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Bioshock: Listening to Rapture

Splicers - the main enemies in Bioshock - have extraordinarily complex and believable vocal sound routines

When I got my 360, with all the enormous catalogue of quality games I could have chosen from to catch up on, the one I picked first was Bioshock. It came top of the list because I was intrigued by the premise behind the game, the lure of a traditional shooter with horror elements in such an esoteric setting. Plus, it was cheap on the used market.

Three chapters in, I have been somewhat disappointed. Bioshock is fun. In fact Bioshock is pretty much everything I was hoping it would be. But the respawn model has really spoiled it for me. Once I realised that there was pretty much zero penalty to dying, other than a short walk back to where you were before, and that you could effectively kill most things in the game by repeatedly hitting them with the wrench, the very first weapon you got, all the challenge and some of the interest drained out of the game. I have a full wallet because buying stuff is pointless: just use the wrench. I’m perplexed how such an awful design choice made it into what should have been an excellent game. Yes, you *could* refuse to use them, and rely on saves but why bother? Plus some of the nasties in the game – Big Daddies in particular – look pretty much unbeatable in a one-off fight with the early game weapons and ammo alone, so re-spawning looks kind of built into the play. The location of re-spawn booths close to difficult fights would tend to confirm that hypothesis.

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But I’m going to keep playing anyway, because the story behind the game in indeed interesting, and the setting is indeed esoteric. It also seems to make some explicitly political points, a rarity in games design nowadays. And it helps that so much love has been lavished on the visual design of the game. It didn’t give me the wow factor that I’d been craving, but it was fantastic to see how well unified the visual elements are, everything at once suggestive both of setting in time and place. The horror elements work well too, shadows looming on the walls, lights flickering on and off at appropriate junctures.

But what really got me was the sound design.

Other than soundtracks, I don’t think I’ve ever been specifically impressed by sound design in a game before, but the way it’s used in Bioshock is astonishing. For starters, there’s the ambient background noise of clanking pipes and hissing steam that hovers of the edge of your hearing like an irritating mosquito, simultaneously setting the scene and keeping you jumpy. Then there’s the use of music: no consistent soundtrack, just bursts of sudden discordant piano or saxophone music when you least expect it, often for no particular reason than to make you nervous.

The crowning glory though is the voices. The way Little Sisters chat away to their hulking guardians, just like over-keen toddlers blathering on at a doting parent is unsettlingly bizarre, although you do wonder why the Daddies are always called Mister Bubbles. The sudden voices over the PA system, reminding you that this was once a functioning society with laws and customs all its own. And the set pieces with the Splicers gibbering away to one another or to themselves, featuring clever scripting and excellent voice acting to sound convincingly, disturbingly, insane.

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But what really gets me is the triggered vocalisations in real time play. I can’t remember another game in which the enemies actually talk to one another. In most games, of course, you’re hunting aliens or monsters or some such, and they can’t speak in a manner you understand. Some do talk, like the various adversaries in Halo for instance, but they utter repetitive phrases keyed in to your actions. In Bioshock the Splicers talk to you, and they talk to each other, and they talk apparently for the sake of hearing their own voices. The resulting conversations manage to avoid excessive repetition and actually make some sort of coherent sense, giving you a peculiar sense that these were once real live people in a real live place who’ve been driven over the edge, simultaneously creating unease and sympathy in the player.

That sense adds enormously to the already powerful feeling of immersion you get while playing. So it’s doubly tragic then that the designers chose to destroy the sensation of disbelief by creating a ludicrous re-spawn model.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

17 thoughts to “Bioshock: Listening to Rapture”

  1. Favorite Big Daddy kill method:

    Step 1 – Get mine launcher
    Step 2- find throwable object, preferably exploding gas cylinder
    Step 3- put half a dozen mine on object
    Step 4- Throw at Big Daddy using telekenisis
    Step 5- cackle maniacally

    The rest of the game was mostly mediocre IMO, even the big twist was good, but overwrought and over editorialized. That said throwing mine laden objects at everything never got old, and was worth the price of admission.

    Now would you kindly blow some stuff up, and quit with the wrench.

  2. When I played Bioshock on the PC, I actually did reload my last save anytime I died because I disliked the penalty-free respawning. The “Why bother?” part is the exact reason you said: it was a poor design decision, and choosing to play the game in a more traditional way requires more skillful play and produces a more rewarding experience.

    You’re absolutely right: gamers should not have to make up their own rules to adjust for unbalanced game mechanics. I do not dump 20% of my gold out on the ground everytime I die in ‘Diablo III,’ for example. In the specific case of Bioshock, though, my decision on how to play worked out so naturally that I rarely remember Vita-Chambers as a part of the game.

    In fact, I’m fairly sure they patched the PC version to let people disable them in the Options. Did that not make it to the 360?

  3. I know right?

    I mean, Civ 5 is laughably easy on the Settler difficulty level. Totally ruined the game for me.

    What? Up the level? Why bother?!?

    While that isn’t a perfect analogy, its close in my opinion. No matter what you say, you absolutely had a choice, and you choose the easy way, and then blamed the developers for it. I don’t see how that is SO much different than playing on the easiest difficulty and then complaining that it was such a breeze as to be boring…

    Bash the devs for not giving the players enough choice in how they want to play the game.

    Bash the devs for giving the players an extra option in how they play the game….

    1. There’s a big difference between a selectable difficulty level and an in-game _feature_ that can not be turned off, avoided, or otherwise elemented as a gameplay element.

      It’s like saying you don’t have to use the shotgun in Gears of War multiplayer.

      1. Um. You absolutely do not need to use the gun in Gears of War multiplayer. It will be exponentially more difficult, but that is his whole point right? Increase difficulty?

        And the Vita Chambers can very easily be avoided by reloading your last save. Done. You can play the entire game like any other single player first person shooter and load from your last save. Just because they allow you to skip that part doesn’t mean you HAVE to. Sheesh.

        What’s the point?? The point is to achieve that difficulty the poster supposedly crave but pausing the game after respawn and loading the last save is just to much bother….

        Bottom line is its the player’s choice. Reload last save or use the Chambers. Your choice, don’t take the easy way out and then say the Devs made you do it.

        1. Or you could just play a game that is challenging without the player having to fight against the game’s inherent re-spawn design. You know, an actually good game.

        2. What Ogre and Barnes said.

          In detail, as I tried to point out in the piece itself, the game seems designed to encourage you to use the vita-chambers. Unlike almost every modern shooter the save system is super clunky : totally menu drive, slow to save, slow to load, no quick save, very limited auto-save. Vita-chambers are placed close to all the tough fights. It’s almost like the designers thought “hey, we built in a reason system, so we don’t need to bother with any of this crap”. Sure I could up the difficulty by forcing myself to save and reload, and perhaps I’ll do just that before the game is out to keep my interest up, but I’d be fighting against the design the whole way.

          The difficulty level thing in strategy games is way off as a comparison. Most games like that take only a few hours to complete, are designed to be replayed multiple times and you can increase the difficulty as you please. In shooters you often only lay through once and set the difficulty at the start.

        3. Shotgun comment was a joke. Sort of. Because you can’t win without it.

          Anyway, yeah, you could play any shooter with the starter weapon and make it harder “by choice”…or you could refuse to use healing items or whatever. But at that point, you are against the will of the design and not using features that intended to be a part of the experience. The Vita-Chambers are intended to be used. It’s not a “they’re here if you want” thing. They’re a component of the game.

          It’s not about player choice. That’s a completely different argument. If a player chooses to work outside the design, yes, that’s their decision. But it’s not the intent of the folks that made the game.

  4. Odd post Matt.

    So you know you can opt to use the save method rather than the easy way out of the respawn but choose not to then ask “why bother?”

    You answered your own question.

    As for the wrench, if you can kill a big daddy with a wrench then sign up as a Pro gamer because you are the man.

    As for the splicers, that trick won’t work later. By Ch3 you are still likely facing the basic bad guys.

    I do not subscribe to “games need to be challenging to be good” argument, especially a game like BioShock.If you find the game too easy up the diff lvl. That’s why it’s there, right?

    1. Well what I really wanted to talk about was the sound design. That’s the main subject, and I find it odd that everyone’s focussing on my comments about the difficulty

  5. I agree that the respawning Vita-Chambers are a bad idea because they create this odd kind of gameplay where you can just wear down the opposition just by dying and respawning. But if you play on hard (which I totally recommend), then the challenge is definitely still there even with the Vita-Chambers. Using the Plasmids and weapons effectively becomes more important, and you’re not going to wrench your way through the game.

    Don’t give up on it, because the game is really great. Once you get to the artist, it becomes amazing. The second game is actually better, the combat and gameplay are improved and the story- which is hardly a rehash of the first game- goes into some very interesting places. The DLC for Bioshock 2, Minerva’s Den, is probably the best piece of DLC I’ve ever bought.

    But yeah. I think the Vita-Chambers are symptomatic of a larger trend in gaming that is finding fail states softened and consequences reduced…”golden ledge” platforming, can’t-fail objectives, linear level design…all of it has to do with reducing the burden of failure on the player.

    I believe there is an achievment called “Iron Balls” or something like that you get if you never use a Vita-Chamber.

    1. I’ll keep playing for sure. I can already see that the story and setting are easily good enough to make it worthwhile.

      The point about failure is a very interesting one, bound up with the need to ensure AAA games shift copies. I’ll have to do a whole post about that at some point.

  6. With all of the great ways to kill stuff in Bioshock, the thought of somebody using the wrench in every encounter makes me chuckle.

    It’s like using your putter to hit every shot in a round of golf. You could do it. But why the heck would you want too?

  7. I see where he is coming from. If I recall my initial reaction at the early stages of the game, I was all about the: shock + wrench 1-2 combo. That changed pretty quickly at some point. I still used it, but it became much less effective.

    As someone who is not a particularly skilled at FPS, I didn’t mind the vita chambers all that much. I tried to avoid using them as often as possible though.

    As for money, I am a bit surprised about that comment. Until I got near the end, I felt like I was always scrounging for money, ammo, etc. Perhaps this, again, has to do with my lack of l33t skillz and the fact that I took more damage, had to use more ammo and used more of my plasmid attacks than the average bear.

  8. Reminds me of how we beat Diablo in Diablo 2 (speaking of virtually no penalty for dying) – we just beat on him with our barehands, repeatedly. When we would die, we would just respawn and run at him, wearing our loin cloths and nothing else. It just took too long to pick up our pile of stuff and re-armor. Repeat ad nauseum.

    And one problem with just using the save mechanism is that, as Matt metions, you can’t be sure the game wasn’t designed for the Vita chambers to be used. We have a similar problem with adjusting the difficulty when playing Serious Sam multiplayer – some settings make it way too easy and others it just doesn’t seem likely they expect you to play it like that. I shouldn’t have to guess at how to “fix” the game.

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