September 17, 2007D. Riley

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.

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11 comments for ‘BioShock: The Art of Choice’

#1 hobbie Sep 17, 2007 10:54pm

This article sums up my feelings pretty nicely.

#2 Servo Sep 18, 2007 12:23am

Very well written. I haven't played the game, but if I ever do I will have this article to think about. Thanks.

#3 MitchyD Sep 20, 2007 01:04am

Very nice. Congrats on the newsweek linkage. I think you've summed up a lot of feelings for the fans - reducing such a critical choice to a button press is pretty unengaging, and that it happens so many times is just "Okay, the Daddy is dead walk up to the girl and hit H/R repeatedly until it's done"

It's not "fun" anymore. It's just "come on, come on, let's do this". You don't feel like you're making a choice, or that that choice ever has any effect on you in the future, seeing as how you're rewarded with a semi-trailer full of ADAM and goods every other time you Rescue the kid.

#4 Cola Johnson Sep 25, 2007 05:13pm

Wow... I totally agree. As for anybody myopic enough to consider Bioshock the first real attempt by a game to achieve the level of high art, I'd point them in the direction of Shadow of the Colossus. The game is extremely tactile as well as emotional.

The choice to kill these creatures does only come down to "do" or "turn off you console and walk away" but the difference leaves you feeling like a different person.

I was first really disappointed with Bioshock when I get to "that one guy", and like... it's all about choice, but then you don't get to choose. I felt robbed at that moment. Like I came so close to learning the lesson the game had worked so hard to impart, but the chance to prove myself was taken from me at the last moment.

#5 WholeFnShow Sep 30, 2007 04:12am

I just finished dumping about 35 hours into this. Gameplay aside, I did love the esthetics of the game. With games that have a noticeable attempt at immersion, I tend to admire the effort and go the extra mile to let myself get lost in it.

I was able to do that here, but certain plot elements just removed me altogether. I really didn't pay attention to how much Adam I received from when I harvested and/or saved the girls. I was going off of my instinct according to how I was playing. It was only after I actually looked at my count and realized that I had over 1000 Adam after my saving spree that I realized it was futile either way.

But in essence, that was the nature of the entire game. They really didn't want you to ever be frustrated or lose or be outwitted. It was just tailor made for you to succeed. But again, that's for another discussion I suppose.

The fact that they created this undeniably stylish world and landscape to wander around, albeit linearly, in is a definite credit to the creators. While the foundation for a truly Artistic game was laid, the depth was what was missing, to me.

#6 Omega Oct 2, 2007 11:24am

thank you so much for spoiling what happens to the little sisters, ie. saving them. etc.
i dont know what else you may have spoiled, because i didnt want to read on.

If the American people stop believing in this administration, it WILL fall.

#7 D. Riley Oct 7, 2007 11:12am

Wow... I totally agree. As for anybody myopic enough to consider Bioshock the first real attempt by a game to achieve the level of high art, I'd point them in the direction of Shadow of the Colossus. The game is extremely tactile as well as emotional.

I don't necessarily disagree with you, but read any Kotaku or Joystiq article about the game and you'd find scads of "Could this be the first example of games as art??"

For my money, I thought Shadow of the Colossus was a lot more emotionally impacting than this game.

thank you so much for spoiling what happens to the little sisters, ie. saving them. etc.

How long have you been reading this site? You don't expect spoilers?

#8 Fiddytree Oct 14, 2007 03:16pm

I felt the same way about this game. The game died off at the end and the moral choices/ending seemed to weakly tie up what overall was a very good game.

#9 Rob Nov 29, 2007 07:30am

I would be very interested to see this system of morality used in games that could really affect the player.

For example, imagine a realistic WW2 game (as oppose to the gun-ho nonsense so far) that requires you to fight in Berlin encountering young Hitler Youth members armed with a pistol and a few rounds.

Some of these children would fire at you whilst some may be simply terrified. I wonder how many players would open up on every single one they saw or how many would try and get them to safety?

If games want to be taken seriously, especially in terms of using morality as a mechanic, then they will have to start using more "real life examples".
IMHO anyway...

#10 Frederick Lansky Dec 7, 2007 08:43pm

This article is awesome and largely summarizes how I feel.

However, I think the author may have overlooked the fact that perhaps Levine and the rest of the crew at Take Two was TRYING to desensitize us. I thought a large point of the game was to show how the Ayn Rand (or Andrew Ryan in the game) objectivist philosophy is seriously fucked up, because we start to become one of the splicers areselves, eating the little girls, serving only our interest "for the greater good of society" and losing our humanity in the process! In the end we realize how desensetized we've become through that ending cutscene! (Of course not really, its just a game, but you get the idea.)

Also videogame companies--especially Rockstar/Take Two--have been getting a lot of shit from the media from overly concerned Republican parents (think the mom from Detroit Rock City) actually trying to pass laws to restrict the content of videogames. I just don't think actually showing the cute little girl's neck being snapped on the computer or xbox360 tv screen would help the cause for us gamers, and it wouldn't have made a big differnce in gameplay anyways. Thanks ya'll!!

#11 Anonymous Apr 7, 2008 04:26am

You've never read any of Ayn Rand's books have you? If you had you would know that the statement "for the greater good of society" is the exact opposite of Objectivism.

Bioshock's setting was art. The gameplay was good, but the tonics favored the wrench so much it was nearly all I used after the second level. I would have liked to see tonics that changed the gameplay for the other weapons.

As for the little sisters, ya it became a robotic motion to save them after awhile. The first one however, was a somewhat difficult choice, at least for me. You can only make a moral choice like that once though, either you cared enough to save the first one, or you didn't care and just wanted the Atom. I didn't know what reward or penalty I would get for saving or killing the little sisters. Without having prior knowledge of the consequences, why would you change your choice?