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The Essentials – BioShock

by Matt Miller on Feb 22, 2015 at 07:00 AM

Welcome to our second installment of The Essentials, our “required reading” for anyone interested in experiencing the best that the video game scene has to offer. Each weekend we take a look back at a single game and consider its importance. Sometimes, our choices reflect the powerful influence these games had on other titles that would follow. In other instances, we select games because of their dramatic new approach to gameplay mechanics, art direction, or technology. Sometimes a game joins our list because it’s simply too fun to ignore.

Our first Essentials write-up put the spotlight on The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Today, we investigate a much more recent classic. Irrational Games’ BioShock was a revelation, combining a breathtaking artistic vision with strong and mature thematic explorations, all within a tense and rewarding first-person shooting experience. The game met with near universal praise from both critics and the wider gaming community, and remains a benchmark for world-building, atmospheric storytelling, and the integration of character development into a traditional FPS framework. 

Release Year: 2007
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Released For: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac

The descent into Rapture

BioShock would eventually emerge as one of the most highly praised video games of all time, but that doesn’t mean the project was always a sure thing. On the contrary, Irrational struggled for years with the concept, trying out various settings and main characters before settling on the tale of undersea Rapture. Even after nailing a concrete concept, BioShock presented a notoriously challenging development process for its team, including several final months of contentious internal studio disputes. 

No matter the process, it’s hard to argue with the results. BioShock met and exceeded expectations, setting the tone for a wave of atmospheric shooter/RPG hybrids that continues to this day. 

A big part of BioShock’s appeal came from its haunting and surreal setting. Rapture is a city built at the bottom of the ocean, the symbolic representation of one man’s soaring ambition, and how that ambition can go horribly wrong. Art deco was a chief inspiration, with its solid, monolithic, geometric shapes and bold colors. Interior architecture is symmetrical and modern, and the furnishing feels lavish and extravagant, like something out of an early 20th century hotel lobby or theater. 

The apparent opulence serves to accentuate the horror of how everything has fallen apart. Water leaks are everywhere, lending a sense that the ocean is only a heartbeat away from flooding in and drowning the entire city. Previously beautiful chambers are overrun and lie in ruin. Chairs and tables are toppled or destroyed. Power has gone out. Solid stone structures lay in pieces on the ground. Rapture is a place of impressive beauty, but even the most cursory look at any scene reveals that things took a wrong turn a long time ago.

Through this ruined world, we discover a host of unusual and unhinged characters, but we rarely meet them in person. The sadistic performer Sander Cohen is a picture of eccentricity gone wrong, as his theatrics turn a blind eye to the suffering of people. Atlas acts as a seemingly helpful guide through the world, even as secrets linger about his true identity. Tenenbaum is wracked by regret, horrified by her part in the genetic modifications of children. Most memorable of all, we learn about Andrew Ryan, whose single-minded vision led both to Rapture’s rise and fall. The character is simultaneously a model and a condemnation of the philosopher Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, in which altruism is devalued and the individual and his or her ambition is ceaselessly celebrated. As many observers have noted, Andrew Ryan’s name is even a pointed anagrammed message to the player: “We r Ayn Rand.”

BioShock’s characters are striking because they are so clearly drawn and compelling, but also because we learn the most about them through an ever-developing picture of their past, as told through the recordings scattered across the city. While BioShock was far from the first game to use this tool, few games before or since have added so much to their own fiction through audio clips that move the story forward.

More common enemies may not have distinct personalities, but they certainly add to the terrifying atmosphere. The mad splicers were once citizens of the planned utopia of Rapture, but now their addictions have driven them mad. Their desperate charges at the player exhibit a disquieting mix of canny intelligence and insanity. However, no encounters hold a candle to the climactic run-ins with a Big Daddy. These towering monstrosities are powerful and fiercely protective of the little girls they guard. At the same time, their tenderness with their tiny charges strikes a chord, almost making players regret the decision to kill them. That hard choice is compounded by the decision to subsequently harvest the Little Sisters for immediate power, or save them in the name of a more ethical path. 

The choice in front of players about the Little Sisters is just one of many in the game that recall themes of free will and the hard choices it sometimes creates. Irrational even uses the conventions of video games against the player; you blindly follow orders in the early part of the game, only to find out what’s really going on when Andrew Ryan reveals the truth behind the polite requests you’ve been given throughout the story. 

Beyond any interpretations of the story’s meaning or its setting, BioShock is also a tight and rewarding first-person shooting experience, with a number of intriguing twists on expectation. Gunplay feels responsive and challenging. The addition of superpower-like plasmids provides exciting opportunities to play in the environment and confront enemies in new ways. Setting traps, hacking gun turrets, and using stealth help BioShock to feel like more than a run-and-gun shooter, and encourages creative thinking. 

BioShock also distinguishes itself with a straightforward but rewarding sense of progression and upgrades, adding a role-playing flavor to the otherwise action-oriented affair. Regular decisions force players to specialize in plasmids that match with their play style. Later weapon stations reward careful exploration, and provide even more options for how to confront combat. Along with the purchasing of single-use items and improvements, as well as the profound decision of how to deal with the Little Sisters, BioShock becomes a game defined by difficult choices that affect gameplay. 

Many have pointed to BioShock as an important moment in the coming-of-age of the video game world. Its complex artistic and thematic depth caught the attention of many in the mainstream outside of games, and highlighted the way that interactive entertainment could confront challenging ideas. Perhaps more importantly, BioShock helped set a tone for many of the great games of subsequent years, in which narrative, gameplay, and presentation were a unified force to communicate a message. Many games since have further explored its mechanics and presentation style, but few games exhibit the finesse seen in Irrational’s masterpiece. BioShock should be considered a must-play for anyone who aims to understand the potential of interactive narrative.