Monday, March 31, 2014

Buried Alive

And so, the BioShock journey comes to an end. Back when Burial at Sea was first announced, we all thought it would extend the story of BioShock Infinite, and perhaps provide a bridge to whatever game would be the next main entry in the franchise. Since then, of course, we've learned the shocking news that Irrational Games is shutting down (despite having released one of the most critically-admired games of last year, which appears to have also sold quite well), and this, the second part of the DLC, will be our last-ever journey through BioShock.

Fortunately, it's a very fine end. Like its predecessor, it combines some of the most memorable aspects of the worlds of Rapture and Columbia. It continues the impressive job of merging together their unique gameplay mechanics (sky-hooks in Rapture! Drinkable plasmids!), and actually manages to innovate somewhat in its play style, addressing what I've long considered one of the weak points of the franchise. As I've previously complained, I've often felt like the games have a half-baked implementation of a stealth system, with just enough enemy alertness and patrols to make me want to attempt a more pacifist approach, but not designed well enough to actually make it a viable strategy. Well, they've explicitly made a non-lethal playthrough possible this time, and even associated it with a new difficulty level: 1998 Mode. Somewhat similar to 1999 Mode, a "hardcore" mode with limited ammo and resources, 1998 Mode restricts you to only using stealth-based approaches: you can sneak around enemies, knock them out silently from behind, Possess them to join your side, put them to sleep from a distance with tranquilizer darts, or distract them with loud noises. The intro provides a good overview of the stealth mechanics, which, in addition to the typical field-of-vision sight avoidance now also incorporates an aural component. Moving faster makes your footsteps louder and more likely to draw enemies; stepping on broken glass or water will alert them to your presence, while wood or stone surfaces are quieter, and carpet is so quiet that you can safely run across it. Enemies have different alertness levels, which you can monitor from a discreet distance when deciding a course of action.

I'm not totally sure of the etymology behind 1998 Mode, but I strongly suspect that it's an homage to Thief: The Dark Project. This seminal game was released in 1998 by Looking Glass Studios, which was a forerunner to Irrational Games (Looking Glass also created System Shock, of which BioShock was the spiritual heir). Thief was a revolutionary game for its time, and arguably is still the only great stealth-based first-person franchise ever created. Thief had even more great mechanics, like great use of three-dimensional space (crossing a rope line suspended high above guards), manipulation of light (shooting out torches with water arrows!), and moving around unconscious bodies so they wouldn't be discovered by other patrolling guards. Thief is in the news again lately due to a lackluster reboot of the franchise. The timing is probably coincidental, but will probably make Burial at Sea look better in comparison.

The difficulty for 1998 was nicely challenging. There's one particular area, which I visited at two different points in the story, that was extremely difficult and took well over a dozen tries to complete; other than that, though, most of the game could be completed with a combination of patience, observation, and management of resources. (One random tip: at one point, it looked like I had lost the ability to pick up additional tranquilizer ammo. It turned out that my ammo was full, but since the crossbow holds two ammo types, I was seeing the other ammo type on display. On PC, you can press and hold "E" to bring up the weapon wheel, which lets you switch ammo types for the crossbow.)

One tangent/brag: you unlock a Steam achievement for beating the game in 1998 mode. I've become increasingly interested in achievements since their very clever use in Hate Plus, and after beating the game I looked at the statistics for Bioshock Infinite. I was a bit proud to see that I was one of the 0.1% of gamers who had unlocked this particular one. In comparison, a total of 2.2% had beaten this DLC at any difficulty. I was a little surprised that 1998 mode was so low, but even more surprised that overall victory was so high. This was on... Saturday afternoon, I think, which means that only four days had passed since the DLC was released. It's a bit astonishing to think that 1 out of every 50 gamers who had ever even started playing BioShock Infinite had downloaded this 6GB-or-so-large DLC, started it, and played to completion within a few days of its availability. Then again, I'm notorious for starting a game more than a decade after it is first released, so this quick adoption is probably more common than I realize.

But that also got me thinking about how valuable Steam could be for research and statistics into the patterns of game-playing. Sales data for digital distribution of games is notoriously difficult to get; neither publishers nor digital platforms like Steam tend to release sales figures, so the question of how well a particular PC title does is very opaque. (In contrast, since most console games are still sold through retailers on physical discs, sites like VGChartz usually have fairly-accurate numbers for sales on XBox, PlayStation and Nintendo consoles.) While overall numbers are mysterious, though, there's a lot you could learn from a game with a fair number of achievements. How many people play a game at all, enough to get an achievement from beating the very first level? How many play to completion? How popular is the DLC? Does latter DLC always decline in popularity, or is it primarily driven by reviews? In some games you might be able to figure out whether players gravitated towards "good" or "evil" playstyles, or favored a particular class type, or opted for non-lethal solutions. It would be really interesting to track this stuff across the industry as a whole, and also among individual franchises, to see whether certain types of players are drawn more to certain types of games.

Tangent over. Moving on:

Burial at Sea Part 2 is gorgeous. In particular, the opening scene might be the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in any video game; this is taking the crown from the previous record-holder, the original BioShock Infinite. Scene design is incredible, the animations are gloriously sweet, the hue is super-saturated, and it's all tied together with the loveliest sound design this side of a 1990s Disney musical. The BioShock games, like System Shock before them, have long been renowned for their fantastic sound design, which just might be the best in the industry. Typically, their immense skill is directed towards making the creepiest, most unsettling moods imaginable, so it's wonderful to see that, when they really want to, they can be just as talented at invoking moods of euphoria and bliss.


In small doses, that is. Like every other entry in BioShock Infinite, this game starts with a beautiful worlds to explore, then rapidly shifts into an extended fight for your very survival. For me, the shift was easier to stomach this time, in large part due to the non-lethal tools at my disposal. The big difference, though, might have been the shift in character. In the expansion, you play as Elizabeth, the young girl who was Booker's sidekick in the previous two entries.

This is a fun shift. It reminded me in a few ways of some of my favorite parts in The Last of Us when you play as Ellie, who is Elizabeth to Joel's Booker. It's not quite as drastic a shift in playstyle - Ellie had fundamentally different characteristics and abilities, while Elizabeth still relies on many of the same weapons and plasmids as Booker - but there are still some neat additions, notably being able to crawl into ventilation shafts, just like Elizabeth was able to do in the earlier entries. Playing as a girl is interesting; the biggest impact I noticed was that I tended to cringe a lot more when coming under fire, and I was quicker to reload a checkpoint once it became clear that things would end poorly, unlike my earlier Booker games when I would usually play through to the end regardless. I still feel a weird sense of responsibility for Elizabeth, just like I did when she was a companion, even though now I'm the one looking after her well-being, instead of Booker.

Like Burial at Sea Part 1, this game takes place in Rapture. In this entry, though, we learn much more about the link between Rapture and Columbia. This helps resolve some of the long-unexplained mysteries of both franchises, and also acts as a really nice kind of retcon to explain why gameplay was so similar between the two entries. For example, we learn that Dr. Suchong and Jeremiah Fink were able to establish a connection through a Lutece Device, and so were able to collaborate on the development of vigors and plasmids. The Adam from Rapture was delivered to Columbia to create Vigors. There's even some neat minor stuff you can come across in notes and audio logs about the difference between injectables and drinkables: Fink is more consumer-oriented, and knows that it will be easier to sell a drinkable than a needle, even though it will take 50 times as much Adam to deliver the same results. Fontaine, though, is much more supply-driven, and aware of the benefits in hoarding Adam, and demands manufacturing injectables alone, stating that he'll take care of selling them to the public.

Okay... a lot went down at the end of Part 1, and more big revelations come in Part 2. Here we go!


The big shock at the end of Part 1 was Elizabeth killing Booker. At the time, I'd thought that this was an alternate-universe Elizabeth, acting in vengeance for the death of her sister / alternate-self. In Part 2, though, I'm more inclined to think that it was the "original" Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite. The missing-pinky thing seems to be a somewhat-unique identifier for her, and she has memories of Songbird and other elements that probably aren't all that widely distributed amongst all alternate Elizabeths.

In her internal monologue, it was fascinating to note that she refers to killing "Comstock" and not killing "Booker." To me, these are still two separate entities: sure, if you go far back enough in time they came from the same person, but having "lived" as Booker and "killed" Comstock, I mentally categorize them as distinct persons. It was eye-opening to realize that Elizabeth doesn't see such a distinction: Comstock is Comstock, whether or not he was baptized at Wounded Knee. It does raise a lot of questions about guilty and culpability. Again, having played as Booker previously, I'm automatically sympathetic for him: he made a terrible mistake, but was haunted by it, and wanted to do what he could to make it right by saving others like his daughter. But, from Elizabeth's perspective, he's a monster who murdered a little child (from both directions!) and should be punished for it.

Or should he? Much of Part 2 is cloaked in deliberate confusion. Elizabeth has lost much of her memories; she had previously "seen through all the doors" and knew what lay in store in all alternate universes, but now she has collapsed into a single quantum; she knows that in the past she saw all outcomes, and started along this path, but now that she is set on it she does not know where it will lead. An early, unsettling moment has you confronting your own corpse, and the accompanying dizziness reveals that you have crossed over into a universe not your own.

To be explicit: Burial at Sea Part 2 is the missing link that shows how and why the BioShock games are connected. In addition to minor things like the development of vigors/plasmids, this game shows how Atlas returned in triumph to Rapture and started the war that would destroy it. It doesn't just show it: you, yourself, do it. That felt super-weird, knowing that every action I took was creating the nightmare that I played through several years ago.

There's an optional side-quest in the game that lets you discover fairly early on that Frank Fontaine and Atlas are the same person. Like a lot of plot elements in Part 2, this leads to a hyper-awareness that can feel disorienting. You know that you're going to be betrayed, but need to proceed regardless.  These thoughts are often worked out in a strange external monlogue between yourself and "Booker" - which, as he helpfully points out, isn't really Booker at all, but merely a hallucination you've created to have someone to talk with. "Booker" reassures you, but as he points out, he can't tell you anything that you don't already know. (In one example of narrative inconsistency, it's established early on that you're talking to nothing on your radio, and Atlas jumps on the line, somewhat irritated, asking why you're speaking to yourself. Later, though, you openly discuss Atlas's identity and plans with "Booker," when presumably Atlas can hear every word you say.)

The ultimate resolution is... touching, and very bittersweet, but also confused me a bit. As far as I can tell, omniscient-Elizabeth had looked through all universes, and found a single version of Booker that could be saved. I think she implies that this is Jack, the protagonist of the original BioShock game, but I haven't been able to work out how that makes sense. Jack was Andrew Ryan's son, and the original BioShock took place in 1960. I don't see any way that this could be the same man who fought in the Battle of Wounded Knee... I suppose that some inter-dimensional trickery might be able to explain it, but a major plot point of the first game was how Jack was Ryan's illegitimate child, so without the genetic match the mechanics of the first game don't make much sense. Anyways... it's very possible that there was some explanation in the DLC that I was too dense to see, or that I misunderstood what Elizabeth was trying to do. Which, the more I think of it, just seems deeply strange. She seems happy to be deliberately orchestrating the events that will give Fontaine the activation phrase "Would You Kindly", and dooming the entire city of Rapture to destruction, and for what? To bring Jack down below the sea, so he can have a chance to die? Hm, unless... I suppose it makes more sense if her ultimate goal was to rescue the Little Sisters. If that's the case, then the destruction of Rapture wouldn't have intrinsically been a bad thing; at the very worst, it would ensure that no future little sisters were created, and at best, the existing ones could be rescued as well. Though, with her pre-existing ability to open tears, it seems like there must have been a much better way to accomplish that goal without an extremely roundabout mission. Then again, the whole thing is absolutely a retcon, so I'm probably making a mistake to question it at all.


While I don't claim to understand exactly how Booker fits into all this, it didn't make the ending any less touching. Scenes of sacrifice are always powerful, and fairly rare in video games, and literally every single game in BioShock Infinite has ended with the protagonist getting killed. Each death serves a purpose, though, and while Elizabeth's death is the saddest and least shocking, it's also the most uplifting. Elizabeth kills Booker in the earlier games, but here she has deliberately designed and played out her own downfall, in the service of a greater good. That's pretty heavy stuff, and an appropriately melancholic note on which to end a franchise built on the themes of corruption and decay.


So! I'd mentioned earlier that you might want to wait until both parts are out to try Burial at Sea; now that they're here, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them. Assuming you already enjoyed Infinite, you'll find more to enjoy - terrific environments, fantastic voice-acting, and improved combat. People who have played through from the very first BioShock will get the most out of this, as it is a fitting tribute and capstone to the entire series. (For the curious, I went ahead and made another album for this one, though I haven't captioned anything yet. That may come in the future.)

Like a lot of people mourning the passing of Irrational, I'm very curious to see what the future brings. Ken Levine, the main creative force behind Irrational, announced its closure and also that he wants to transition to telling smaller-scale, more narratively driven games. That does sound pretty awesome, since I'm all about narrative in games. It is a bit sad, though, to think that we might have seen the end of one of the best visual design teams ever assembled. Don't get me wrong, the storytelling in the BioShock games is very good and much more memorable than most games out there. However, I think the one particular area in which they most excelled was creating distinct, creative, imaginative, wholly original settings. There's nothing like Rapture or Columbia, and if Irrational hadn't created them, I don't think anyone else would have. It's all the rage now to talk about how AAA titles are too derivative and cautious, churning out cookie-cutter sequels that improve graphics while sticking with stale modes of gameplay; the same line of arguing goes that the independent creators are doing all the innovating these days. There's some truth to that argument, but I think that the BioShock games have been some of the best examples to date of what AAA games are capable of doing that indie games are not. A small free or $5 game can have a really compelling story, as good or better than a $60 AAA title; but the $60 AAA title has the resources to construct a lush, vibrant, fully-realized, visually compelling realistic world. Too many franchises these days blow that budget on making the next hyper-realistic simulation of a war-torn WWII battlefield, or a sleek dystopic future, or a modern American city. BioShock broke the mold, inspiring players with its wholly original visions of worlds we hadn't even imagined before. I'm optimistic that Ken Levine will continue to create great games, but I'm pessimistic that the game industry will find a replacement for their breathtaking visual originality. If a franchise this popular and this well-liked couldn't survive, then who can?

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