Bioshock: Stupid?

Coincidentally, there was some discussion of Bioshock at my workplace the other day. (Steam had put it on sale for Halloween.) One person insisted that it was “stupid”, and others rushed to defend it. I tried to argue on the stupid side, just to balance things out a little, and to that end adapted some of what I said in my last post — essentially, that it’s sensationalistic, and the line between sensationalism and stupidity is so fine that I’m not even sure it’s there. In addition, Objectivism is a basically stupid philosophy, by which I mean that adhering to it necessarily involves forgetting or ignoring a lot of what you know about humanity, and often seems to also involve other sorts of idiocy like pretending that you can derive practical information from a tautology like “A is A”. This is the sort of stupid that you can’t even argue against intelligently; just taking it seriously enough to engage it lowers the level of discourse. Bioshock certainly engages it, but perhaps not seriously enough to be affected. The chief argument it employs is “O NO YOU ARE BEING ATTACKED BY MONSTER PEOPLE”, which is kind of dismissive. Or perhaps just kind of stupid.

But this isn’t what the accuser in this discussion meant. He wasn’t thinking about the style or the theme, but about the gameplay. This is a game that imposes no penalty for dying, which, to him, meant there was no motivation for playing skillfully or learning new techniques. His knock-down argument was that he claimed he had beaten the game on the Hard difficulty setting using no weapon or plasmid other than the wrench that you get early on as your default melee weapon. It didn’t make a difference, he said, because enemies don’t heal when you respawn, so you can just whittle them down to nothing no matter how often they kill you. Thus, the game is stupid.

Now, I have my doubts about the veracity of his claims. I myself took a few wrench-swings at Dr. Steiner, the game’s first boss-like enemy, and I could have sworn that he was back at full health by the time I got back from the vita-chamber. Perhaps there was a health dispenser I failed to notice. Regardless, everyone present, including myself, felt that he was approaching the game wrong. I recognize that everyone’s different, and that not everyone who plays games plays them for the same reasons, or derives the same sorts of satisfaction from them. No game will appeal to everyone. But even bearing this in mind, it seemed like his poor experience of the game was his own doing, the result of a willful refusal to appreciate its merits.

It was argued that Bioshock is about the setting and story rather than about the challenge, and as far as that goes, I can’t disagree. A colleague of mine once said about Quake that it wasn’t really a game about shooting, but rather, a game about 3D environments. The shooting was just there to give you something to do in those environments. You can say the same about most first-person shooters, to varying degrees. Some are more about action, some are more about place. Bioshock is very much about place. But this isn’t a very satisfying excuse. If you’re going to fill your decaying underwater city with combat set-pieces, surely you can at least provide interesting combat mechanics?

But that’s where the argument for stupid breaks down. The game does provide interesting mechanics; my colleague just refused to use them, and the game never forced the issue. Again, people enjoy different things, and the game recognizes this by allowing you to take different approaches. If you enjoy sticking with the wrench, killing things by degrees and dying a lot, it gives you that option. If you don’t enjoy playing it that way, why do it? The fact that the game lets you respawn without resetting the game state doesn’t mean you have to take advantage of it.

I’m reminded of my experience with Final Fantasy 8. This is a game that gives you access to powerful summoning spells from near the very beginning, and lets you cast them at a much lower cost than in other Final Fantasy games. Thus, for most of the game, you can pretty much just do a summon at the beginning of every combat to win them all trivially. A lot of people did this, and consequently decided that the game was stupid. So when I played, I made a point of not doing it that way. As a result, I probably had a more satisfying experience than most players.

So, this all got me thinking. I had already been doing more dying than I liked in Bioshock. Even if it’s without consequence, it’s a kind of failure. So I’m replaying from the beginning, trying to avoid dying entirely, or at least minimize it. To support this, I’m dialing the difficulty down from Hard to Normal. The game recommends Normal if you’ve played shooters before and Hard if you’ve played a lot of shooters before, and so, although I don’t consider myself skilled by multiplayer standards, I figured I qualified for Hard just on the basis of long experience. But that was without my new handicap. Restarting also gives me the luxury of making decisions differently, and in particular, choosing different plasmids. The first time through, when I had the opportunity to purchase the Rage plasmid, which makes enemies attack each other, I instead purchased a couple of others that would make normal gameplay easier (for example, one of them was simply armor against physical damage). That might have been important under Hard, but at this point I think the better way to play this game is to choose things that make the game interesting instead of things that make it easy.

9 Comments so far

  1. Mike Mariano on 6 Nov 2010

    Bioshock is criminally, unforgivably stupid. Enemy AI was less nuanced than Wolfenstein 3D. Splicers either patrol or run straight roasted you and shoot. The Nazis at least zig-zagged.

    Your Final Fantasy comparison was more apt than you think; Bioshock turned first person combat into some sort of JRPG. You are *always* trading damage back and forth with the enemies. There is always a specific cost to each combat encounter and you have to do spell (and ammo) management—it kills the fun of combat and, in your co-worker’s case, the incentive to do anything differently. Why vary your attacks when they have extremely similar effects and you end up taking the same amount of damage?

    The only escapes from this give-and-take style combat com from dull tactics like “wrench everything” or using special ammo, and even that disappears in the last third of the game—no one stays frozen or electro-shocked for any significant period no matter how much research you’ve done.

    I guess if you can find something fun in Bioshock, that’s fine, but I had a relentlessly terrible time the whole way through.

  2. malkav11 on 6 Nov 2010

    I’ve always felt the argument itself rather stupid – there’s a much larger range of ways to approach any given combat situation in Bioshock than in most shooters, and if you choose the most boring way every time, you have only yourself to blame. That said, there was a patch, IIRC, which gives the option to turn off Vita-Chambers and also provided (on Xbox, at least) an achievement for beating the game on hard with that setting activated. I never bothered with it personally, in part because I believe I had beaten the game by the time it came out, in part because even if it had been available I would not have wanted to use it. I tried to stay alive as much as possible, of course, but I ultimately preferred using an in-game Vita-Chamber to the out-of-game immortality provided by reloading a quicksave.

  3. INotI5 on 8 Nov 2010

    I’ve always personally thought about this as the “Invisible War” problem. Deus Ex: Invisible War gave you on the one hand a series of interesting and unique approaches to solve its puzzles, but it also always gave you a readily available air duct to climb through.

    Players, of course, spent the whole game climbing through air ducts, then complained that it was a boring air-duct-climbing simulator.

    Players will generally choose the most convenient, easiest solution to game puzzles, even when following those solutions will make the game less fun.

  4. matt w on 8 Nov 2010

    I haven’t played Bioshock, but your post reminds me of the eternal flame-war in NetHack about pudding farming (in which you exploit the ways black puddings divide when struck in order to be able to kill an infinite number of them, getting lots of nice loot drops and such). Some folks violently oppose pudding farming and want the Dev Team to make it impossible, one going so far as to suggest capping the number of turns you can have (his response to people who said “sometimes I need lots of turns even though I don’t pudding farm” was roughly “then you suck and don’t deserve to win”). Other folks — I’m one of them — think that if you don’t like pudding farming, the solution is not to pudding farm.

    There’s maybe a three-way challenge/convenience/excitement tradeoff involved here. Pudding farming is perhaps unchallenging, inconvenient (takes forever), and boring (repetitive). Wrenching everything sounds like it’s the same way. Some of the crazier NetHack conducts (optional challenges, like never writing anything or never eating anything) are challenging and inconvenient, but could be either exciting or boring depending on your tastes and the challenge (some require moving fast, some require moving slow). Duct climbing in Invisible War sounds like it’s unchallenging, convenient, and boring; FF8 summon spam sounds the same way. It might be that unchallenging stuff is always boring, though maybe not — maybe you’re playing FF8 for the story, and summon spam helps you see it as quickly as you want.

    Anyway, thesis: The stuff that really wrecks people’s enjoyment is when the boring path is unchallenging and convenient. If it’s inconvenient, they’ll naturally play the game in a more fun way. What do you think?

  5. Aristotle on 8 Nov 2010

    I think someone here is out of their depth:

    “and often seems to also involve other sorts of idiocy like pretending that you can derive practical information from a tautology like “A is A”.”

    That’s called the law of identity. It was invented thousands of years before “Objectivism”.

    Mathematical equations are tautologies; they provide plenty of practical infomation.

  6. Carl Muckenhoupt on 9 Nov 2010

    As I put it once before: if there are two ways of accomplishing something, one that’s difficult and interesting and one that’s easy and boring, players will choose the boring way and then blame the designer.

    The thing is, I suspect I’d be all over the ducts in Invisible War. Just because that’s the sort of approach I’m tending to prefer in the original Deus Ex. So thanks for warning me about that.

  7. malkav11 on 10 Nov 2010

    Of course, wrench cheesing is not actually any easier than playing Bioshock using a larger variety of weapons and tactics, it simply requires less ammo management. It’s an approach that is eventually effective, but it’s not particularly efficient.

  8. Carl Muckenhoupt on 10 Nov 2010

    Good point! The wrench-everything approach in Bioshock is unchallenging, but it’s a good deal less convenient than the alternatives.

  9. Matt Wigdahl on 11 Nov 2010

    I “wrench-cheesed” through Bioshock because I found the controls mushier and laggier than other FPS games, and I got tired of missing and wasting all my ammo when I shot. Perhaps this was related to the graphical settings or the lack of power of my old gaming machine.

    At any rate, I used close-range plasmids and the wrench for close combat, and traditional weapons for long-range sniping and situations that required heavier damage. It seemed to work well, and minimized my frustration.

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