Bioshock for the Chronic Underachiever

Despite the common misconception that both Petes on Tea Leaves are the same person with multiple personality disorder, we actually lead separate, fulfilling lives. This is especially apparent when it comes to games. Here is the typical Pete To Pete Pattern when it comes to “What we’re playing lately.”

Polarity: peterb-to-psu

peterb: Hey, you need to try this game, Morrowind. It’s the best thing ever. psu: I don’t play Windows games. peterb: Here’s the Xbox version.

[…time passes…]

psu: I got off the ship and I couldn’t tell what I was supposed to do so I sold the game on eBay.

Polarity: psu-to-peterb

psu: Here, try this PS2 RPG. peterb: What’s it about? psu: High school girls who sell gay porn for dresses that give them magic powers. peterb:psu: They use the magic powers to buy guns and shoot themselves in the face to summon demons. peterb:psu: Then the demons have sex with Peyton Manning and give the girls XP.

[…time passes…]

peterb: I got the Student Council President’s pornomancy spells up to level 11, but then I played Pokémon for a week and when I came back to this game I couldn’t remember what the plot was so I stopped playing. Here’s the game back.

The interesting thing here is that with a few notable exceptions, we hardly ever play the same games at the same time. Usually we cross-pollinate our interests, instead.

Last week, however, we both picked up Bioshock at the same time, like every other Xbox 360 owner in the known universe. It has been interesting comparing notes with him as we’ve both progressed through the game.

The really interesting thing about this is that I’ve been watching his (and my) “achievements” as we progress through the game. Achievements, for those of you who don’t know about them, are stupid little Xbox Live Merit Badges that you get for being a good little hamster and slogging your way through the a given game.

Both psu and I have been (and still are) fairly dismissive of the achievement system. It’s not actually connected to anything in real life, or in fact even in the game: the sole thing that achievements enable are bragging rights. I remember in the original Project Gotham Racing they had an in-game achievement system that unlocked certain features (for example, if you drove a car for 50 miles or some such, you might get a new helmet). That, to me, was at least an actual reward. Merit badges aren’t very rewarding to me. I spent years recovering from the trauma that the Cub Scouts inflicted on me, so I certainly am not going to begin squandering psychic effort on acquiring merit badges at this point in my life.

All that being said, I will admit, to my shame, periodically comparing our achievements in Bioshock. On at least two nights last week, I ended up staying up an extra hour playing the game because of the feeling I was “falling behind.” At least at the time of this writing, I have caught up:

peterb

I don’t think my fascination with the achievements is a generalizable one. The specific question that was mesmerizing me was “How the hell is he getting through these levels so quickly?” This ties in, I believe, to style of play. I’m a creepsaver. I’ve been abused by bad computer games for so long that I end up saving the game just about anytime I do anything significant. Defeat a boss. Find a powerful weapon. Pick up some dryer lint. Walk five feet. It’s a sickness. Plus, I definitely have a problem where I feel like I “have to do it right.” This leads me to compulsively reload the game when I die, even though Bioshock provides a perfectly reasonable and non-punishing respawn system that is more or less penalty-free.

Psu, I suspect, is simply less type A about this than I am. My guess is that he is playing the game to progress to the next cutscene, and isn’t as neurotic about approaching “perfection.”

Last night, I believe I reached a key point: I reached the point where I was still interested in the plot of the game, but not actually interested in the mechanics. There are some mild spoilers ahead, so those of you who are hypersensitive to that might want to leave off here.

Bioshock’s spiritual predecessor was System Shock 2, which I have talked about here before. System Shock made heavy use — arguably, heavy overuse — of a specific storytelling technique that I have come to think of as the La Paloma Gambit, after its use in Dashiell Hammet’s novel The Maltese Falcon. The goal of the gambit is to give the protagonist their next narrative goal, and introduce some pathos, while avoiding having to depict a new character in detail.

In System Shock this played out by your having radio conversations (or other distant visual or audio contact) with a friendly character, who asks you to meet them in such-and-such a place. When you get there, you are just in time to watch them be horrifically murdered, with you behind a locked door, unable to help. The very first time someone in Bioshock said to me “I’m just down the hallway, come in.” I turned to the other people in the room and said “Watch this. I will get to a locked door with a window and will watch them be killed.”

Despite the predictability of the plot arc, it is executed superbly. The voice acting, the screenwriting, and the pacing are all about right. But midway through the game, I’m frankly fatigued by the actual combat. And last night, I walked right up to the brink of a dramatic confrontation whereupon I discovered that, once again, I needed to go clear across the map and fetch a MacGuffin or two, I suddenly had the thought: maybe I can just run there, ignoring all the enemies, and get to the next cutscene a little more quickly.

Perhaps I should look at this as a good thing. Maybe it’s not the game after all.

Maybe I’m just becoming less neurotic.