Sunday, July 24, 2011

BioShock 2: On Rapture and Isolation

BioShock 2 is a re-journey through the city of Rapture, the failed underwater utopia, since befallen at the helm of Andrew Ryan, so thoroughly investigated by the game's predecessor. This time, you play as a Big Daddy, and your villain is the all-powerful female psychiatrist, Sofia Lamb, pitting against you many "Big Sisters," (above) while your goal is still somewhat to escape. However, the more I waddle through Rapture, the more I realize that BioShock is in essence not about failed utopias so much as the idea of social isolation.

From the beginning of BioShock 2, we get the sense that we are hated, as we were apparently forced to commit suicide in the distant past through the Plasmid mind control of Sofia Lamb. Once we wake up, we return to Rapture, still despised by the mix of raging splicers, whom we are forced to battle through a series levels, each controlled by a quaint ol' character with a stake of their own in Rapture's lineage. But the point being, the only social contact you have with the world is always plagued by negative reinforcement. Everyone out there is trying to kill you and even your fellow Big Daddies want you dead. And the only sane characters are always separated by a pane of glass, in a different room than you, disembodied - speaking to you through the radio (or even telepathy) - or in hiding. In this sense, you remain constantly isolated from every other character in the world of Rapture, including those of your fellow Big Daddies.

The Big Daddies, of whom you are the foremost, are some of the few characters who actually have a social attachment to another entity: the little sisters. In killing the Big Daddies (which is so integral to the gameplay - they give you Adam, the necessary ingredient for upgrading your character attributes and abilities) you sever the little sisters' connection from their Big Daddies, and forcingly take the little sisters to your side. This somewhat contrived social relationship gives you, the player, some form of companionship, yet it is tainted by forcefulness and fabrication, still leaving you with a lack of genuine friendship.

Yet the little sisters stand at the centerpiece of BioShock 2. You are meant to rescue them - and eventually be united with your original little sister - by exploring Rapture with all of its inhabitants, since impacted by the changes after the fall of Andrew Ryan. However, the times where I truly started feeling something - any sort of emotion in Rapture - weren't the times when I learned about the history of Rapture or its inhabitants' troubled pasts. Those stories are just words - they don't have any pertinence to the immediate. They don't have any impact on my journey - it's all history. On the contrary, what created feeling for me was what impacted me in the present, and that was companionship - from the little sisters, or even the hacked turrets, or the sentry bots, simply by fighting at my side.

BioShock 2 is a game in which you are literally pitted against an entire world of crazed maniacs who really, really want to kill you. Because of this, any sort of companionship means so much more, because of this great negativity oppressing you. This runs more so than other games such as Halo or Call of Duty, because the very nature of your character as a Big Daddy reinforces this, coupled with the physical detachment of being deep underwater. I didn't care so much for the plot - the gameplay was fine, although it turned into a cycle of 'spam projectiles, scoff down medkits, and then scavenge each room like a homeless person' - it doesn't matter why we're going through these levels, does it? We just do it because that's how the levels are designed - to be completed and explored by players. It's not because we really want to find Eleanor Lamb - we don't know her, or have any emotional connection to her; she's a disembodied voice who tells us things that we don't even know are truth. We go through these levels because they exist as levels, meant to be progressed and completed.

Which is disappointing because the real essence of the game comes from that sense of purposeful companionship, between Big Daddy and Little Sister. Yet the majority of the game is spent on killing varieties of monotonous enemies, scavenging resources, and performing the same mini-games over and over in order to survive. We do interact with the little sisters, but their function in the game is to serve as mini tower-defense sequences, not as a physical character journeying with you, sharing your hardships and trials. Yet it should have been more about the gaining of companionship, the triumph over isolation. Because that's what Big Daddies are about, right? The loss of humanity, the severance of emotional ties, the fabricated relationship with a 'Little Sister.' And to regain that true humanity is what the story should really be about.

The highest crux of emotional feeling in the game, being the arcing change from social isolation to companionship, occurs towards the end, when you are reunited with your little sister, Eleanor, now a Big Sister, ready to fight at your side. She comes to your aid in times of distress, actually wards off dangerous enemies, and finally gives you accompaniment through the once desolate and deadly environments of Rapture. When the game ends with your mutual escape, it is a powerful thing. It wasn't about all the environments, myriad of details, or the well-written depth of characters, telling us why we should do certain things. It was that feeling of companionship that made the game - some emotional connection to a character that actually affected us, not a disembodied voice or an array of narrative backstory. It was to about going from being isolated, socially, to having a friend. And that's what BioShock 2 was about in the end: gaining a friend - a big sister.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

How Halo 3 Ended a Trilogy

I liked Halo--the first one. It was a game about space, discovery, science-fiction. It was about saving the human race, killing aliens, exploring a mysterious new world, escaping alive in one piece--discovering something unique, leaving it behind and having changed something along the way.

It was a story about the hero's journey. We are Master Chief, in the human fleet, minding our business, trying to do the best we can to keep Earth a secret from these nasty Covenant aliens. But they attack our ship, we get thrown off course, and crash on a mysterious alien world which turns out to be an artificially constructed ring (a Halo, get it?). We grab our assault rifles, join forces with our comrades, rescue our captain, explore this ring, discover that it goes deep for (hundreds of?) miles, and try to find a way to escape. Eventually this means we blow it up, and in a thrilling final sequence we barely escape as the last soldier or alien alive.

But six years later
in 2007, Halo 3 seems to have forgotten what made it so great in the first place. Halo 3 isn't about a journey, the battle for people we care about, or even survival against an unstoppable foe. Instead it's about repetitive action and bad space drama, barely excused by a setup of invasions, war, explosions, and ancient alien technology. It's a game that's lost a sense of self, what it's trying to achieve or convey to players. It's a game that tries to be too many things, and in the end, isn't left with much anything at all.

It first started in Halo 2, when it tried to portray both sides of this intergalactic war and have us empathize with our enemies. The game had us control a new protagonist, the Arbiter, who previously killed humans but then decided to rebel and stop the other Covenant aliens. Then the true villains turn out not to be the covenant, but a council of evil snail-like aliens, which is spearheaded by an even more evil snail-like alien who wants to activate an ancient alien technology in a remote part of the galaxy that will inevitably kill all humankind and probably the universe.

Alarm signals started to go up when we were watching long cut-scenes about aliens incapable of human vocal tracts speaking in English and debating space drama unrelated to what we thought was a story about Master Chief. This is raised another step in Halo 3 when the Flood, the zombie-like creatures in the game, proceed to join forces with us, speaking to us through animated tree-branch-like appendixes hanging out of their deformed mouths. This is the equivalent of the zombies and headcrabs in Half-Life 2 deciding to ally with Gordon Freeman and doing so by speaking to him with sensible English dialog. In Halo 3, the dynamic relationship between the Flood, the Covenant, and Master Chief constantly shifts until all understanding and sympathy is lost in the process.

The gameplay in Halo 3 consists of romps through different locale throughout Earth and beyond, but the setting is barely made important other than the fact that we are always chasing someone or something related to the end of the universe. Contrast this to the goals in Halo 1, which are progressive as we discover with our friends, the other human soldiers, where we are, and what we are trying to achieve. First there is the discovery of the Halo, the map room, and then the control room, each adding deeper layers to the story and our overall goals. Halo 3's goals consist more of locations--the game wants you to be here, and then there, which is briefly explained in a voice-over and pitched with a few key terms, such as "Ark," "Covenant," or "High Runner," meant to alleviate the fact that there is no progressive reason for you to be at these locations other than for convenient action sequences.

Interrupted by these segments of action in Halo 3 are meaningless monologues by Cortana, whom we have since been separated from in Halo 2, who spouts bits of information without any real purpose. These aren't like the audio logs in BioShock or the propaganda in Half-Life 2, which enrich the world and enlarge our sense of immersion by detailing important backstory and enhancing characterization. Halo 3's monologues consist of phrases such as "I am your light, your savior. I knew you," or "The way it ends is foreseen. You know this to be true." These segments are more like bad poetry than any pertinent story development. Furthermore, these segments actually slow down time in the game to a crawl and steal control away from the player, getting us further annoyed by hampering our progress in between actual gameplay.

There were one or two moments in Halo 3 where I felt that sense of meaning in the original Halo. It was when I jumped into an Orca (the flying helicopter thing, like the one in Avatar), and two other human soldiers jumped on the side of the wings, and we proceeded to do something related to one thing or another. But the point is we were part of a larger battle. The game wasn't about me killing endless enemies with a large assortment of weapons. The game at that moment was about achieving a series of goals with your human comrades, as part of a larger battle against a horrible foe.

As a whole, Halo 3 lost this sense of meaning for me. It appeared to be a game constructed for the sake of itself--for action, closure, and the fulfillment of the marketing of a popular sequel. Halo 1 was about something, even to the smallest degree: discovery, survival, camaraderie. Halo 3 wasn't about this; rather, it was about the immediate, the superficial--action for the sake of action, an ending for the sake of an ending--a game that existed just to exist.

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