There are a metric ton of games out there that I'd love to play but usually am content just reading about. Something you may or may not know about intelligent ludic discourse (translation: high-falutin' talk about video games) is that there is so frakking much of it. Occasionally I will have read so much about a particular game that I practically feel like I've played it even if I haven't.
Now normally I'm a vehemently anti-spoiler kind of person. If I know I'm going to be playing a particular game, reading a particular book, or watching a particular movie I'll go to great lengths to avoid hearing anything about it. But when there are simply too many games and too little time one has to be resigned to checking reviews to decide what's worth one's precious gaming hours. Or in my case, resigned to reading in-depth discussion about games - which tend to be heavy on the spoilers. As a result of peering in on discussions about games like Far Cry 2, Call of Duty 4, and yes Bioshock, I've told myself that they're worth playing through despite the fact that I'm not generally a fan of first-person shooters. Maybe I'm trying to force myself to like a heavily populated genre or maybe I recognize that when it comes to realism and visceral experience nothing (theoretically) beats looking through a character's eyes. Either way it's time I swallowed some Dramamine and got my feet wet.
Let's get back to Rapture. I'm a bit behind the curve of course. Being a
PSFanboy Joystiq PlayStation kind of guy means my principles didn't even give me a chance at Bioshock until a few months ago and even then I only managed to squeeze in the demo. In the time since its original release I've read a lot about the moral valence of choosing whether save or kill the Little Sisters for what basically amounts to money for new magic spells. I figured I'd kind of play it by ear, that more than likely it wouldn't feel like a moral choice, but a simple game mechanic. Do I want immediate rewards or will I delay my gratification for a potentially bigger surprise down the road?
Then I played the game and felt a bit like Billy Hoyle suddenly being able to hear Jimmy Hendrix after years of just listening. I gutted those Little Sisters for every ounce of ADAM I could and I never thought twice about it. Afterward - once I'd gotten a bit of distance from the game - I tried to rationally reflect on the experience. Specifically, I tried to convince myself that there's nothing wrong with what I'd done.
The game is hard. I need all that ADAM so I can keep myself armed for the task at hand (a task which is still unclear).
So. You've got Vita Chambers. It's impossible for you to die!
That may be, but it's still frustrating having to retrace your steps again and again. Plus, whether I save the Sisters or harvest them, I still have to defeat their Big Daddy and those SOB's are a walking, moaning can o' hurt. I'm so amped up after battling one that I relish the feeling of harvesting that little... well I won't say it, but you know what I'm thinking. Besides, they're not really little girls anymore...
Yea, that's the real kicker. Despite having dozens of blogs devoted to the subject of moral choice in Bioshock none of them discussed the ambiguity of whether or not the Sisters are, for lack of a better phrase, worthy of moral consideration. So far the game does an excellent job of showing that ambiguity too, with Atlas screaming in one ear that they're not human anymore and Frau Dr. Tennenbaum screaming in the other that they're just little girls. Whom do you believe?
I'll tell you what, it's real easy to engage in some abstract, armchair philosophy about who is and isn't a "person" from the comfort of your, er, armchair. It's much more difficult to decide when you've got slicers clawing at the walls and some good old fashioned adrenaline-fueled aggression coursing through your veins after a tête-à-tête with Mr. Bubbles. I doubt any amount of discussion or analysis can really capture that experience. I still second-guess myself when I'm away from the game, asserting that I should at least spare one Sister just to see what happens. But once I've got her in my hands all I can think about is that precious ADAM.
Every chance I get I try to integrate games into the courses I teach if they can provide hands-on demonstration of a philosophical idea. In last week's column I touched on the idea of games providing us with choices that ultimately teach us something about ourselves. Now I'm thinking that they can do even more - that the experience of actually playing a game may spur thoughts and emotions that can't be constructed any other way.
So I ask you, can some games go beyond merely enhancing an idea that we can read about (in this case morality) and actually present complex problems and multi-faceted ideas that can't be expressed through "static" media? Those of you reading this who haven't played Bioshock but think that you would spare the Little Sisters might, perhaps, disagree with me on this. But I'll bet that at least some of you never thought you would, never thought you could, but did all the same. And you might see that as very relevant point about the power of games.
This will be my last Philosony column here at Joystiq PlayStation. It's been a great run - I've learned a lot and maybe, just maybe, you have to! I truly appreciate the great feedback I've gotten and reading the thoughtful conversations spawned by these posts has been a real thrill. If you want to keep reading my esoteric gaming thoughts (by which I mean I'm apt to use words like esoteric) feel free to stop by my new blog, Post-Emo-Existentiell Gaming, and say hi! It's still a work-in-progress and may not always be PlayStation-centric, but I'm sure I can count on you of all people to know where my gaming loyalties lay.
Keep those DualShocks rumbling,