James Wallis levels with you


So I played the demo of Bioshock a few days ago and I was all like, “huh,” enough to put my money down on a pre-order but not, you know, entirely convinced. Game play, atmosphere, setting and backstory, fantastic, but there was one thing that really jarred. And then I read an internest discussion that said yeah, okay, but that’s just the demo because the demo needs to get you to the meat of the game really fast and the actual retail product will be, you know, less frenetic and bumpy.

Chase-cutting: bollocks. The demo is, okay, not identical to the comparable sequence in the full game. There are some differences. They do not matter.

Here’s what has my hackles up like a hyena’s (and here be spoilers but only for the first ten minutes of the game): the intro to Bioshock is like the entire first season of Lost condensed to fifty seconds, only what’s down the hatch is much, much better: it’s a whole city. You arrive, you beat up the first couple of baddies with a wrench, and then you find a vending machine. Press (A) and a fat glowing syringe about the size of a tube of toothpaste drops out. This is kind of unexpected.

Before you can press another button, your character grabs it and injects the whole thing into his arm.

For fuck’s sake.

I admit I’m only an hour or so into the game and as yet I know nothing about the silent narrator whose actions I’m controlling, except that he has some funky tattoos and probably some backstory to go with them. There may well be an explanation coming at some point in the future. And of course the contents of the syringe and getting them into your avatar’s bloodstream are crucial to what follows. But still, what a great huge fucking narrative discongruity. I spent the next ten minutes—first in the demo and then again in the full game—thrown out of the fantastic sense of immersion that the game had created, and with a feeling of distinct antipathy towards my avatar. I’m not sure I want to play the kind of guy who injects himself with mystery chemicals just because they’re there, know what I mean?

Apart from that the game is fantastic and I want to get a 5:1 audio system just to properly experience the sound-design. But Bioshock is the best-reviewed game of the last five years (on Metacritic it ties at 97% with Halo, Metroid Prime, Perfect Dark, GTA III, NFL 2K1 and, uh, Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2 and 3, and is beaten only by Soul Calibur and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time—an impressive list.) Are our expectations of game-narrative really so jaded that we can accept glaring pieces of story-telling and character-building idiocy like this in the first ten minutes and still say that it’s one of the best games ever written?

I will report back when I’ve finished the game, for the sake of clarity and completeness. And I don’t want this to stop you from buying and playing what is one of the finest FPS games in years. But at the same time I wasn’t going to let it pass without comment because let’s be honest, if the same thing happened in the first ten minutes of a new TV show you’d groan and change the channel.

Categorised as: narrative


  1. H says:

    I was umming and aahing about it anyway because generally I don’t buy games that purport to be horror or immersive. I was being swayed toward a yes by the reviews, however.

    Certainly it doesn’t sound like a System Shock 2 beater.

    Will be interesting to hear what you think when you’ve completed it. Apparently the twists are interesting if somewhat predictable.

  2. Uglifruit says:

    re: Psychonauts.

    You are correct. It is funny, indeed made me laugh (out loud no less) but the irritating protecting the child with the dog sequence (in the meat circus) frustrated me to the point of giving up.

    I found throughout the game my visits to f.a.q.s to get me through annoying action sections meant I may as well have been watching a cartoon. Which I would probably have prefered.

  3. chris lamb says:

    I’m closing in on the end of the game, and there does indeed appear to be an explanation coming for why your character would pick up a massive glowing syringe and jab it into his arm. I agree that there needs to be something to support the moment when it actually happens, though – a quick word from Atlas telling you not to worry, it’ll come in handy later would be nice, as well as tying in to the creeping notion that Atlas only cares about his needs and could care less what happens to you.

  4. james says:

    I’m quite sure there is a reason for the protagonist to inject himself with that first syringe of plasmids: I can think of several that would work, and the brief monologue in the intro sequence about how the protag’s parents always said he’d be someone special had to be in there for a reason. But when it happens it’s intensely jarring and not in a good way. It needs something more than it has, and coming so early I think it’s a fundamental weakness in the game’s narrative.

  5. chris lamb says:

    It’s definitely a jarring moment, one made all the more so by how slow the rest of its pacing is (though that can depend on how you play, I suppose). So far, it’s one of the few moments that stood out enough to remind me I’m playing a game, and it’s a shame it’s one of the first experiences you have inside the world. Like I said, I think there are ways to leave it in but cover it with a bit of exposition that would make it work much better.

  6. Having played through most of the game, they actually come back and address this point, which seriously impressed me.

    My 360 has, however, scratched my bioshock disk and is merrily displaying the Red Ring of Death after a few minutes of play, so I won’t see the end of the game for a while.

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