Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
September 2007

Deep Immersion

For me, great games take my mind away from its present reality and immerse it in a new world with new problems, goals, and stories.  Without at least some sort of immersion, games quickly grow old and uncomfortable as I realize I am just mashing buttons in front of a TV or monitor.

I've played a lot of great games and been immersed in very different ways.  With some games, it is the mental struggle that can keep me working out problems for hours. The mental workout I get from trying to balance science and military in Rise of Nations or trying to coordinate a three-pronged assault in Supreme Commander is enough that I think of little else but the problems in this virtual world.

Other games keep me sucked in with intense action - Halo, Unreal, and Counter-Strike all depend on having mind and trigger finger at the ready or the result is quick and bloody. Character- and story-driven games work well, too, by giving the player people and worlds whose needs they care about.

And then there are some games, rare games, that just bring it all together and make a fantastic, immersive game without necessarily being the best at any of these individual categories. Bioshock, a dark twist of first-person shooter, RPG, and horror/adventure, is without a doubt the best game I have played all year and yet, when I think about it, it is not really the best in any one single way.

There are better shooters out there, there are more compelling stories, and you can certainly find scarier fiends, yet the immersion Bioshock creates surpasses anything I have experienced in a long time.

Enter into Rapture
Bioshock comes crashing to life when you find yourself as the sole survivor of a plane wreck in the ocean. As luck would have it, you see a mysterious lighthouse just a short distance away.  With certainly nothing better to do, you swim towards it and enter, only to find a strange bathysphere. Upon closing the door and pulling the lever you find yourself literally immersed in a totally new and twisted world.

Glass tubes connect the buildings of Rapture

Irrational Games' Bioshock takes place in the city of Rapture, an underwater complex holding the shattered pieces of a fallen Utopian society. Built during an alternate 1940s, Rapture was intended as a new home for those who wanted to leave the world behind and pursue capitalism and free thought without society's moral and ethical restraints. It's Ayn Rand meets Atlantis meets Myst.

Intended to be kept a secret from the world at large, Rapture prospered for a while and then, as unchecked ambition is wont to do, things got out of hand. As genetic research yielded new discoveries, those on the bottom of the social ladder saw that they were separated not only by material things, but by a biologic divide as well.

Lead designer Ken Levine stated in an interview that he likes to explore "what happens when good ideas fall apart," and Rapture has certainly fallen apart. As you explore the world you can see and hear the citizens moving about in their deranged lives, looking for biologic materials, mourning the dead and generally acting crazy.

These people are all mad, but they aren't necessarily mad at you. Oh sure, they will try to kill you in all kinds of interesting ways, but much of the game's coolness comes from the feeling you get that you are a stranger in this strange land and not the center of everyone's attention.

Never head to the ball without your machine gun

The environment is styled in 50s Art Deco revival, and this architecture, combined with music from the era, combine perfectly to create a feeling of innocence lost and things gone wrong. As you pause to enjoy the record player and look out into the underwater environment you will hear the sounds of splicers getting closer… closer.

Splicers are the mutant results of too much monkeying with genes. They are mostly humans but, like everything else in the game, they may surprise you by climbing walls and ceilings or disappearing for a short period of time.

Along with splicers, you will encounter the cover creatures of the game, the Little Sisters and Big Daddies. Little Sisters may look like little girls but they are programmed to harvest the last traces of life from corpses. (Possessed little girls may seem creepy in a video game, but Bioshock is nowhere near as twisted with this as American McGee's Alice, where you actually get to play as the twisted Alice and wield her bloody Vorpal Blade.)

Big Daddies don't take well to being ignited

Little girls have no place running around Rapture on their own, and that is where the massive mechanical Big Daddies come in. Big Daddies are a challenge to take on, but once you destroy them you are presented with what is hyped to be a tough moral choice. The choice (skip a few paragraphs to avoid even the hint of spoilers) is supposed to be between setting the girl free or stealing the energy she has been harvesting, which would leave her lifeless. So noble? So heart-wrenching? This choice is about the most over-hyped moral dilemma ever to hit gaming.

All it really is about is a choice between getting some immediate bonuses or waiting a while to get perks that are just as decent later. There is no great sacrifice by the player, no ethics necessary, just a tactical decision. Decisions are great and I think this is a cool part of the game. I'm just not sold that there is something moral going on.

Weapon of Choice

In its blendedly beautiful way, Bioshock lets you use weapons of both the biological and ole-fashioned-slug-slinging variety. The mechanical weapons are your standard fare of pistols, shotguns, and machine guns, but the plasmids are where things really get interesting. Plasmids are biologic enhancements that give you the power to shoot electricity from your finger tips, light things on fire, or lift crates and junk to be used as deadly projectiles.

Plasmids are not only used as weapons but can also be used to mod your body to help you live longer or solve puzzles quicker. Choosing what enhancements to buy and when to use them is what really makes up the RPG and character customization of the game, but even this little bit is enough to make you feel like you have some control over your character experience.

In addition to the plasmid options, there are also quite a few items spread around the world to be picked up, adding to the RPG feel of the game. Whether it is parts to make weapons and ammo, potato chips to fill up some health, or audio diaries that give one more piece of the puzzle, there are definitely reasons to take your time to explore Rapture.

You probably didn't expect your Pipe Dream skills to help you in breaking Rapture's security systems

All of this would make for a decent game, but what really seals the deal is the element of fear that permeates the entire experience. Brilliant sound effects and music combined with a masterful use of lighting and tight places make for an experience most enjoyed with the lights off and speakers or headset turned up. If this game doesn't give you chills then there probably aren't many that would.

As I said earlier, Bioshock is the best game I've played all year, and probably one of my top 10 games ever. It is just that good. But, 2007 has been a kind year to gamers and it isn't over yet. Games like Call of Duty 4, Crysis, and The Orange Box all have huge hype, and may well live up to it. Whatever happens, there is no excuse for not getting immersed in a fantastic game this year.

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