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.

11,666 Responses to “Irrational Games And Electrifying Limitations”

  1. Brown

    Great, now you got me thinking about Bioshock Infinite again… *scratch twitch twitch

  2. Rotondo

    Hmm global your internet site consumed the first thoughts (it had been very long) i really imagine I’ll merely sum it up what I did prepared and also state, I’m thoroughly making the most of your website.

  3. Crapser

    People absolutely does over visitors’ targets. Thank you with regard to manifestation these types of helpful, reliable, edifying and likewise cool applying for grants individual for you to Kate.

  4. RV Upgrades Near Me

    A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment. I do believe that you need to write more about this subject, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people do not speak about these topics. To the next! Best wishes!!

  5. chevrolet utility truck

    Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon everyday. It will always be exciting to read content from other writers and use a little something from their sites.

  6. Shareideas

    Hi by California! I’m bored at the office i really chose to look through your website with my iphone through lunchtime split. I adore the info you present below as well as can’t wait around for you to examine when i go back home. I’m stunned with how fast your website loaded on my own cellphone.. I’m not utilizing , just 3G. Anyways, awesome weblog!

  7. RV Steps California

    After looking at a few of the articles on your web site, I really like your way of blogging. I book marked it to my bookmark webpage list and will be checking back soon. Please visit my web site as well and tell me your opinion.

  8. Digital Marketing Consultant Near Me

    Hi, I do think this is a great blog. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to come back once again since I bookmarked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide other people.

  9. Bevil

    I was interested if you happen to considered adjusting the page layout of your respective site? Its well written; I enjoy just what youve reached declare. But you may could possibly a tad bit more with respect to information thus individuals can interact with that superior. You’ve got for the better associated with text message intended for simply having just one or even 3 photographs. You may could possibly space that out greater?

  10. Viagrabng

    where to buy viagra viagra cost – viagra over the counter walmart
    mexican viagra
    viagra cost per pill

  11. ViagraOn

    viagra without a doctor prescription viagra online usa – best over the counter viagra
    viagra without a doctor prescription usa
    where to buy viagra

  12. Bev

    It’s going to be finish of mine day, but before end I am reading this wonderful post to increase my knowledge.

  13. cemilan Sehat

    Whɑt’s Haрpening i’m new tto this, I stumbled upon tuis I’ve fߋund It positively helpful
    and it has aided me ouut loads. I hope to give a contributiⲟn & help different customers like its
    aided me. Goood job.

    Stop Ьy my ᴡeb-site cemilan Sehat


    I’m rеally enjоying the thеme/design of your weeb site.
    Do you ever run into anny browser compatibility issues?
    A few of my blog readers have complained about
    my blog nott operating correctly in Eҳplorer Ƅut looks great in Chrome.
    Do you have any tips to help fix tһis probⅼem?

    Here is my blog post; ѕablon satᥙan (

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

The Latest:

  • Originals

    Swan Song

    This is a tough one to write. For those of you who know me, in person, by my writing, or…

  • Originals

    The Fool and the Villain, Part II

    (Warning: In Second Life, pixelated tits and dicks abound. Abandon all hope, all ye who enter this article at work.)…

  • Commentary

    The Edge Of The Ocean

    The problem is to plot the map. My sense of geography is spotted with black holes. There’s the Chinatown and…

  • Originals

    Play Everything

    Play everything. No, I’m serious, play everything. Play that game of hopscotch those kids drew up on the sidewalk with…

  • Commentary

    Genre In Question

    Why are there so few video game comedies? At least twice in the past year I’ve bumped into conversations trying…