Bringing atmosphere into gaming: "Bioshock 2"

Not enough video games really take advantage of the opportunity for immersion that a good home theater offers. A big screen and a 5.1 surround system with enough power behind it can take gaming from a passive button-pushing pastime to an engaging experience that’s as visceral as it is vicarious. Of course, the game has to do its fair share of the work.

Just like movies, games can provide an engrossing experience with a proper home theater. It’s not simply about bass-rocking explosions or bright colors, but about the judicious use of light and sound to craft the experience. Bioshock 2 isn’t a perfect example of how to do these things, but it’s a fine attempt. In fact, it’s almost as good an attempt as its predecessor.

Let’s get something out of the way: Bioshock 2 is more of the same. It streamlines a few things and offers a handful of new environments and situations, but otherwise the game is basically a retread of 2007’s excellent Bioshock. It’s not a totally bad thing; the places the game revisits look and sound great, and the few new experiences really are a treat for the eyes and ears. It just doesn’t quite feel like enough. Still, this isn’t a game review, it’s a look at how to provide an immersive audio and video experience in a video game.

In the first Bioshock, atmosphere was king. The art deco utopia-gone-mad of Rapture was a fresh and gorgeous world that sucked players in. It wasn’t simply the lovely environment, though; it was the use of sound and lighting to produce palpable tension in the game. Stealthy ceiling-crawling spider splicer enemies skittered in the shadows, with only the faintest scratches and flickers giving away their position. Massive Big Daddies, armored golems with drills for arms, tromped around the levels, their inhuman moans and menacing stomps signaling their approach. The game used sound to generate tension for upcoming encounters, whether it was the bass-filled thumps of the Big Daddies or the trebly scrapes of the spider splicers. Combine that with a judicious use of light to conceal the splicers as they snuck up on you, and to highlight the inhuman glows of the Big Daddies’ helmets, and you have an experience that sucks you into the game.

Bioshock 2 comes close, but doesn’t quite hit that level of immersiveness. It’s almost more of a tonal problem than an atmosphere issue. Your character in the game is a little stronger than in the first; he’s one of the first Big Daddies, with his own drill arm and armored diving suit. The Big Daddies still stomp around and provide a challenge, but the various splicers feel de-fanged. You can easily go toe to toe with any splicer, and the Big Daddies can be defeated relatively easily with a little preparation.

Fortunately, the game’s newest and most prominent enemies, the Big Sisters, offer almost as good a scary experience, once again thanks to the use of sound. Instead of a guttural roar, the Big Sisters announce their appearance with a terrible shriek and a screen-shaking blur. It’s not quite as atmospheric as the first game; the loud noises and blurring effects feel like a hammer to the original Bioshock’s scalpel, hitting you over the head with the tension of an upcoming encounter rather than building up the tension with environmental cues. Still, it still provides an aural punctuation in the game that at least tries to make you feel the unease of your character.

Bioshock 2 does provide a few truly engrossing moments, however. For the first time in the series, you walk outside Rapture, meandering along the sea floor to get from one place to another. These sections are short, rare, and don’t offer much to the gameplay besides a welcome and serene respite, but from an audio/video standpoint they’re fantastic. When you leave Rapture, you must stand in an airlock and flood it to walk outside. In the span of a few seconds, the room fills with water and the rushing, intense sound provides a remarkable transition from the clear, clanky sound of Rapture and the muffled quiet of the deep. Sound still transmits in water, and you can still hear the occasional Big Daddy wandering around aimlessly, or recognize the sounds of combat through the windows of Rapture. The sound is muffled by the water, though, and the effect is fantastic. The contrast between the quiet of the water and the stark noise of Rapture is a great experience.

There’s one other scenario in Bioshock 2 that really provides a remarkable experience. Unfortunately, it’s also a pretty major part of the game’s climax, and I don’t want to spoil anything for you. Let me just say that Bioshock 2’s final chapters make up for the relatively weak finale of the first Bioshock, and that it provides another fantastic juxtaposition of light and darkness, sound and silence.

Will Greenwald