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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Farewell Tour - Bioshock: Burial at Sea

Irrational Games has closed its doors. With Ken Levine off on a wild adventure in start-up land it is unclear whether that mind will ever spawn another Bioshock. So will this last piece of DLC rise to the surface, or will it be spending its days sunken in Rapture?*

[TW: Torture description, Rape mentioned]

Sadly I cannot adequately discuss the game without spoiling some important plot points, so consider yourself warned.

Story - Still wacky, but improved

        I was critical of the Bioshock Infinite story because it was a cobbled-together mesh of metaphysical philosophical ideas and hand-waved science that pretentiously retorted “You just don’t GET it!” to anyone that found it’s story flawed. A story that began by asking the player to explore notions of choice ended with a laugh as it revealed our lack thereof. Apparently hearing the criticism, Burial at Sea Episode 2 stepped back, perhaps in recognition of its finality, and tied most of its stories up in a relatively neat little bow.

        In brief, the story places you in the shoes of Elizabeth, who has lost her tear manipulating powers due to hand-wavy-science-reasons (Developer’s Note: Use the word “Quantum” in there somewhere). She awakens right after the events of Burial at Sea Episode 1 to find the infamous Atlas from Bioshock 1 standing over her. In her subconscious Elizabeth has seen all sorts of possible futures and to avoid death, offers to help Atlas escape from the sunken department store exchange for “Sally” the little girl turned little-sister that Elizabeth and Booker had been searching for in Episode 1, and Atlas has in custody. To conclude the meeting Atlas hits her in the head with a wrench, and sometime later a disoriented Elizabeth awakens.

        This sets her off on a journey through a few Rapture set pieces which culminate in the discovery of a Lutece device built by Suchong. Adding to the list of “deals likely to go bad” Elizabeth agrees to help Suchong by repairing the device, and then heads through the tear to retrieve “quantum particles” from Columbia to raise the sunken department store. Suchong, however, is not satisfied and sends her to retrieve a hair sample from one of Fink’s laboratories. On the way the player discovers the true extent of the Fink-Suchong collaboration, but also something even more surprisingly. In a brief semi-cinematic interlude the player witnesses the Lutece twins convince Daisy Fitzroy to help with their plans to force Elizabeth into shedding her innocence, meaning that Fitzroy was in on the plan the entire time. Thus Daisy Fitzroy only threatens to kill Fink’s son in order to force Elizabeth into a situation where she must act rather than let fate decide for her. Clearly the writers at Irrational have been catching up on their Game of Thrones because the dialogue would make Jon Snow proud.

        I railed against the depiction of Daisy Fitzroy because she and the Vox Populi became a poorly written “Even the good guys can go bad” plot device by having them turn just as murderous as the Columbians they despised. Now we find out that all the extremism was set up by the Lutece twins and that Daisy was more or less a pawn in their game. Personally I liked this explanation even less than its predecessor; at least in the past it was Daisy expressing agency. Now she’s just another tool in the Booker/Elizabeth narrative, and her descent feels hollow. Why does Daisy care what happens to Elizabeth? Why does she cooperate with the Lutece twins?

        Questions unanswered but sample in hand, Elizabeth returns to Rapture where she is confronted by Andrew Ryan, fedora and all. Having seen what the future holds, Elizabeth chooses to help Atlas instead of Ryan, and after defeating Ryan’s goons she ascends the store and uses the quantum particles to raise it from its watery grave. Unsurprisingly, Atlas double-crosses her because he believes that she knows more than she says. Now if you thought the Daisy thing was problematic, buckle up.

        At this point the story takes a dark turn. Unsatisfied with her claims of ignorance, Atlas tortures Elizabeth for information on the “Ace in the hole.” The player stays in Elizabeth’s perspective as Atlas begins to perform a “trans-orbital lobotomy” which involves sticking a needle into the eye and hammering through into the brain. The ordeal includes the upper left corner of the player’s screen pulsing red and Elizabeth screaming in pain. Personally I found it an unsettling experience to have Atlas’s narrative about the effects of said lobotomy alongside horrific acts. When the process fails to scare Elizabeth into talking, Atlas begins to perform it on Sally right before the player’s eyes. At about this point reality begins to break down and Elizabeth goes through numerous hallucinations and dream-sequences meant to cryptically guide her in putting the pieces together. In the end, she agrees to fetch the ace in the hole for Atlas in exchange for Sally.

        What follows is essentially a repeat of the “constants and variables” mantra from the previous game, in which Elizabeth both intentionally and unintentionally causes some of the events witnessed in Bioshock (such as Suchong’s demise at the hands of a Big Daddy). In almost Whovian fashion, the story comes down to certain events being fixed in time, and others not. During a revelatory sequence Elizabeth realizes what is to befall Atlas and gives him the ace in the hole; a piece of paper with the infamous phrase “Would you kindly” written in code. Atlas promptly hits her in the head with a wrench and departs, leaving Elizabeth to die in Sally’s arms and for the first time the camera leaves Elizabeth’s view.

        To be honest, it was a little uncomfortable to have them put Elizabeth through so much physical abuse. It was distinctly personal to be in first person when Atlas swings his wrench (on more than one occasion). While this is a game where the player gets shot at by goons a plenty, it feels significantly different when it’s happening in a first-person cutscene. It's like Irrational was attempting to get me to feel a stronger reaction by putting Elizabeth on the receiving end of the violence. At least Irrational resisted the urge to threaten Elizabeth with rape.

Gameplay - Now with 100% more Garrett/Corvo

        Burial at Sea Episode 2 plays much like the previous Episode and Infinite itself, with one pivotal exception; Elizabeth is not Booker. The result is that the game emphasizes stealth over run-and-gun gameplay. Crouching acts as a stealth mode and enemies “detect” you much like they would in Dishonored and similar games. The first plasmid the player obtains allows them to turn invisible and see enemies through walls, and it isn’t until later that you get the combat-oriented plasmid. In addition, Elizabeth is not able to kill with melee strikes as Booker was; if an enemy is alerted her melee only briefly stuns them, while a hidden Elizabeth can knock an enemy out with one hit.

        The game explains all this with Elizabeth relenting that all she has is “Just a whole lot of book-learning and a handful of lockpicks,” and none of the combat training Booker had. This may be true based on the story so far, but in a medium that still struggles with its depiction of women in combat roles, it’s a bit groan inducing to have her essentially give in to, “I’m a girl, I can’t fight.” Certainly there are people out there who have no combat experience and would need to sneak around, but in video games it is almost always the women.

        In terms of weapons and powers, the game has a total of six weapons and four plasmids. The revolver, shotgun, and microwave gun make a return from Episode 1, while 2 adds the hand-crossbow with 3 types of arrows (sleep, gas, and ringer). The crossbow primarily supports the stealth gameplay, as all three of its weapons are about distracting or disabling opponents. Meanwhile for plasmids, Old Man Winter and Possession return from Episode 1, while 2 adds “Peeping Tom” the aforementioned plasmid with the power to see through walls and turn the player invisible, and “Ironsides” a defensive plasmid that allows Elizabeth to absorb bullets. If you plan on shooting you’ll need it because the game has extremely strict ammo counts (e.g. 12 rounds in the revolver, 6 in the shotgun).

        One thing I really enjoyed was that the upgrades to the plasmids were found in the world rather than purchased from vending machines. I know that they were initially introduced that way to make money into experience to give the game an “RPG” feel, but that same design often made you feel pigeon-holed into whatever you spent money on in a game that seemed to be encouraging you to use a variety of combinations.

Content - Typical DLC Fare

        The content was fairly sparse all things considered; there are really two major locations and a few minor interludes, with most time being taken up with the aforementioned stealth elements. Were the player as well armed as Booker or Jack the story would have likely gone by in half the time. That said, the places the player visits had plenty of variety and added more depth to the story. The player gets to see an Andrew Ryan-approved school, Rapture’s idea of an adult store, and even the personal sanctum of Jeremiah Fink (wherein we learn just how much he disagreed with Comstock). They flesh out their respective settings nicely and each feels unique, but towards the latter half of the game I couldn’t help but notice how small the map was and how much back-tracking I was doing.


        Despite my criticisms I think Burial at Sea Episode 2 actually worked as a sendoff to the series. Though there are many questions left unanswered** this particular episode managed to tie up most of its loose ends and felt like a complete story. The addition of the stealth gameplay was enjoyable and showed that Irrational can push out of its gameplay comfort zone. Though I am troubled by some of the violence against women it depicts, I at least commend Irrational for trying to use the experiential storytelling that only video games can provide, even if it is to depict traumatic events. I am just not sure that a medium that is still struggling with flippant treatment of violence against women is ready to use it in that context.

* This pun brought to you by Alton Brown and a whole lot of Iron Chef
** Why is Sally important?

1 comment:

  1. You didn't pay attention, Atlas does in fact threaten to rape her.