more ADAM and more answers.
What is this ADAM stuff anyway? This world has destroyed itself in pursuit of this rare commodity – which gives you the ability to genetically change yourself. It turns out that there is only one source of ADAM left in this world – extracting it from the dead bodies which litter the place - and only one way of getting it, which is through the Little Sister characters.
The devs told us: "We’re posing an interesting question to the player all the way through this game. At the start of the game, the Big Brother and Little Sister characters you encounter are obviously monsters and you are the good guy – but it soon becomes much less clear cut. So what’s interesting are the 'shades of grey' that, as the game progresses, you’re actually following the same path as these creatures in the game. How are you in any way better than them? What are you prepared to do to survive and stay alive in this world?"
The reason System Shock 2 had such a creepy, scary vibe was that you really had nothing
– no weapons, no ammunition, you start the game almost naked. As opposed to most other first person shooters where you play what the devs here refer to as "an Arnie-style ubermensch with big fuck off guns, mowing people down." In System Shock 2, and now, in Bioshock, you are little more than a desperate guy who is just trying to stay alive.
In the demo level of the Bioshock which SPOnG saw, your character starts off with a crappy old gun, with no ammunition. So the first job is to try to find yourself some ammo. Perhaps the first interesting gameplay twist in BioShock is the fact that, even when you first come across the lumbering Big Brother protecting his ADAM-sucking Little Sister, they leave you alone
. Unless of course you make a beeline for them, in which case the big fella will protect his little lady as she sucks up ADAM through her massive hypodermic syringe (ie, killing you gruesomely by directing his massive hands with extreme force towards your head).
Many of the characters you will encounter in BioShock may well just leave you alone, providing of course you leave them alone. Or you might choose to manipulate or use them in some way, other than trying to blow their heads clean off.