You don’t need me to tell you that BioShock is a good game. There are any number of 97% and 10/10 reviews of BioShock that inform you about successes and flaws and bugs and intriguing-but-lackluster combat. Moreover, as a long time fan of System Shock 2, the game’s spiritual predecessor, I have a bias that you probably don’t want to endure. By the numbers, BioShock is a game with a lot of power.
Indeed, there hasn’t been a game in the past year or more that possessed as much potential to shake things up as BioShock. Even before its release, people were bandying about its value as art, both in the visual and emotional spectrums. Rapture, the underwater dystopia that BioShock calls home, and its art deco style is a feast for the eyes. Beautiful, yes, but art is a different matter.
There are many ways to approach the art argument. Even though BioShock has one of the best climaxes in the recent history of gaming, I could complain because after it delivers this startling experience it proceeds to limp along for two sub-par hours. But that’s the subject of another article. This article is about what has become my favorite topic as my gaming tastes mature past splattering anthropomorphic mushrooms with mustachioed plumbers: choice.
You already know what I’m talking about. BioShock’s particular choice was sensationalized in every gaming magazine and gaming blog: the "harvesting" (i.e.: murder) of golem-like creatures called Little Sisters, cute young girls, barefooted, pig-tailed, and clad in their best Sunday dresses. These brainwashed creatures wander around the ruined streets of Rapture collecting the precious genetic building block ADAM. The main character needs this genetic slurry to upgrade his superpowers, and the only way to get it is through the hunt and slaughter of these adorable, but unnerving, little girls.
Here is where the player is given that well publicized choice. He can harvest the Little Sisters and receive their full share of ADAM, or he can rescue them – exorcising their evil programming and returning them to normal – at the cost of receiving half the ADAM (but with promises of future rewards for saving innocent lives).
Half of the problem created by the 'rescue' option is that the rewards for rescue turn out to be better than the rewards for harvesting. An overabundance of ADAM is largely useless (you simply don’t need that much to get by), and over time the difference between the ADAM gained from harvesting and the ADAM gained from saving the girls is barely noticeable. Presents are doled out for every three girls you decide to save and include a hefty infusion of ADAM that closes the gap between harvesting and rescuing to a mere 10%. By rewarding you so handsomely for saving the girls the creators of BioShock have neutered the process to the point where benefit of harvesting is at best negligible and at worst detrimental to progressing in the game since saving the girls rewards you with not only ADAM, but also ammunition and new powers. The attentive gamer will quickly recognize the rewards offered from harvesting as a red herring. Rescuing involves too much in the way of tangible, gameplay benefits to the player.
The other half of the problem is the method by which you interact with the girls. You cannot harm them directly, they cannot be shot or bludgeoned or electrocuted like every other character in the game. The choice of harvesting or saving is constrained to a cutscene that plays after the pressing of a button. H for Harvest, L for Rescue. The mechanical nature in which the game forces you to choose, by reducing the action to a simple button press, makes the choice feel all the more detached.
Pushing that singular button feels more like a Copy-Paste operation on your computer than the wanton slaughter of a young girl. By taking away the visceral aspect of the slaughter the player feels no more gravity holding a child's life in his hands than he does deciding how to organize his mp3s. If your choice to harvest required you to light these young girls on fire, riddle them with bullets, or explode them with grenades instead of pushing an arbitrary button, would it be so easy to send them to their death? If participants in the Milgram experiment had to watch their subjects in the throes of agony as they were "electrocuted" would they have so willingly continued the procedure? Although the decision is already mostly moot from a gameplay standpoint, BioShock also does nearly nothing to scare the player away from killing the girls. It feels totally rote, less like murder and more like grabbing a mushroom in Super Mario.
The entire system is too binary. Killing even one little sister out of perceived necessity will ensure the player receives the bad ending when the game is finished. There is no space for shades of grey in BioShock, and there is no atonement for one’s sins. A player could begin the game guiltlessly killing the Little Sisters and, as the mystery of their creation unfolds, feel legitimate remorse for his actions and set himself on a more righteous path. But by then it’s too late, and the computer has checked off boxes on its list that label him as a murderer. It's almost perversely analogous to restrictive child molestation statues like Meghan’s Law, laws that make no possible provision for a person’s redemption. When you harvest that first block of ADAM your card is punched and in the eyes of the game's court, you can never clear your name.
In my perfect world, BioShock would reward you with nothing for saving the girls. The player should get exactly zero ADAM for every child sent on their merry way. If the choice is entirely altruistic it becomes real, it feels like an actual choice. It feels real even if what you’re exterminating on screen goes away when you turn off the monitor. But if it’s brought down to a simple number crunch (receiving 400 lots of genetic goop versus 440 lots of genetic goop) then the limit of its moral impact is hoping your girlfriend doesn’t walk into the room at the wrong moment and see you wrenching the life from a shrieking child.
What’s more, you need to feel that this game is walking you on a path to something more than a sixty second ending with suitably loving/harsh narration depending on whether you were savior or exterminator to the little girls. The player needs to feel that his choice affects more than their ability to shoot stronger fireballs. The player needs to feel that what he's doing creates an experience that is real, even if it exists only inside of himself and the electronic box that goes to sleep at the end of the night.
BioShock wants to give us soul tearing moral choices, and to its credit it tries damned hard to do that. Let nobody forget that wrapped around these moral choices, diluted though they may be, is a very solid FPS. Maybe it tries harder than any other game on the market, it definitely tries harder than any game that will ever break a million sales. It just wasn’t enough.
And it won’t ever BE enough if we sit complacently and say they tried their best.
People bandy about the term art to describe BioShock. Some claim this is the first proof of videogames as an art form. If this game is meant to be art, then it should impact us as art does. The harvesting of these girls should leave a lasting stain on our soul. BioShock is a very fun game, maybe even a 10/10, but it is not art, no matter how close it might come. Until my stomach wrenches when I’m forced to shoot a cowering girl in the back as if she were the same as the bloodthirsty, insane monsters the game hurls at you, until I can remember which girl had brown hair and which had blond, until I can remember which girl sang off-key songs and which girl played with toys after I saved her life, until I am affected by my choices then I’m reluctant to say it could ever be art.