This article doesn’t aim to review Bioshock, rather it aims to explore its creative process and world. Why the game is the way it is, why it hooks people in with its setting and story, and why it has left such a mark on gaming and media as a whole since its release in August 2007.
For 2K’s original Bioshock there are three main factors that set it out as a cult masterpiece to most. These come down to its setting and art style, how it conveys the underwater failed utopia of Rapture in an incredibly interesting fashion. Also how it wears its influences on its sleeve, aiming to illustrate interesting themes and motifs that on retrospect feel like they belong in a book (they do, Atlas Shrugged to be exact). Finally its story. It is one that has very interesting themes and twists, characters and stellar writing. For Bioshock all these things come together with its game play to provide an experience that enticed players and like a good movie, deserves a second run through to see all the titbits that allude to the themes, story and setting.
SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW! (however you should really play the game if you haven’t, its great to experience through the method of interaction with the world.
As mentioned Bioshock takes place in an underwater city in the year 1960, this city was built by Andrew Ryan in secret for all the artists and scientists of the world, wishing to be free. The development team go for an image of mystique as soon as the protagonist Jacks plane crashes. Leaving the player to swim to a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean, what a strange coincidence (or is it?… It’s not). This I feel highlights how the game ‘should’ be experienced first time… with nothing, no knowledge of what lies beneath the depths. Whilst a game can’t be marketed on a lighthouse alone if a new player was just thrust into that and then sent to Rapture with the image of grandeur from the Bathysphere then that would really add a incredible element of wonder for them.
Then as the player explores the pseudo-linear environments they realise something, this city is destroyed, strange insane Splicers roam the corridors, water creeps in from every crack and turrets are left in bathrooms. Essentially this place has gone to shit. This allowed the developers to create an optional story running adjacent from the main one via the environment, character interactions and audio logs. The player can get a look into the world before it came crashing down whilst exploring its demise.
It doesn’t stop there, the poster-child, or more accurately poster-man in a diving suit who has a drill for a hand is the Big Daddy, He’s on the box, his interesting design is the draw in. Apart from the city itself he and the little sister are the setting (which is again weaved excellently into the story, I’ll get to it). These are experiments where Big Daddy’s follow and protect little sisters, cute right? Nah, they are sort of optional mini bosses that will kill you if you even look at the little sister funny. These don’t just make for interesting player encounters but act as a link to the sci-fi game-play element, ADAM. ADAM is the drug that sent everyone crazy but it also acts as a way fro you to get the games power-ups, which are your alternative to guns, meant to enrich the combat centred game-play experience. So again Big Daddy’s, their design, role, and connection to game mechanics allow to enrich the setting and game-play twofold.
As mentioned Bioshock wears its influences on its sleeve, from George Orwell to Ayn Rand. From art deco to its 1960s aesthetic and even stem cell research. Director of the game Ken Levine says that the statue of Atlas outside the GE building in NYC inspired the games design, and we can see where the Ayn Rand influence comes from too. In regards to her, and her Magnum Opus ‘Atlas Shrugged’ her book deals with themes such as objectivism. Clearly demonstrated through the Howard Hughes sort of character seen in Andrew Ryan. This idea that a man should be free to pursue their own goals with no restrictions, especially from the government. Even in that book it turns out (spoilers!!) that all the great missing minds fled to a secret city, much like the invitation of Andrew Ryan in Bioshock. The game explores something else of this theme too, asking whether or not it is a good thing, As we know what happens to Rapture, Andrew Ryan and protagonist Jack (depending on the ending). There is clearly an attempted at evaluating a thesis of Ayn Rand’s through the game.
So what about the story why does it grab you? Would you kindly sit down and listen. Well there’s obviously that code “would you kindly” and it turns out Atlas was (coincidence in the name??) using it to force Jack to do his bidding to defeat Ryan. Coming to a conclusion in a cut-scene, where Jack kills him, his father, and you can’t do anything about it. This is interesting because it makes the player feel powerless, taking away the control they had in the game up to that point, but you didn’t have true control, freedom, just as you don’t in most linear games, the pseudo-linear areas are like the code, giving you the impression of freedom when really it isn’t there. Putting it in both story and game-play then accentuates the scene of Andrew Ryan’s death because you realise you’ve been played the whole time. It is an incredible twist.
The other large story aspect is the choice to harvest or save the little sisters, depending on what you do you get different endings. However on your first playthrough if you don’t know it will effect the end and are a heartless bastard you’ll harvest all the little sisters, take their ADAM and become a badass. So again the story and the game-play are so effortlessly weaved together, this being a reason the game is so good.
In the end the Book Digital Culture: Understanding New Media sums up Bioshock perfectly from what I’ve been saying. To them its an artistic medium, the atmosphere, game-play, story, themes and motifs all come together to create a game that transcends the monitor it is presented on. It gets you morally thinking, tricks you, questions your political beliefs all while being a solid gaming experience.