Wolfe & Boulez & Levine

Finished THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN a few nights ago. Wooosh. Gene Wolfe is a helluva writer, but certainly not an easy one. He’s somewhere between Michael Moorcock and Neil Gaiman, with a touch of Borges thrown in. I’d certainly recommend the quartet to serious sci-fi (and even to literature people, for that matter), but with the proviso that there is a lot here, and you will have to beat it to death from time to time. Hopefully I can find time to give it a re-read sooner rather than later.

Also went to see the Aventa Ensemble perform: they did Kaija Saariahos’ Lichtbogen, which I really enjoyed, Gregory Lee Newsome’s in media res, which had some lovely moments, and Pierre Boulez’ Derive II, for which words like “titantic” and “mind-boggling” seem lacking. It was a serious concert: I wish I had understood more of it.

Finally, I finished Bioshock, with the good ending: it seems to be a trend that modern games don’t end well, both in terms of a final cutscene and the final few gameplay hooks. With that said, it remains a landmark title in so many ways…but it could have been a landmark in one or two more ways that could have fundamentally changed how video games are played, made, and perceived. More after the jump, with HUGE SPOILERS.

So: Here are two ways that Bioshock could have overwhelmingly broken people’s minds, and they’re actually pretty simple.

One:After Jack has been cleared of the “would you kindly” control phrase, give the player the option to walk to a bathysphere, return to the surface, and end the game. After all, Jack has free will, right? Right? Right? A case could be made to not let the Player do this until after they turn off Code Yellow, but either way, it would have given them a choice, which is what the game is about. I can hear Tennebaum narratting the ending cutscene now: “Choice is what makes us human – and you made your choice. In the end, what mattered the most to you…was you.”

The second way would have been a bit more contrived, but really, really powerful. Currently, after Jack has been forced to kill Ryan, Atlas radios and says “Would you kindly take that genetic key and use it to stop the self destruct!”, or something to that effect. The point is that he uses the control phrase.

But what if his radio was garbled? Just a little. What if he said “Wou-chhhh-ou—kind–chhh– stop the-chhh-el destruct!-chhh”? What then? The player now has a real choice. They know that Jack’s entire life is a lie, that Atlas is Fontaine, and that, once the radio reception returns, he has total control over Jack. So the player can stop the self destruct, and play the rest of the game out. Simple. Easy. That’s what the developers wanted. The command phrase probably works even when Jack only hears some of it, really. And this is a video game – the self destruct always gets turned off. Right?

Wrong. If the player just waits, and waits, and waits, they will be rewarded with Atlas getting more and more frantic (but still garbled!) on the radio, shouting the control phrase at them and slowly losing his Irish accent. Finally, eventually, (with no damn progress bar or anything) painstakingly, Rapture will be destroyed. Atlas / Fontaine will die, Jack will die, everyone will die. The game will end, and the player will get a cutscene narrated by Ryan: “A man chooses – a slave obeys.”