02 Jul Greatest.Games.Ever: BioShock
Let me begin by saying I’m not into shooters. I’ve played my fair share of Goldeneye and Halo over the past 2 decades, but first person shooters have never been at the core of my interest nor have I ever been skilled enough to truly embrace them. That being stated, there have been some first person shooters that have stood out to me enough to make an impact. Games like Half-Life, Halo and Doom are so very good that everyone should play them. I may not gush about Call of Duty or Battlefield here in this series, but there are some First Person Shooters that go above and beyond creating something memorable, unique, and important. One of the most significant First Person Shooters that I’ve experienced has been the ever-amazing Bioshock. Until very recently, Bioshock was in my top 10 games of all time and I would definitely consider it in the top 10 games of the aughts. Irrational Games/2K Boston may have not changed the world with the first Bioshock, but they certainly left a significant impact that we’re still feeling until today. Now…follow me, somewhere beyond the sea.
As a disclaimer, I fully understand that BioShock was a spiritual successor to System Shock 2. I know that they wanted to recreate the feel of System Shock in a different setting. How I feel about BioShock definitely draws its influences from the prior series, but as someone who only recently jumped into PC gaming, I have little experience with SS. I plan to play it fully some day!
It’s a rather sunny day in late August of 2007 a few weeks before I am to enter my final year of college. Video gaming is a fairly normal pastime with my closest friends and I would typically have them over my house to hang out and play as much as we possibly could. A close friend and I were playing Xbox 360 this afternoon and we were bored with what we were playing. GTA wasn’t hitting us in the way we wanted it to and we had finished both Super Mario Galaxy and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It was one of those days when, “there’s nothing to play!”. Luckily, Xbox 360 was beginning to have a bustling storefront filled with games and more importantly (for this piece) demos! I always loved game demos and I’m upset that they’ve lost significance over the years. I enjoyed buying a magazine and getting a demo disc with some games to try out. They’re a little dangerous, but they always had value to me.
I had heard about BioShock through TechTv/G4 as I spent a lot of my days watching on loop. Shows like Cinematech loved to showcase game trailers on TV and there were a few fairly popular BioShock trailers that I remembered seeing. While scrolling through the demos on Xbox Live, we stopped on BioShock. I had mentioned that this game looked cool and the imposing image of the Big Daddy was so different, unique, and a little scary. We both agreed to download the demo. It took a few minutes to download, but we got a soda and waited. I feel that many of us had a similar experience with this BioShock demo, as I’ve shared my story many times to familiar reactions.
The BioShock demo is pretty lengthy and gives the player access to the first 40-45 minutes of the game. I still remember how engrossing the opening gameplay elements were. BioShock establishes a great feel of dread immediately, as your plane crashes into the ocean while the entire surface around you bursts into flames. The fire leads you to a large tower which you venture inside to find shelter from the crash. Shortly thereafter you enter a submersible craft that takes you to the main location in BioShock, the undersea city of Rapture. I think the trip down to Rapture is a modern masterpiece in videogame storytelling. Andrew Ryan is introduced and I immediately thought that he was an evil concoction of Walt Disney and Vincent Price.
It was chilling and his introduction was both terrifying and a little hilarious. Hilarious in the worst way possible. The establishing shot of Rapture is etched into my memory. It will always stand out as one of the coolest moments in gaming history.
Once in Rapture, the demo completely takes you by storm introducing you to weapons and plasmids, the mutant-style powers of BioShock. You’re guided by a distant figure named Atlas who has employed you to help find his family in this ruined city. We played the demo from start to finish and were entranced by BioShock and it’s stlyish, violent beauty. The game felt heavy, dark, damp, and each hit had serious weight to it. Even the gunshots felt like they had significant punch. This game felt unlike any shooter I had played at that time, it was slow, and lumbering like it’s poster child, The Big Daddy.
After finishing the demo, my friend and I looked online to find out that BioShock had released just a few days earlier. We both got in my car, drove to the local Gamestop, and purchased our own copies of BioShock on Xbox 360. It was still early in the day, but we split because both of us wanted to live in Rapture for a while. This is the ONLY time I remember playing a demo and then immediately buying the game. BioShock’s demo was a driving force in me wanting to experience this game. I finished out my summer conquering BioShock and eventually became a giant fan of the series, playing each game multiple times. Great games get your attention, but the Greatest games demand it. BioShock is one of those games.
BioShock Has History
I know very little about the development history of BioShock and this series (Greatest.Games.Ever) is less about the story of making these games and more focused the actual games themselves. BioShock itself has history baked into it. The player arrives in Rapture after the city-experiment has failed and they enter an unsafe, unstable, underwater ruin. The Art Deco city has fallen apart as we come across human remains, expired foods, and scavengers fighting for survival. We’re not told of the history of Rapture outright but we are introduced to a decaying perfectionist utopia. The environment itself tells a story and gives us a taste of Rapture’s History. We can gather quite a bit of information by looking around. What’s most unique is that Jack, the protagonist, arrives in Rapture AFTER its fall. Normally, video games place the main character in situations during or before a mass cataclysm. Countless games require the player to stop the world from being destroyed by some maniac. Even games like Resident Evil have the main characters navigate a world that is currently falling apart. In BioShock Rapture has already been destroyed and Jack is dealing with the aftermath. This gives BioShock an interesting premise and your main goal, for the first portion, is to escape and save Atlas’ family…though Atlas has different ideas for you.
Equally interesting are the audiologs that are strewn about Rapture. These audiologs can be picked up and listened to while you make your way through the city. They paint a better picture of what Rapture was like before it fell and as it was falling. The story and history of Rapture are not shoved in the player’s face, if you want the history, you have to find it. You can choose to hunt down every audio journal or you can choose to disregard all of them and the game leaves that up to you. I find this fascinating, because videogame storytelling at this time was often about being very present and explicit to the player. BioShock forces you to work for it, or gives you the choice to not care. It’s as though Irrational/2K Boston knew that some players would pur over these audiologs for hours trying to piece together the entire timeline, while other players just wanted to shoot everyone in the mouth. Both methods work fully to complete the game and this unique method of storytelling continues to add mystery to Rapture and compels the player to play the game multiple times. In a bold attempt to buck the status quo, 2K Boston crafted a new method of storytelling that has influenced myriad games in the future. I have always felt that BioShock, in its total greatness, built upon the storytelling mechanisms and gameplay of Metroid Prime and in some ways improved upon it’s delivery of the world’s history. In both games you learn about the present by reading about/listening to the past which allows you to predict the immediate future of the game. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild give the player a similar sense of history to BioShock, you’re in a world that had reached an endpoint and you’re trying to clear up your own history. Art begets art, which begets art and in this situation, the soup of ideas has drawn many influences from BioShock.
Gameplay is King
I won’t lie and say that BioShock is without its problems. The Hacking mini game is fun for about the first two hours and a chore afterwards. The end boss fight isn’t great and the whole morality choice/structure feels tacked on and pointless. In 2007 it felt like a requirement to shoehorn some morality system to every game. Few made it work well, and BioShock’s system was ultimately shortsighted. Now that I got that out of the way, let’s talk about the great feel of BioShock.
PLASMIDS…am I right? BioShock introduces one of its coolest mechanics right away, the ability to inject yourself with powers to use on your enemies. Sure it’s probably not the most culturally sensitive way to get powers, but it makes for a brilliant and varied gaming experience. There are a slew of amazing powers like Shock, Incinerate, and Telekinesis. These powers allow you to work with the environment as well. You can electrocute enemies in water with Shock or override electronics to grant you access to doors and other devices. Powers like Incinerate allow you to light up trails of oil to alter your environment and burninate the country(city)side. You also haven’t lived until you’ve used Telekinesis to pick up a Big Daddy to hurl at another Big Daddy. In addition to these offensive powers, BioShock is loaded with defensive powers and perks that can make each run through Rapture a bit different than your last. BioShock is fairly linear, but little changeups in your loadout can add some nice variety.
Using your Plasmids in conjunction with your weapons felt very unique and different to me in 2007. We can see now that this influence has carried on into the more modern era as series like Dishonored greatly combine the premise of unique abilities and weaponry. BioShock may not have laid the groundwork for this style, but it certainly made it more present in the genre. First Person Shooters did not only need shooting, you can change up the mechanics to deliver something fun and original. If a game doesn’t play well or feel good I have a hard time playing through it, even if the story is remarkable. BioShock takes familiar elements of FPS games and slows them down, makes them heavier, and combines them with mutant powers. It feels incredibly fluid and responsive. Enemies don’t feel like bullet sponges as you combine Plasmids and different ammunition types to take out different enemies. The unholy combination of Winter Blast and Armor Piercing bullets is amazing against a Big Daddy, where I normally like to Shock normal humans and smash them with my wrench. The game forces you to think about each enemy type and obstacle differently. You can choose to override and take over gun turrets, or blow them up, it’s up to you. I like that and it adds much needed variety to the shooter genre. BioShock feels great and while it’s not the most frenetic of shooters it offers a healthy diet of power-infused carnage that makes it feel special.
BioShock really doesn’t have any boss fights but, Big Daddies are both incredibly significant and stressful. They also sometimes come out of nowhere, taking the player by surprise. They force you to think differently and often require you to use all the tools in your arsenal. I like that, and we’ve not had too many enemy types that original in a long time. The Big Daddy was fresh and new in 2007, but it’s now an icon.
Rapture Is Wonderfully Terrifying
Setting is very important to video games as we spend so much time trudging through the worlds that they create. When we enter the world of Rapture and we see and learn about its fall it’s so intriguing to learn more. A story about warring factions in an underwater city and the manipulation of genetic code to give people powers through a substance called ADAM was mysterious and odd. The Little Sisters, one half of BioShock’s mascot, are equally mysterious. Orphan girls used to harvest ADAM so a black market of plasmids could be sold to the lower classes of Rapture? Creepy as all hell. A rebellion army loaded up with cheap plasmids as Ryan created his own army? Awesome. Rapture, like it’s location, was a pressurized keg ready to explode. Traversing this dystopia constantly has the player on their toes. You never know when you may hear or see a Little Sister off in the distance, only to be greeted by her horrific guardian, the Big Daddy.
I’d argue that The Big Daddy, Little Sisters, and Rapture are three of the most significant designs and additions to the fabric of videogame history in the modern era. They’re all fully recognizable and all equally terrifying. Rapture also plays into its own horror by creating an environment running low on power and thus low on light. It’s a quiet place and one of the most ambient locations I can think of. Thinking about Rapture makes me feel cold and lonely, exactly what the game seeks to do. Environmental and atmospheric horror are some of my most favorite genres of games, as it’s fear of the unknown that’s the most terrifying. As echoes bounce off the walls, the city seems to breathe and lurch unstably under the ocean. As you continue through the corridors of this presumed paradise, it feels like it could fall apart at any second. Part of Rapture is beautiful, most of it is horrific. It’s like appreciating an old haunted house for it’s architecture while being terrified that you’ll be attacked by a ghost or turned into a frog by a witch.
Rapture is a character within the story of BioShock. It’s inhabitants like Andrew Ryan, Atlas, and Tenenbaum all add to the deep history of this failed utopia. The game feels like it has weight and history that the walls and even the garbage cans continue to tell the story. It’s a lesson in video game based horror and many games have learned from it.
In the mid aughts it felt like every video game had some kind of terrible third act twist. SPOILERS… In Knights of the Old Republic it turns out YOU were the Evil Villain you were hunting down all along. In Final Fantasy X it turns out the evil force that sends Tidus 1000 years into the future is actually his dad, and Tidus is actually a dream…In BioShock, it turns out that Atlas, the guy you’ve been working for isn’t a real person. Instead he’s a guy named Frank Fontaine, Andrew Ryan’s nemesis who was thought to have been dead. Jack, the protagonist was being controlled by Frank through the key phrase “Would You Kindly”, which Atlas says ad nauseum throughout the game. This key phrase was programmed into Jack while he was in Rapture and before he was stolen, sent to the surface by Fontaine, and genetically altered to age at an accelerated rate. Oh also, Andrew Ryan is Jack’s dad. Sound convoluted? Sure, but in 2007 this twist was so different and original. Jack’s free will was a total facade, as Atlas controlled every move the player made while in Rapture.
While we’ve become accustomed to twists like these in recent years, the shift in BioShock was incredibly jarring. You think that your story will end when you kill Andrew Ryan. From there the idea was that you’d save Atlas’ family and escape Rapture for good. It then turns out that you were working for and with the true villain all along. It was brilliant and with Andrew Ryan dead, the player is left to wonder, what next? Ultimately, the twist proves how invested BioShock was in the story and history of its characters, including the city Rapture. “Would You Kindly” has become a meme and more importantly a significant part of video game history. Gamers know what it means and where it comes from, even if they haven’t experienced it firsthand. It was surprising and catches the player off guard, especially after your brutal murder of your father, Andrew Ryan.
BioShock absolutely drew influence from games like System Shock 2 and Metroid Prime, among many others, but its legacy continues on. As stated earlier, it’s style and feel seems to have most directly inspired the Dishonored series. In addition BioShock’s strong dedication to narrative is ultimately it’s most important aspect. The game makes you think and feel and challenges your predispositions and subverts your expectations. As I go back and play BioShock today, it still feels very different and unique. BioShock was a challenge to other series and expressed how important it is to tell a good story in a video game. Games can be more than shooting and killing. While BioShock certainly forces the player to do their fair share of killing and shooting, it ultimately succeeds in elevating the medium.
BioShock has spun off two “sequels” in BioShock 2 and BioShock: Infinite. Both good in their own right, but I’m of the opinion that Infinite is the better game. I would have loved to see what Irrational would have done with the BioShock Multiverse had they not decided to close up. The game was greatly approaching a cool, Dark Tower vibe by following some of the rules set forth by Stephen King. I don’t love BioShock 2, but that means I should give it another shot, because I’ve read many positive reviews about the game. Infinite is the visual culmination of the series that takes what BioShock gave us and turns it into a different city, with a different man, and a different tower. I really love BioShock: Infinite and it’s beautiful city in the sky. While not as groundbreaking as the original, Infinite does well to keep up with the series stress on strange narrative and strange plot twists. You even get to visit Rapture for a minute!!
BioShock is definitely one of the Greatest.Games.Ever, now…. Would you Kindly sit down and play through it again…