Irrational Games And Electrifying Limitations

The minds behind BioShock have been exposing the jagged edges of electronic gaming’s possibilities.

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Criticism Role-playing Shooters


Fans of surreal settings, unsurpassed voice acting and FPS action with a twist were sad to hear that BioShock Infinite had been delayed until February 2013.  I was among these disappointed gamers. The atmosphere of the original BioShock was so awesome and fantastical, and yet also very steeped in the intimate details of life in a failed state.  I was really excited for the next installment, and when it was delayed it didn’t seem like there would be any viable substitute for the type of experience BioShock Infinite was likely to offer.  For a while I figured I’d just have to tough it out until 2013.

But recently I realized something.  I can’t travel to the future and play BioShock Infinite, but I can absolutely pretend to travel back to 1999 and play Irrational Games’s first major hit, the ancestor of the BioShock series, System Shock 2.  I had the CD lying around but never played it, and after modifying some registry files to trick my computer into understanding 20th century game language, I was all set.

I expected that playing System Shock 2 would be a fun throwback.  I figured it would offer up a generally cool, BioShock-y vibe, or at least remind me of how goofy people looked in video games back then.  What I got instead was a direct affirmation of the way that Ken Levine and Irrational view the experience of video gaming, and what their innovations can tell us about the future – BioShock Infinite and beyond.


What are some of the usual givens of playing a traditional video game?

Well, generally you’re given an avatar, a character.  This character has a quest, a set of goals that must be accomplished.  These goals are to be accepted at face value.  This is, after all, part of the idea of agreeing to participate in a game: You understand the objective and work towards it.

Designers realize that for a game to work, the player must accept the game’s stated goals, and so the norm for many years was to make the quest something either righteous or compulsive.  Save the princess!  Kill the demons!  Catch ‘em all!  Make fucking money!

System Shock 2 is, on its face, a FPS with RPG elements, where you play a cyber-soldier on-board a spaceship ravaged by some kind of mysterious disaster.  But it actually works on a much more subversive level than that.  System Shock 2 knows that as a video game player you have to obey commands without question, and it uses this convention to trick you.  So you work dutifully and follow instructions given to you over your radio… and little do you know that the things you’re doing aren’t even remotely noble.

When you discover the corpse of the person you thought was giving you orders, you realize that you’ve been fooled, that someone (or something) has been playing you like a space fiddle.  The thing that’s been posing as your fellow survivor calls you an insect, derides you, mocks you.  And the natural reaction is anger, an anger pushes you deeper into the game’s universe.

BioShock, that grand adventure through the anarchic city known as Rapture, deep beneath the sea, takes the idea a step further.  It provides a rationale for the player’s mandatory compliance with every suggestion the man on the radio tosses out – you’ve been brainwashed.  You have very little actual free will in most games, and BioShock rubs this in your face.  There are few moments in gaming as electric as when you realize, two-thirds of the way through the game’s story, that you are nothing more than the big bad guy’s trained goon.

Again, you have been used, laughed at, insulted and discarded.  The twist really makes you hate Fontaine, the puppetmaster – he’s made clear how single-minded and powerless you really are, as the character, Jack, but also as a video game player.


Another given of single-player video games: While they may attempt to simulate social interaction, they can never quite conceal the fact that you, the player, are very alone.

In games of yesteryear, every character in town would stand in place and say the same thing to you every time you talked to them.  They could only tell you one story, give you one hint, mention one detail about the world around them; any other speech was too much for them to muster.  As games became more complex, these characters were often given more lines or made to stroll around a bit, but the trope of characters repeating themselves endlessly remains in games to this day.  It’s simply not possible, with the technology we have now, to simulate an actual human conversation, though most games try their best anyway.

Instead of papering over the fact that no NPC is ever going to act convincingly human in actual dialogue with a player, both System Shock 2 and BioShock decide to dispose of rational humans for the player to encounter almost entirely.  With the exception of a few tight, brief, scripted exchanges, the only living beings the player meets in person in either game are horrible abominations that usually attack on sight.  There’s no façade of conversation here – only one person against a swarm of sub-humans murmuring as they lurch toward you.

What interaction you do have with reasonable people is limited to those who contact you directly over your radio, or those whom you learn about by listening to recorded audio messages.  This way real, fully-formed characters emerge as NPCs (and both games have impeccable acting to back the writing up), but you never say a word to any of them.  You are an important part of a stunning, living world, and at the same time you are completely, unmistakably alone – the fundamental experience of playing a single-player video game.

So both of Irrational’s most famous games acknowledge and exacerbate the conventions and limitations of video games.  They take the conditions most games gloss over and tweak them, make them blatant, and then build upon the disorientation this causes.  It is appropriate that both have the word “shock” in their title – they are constructed to administer a jolt to gamers, a reminder of the confines of a young medium.
From what we’ve seen so far of BioShock Infinite, it’s an adventure through a dynamic floating city with many of the FPS / RPG elements of the original BioShock.  But in other ways it looks like it will go against many of the devices employed by its two progenitors.  Instead of being a silent protagonist, alone with remote voices as your only link to humanity, in BioShock Infinite you have a voice and a full-fledged companion.  And while it’s certainly possible that it will toy with the concept of how much autonomy a player can truly have within a video game, it would likely not have the same effect as the startling reveals of its forerunners.  It does make me wonder whether Infinite will maintain the legacy that Irrational has fostered of exposing the jagged edges of electronic gaming’s possibilities, or whether it will be content simply to be an intellectual, fast-paced shooter.

But games have grown.  Technology has advanced.  Undoubtedly the experience of gaming has moved forward, to something beyond what it was in 1999 or 2007.  And based on the record they’ve established, I’m hopeful that Irrational will do what they have done so well in the past: know their limits, and by knowing them, somehow operate above and beyond them.

Filed Under: Criticism Role-playing Shooters

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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