BioShock and Language

Something I feel compelled to comment on is the powerful role of language in the original BioShock. Formally speaking, much of the game is nothing more than a fetch-quest set within a first-person shooter. The player is guided through these sequences by the recorded voices of non-player characters. The language of these NPCs frame the access that the player has into BioShock‘s game environment, and conditions the interaction that the player has with it.

‘Guidance’ and ‘being guided’ here means something a little more than just the straightforward instructions that the player must perform in order to cause the plot to progress. The audio clips that are littered throughout the game fill out rooms, hallways, theatres and roads that are otherwise dank, repeating the thematic elements of the levels they inhabit. Offices become real places because they are connected to people’s (albiet frequently sick, twisted) lives. This idea dawned on me when, paradoxically, I became annoyed that there were so many opportunities for BioShock to ‘just talk at you’. One can, at times, feel as if they are being chased by Tenenbaum, Atlas, Fontaine and Ryan. Furthermore, if one felt compelled to listen to everything they came across, one might find the fears and desires of all the people throughout Rapture quite suffocating. Despite this, however, it is possible to express, in words, what one is doing. The difficulty with games like Borderlands and Half-Life 2 is that human contact is frequently vary sparse, if not totally unsociable, and this makes comprehending one’s environment incredibly difficult. In Half-Life 2‘s case, the player has to be coddled by Alyx Vance–for much of the game, you just copy what she does. By contrast, BioShock is painted with thousands of pieces of detailed dialogue, describing things, explaining the purpose of an area’s contents. Often, different people will corroborate information, or maybe contradict one-another. Everything is, in a ghostly ethereal manner, socialised. This is ironic, given Rapture’s ostensible purpose. The communicative function provided by the dialogue clips provide a medium through which people can source and construct identities. Everything is, funnily enough, understood a lot better because it is better communicated.

By making gameplay explicable, able to be parsed in lexical terms, conveyed to anyone just by talking, BioShock is converted into an experience that is able to be shared universally, rather than one which requires someone to have ‘been there’. It also allows a game that is merely about moving through a series of corridors killing things to transcend its formal structure, and take on the very convincing appearance of a fully-fleshed out world.

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