Why BioShock is a role-playing game


Ken Levine is BioShock's creative director, and BioShock is his baby. He's adamant that the game he is creating is not, in any way an RPG. In fact, he's wont to hammer this point home at every available opportunity. Here's a snippet of the GamersWithJobs preview in which he does just that:
These plasmids let you modify and slowly build your character in a way not-dissimilar to an RPG. But don't tell Ken that. "This is not an RPG," he demands. "It's not about stats. This is about huge amounts of dynamic exciting player expression ... thousands of ways to exploit the environment, take control of things and use the world to your advantage." He's passionate about this to the point of hyperbole and hand-waving.
Hit the jump with me to learn why I believe Ken Levine is wrong ยปBefore we talk about whether something is or isn't a role-playing game, we need to establish an understanding of what a role-playing game is. The simplest definition would be a literal reading of the title: a game in which you play a role, but this is true of all games. In Half Life, you play the role of Gordon Freeman, but Half Life is not a role-playing game. There's something missing from this definition.

What seperates role-playing games from other genres is that in them, you have the ability to shape the role you have been given.

While inventory screens, attribute scores, dialogue trees and level advancement are all common features of many games in the role-playing genre, they are not the genre itself. They are tools game developers use to make it easier for you to play a role of your choosing (within certain parameters), but they are merely means to an end: role-playing. They are not what the genre is.

With that in mind, I believe there's plenty of evidence to suggest Bioshock is a role-playing game. Yes, it's a first-person shooter too, but those genres are not mutually exclusive. A game in first-person viewpoint, in which you shoot at stuff, is not an obstacle to role-playing. Ken Levine's most acclaimed gaming title, System Shock 2, is proof of this.

Why BioShock is a role-playing game

Plasmids (Adam): a substance you find through-out the game world that allow you to change and add to your character's abilities. You can choose whether or not to use the plasmids you find, and in what combination you use them. In this example from the 1UP.com preview, the plasmid functions just like a scroll which allows you to learn a new spell, or like the augmentations in Deus Ex.
You explore a bit and come across your first power-up from a broken vending machine. As you use it to alter your body, you earn your first power, the "Electro Bolt," which allows you to fire a blue lightning bolt from your hand.
Tonics: consumable substances which permanently improve your attributes, increasing your maximum health, adding new skills, and reducing the damage you take from attacks. Another way in which you can shape your character. Here's a quote about tonics from the Team Xbox preview:
Later, I found another machine that sold us Physical and Combat tonics, which can permanently improve your attributes. The Physical tonics basically increase your health level or give you powers like "hack and heal," which converts power from hacked machines into health. The Combat tonics, on the other hand, help you during battle by offering stuff like Armored Body, which reduces the amount of damage that you take.
Weapon modding: throughout the game you are able to equip different types of ammo and change the way your weapons function with weapon mods. This seems comparable to the weapon modding system in Deus Ex, or Diablo II's socket system.

Items: As you explore the game-world you'll encounter a number of items you can use to role-play your character. You can smoke compulsively, drink every bottle of alcohol you find, indulge your sweet tooth, and so on. From the 1UP.com preview:
First aid kits -- sure, those make sense. But the game gives you cigarettes, vodka, merlot, pep bars, creme-filled cakes, and all kinds of bonuses if you want them. Sometimes these will hurt/help your health, and sometimes they will hurt/help your EVE (your juice to use on powers like the Electro Bolt), but notably some can impact both sides -- drinking merlot boosts your health but hurts your EVE.
Money: enemy corpses can be searched for money. It is up to you how you spend it.

Player choice: at various points throughout the game you are given the choice between killing a Little Sister and harvesting the Adam she's collected, or restoring her to the little girl she once was.

In the words of Ken himself: "Depending on who you follow, your character grows differently, you play the game differently." Without spoiling game details, one person urges you to kill the Little Sisters, the other urges you to save them. How you play your character will have a direct impact on both the story and your character's abilities.

Multiple solutions: Many previews have highlighted the fact that charging into each encounter with guns blazing is a sure-fire way to get your character killed. You have a number of options: hacking turrets and sentry bots to soften up your enemies, using your plasmid abilities to electrify or send enemies up in flames, using telekenisis to hurl objects at your enemies, dominate the minds of Splicers in order to hurl them into battle with Big Daddies, and so on.

It seems entirely possible to play through the game specialising in particular modes of combat and customizing your installed plasmids and weapons to compliment your style of play. While there is no game-mechanic to select a character class, it seems entirely possible to create a class for your character via your own gameplay choices.

* * *

In the face of so many significant and deep role-playing game elements, all of which are integral to the core gameplay, it seems unreasonable that Ken Levine is so passionately adamant that BioShock is not an RPG/Shooter. I think Julian Murdoch of GamersWithJobs offers the best explanation for this aversion to the use of the words BioShock and RPG in the same sentence:
2KGames, Irrational-the-company's owner and publisher of BioShock, has mixed feelings about the game's place in genre-space. Early on, the press pigeonholed BioShock as a "hybrid RPG/Shooter." This scared the crap out of them, and for understandable reasons -- shooters sell, especially pretty shooters. And in a pre-Oblivion world, there was little evidence that a flashy RPG designed for both the PC and Xbox had a shot. So they've established an inviolable PR hook -- it's a kick-ass shooter.
It is ironic, then, that many of the things Ken Levine believes to be changing, nay, revolutionizing, the FPS genre, and the game elements many previewers are raving about, are elements which allow you to shape your character. Role-playing elements.

When it comes to BioShock, I think we should start giving role-playing games credit where credit is due. If the game encourages you to play a role, offers you choices in the creation of that role, then it is a role-playing game. It can be other things too - in this case, an FPS. But the options you have for shaping your character in BioShock are too considerable to ignore: from shaping stats and abilities (via plasmids and tonics) to shaping personality (via the Little Sisters moral choice), it is the role-playing in BioShock which will make it a great game.

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digg this: | posted by Natasha, 1:04 PM |

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Natasha is a political science student, a gamer, a writer, an armchair philosopher, and a geek. Her first cRPG was Castle of the Winds.

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