Friday, February 26, 2010

Number 1 vs Number 2, Part 1: Bioshock

Bioshock 1 was an amazing game, extremely well written, imaginative, immersive, and fun. With the recent release of the sequel, let's take a look at each game, and what they do differently, for better or worse.

The Main Character
The clear winner in my mind in terms of a main character is Bioshock 2. While number 1 was designed to provide an outsider perspective on the world of Rapture, the sequel takes a route that allows for a sometimes shocking amount of identification and empathy with its main character. Whereas in B1, you arrived at Rapture seemingly by accident, B2 puts you in the massive boots of a Big Daddy, searching relentlessly for his daughter through the ruins of the ill-conceived Rapture. Though both protagonists are silent (except for grunts of pain and effort), it seems much less strange from inside a Big Daddy's helmet. Also, B1 and B2 both took pages from HL2's book, and never, from start to finish, take the camera from the main character's eyes, thus never breaking the immersion with a 3rd person cut-scene.

The World
A tie. Rapture is one of my favorite video game locations ever. Each game explores different parts of the same steampunk city, which is staggeringly well designed. Although there is a current of (very) dark humor in both games, walking through this underwater city which is falling/has fallen apart evokes a sense of haunting wonder in me. The environments are beautiful and varied, with the ever-present ocean leaking back into the city. In fact, I could have enjoyed this game just fine if the exploration were the main part of the game, and the combat were entirely absent.

The Gameplay
The sequel takes it, but not by a whole lot. Though you can argue that the sequel made some pretty big improvements with the combat, they don't seem as important, as the core of the game has changed. While both are FPSRPG's, B1 emphasizes the FPS part, while B2 focuses much more heavily on the RPG portion. Why does this make a difference? Well, because one thing that B2 does thousands of times better than B1 is give you a goal. In B1, most of the game is centered on survival, with a goal finally being issued in the last few hours of play. In B2, you are given a goal right out of the gate. Your daughter has been taken from you, you have been functionally dead for a while, and now that you have been put back together, your daughter is calling to you inside your head, begging you to come find her. Because of this, combat ceases to be the enjoyable romp that it was in the first game, and is instead a frustrating obstacle. You are looking for your daughter, and these crazies are keeping you from her. Instead of finding the best or most creative ways to solve a given encounter, I found myself throwing away valuable ammo, health kits, and EVE hypos, impatiently smashing and blasting my way through anything in my way, not because it was a matter of survival, principle, or anything else, but because they were in my way. Once I reached the ending area, I found myself often just running past enemies, even as they pumped me full of lead, because I did not have the time to deal with them. To clarify, there was no countdown, or actual time limit, but the atmosphere was frantic enough, and my goal almost in sight, that they were unworthy of my attention. Also, pro tip, level the Insect Swarm plasmid , or as I call it, the "Fuck you button", right away.

The Story
Number 1 takes it, if only because there was more of it, and because of the "What a twist!" moment. Number 1 was longer than number 2, and told the story of rapture as a whole. The story is told through the world itself, and through audio diaries of people like Andrew Ryan, the father of Rapture, Fontaine, his opponent, as well as a number of citizens of the doomed city. B2's story is more personal, but shorter and less epic. Actually, you know what? B2 was better. B1 was the setup, and it was great, but B2's story is more immersive, more powerful, more important. If I were to judge the stories on the basis of being historically interesting, then yes, B1's story about a war in a ruined underwater city would take home the trophy, but B2 provides a personal link between story, character, and player, and that is worth more than all the fall from paradise stories in the world.

The Point
Each game has a moral, and I'm not talking about the "moral choice system" in B1, which asks the daring question, "Are you Jesus, with a love for all living creatures, or Hitler, only with hemorrhoids, so you're ultra-evil?" B1's moral, aside from "Rapture was a bad idea," was the age-old "do the ends justify the means" question. B2's moral was that your decisions not only affect the world around you, but the people around you. Without giving away too much, the kind of person your daughter turned into depended on your actions throughout the game. Whether your daughter turned out ruthless or merciful, good or evil, was dependent on what she learned from you, her father. This is a step above most "moral choice" systems, where your decisions affect the world, and how people see you, but rarely shape another character. I can handle faceless NPC's thinking I'm a dick, but the idea that being a dick could rub off on my daughter does what all these other games have either utterly failed, or mostly failed to do: make me care. Point to B2.

To conclude, I was very happily surprised with B2. I questioned the need for a sequel, feeling that B1 was fantastic, and no sequel was necessary. To be fair, a lot of sequels are crap, but B2 is a rare instance of a sequel done right, and indeed, better than the first. The Bioshock team saw that the common thread they were looking for was the city, and telling more stories in Rapture would be ok, as long as they could stand up on their own. It is still a good idea to play B1 before B2, and I highly recommend them both, but B2 is the more memorable of the two for me. I really hope they keep up the good work, as more Bioshock games will surely be on the way. Please don't screw up, guys.

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