Bioshock 2 and its predecessor toy with gamers’ expectations in addition to letting you shoot ugly monsters.
When Peter Hemminger, the current music and film editor at Fast Forward Weekly, took over his section, I recall that one of his first actions was to remove the star ranking system from CD reviews. It was a smart move for a few reasons, though my favourite (and the one he never actually mentioned because he's very humble, and please Peter can I have more money?) was that it let him put his personal stamp on the section in an immediate, recognizable way. Numerical ranking systems can be very useful for people who use criticism solely as a buyer's guide, but what gives them that strength is also central to their absurdity — they quantify something inherently subjective. Removing the star system sends a message to the readers as well as the writers: This section is no longer about telling you what to buy. It's about conversation.
Visit almost any website that reviews video games, and you'll see some twist on the numerical ranking system. Some — most notably Game Trailers and IGN — take it a step further and break the score down into separately ranked categories (graphics, sound, gameplay, etc.), then average those numbers to produce a succinct measure of how many dollars you should be willing to spend on the product in question. Could you imagine doing this for a film? A record? A novel?
“Let's see, Naked Lunch gets a 10 for flippantly challenging the social mores of its time, but, uh, loses two for giving me a nightmarish boner in public.”
I was never more aware of this than I was immediately following the release of Bioshock 2. The first Bioshock was an unrelenting satire of video games and the people who play them, set against one of the most creative, thoughtful backdrops ever seen in the medium — a crumbling utopia beneath the sea built upon the principles of (and destroyed by) Objectivism, Ayn Rand's personal brand of hyper-capitalism. It was the first mainstream, multimillion-dollar video game to ever use the mechanics and conventions of the medium to build its themes (basically, will and choice are central to Objectivism, and games, with their fairly limited range of interactivity, rob you of both). Finally, here was a video game story that could not be just as easily (or better) told on film. Bioshock 2 had big shoes to fill.
And still the focus of reviews obstinately remained on how the game mechanics had improved, how it ran a little smoother, how you got to use a drill arm instead of a wrench to brain bad guys. The closest thing I found to the review I wanted to read was on an otherwise quite intelligent PC games site that briefly mentioned the philosophy wasn't quite as prominent this go-round before launching into a bloated apologia for the PC as a platform. By the end, the writer was tripping over himself to explain that Bioshock 2 was receiving glowing reviews from the mostly console-centric games press because consoles didn't have the same lineage of inaccessible, unforgiving action RPGs as the PC.
Though saying exactly how Bioshock 2 continues its predecessor's self-reflexive commentary on the medium kind of gives away the game, so to speak. Suffice it to say if the first game was about how games circumscribe our sense of self with their rules and conditions, the second is about how we co-create meaning with the authors through the process of interaction. In other words, it's about conversation.
Better than any other games, the Bioshocks represent a powerful need to change the way we approach evaluating the medium. While Bioshock 2 may be a “mechanical improvement upon its predecessor,” much, much more interesting is how it creates a beautiful thematic loop with the first game, commenting on its own history even while it challenges you to consider how your actions either contribute to or contradict its hard-coded objectives. The gameplay, the art, the music, the script, the level design and the voice talent are all part of a whole, and while they can be commented upon separately, we can't lose sight of the fact that they are all situated around that central purpose.
Games are a medium. While any medium — and especially one with such a high cost of admission — will always have a place for “buy or don't buy” consumer product evaluations, games' development as a medium requires some of us to stop quantifying how much fun it is to push the X button, and start talking about what that means.