PC/Videogame Commentary: Bioshock & The Objectivist Dystopia

NOTE: From time to time, I may run one of my older print reviews that are not widely available on the web. This review/essay was one of several things I wrote about BioShock. I wrote it originally for Catholic Media Review, and was able to write at greater length than anywhere else.

Reading it 2 years later, I find that I still hold to my original opinions: BioShock is one of the best games of all time, and one of the few to really explore multiple complex issues with intelligence and wit. The sequel was also good, but lacked the original’s satirical bite and philosophical depth.

This piece might also require some background. For many years (throughout most of my 20s and some of my 30s) I was a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the Libertarian Party. I never considered myself an Objectivist per se (Ayn Rand’s deadly prose would be a cheap alternative to Ambien), but I found much in Libertarianism’s doctrine of individual responsibility and freedom that appealed, and it still does in many ways.

As I read more and matured, I began to see the limits of Libertarianism in general and anarcho-capitalism in particular. I now believe that any entity (be it a State or a Corporation) can become large enough to threaten liberty. Obviously, capitalism is superior to socialism, but a wholly unrestrained marketplace is only slightly less dangerous than an unrestrained government. Both require limits. BioShock illustrates why, which may explain why it resonated with me so powerfully.

When game journalists and editors sit down to hash out an annual awards issue, the “Best Game of the Year” Award usually takes a least a little conversation and debate.

In 2007, the conversation was short: “Does anyone think any game other than Bioshock is worthy of Game of the Year? Anyone? Anyone? Let’s move on then.”

In a year flush with fantastic, smart, well-crafted games for consoles, computers, and handhelds, Bioshock stands out as one of the rare game games to transcend its format. Bioshock is a game, make no mistake: you run around collecting things, shooting monsters, enhancing your character, unlocking new locations, and performing all the other functions associated with a role-playing action shooter.

But there’s more here. Much more. Narrative complexity, character development, and even thematic depth are fairly common coin in modern game design, but Bioshock takes it further, probing issues of morality, bioethics, and the nature of the self, all within the context of a Libertarian/Objectivist Dystopia.

Those who follow computer gaming have been awaiting Bioshock for a long time. Its creators call it a “spiritual heir” to System Shock, a sci-fi game which remains one of the landmarks in PC gaming history. System Shock was a deep, first person experience that offered a vivid world and narrative, then let you progress through combat, stealth, puzzles, or any combination of the three. Bioshock’s developer, Irrational Games, is staffed with some of the original System Shock team, and several of System Shock’s core elements have been carried forth into a new and even better game experience.

Bioshock begins in 1960, as a plane crashes into the middle of the ocean, leaving only one survivor: you. Swimming through the burning wreckage, you encounter a strange kind of lighthouse rising out of the deep like some Lovecraftian monolith. Inside, a bathysphere takes you to the bottom of the ocean, and a city of wonder hidden there. This city is the work of a megalomaniacal visionary named Andrew Ryan, who named it Rapture.

Ryan is a radical Objectivist millionaire who seeks to create an anarcho-capitalist utopia, He’s Ayn Rand via Charles Foster Kane, with a bit of Howard Hughes tossed in for good measure. Rapture is his monument to narcissism. Its soaring architecture and burnished brass seem like set designs by Albert Speer for an Art Deco production of Atlas Shrugged. These are not mere monuments to the ego of one man. Although Ryan’s cult of personality is complete and smothering—his voice (acted by Armin Shimerman) blaring from loudspeakers, his mottos carved into stone—Rapture is designed to create an entire city full of narcissists. The worship of self is central, as Ryan makes clear in one of his many pronouncements:

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No! says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No! says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No! says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture.”

What is the most vicious obscenity ever visited on mankind? To Ryan, it’s not slavery, the holocaust, Nazism, Bolshevism … it’s altruism. Altruism is the great lie that inverts the proper order of things. All the evils of the world are brought on because people are conditioned to consider the needs of the other. In Ryan’s (and Rand’s) philosophy, they should think only of themselves. Rapture was created so that scientists would be able to conduct research free of the ethical constrains of civilization, so artists would not be bound by outdated moral codes, where the only rule would be the Law of Thelema: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Ryan builds the city in secret, and populates it with his own special selection of handpicked “brights”. As you’d expect from such a libertarian wonderland untethered from morality or restraint, it doesn’t take long for Rapture to descend into utter chaos. When you finally reach it, it’s already a leaking husk overrun by genetic mutants as various factions fight for power. The story of Rapture’s collapse emerges piecemeal through messages and recordings collected in the course of exploration. It’s a technique used to great effect in the original System Shock, and it works even better here.

Rapture’s collapse is an object lesson in what happens when bioethics break down. The city is undone by genetic tampering, as people attempt to turn themselves into Gods with gene modifying drugs. God’s work is imperfect, people are told, so science must step in to improve it. At the top of the crumbling pyramid is Ryan, with his Godlike delusions and warped philosophy. He sees Rapture as a New Eden. Indeed, two of the gameplay elements are “ADAM”, a mutagen which allows people to modify their genetic structure to enhance certain powers, and “EVE,” the fuel for these genetic mutations. In order to get through Rapture, your character needs to become one of these mutants without sinking too far into madness. It’s a dangerous balance, and in the end only love is able to bring you back, if you choose the path of love.

As you need more and more of these drugs to progress through the game, you’re forced to make moral choices. You see, roaming throughout Rapture are a chilling pair of creatures: Big Daddy and Little Sister. Big Daddies are huge genetic mutants in heavily armed diving suits. Little Sisters are innocent looking little girls with ponytails, cute little dresses … and giant needles they use to suck the ADAM out of mutants after the Big Daddies kill them.

The Little Sisters are the work a female holocaust survivor, Dr. Tennenbaum, who creates them to produce ADAM. She thought the girls could be used without consequence, but didn’t count on them retaining their childlike characteristics. They’re still little girls, who sing, and laugh, and play. As Tennenbaum says at one point: “I look at genes all day long, and never do I see the blueprint of sin. I could blame the Germans, but in truth, I did not find tormentors in the Prison Camp, but kindred spirits. These children I brutalized have awoken something inside that for most is beautiful and natural, but in me, is an abomination… my maternal instinct.”

Life will find a way, however. Dr. Tennenbaum’s maternal instincts win out. She turns into the Sisters’ protector, and find herself on the run inside Rapture. She forces the player to make a choice. As the character, we have been told to kill the Big Daddies and suck the ADAM out of the Little Sisters, a process that will kill them. Tennenbaum begs us to save the girls. Through her process, a smaller amount of ADAM can be extracted, leaving the girls alive and freed of the drug’s control. In return, she offers a vague promise of some reward down the road.

Which do you choose? It’s just a game, after all. The choices don’t matter. Expediency should win out.

But time and again, when I’ve spoken to people about it, they always say they left the Little Sisters alive. Since doing so changes the way the game unfolds (and ultimately ends), some may go back and harvest just to see the alternate ending, but most feel uncomfortable with it. (Both endings are easily found on YouTube.) There’s a strange feeling of rightness that comes from healing the Sisters. It becomes a part of the risk/reward cycle of the game. It also leads to an absolutely boffo “good” ending. (Killing the girls results in a “bad” ending, making it clear just where the developers’ sympathies lie.)

From a pure gameplay perspective, Bioshock can be called a first person shooter, but that would sell it short. The combat elements are handled elegantly, with many ways to approach each enemy. As you progress, you pick up Plasmids and Genetic Tonics, which can be loaded into a finite number of slots on your character. These genetic modifications add different kinds of attacks, but also enhance various physical, engineering, and combat skills. By using special stations, you can customize your character with very specific attacks and skills, enabling each player to create a unique character. You can thus customize your character to approach the game in a variety of ways, with an emphasis on hacking, stealth, frontal combat, and so on. The game also incorporates System Shock’s “hacking” mode, which allows users to solve puzzles (styled on the Water Works tile game) to bypass certain obstacles or gain bonuses.

There is much more in Bioshock than this, and a simple listing of features always comes up short in conveying just how immersive and engrossing this game is. The world itself is a richly detailed art deco hell populated with a large cast of characters and creepy enemies. Narrative emerges through recordings and messages left behind, with both major and minor characters sketched through deft little clips pieced together along the way.

Bioshock shows us a stark picture of what radical Objectivism would look like in the real world. I spent ten years supporting the Libertarian Party through votes and donations before I finally grew up. Unfettered individualism does not lead to an Objectivist Utopia. It leads simply to Rapture, and the hell of a society filled with narcissists trying to make themselves gods. Bioshock puts you in the middle of that hell, and forces you to choose a side.

It’s the kind of choice a radical Objectivist like Ryan would believe is irrelevant to society, but it has an absolutely central effect on how the game plays out, leaving us with a very clear message about right and wrong and the place of the individual in society. Games just don’t get better than this.

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App O’ The Mornin’: Reiner Knizia’s Money Review (App Version)

Whenever I review an app version of a tabletop game, I plan to post a review of the game itself as well. I did this yesterday, in my coverage of Gryphon’s reissue of Reiner Knizia’s Money!.  (The exclamation point doesn’t appear on the box, but seems to appear everywhere else.)

This is a pretty simple review, since the app is a straight-up port of the original game. It plays like a version of any common card game in the app store, with cards laid out on a green felt table and crisp, clear graphics. Your hand is displayed along the bottom of the screen, bids are made simply by touching the cards and hitting the “bid” button, and lots are collected by sliding your bid on top of the desired cards.

From the very beginning, I was pleased the look and control of the game. It offers a respectable AI with a choice of difficulties, and the option to play with 3 or 4 players. The screen layout precludes a fifth player, even though the tabletop game itself supports up to 5. The apps also lack any multiplayer features. It doesn’t even have pass-and-play.

Even with maximum available RAM, the app can slow down at times, and has erratic pauses. It’s otherwise stable, and I have not yet encountered any hard crashes. The developers used the same engine for their conversion of Knizia’s High Society, and I don’t find that game slowing down as much as a Money.

Despite these limitations, I still enjoy the Money app, largely because it’s just a good game. If you’re not sure about laying out the fully $25 for the conventional version of money, then $3 will give you a taste of what it’s like.

Eurogame Review: Reiner Knizia’s Money!

Reiner Knizia is so prolific that even great designs sometimes slip through the cracks. Case in point: Money!. Initially released in 1999 (by Goldsieber in Europe and Rio Grande in America), it didn’t really find its audience. A small Rummy/bidding game wouldn’t have attracted a lot of notice in a year that saw Tikal, Torres, Union Pacific, Lost Cities, and Ra (the last two being Knizia designs), and I honestly don’t remember even seeing the original version of the game.

We have to thank Gryphon Games for bringing it back into print as the first entry in their Bookshelf Series. They’ve provided it with a handsome production in a compact box at a reasonable price ($25), and even made it the flagship release for their line of Apps.

Since this is a set-collecting game with a bidding element, there are some mechanics that are familiar from other Knizia games. The theme is based on currency trading, as you try to build sets from among 7 different types of global money. The cards are designed to look like different real and imaginary currencies, with 9 cards in each set. These cards break down into different denominations: 3 each with a value of 20 and 30, and one each with a value 40, 50, and 60. One of the currencies represents Chinese coins, each worth 10.

Players have a starting hand of 7 cards, and turns are defined by bidding. Each turn, two new lots of currency go up for bid. There are 4 cards in each lot. Using the cards in hand, players can bid any amount for the right to choose the first lot. The high bidder can select either of the lots, replacing that lot with the cards from his bid. Second highest bidder chooses next, and so on.

Lots are replenished from a draw deck, and then the bidding cycle begins again. The goal is to focus on buying lots that will build a single kind of currency with a face value greater than 200. Any currency in which you have less than 200 points at the end of game results in 100 points being subtracted from your final score. Having all three 20s or 30s also helps, since they earn you a 100 point bonus.

The game is simple to scale from 3 to 5 players merely by removing 1 type of currency for each player below 5. It’s easy to teach, and plays in 20 to 30 minutes.

As in Knizia’s Lost Cities, Money! requires you to make difficult decisions. It all comes down to choosing the right sets to build, and unloading unfinished sets to avoid the point penalty. There isn’t as much room for pain in Money! as there is in Lost Cities. Start the wrong dig in Lost Cities and you’re going to feel the loss no matter what. Collect a bad lot in Money! and you can unload it in the next turn, and even benefit by allowing it to pad out your bid.

A number of factors have pushed this to the top of the pile during family game nights. Aside from a couple of scoring steps, there is nothing really complex about the rules. Anyone who knows how to play Rummy will figure it out right away. The bidding adds an interesting element of strategy, as you watch what other players are taking and try to place bids that will get bad cards out of your own hand without benefitting someone else.

The appealing theme, high production values, easy-to-learn rules, and a decent amount of player interaction make this one a winner. Tomorrow morning, we’ll take a look at the App conversion to see if it captured these qualities in handy portable form.

Charles S. Roberts, Inventor of the Wargame, Dies at 80

The obituary was headlined “Charles S. Roberts, train line expert, dies at 80.” You could read the entire story and not realize they were describing one of the most important figures in the history of gaming.

Charles S. Roberts was indeed an expert on trains, which were his passion. He had several careers in his long life, but his most enduring achievement was as the inventor of the wargame.

Yes: you read that right. Charles Roberts invented the modern wargame. Movement on a grid (and later on hexes)? Combat results tables? Cardboard counters representing military units? Paper maps? Variable movement costs for different terrains? The entire idea of a packaged boardgame simulating military history?

All of it these things were the invention of Charles Roberts.

There were other forms of military gaming before Roberts: miniature soldiers on table-top terrain, or the “Little Wars” of H.G. Wells. But the modern wargame emerged from a game called Tactics.

In Tactics, two players moved little cardboard squares over a map. A grid printed on top of this map (hexes came later) helped regulated movement, while different kinds of terrain slowed or sped a unit’s progress. A combination of dice rolls and reference tables determined the results of combat encounters.

Robert invented Tactics in 1952. When no one was interested in publishing it, he sold it himself out of his garage in Avalon, Maryland. In the process, Roberts and his Avalon Game Company (later called Avalon Hill) would create an entirely new kind of adult boardgaming: complex, detailed, and historically based.

Two years after founding Avalon Hill, Roberts invented Gettysburg: the first boardgame to simulate an actual battle.

The games sold well, but Roberts couldn’t keep ahead of the printing costs. By 1962, his printer, Monarch, took over his company as repayment for his debts. They would run it for another 36 years, until mismanagement finally took it down. Hasbro picked up the pieces, and continues to publish updated versions of Avalon Hill’s more mainstream titles, but the glory days of tabletop wargaming are gone.

Wargames have faded from popularity. At first, they found a comfortable home on computers, where the calculations and setup were automated. In time, even those faded away, and now only handful of dedicated hobbyists still play historical simulations.

That’s a shame, because wargames are history you can hold. When you game a particular battle, you understand it far better than you could by simply reading about it. It’s almost like role-playing, as you try to make the decisions faced by the great battlefield commanders, and see how they may have turned out differently. Wargames require time, thought, and study: things that seem in short supply these days.

If you were a certain kind of boy in the 1960s and 1970s, this was one of the things you did. Dungeons & Dragons changed all that, and most young gamers drifted from historical gaming to fantasy RPGs, myself among them. I believe that without Roberts laying the groundwork, RPGs never would have even happened. He created a new kind of gamer, and proved that there was a market for long games with complex rules and lots of numbers.

Charles Roberts never set out to create a whole new hobby. He invented his first game as a way to study military tactics in preparation for joining the military. He never did join the military, but his designs and the company he founded changed the face of gaming.

App O’ The Mornin’: Crayon Physics Review

Crayon Physics is a perfect fit for touch-based products. You can watch a video and download the PC demo at the official site, but for puzzle-fans, there’s hardly any need. This is a must-buy.

This unique puzzler was one of the delights of the the 2008 Game Developers Conference and the 2008 Independent Games Festival, where it claimed the Seumas McNally Grand Prize for excellence. It took Finnish developer Petri Purho another year to finish it, but by the time he unleashed Crayon Physics Deluxe on both PC and the App store, it was an even more polished and addictive puzzler.

The game allows you to draw any shape on the screen, and then gives that shape physical properties. The screen looks like a sheet of folded paper, and the graphics nothing more than crayon lines, making the entire game seem like a child’s drawing come to life. The visual style, coupled with low-key music, gives the game a gentle tone that belies its challenging content.

The gameplay is somewhat reminiscent of The Incredible Machine, as you create simple shapes that move and trigger other shapes into movement. You need some pretty good mouse skills to make this one work on a normal computer (the video shows it being used with a Tablet), but on an iPhone the touch controls are a perfect fit. You simply draw with your finger, and your objects take on a life of their own, be it a simple ball or a car rolling on donut wheels.

Physics games are a dime a dozen on the App store, but Crayon Physics was one of the pioneers of the genre, and it’s still one of the most accomplished puzzlers on any format.

PC Game Review: Machinarium

Animata Designs
PC/Mac
$20

Machinarium emerged from the 12th Annual Independent Games Festival with a well-deserved Excellence in Visual Art award, and after three years in development by a small group of self-financed Czech developers, it’s finally ready.

The first thing that strikes you is the art design, which is somberly beautiful, wonderfully detailed, and utterly central to the gameplay. Your character is a little robot dumped in the trash, and he must solve various puzzles in order to return home, get the girl, and beat the bad guys. There is no spoken or written communication anywhere in the game, and sounds are limited to effects, ambiance, and music. All of the robot’s thought are conveyed via cartoon thought-bubbles.

The robot has limited powers: he can change his height a bit, pick up things, carrying objects, and combine items to make new objects. In the tradition of classic puzzle adventures, he searches each screen for hot spots and items, then uses them in clever ways to bypass an obstacle.

Some of the puzzles are absolute brain scramblers, but there is a helpful hint system built right into the game. The hints can be fairly oblique, merely giving you a nudge in the right direction instead of an overt answer. And, even if you think you are the master of all things puzzling in adventure games, you WILL hit that hint button at least once. This is an unapologetically smart and challenging game, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The website, machinarium.net, has a nice little free flash demo that gives you a good idea of the look and gameplay, without even requiring a download. You can buy the full game from the site for $20, or on services such as Steam, Impulse, and GamesGate.

Weekend Post (O/T): Wanton Media Consumption

I am an avid consumer of all forms of media. I’m either reading, watching, playing, or listening to something. Here’s a rundown of some of this week’s highlights for the weekend off-topic post.

Watching

After reading the obituaries for Maury Chaykin, I realized that I’d only see one episode of A&E’s Nero Wolfe, and that one long ago. We watch a lot of British mystery shows at Casa McD, but I was curious how the Americans would handle a classic literary mystery adaption like this. The answer is: pretty darn well. Tim Hutton is a snappy Archie Goodwin, and Chaykin is volatile and neurotic as Wolfe. The oddest part is the use of an ensemble cast in different roles each week. Aside from a few repeating characters, all the other actors play a different character in every mystery. It’s a very good American take on the classic British lit-mystery format (Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Midsomer Murders, etc).

As for Chaykin, the thing from him that I still remember best is “Mr. Potatohead! Mr. POTATOHEAD!” Can you name that movie?

Reading

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock

Bleak House has been an ongoing project for the past two months. I’m always reading a few books at once, so a 1,000 page Victorian novel is going to take a little bit of time. Fortunately, Dickens wrote it to be read that way, since the story would have originally been printed as a serial. (That’s why all his characters had certain phrases or characteristics that were always repeated: to help people remember who they were from month to month.) This may not be the best place to start with Dickens if you’ve never read him before (Great Expectations or Hard Times are probably a better first experience), but it’s certainly the best writing Dickens ever did. If you’ve never seen the most recent adaptation (with Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance) make sure you do. I think it’s still on Netflix streaming, and it’s superb.

Solitaire by David Parlett. Parlett is the best writer on cards, period. Alas, I think his book on Solitaire is out of print. That’s a shame, because it’s not just a collection of 400 games and variants, but also a thoughtful look at the game of solitaire itself. Parlett categorizes the games, ranging from simple games of luck and patience, to logic problems that require as much thought as chess. This book desperately needs to be back in print. No one has ever written a better book on the subject.

Memorize the Faith (and Most Anything Else) by Kevin Vost. I teach religion to 8th graders, so I was looking for some interesting new techniques in this book. The author’s method is based on the ancient “method of loci,” which associates certain facts with different discreet locations, such as rooms and objects in a house. I’m not far into it, so I’m not sure what I think of the method. I’ve worked with teenagers for many years, and their retention of rote facts is very poor. While rote learning was probably over-emphasized in the past, it is drastically under-emphasized now. I’m 42-years-old, and I can still recite poetry and facts I learned at their age. (I had a classical education that emphasized that sort of thing.) I’m looking for any method I can use to help them retain hard knowledge. This may or may not be the method, but it’s certainly a different approach.

Killer Cribbage by Dan Barlow. I’ve read half of this book, and my 9-year-old daughter still took me to the cleaners … twice. (She said, “I don’t think that book is working.) Maybe all the best secrets are in the second half? Actually, it’s a very good book that offers some excellent advice, My daughter is simply a card shark. I’m so proud.

Listening
I’ve mostly been listening to Old Time Radio. The archive.org site has a complete collection of Gunsmoke episodes in perfect sound quality. This is some of the best entertainment you’ll find, and it’s free! Load up your iPod with OTR and you will not be disappointed.


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The Week At a Glance


App Reviews
Chain Link Pro: puzzle, dexterity
Netflix: utility
Reiner Knizia’s Samurai: strategy, boardgame conversion
Spite & Malice: two-handed solitaire
Theseus: puzzle, maze

Articles
EA’s Medal of Honor Courts Controversy
The Bible as an MMO?

Puzzles
Cheap Labor
Games Magazine puzzle contest (off-site)

Colonial Gaming
Introduction to the series
Put and the lower classes: How to play the Poker of Colonial America
I catch you without green: A medieval game survives in the Carolinas.
Cards of the Colonial period

Other
The Games 100
Dominion Prosperity Preview (off-site)
Friday Linkaround

Friday Linkaround–Random items of interest

New Content for Snoopy: Joystiq is almost correct: Snoopy Flying Ace is the best flight game of the past several years, and now it has new downloadable content, called Suppertime of Destruction. Must … have… kamikaze …. woodstocks …

Angry Birds: The Movie?: Are we witnessing the birth of a franchise with the Angry Birds app? Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?: discuss.

Through The Ages App: It’s one thing to shrink Roll Through the Ages down to App size, but the original, very large and complex Through the Ages game? Apparently someone is trying.

Batman Redux: We’re going to have to a wait a full year for the sequel to last year’s Game of the Year.

The Making of Tichu: I’ll be reviewing the new Tichu app soon. In the meantime, programmer Steve Blanding explains how he did it in this detailed, geektastic developer diary at BGN.

Little Plastic Dudes Fight Evil: Axis & Allies: Europe 1940 is finally out.

Move Along, Nothing to See Here: Sony is already trying to talk down expectations for the Move. I guess the “It’s an expensive peripheral that does kind of what the Wii always did” narrative is not working.

5 for 5: 5 boardgames that are good for 5 players, at funboardgames.org

What the World Needs is Another Videogame Movie: Will Brad Pitt star in Red Dead Redemption: The Movie? (Red Dead Redemption is one of the finalists for the Games Magazine Game of the Year.)

Speaking of Videogames Movies: Halo: Reach semi-live-action trailer. (No real word yet on when we can expect a live action Halo movie.)

Bring Out Your Dead: Target joins Best Buy in offering a hardware trade-in program.

News From the Chess World: Chess links for the week.