I still remember killing my first hooker. It wasn’t my idea, I swear. I read, somewhere on the Internet, that you could invite a hooker into your car, drive to a secluded spot and have sex with her, and then, as she’s walking back toward the street, you could club her to death and then take your money back. There was something callous about even the idea of that maneuver, and cheap — it’s sort of the ne plus ultra of sexual exploitation. Of course, I immediately headed into the game room to try it out. I booted up the PlayStation 2, with Grand Theft Auto III (GTA) in the CD drive, entered into a business transaction with a prostitute, then proceeded to beat the hell out of her and leave her in a pool of blood on the pavement as a little wad of cartoon bills appeared next to her inert cartoon body. Delightfully, it was exactly the amount of money that the game had removed from my character’s wallet just a few moments previously.
Did I feel dirty? You bet. (My wife was appalled.) I don’t think the moment was quite as shocking as the one in which I first ran up to a random passerby on the sidewalk and shot him in the head for no good reason. But somehow everything else just seemed to be playing fair: crushing pedestrians under the wheels of my car as I sped across the sidewalk, gunning down well-dressed businessmen merely to relieve them of their cash, or even sniping at the cops, well-equipped but still relatively helpless in their crazy pursuit of my urban-berserker ass, from the roof of a parking garage. It was the hooker-payback maneuver, with its combination of sex, violence, and filthy lucre, that really gave me pause. What’s worse is that, if you do the deed in an alleyway, there are no recriminations at all from police, since they didn’t see you do it.
We’ve all been exposed to permutations of the hard-boiled narrative where a killer, having pulled the trigger on his first victim, starts to realize how easy, even self-aggrandizing, this killing business can be — as long as you don’t get caught. Sometimes, these characters become addicted to it. I wouldn’t say I became addicted to killing in Grand Theft Auto III — or that I took much pleasure in wiping out prostitutes, except for the shock value when I got to show the game to somebody who had never seen it before — but I did get used to it. And, because I enjoyed playing the game, I ended up doing an awful lot of killing. But the folks at Rockstar Games had made a decisive breakthrough in the crime genre by transforming senseless murder into a first-person experience, and giving the user enough freedom in the game’s world to make the decision to kill or not to kill feel if not consequential then at least considered. That GTA was a videogame rather than a book or movie didn’t matter; like another relatively new medium, gangsta rap, it became an ineluctable part of the corpus of 20th century crime fiction.
GTA III, of course, became a monster hit that spawned a number of sequels for various platforms, and GTA-style carnage has become a peculiar cliché in the gaming world. It’s indicative of the entertainment industry’s squeamishness that the biggest GTA-related scandal to date hasn’t had anything to do with the game’s over-the-top violence, but rather with a goofy hidden sex scene (the so-called “Hot Coffee” minigame) that could only be accessed if the game was, essentially, hacked, and earned the game a revised “Adults Only” rating — the equivalent of the MPAA’s movie-killing NC17 — that cost Rockstar millions of dollars. As a result, it’s been quite a few years since I felt a cringe of remorse for popping anyone in the head in a videogame. And then I got a copy of Bioshock.
Bioshock, in case you don’t pay attention to the gaming press, is the current Big Thing in videogaming, scoring a block-rocking 97 on Metacritic‘s 100-point index of critical opinion. (To put this in perspective for movie nerds, the only recent film to score even close to that high at Metacritic is Ratatouille, tagged with a 96.) It’s true that videogame criticism is a difficult field to get your arms around — gameplay is one of those notoriously grey areas, like funniness or sexiness, where it can take widely varying degrees of leverage to turn any particular reviewer’s crank, and rave reviews have led me to make many a blind purchase of a game that ended up boring or irritating me to death. Some writers are so gut-starved for a new game that’s not a rehash of previous hits that they wildly overpraise anything that exhibits a shred of originality for better or worse. But even in that context Bioshock is clearly something special. I don’t suppose it blazes any new trails in the realm of the first-person shooter (I’m certainly no expert), though the biologically-based weapons system that let you unleash electric shocks, fireballs, or even a swarm of insects with a flick of your left wrist certainly freshens things up a bit compared to the BFGs popularized by games like Quake. But the gameplay is excellent — it’s a fun game, fast-moving and intermittently explosive. It truly excels as a showcase for art direction, taking place in an underwater city styled by its Objectivist creators (the name of Andrew Ryan, the creator who speaks to you via radio as you move through the levels, is an obvious play on Ayn Rand) as an art-deco utopia but now turned decrepit and nightmarish. This city, known as Rapture, is now (sparsely) populated by a type of gibbering zombie known as a splicer. As you walk through the passageways, you can generally hear the splicers talking crazily to themselves before they catch sight of you and go on the attack; if you have a 5.1-channel sound system, you can tell where they are by listening to the placement of their voices in the sound field before you actually see them step out of the shadows. A lot of Bioshock happens in the shadows.
Also wandering through the halls of Rapture are large armored critters called Big Daddys, who seem to exist in order to protect the Little Sisters — young girls who wander around Rapture collecting genetic material from the splicer corpses that litter the place. Big Daddy won’t mess with you if you don’t mess with Big Daddy, and as long as you don’t get too close to a Little Sister. If you do get in a fight and manage to dispatch the lumbering but well-armed behemoth, the now-helpless Little Sister cowers in terror and you, the player are given two options. On one side of the screen is the option to “rescue” the little girl. And on the other side is the option to “harvest” her.
Yeeeeesh. I play a lot of very violent videogames, and I don’t harbor a lot of personal sentimentality on the subject of children, or childhood. But “harvesting” a frightened little girl, even in a fictional context, is a program I have trouble getting with. I understand, from doing a little reading, that what actually happens on screen when you choose that option isn’t as grisly as it might sound. But, as it’s presented, the choice is rather stark — it may even be a dramatization of the Randian rejection of self-sacrifice, forcing upon players the choice between altruism (letting the sisters go free even though they carry material that would make the journey through Rapture easier) and selfishness.
Now, I’m not thick enough to think there’s anything wrong with a player who decides to take every advantage offered him by this fictional world, and there may even be a moral argument to be made against the wisdom of “freeing” a defenseless little girl into a world populated by grenade throwing madmen. (I have every intention, once I’ve finished the game by freeing every Little Sister I come across, of playing it again and choosing to harvest them, if only to see how it impacts my adventure.) And it muddies the water a little bit that the creator of the Little Sisters has promised you some kind of reward in the unspecified future if you spare the children. I suppose I won’t know how all this turns out for some time — I’ve only cleared Bioshock‘s first level, which takes place in a nightmarish 1950s-style health-care facility where women who signed up for a boob joob ended up getting their faces slashed and rearranged by a mad doctor obsessed with perfection and symmetry. But the use of this save-or-slaughter device feels like more than a gimmick — at the very least it’s thought-provoking, and it actually may be an organic part of a grander creative plan. For a horror fan like me, who’s wincing at the increasingly bloody yet strangely anemic entries in the lucrative shock-movie sweepstakes, it’s exciting to think that a videogame could establish itself (alongside the excellent 28 Weeks Later) as one of the year’s fiercest, most intelligent pieces of genre entertainment.