RET­RO­SPEC­TIVE: BIOSHOCK

With its art deco ar­chi­tec­ture and in­di­vid­u­al­ist ide­ol­ogy, BioShock’s un­der­sea city still en­rap­tures to­day

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - CONTENTS - Alex Spencer

More than a decade on from Ir­ra­tional’s first trip be­neath the waves, the city of Rap­ture is still one of gam­ing’s most unique and mem­o­rable set­tings. An un­der­sea city built by peo­ple who re­ally, re­ally didn’t want to pay their taxes, over­looked by huge stat­ues of its founder, and decked out in art deco style, it re­mains a re­mark­able place to visit.

Not that you get much chance for undis­turbed sight­see­ing. Be­cause you’re shar­ing the space with Rap­ture’s mon­strous res­i­dents—and they’re not happy about it. En­ter the Splicers, cit­i­zens who ma­nip­u­lated their own ge­net­ics so much it de­formed their bod­ies and drove them mad. Now they scurry through the ru­ins of the city, still wear­ing the tat­tered rem­nants of the clothes they wore back in the glory days of Rap­ture, and some­times even grotesque masks from the New Year’s mas­quer­ade ball, the night it all went wrong.

And they aren’t even the scari­est ones. That ti­tle has to go to the hulk­ing div­ing suit-clad beasts known as Big Dad­dies. They’re in­dis­putably the most iconic char­ac­ters in BioShock— so much so it’s a Big Daddy who ap­pears on the front of the box, and the se­quel pro­motes them to a star­ring role—and they can do se­ri­ous dam­age if you rub them up the wrong way.

This com­bi­na­tion of pop­u­la­tion and dec­o­ra­tion makes Rap­ture one of the most dis­tinc­tive places you’ll ever visit on your Xbox. It’s all in­tro­duced grad­u­ally by BioShock’s clas­sic open­ing se­quence. Af­ter a pri­vate flight crashes into the sea, you find your­self among the burn­ing wreck­age look­ing up at an iso­lated light­house in the mid­dle of the At­lantic Ocean. You step through its or­nate golden door, a crackly record of 1940s jazz play­ing, and are greeted by a huge statue of Rap­ture’s founder, An­drew Ryan.

From there, it’s down twenty thou­sand leagues un­der the sea, as a bathy­sphere tour gives you a taste of ev­ery­thing BioShock has to of­fer, con­densed into a cou­ple of min­utes. Ryan’s charis­matic but trou­bling slo­ga­neer­ing. Beau­ti­ful vin­tage posters. A whale swim­ming be­tween the tow­ers of un­der­sea sky­scrapers, their neon lights blink­ing through the murk. Your first dis­tant glimpse of a Big Daddy, and an up-close view of a mur­der­ous Splicer. Even an early hint at the game’s even­tual plot twist, with the first de­ploy­ment of a phrase that would prove to be very im­por­tant in­deed: “Would you kindly”.

Sea change

The prom­ise of BioShock, all laid out in this se­quence, is al­most as am­bi­tious and un­likely as the con­struc­tion of a city at the bot­tom of the ocean. A story-driven first-per­son shooter, in a unique set­ting, with a po­lit­i­cal cri­tique at the cen­ter? In 2007, that was prac­ti­cally un­prece­dented. But BioShock ex­isted in a clear lin­eage, one that stretched back more than a decade—to 1994’s Sys­tem Shock, and the ‘im­mer­sive sim’ genre it helped birth. These games es­tab­lished in­ter­lock­ing sim­u­lated sys­tems for the player to in­ter­act with how­ever they chose, of­ten dis­cov­er­ing emer­gent pos­si­bil­i­ties that the de­signer may never have in­tended. De­vel­oper Ir­ra­tional had been re­spon­si­ble for Sys­tem Shock’s se­quel, and this game was of­ten de­scribed as its spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor— hence the ‘Shock’ in the ti­tle. BioShock’s suc­cess helped lay the foun­da­tions for a se­cond wave of im­mer­sive sim games, headed up by Dishonored and the re­vival of the Deus Ex se­ries. The most ob­vi­ous in­her­i­tance from BioShock’s im­mer­sive sim lin­eage comes in the form of Plas­mids, su­per­hu­man abil­i­ties that let you cus­tom­ize your playstyle. These

vary from fire­balls to tor­nado traps, per­haps most im­por­tantly, pow­ers that have the ef­fect of turn­ing your en­e­mies against one another.

The shoot­ing it­self isn’t par­tic­u­larly sat­is­fy­ing— BioShock isn’t a game for con­nois­seurs of ‘gun feel’, or head­shot fiends—but these abil­i­ties of­fer op­tions in com­bat far be­yond the usual shotgun-or-pis­tol choices. Throw an Elec­tro Bolt at a pud­dle to fry any Splicers stand­ing in the wa­ter. Use Telekine­sis to pick up a grenade and fling it back the way it came. Hack one of Rap­ture’s fly­ing sen­try bots to turn its tur­ret to your side, or use the Se­cu­rity Bulls­eye Plas­mid to send it af­ter a spe­cific foe.

There is a fairly ma­jor flaw in the de­sign of BioShock’s com­bat, how­ever—the ex­is­tence of Vi­taCham­bers. These are booths scat­tered around Rap­ture which res­ur­rect you af­ter dy­ing. They’re an at­tempt to jus­tify respawn­ing within the game’s fic­tion, and even­tu­ally turn out to be a vi­tal plot point, but they sap the ten­sion of fights.

Dy­ing nor­mally just means pop­ping up a room or two back, with noth­ing lost. Your progress is main­tained—any en­e­mies you’ve shot stay dead— and this means any en­counter can be brute forced through sheer per­sis­tence and rep­e­ti­tion. It’s es­pe­cially dam­ag­ing to the Big Daddy bat­tles, which should be cli­mac­tic mo­ments. The lum­ber­ing beasts soak up bul­lets, so rather than ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent meth­ods, the best ap­proach is to fight un­til you die, over and over, respawn­ing and

“It’s un­de­ni­ably cathar­tic to un­load a shotgun into mon­sters spout­ing rhetoric like ‘al­tru­ism is the root of all wicked­ness’”

slowly chip­ping away at its enor­mous re­serve of health. It’s a dis­ap­point­ing waste of one of gam­ing’s all-time great en­e­mies.

Shock­ing be­hav­ior

Ul­ti­mately, the shoot­ing is prob­a­bly the least in­ter­est­ing thing about the game BioShock. What re­ally pulls you through Rap­ture’s lev­els is its story. Not just in the sense of plotad­vanc­ing cutscenes—though these do de­liver some great mo­ments—but the story that’s sprin­kled through­out.

Some­thing else that BioShock in­her­ited from the Sys­tem Shock games was a fo­cus on en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ry­telling—where de­tails of the game world de­liver parts of a nar­ra­tive that you have to piece to­gether your­self. Bod­ies placed in a way that sug­gest how they might have got­ten there. Posters that fill out your sense of what this city was like be­fore so­ci­ety col­lapsed. Graf­fiti… oh so much graf­fiti.

The game’s struc­ture leads you to a string of hubs, each us­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal clues to con­vey the his­tory of the space and the per­son­al­ity of the per­son who serves, es­sen­tially, as its end-of-level boss. It’s not al­ways sub­tle—we are, af­ter all, talk­ing about mes­sages scrawled in blood—but it de­liv­ers some of the game’s ab­so­lute high­points.

Like, for ex­am­ple, Fort Frolic. Headed up by San­der Co­hen, a psy­cho­pathic artist whose pre­ferred medium is hu­man corpses, the area is filled with eerie ex­am­ples of Co­hen’s work—bod­ies posed and sealed in plas­ter to cre­ate hu­man stat­ues. Gen­er­ally con­sid­ered the game’s best level, Fort Frolic was de­signed by Jor­dan Thomas, who would go on to lead the de­vel­op­ment of BioShock 2.

Sup­port­ing this vis­ual sto­ry­telling are the au­dio logs: Diaries of Rap­ture’s res­i­dents tucked away in cor­ners of the world. They’re def­i­nitely a con­trivance—why is ev­ery­one speak­ing their thoughts out loud and record­ing them?—but they’re also a great way of squeez­ing in a lit­tle more story, and re­ward­ing ex­plo­ration.

The en­vi­ron­ment and au­dio logs are some­times used to tell self-con­tained sto­ries, and some­times to tie into the larger plot. You’ll find your first clue to the game’s big twist hid­den in an au­dio diary. It’s a twist that works be­cause you’ve been slowly steeped in it over hours, through every sto­ry­telling method BioShock has at its dis­posal. I won’t spoil it here—and frankly, the im­pact of the re­veal is hard to con­vey without ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it first-hand—but it makes you ques­tion ev­ery­thing you’ve played up to that point, in a way that had rarely been seen in a game at the time, es­pe­cially in a main­stream shooter.

Rand-y sailors

The other story which spans the length of BioShock is the ques­tion of how Rap­ture came to be, what it was like to live there, and what hap­pened when it all came crash­ing down on New Year’s 1959. And this is where the game’s po­lit­i­cal mes­sage seeps in like wa­ter be­tween the cracks in Rap­ture’s ceil­ings—and oc­ca­sion­ally comes crash­ing in with all the blunt force of the ocean.

BioShock was con­ceived as a cri­tique of Ob­jec­tivism, an ide­ol­ogy de­vel­oped by Rus­sian-Amer­i­can writer Ayn Rand, most fa­mously in her 1957 novel At­las Shrugged. Ob­jec­tivism, among other things, states that hu­mans have no duty to one another, and that ev­ery­one should be free to pur­sue their own self-in­ter­est, without gov­ern­men­tal in­ter­ven­tion.

These are the philo­soph­i­cal foun­da­tions on which Rap­ture was built. An­drew Ryan—a near ana­gram of Ayn Rand—prac­ti­cally shouts chunks of Ob­jec­tivist ide­ol­ogy at you through­out the game, while Splicers be­moan ‘the par­a­site’ or scream “I’m your bet­ter!” as they sprint to­wards you. It’s about as sub­tle as a Fox News seg­ment.

BioShock’s point is that Ob­jec­tivism doesn’t work—af­ter all, Rap­ture is not ex­actly in rude health when you ar­rive—but it’s ques­tion­able how much deeper the cri­tique goes than that. Nev­er­the­less, at the time, it was thrilling to be play­ing a big-bud­get game that was so overtly po­lit­i­cal. And to­day, it’s un­de­ni­ably cathar­tic to un­load a shotgun into mon­sters spout­ing rhetoric like “al­tru­ism is the root of all wicked­ness”.

But even if you’d pre­fer to just shut off that bit of your brain as you play, there’s plenty to en­joy in Rap­ture. The gor­geous com­mer­cials that show when you buy a new Plas­mid, an­i­mated in a vin­tage style rem­i­nis­cent of Fall­out’s Vault Boy. Creepy vi­gnettes, like the Splicer cast­ing an enor­mous sil­hou­ette onto the wall as she cries over a pram—a pram which, you even­tu­ally dis­cover, con­tains only a loaded re­volver. Mo­ments of majesty, as you turn a cor­ner and are sud­denly re­minded that this art deco city ex­ists at the bot­tom of the sea, and hor­ror, as the lights un­ex­pect­edly go out and you hear un­hinged cack­ling from some­where be­hind you.

The game still looks pretty great, es­pe­cially if you pick up the re­cent re­mas­tered ver­sion, and while the cracks in its de­sign have only be­come more vis­i­ble with age—the com­bat lacks fi­nesse, and some of the en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ry­telling that felt so pi­o­neer­ing at the time now looks a lit­tle clumsy—few games since have of­fered such a bril­liantly dis­tinc­tive at­mos­phere. Rap­ture isn’t some­where you’d want to live, but it’s a won­der­ful place to re­visit.

Above There are two types of Big Daddy: The drill-wield­ing Bouncer and Rosie the rivet gun­ner.

above You’ve even­tu­ally given a cam­era that lets you snap en­e­mies to learn their weak­nesses.

Top There are still tat­tered rem­nants of the dec­o­ra­tions from Rap­ture’s fi­nal party strewn through­out the city.

Above BioShock’s moral choices don’t re­ally work. Kill a lit­tle girl, or don’t—it’s not the most nu­anced de­ci­sion.

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