In the video gaming zeitgeist, Bioshock really needs no introduction.
It’s hard to argue nowadays that Ken Levine is one of the greatest gaming auteurs of our time. Yet in the summer of 2007, nobody could have anticipated Irrational Games‘ return to form since System Shock 2.
Despite being released the same year as Halo 3, Mass Effect 1, The Witcher 1, the first Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Team Fortress 2, Portal and Super Mario Galaxy – Bioshock still managed to become one of the most important video games of the decade. It’s not hard to imagine why, since it’s just a really damn good game!
A Masterwork of Theming
Looking back at 2007, it’s funny how gamers used to gush about how Crysis was going to change everything; and how it was going to be the game that everyone kept talking about for years to come. Sure, it had stunning graphics, cool effects and a world full of detail. But what do you remember about this “stunning” world that Crysis created?
Honestly, for all the technical marvel that Crysis may have boasted, at the end of it, I was roaming an island full of trees and rocks and North Korean baddies. I just didn’t find the world interesting. Once you’ve seen a high resolution rock or palm tree in this game, you’ve seen them all.
Now compare the bland islandiness of Crysis to Bioshock’s presentation.
If you’ve played the game, you can pretty much recite with me all of the moments that just can’t leave your long term memory. You remember that mysterious lighthouse in the middle of the ocean. How your eyes were glued to the screen at the sight of a city the size of Manhattan at the bottom of the freaking ocean floor! You remember the flame, rubble and leakage littering a utopia now in decay. You remember your stomach sinking as you watched a giant submarine man tear an enemy to shreds, only for your stomach to sink through the floor when you are told that you have to fight him. They all made you feel something; feelings of intrigue, awe, dread, desperation, regret.
Bioshock epitomized the blending of its themes into its world.
All of these emotions that weigh you down are built into its walls, always following you as you walk its decrepit hallways. In many ways you had no choice but to remember how the game made you feel, and it still feels so vivid even a decade later. Few games have that kind of impact.
A Gold Standard of Writing
It also goes without saying that Bioshock has few peers when it comes to the quality of its writing, especially in the FPS genre. Ken Levine wasn’t shy to tackle high concepts in his games, and Bioshock exemplifies his ambition. I am sure that there are countless essays out there about Bioshock’s philosophy, about its takedown of the objectivist ideal, the futility of choice and so on. Those things are great, and I have no need to reiterate any of those points since others have done a much better job than I ever will.
I do, however, want to point out how the writers managed to keep such high concepts so grounded and accessible.
Its writing is sophisticated enough that your intelligence does not feel insulted, but not so sophisticated that it berates you for not having a masters degree in literature. One of my favorite examples of this point is at the very beginning of the game as you descend into the depths, and Andrew Ryan’s first speech plays.
When I played the game for the first time in 2008, I had no clue who Ayn Rand was or what objectivism is. But Bioshock was able to portray that foolish idealism in the span of just a few sentences.
“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No’ says the man in Washington; it belongs to the poor. ‘No’ says the man in the Vatican; it belongs to God. ‘No’ says the man in Moscow; it belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers. Instead I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose…Rapture.”
I was told pretty much everything I needed to know about this character through allegory and spectacle.
The subtlety in its writing makes Bioshock such a great benchmark against future titles with similar ambition. Unfortunately, too few titles even try to come close.
Gameplay with Meaning, Even When it Stumbles
Of course Bioshock is still a video game, and it still delivers the gameplay goods when it matters. While shallower than its spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2, Bioshock was at least able most of SS2’s best elements and streamlined it for a mainstream audience. What we got was a fun shooter with just enough RPG elements to keep things fresh.
Kudos as well to Bioshock for giving its gameplay such great oomph. Guns fire with such weight and and impact, while plasmids allow for highly creative and satisfying approaches to combat. And before you could power trip your way through the ruined city, you are forced to confront the Big Daddies: armored giants that brilliantly serve the dual purpose of walking terror and grand equalizer.
And we can’t talk gameplay in Bioshock without also mentioning those Little Sisters.
The morality system that the game is renowned for remains an important milestone for gaming, and for good reason. There have been morality systems before and after Bioshock, but there’s an intimacy to it that at least gives players pause. Sure, you had NPCs screaming in fear of evil players before. But when you are three feet away from a cornered little girl, staring eye-to-eye with a brittle child that embodies the godlike power you hold over a fickle life, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking you could go to hell for murdering a made-up character.
For all its acclaim, I do, however, think that the morality system does have one serious flaw: it’s no less rewarding or punishing to pick a side.
Without going into too much detail, basically the overall difficulty of the game doesn’t change whether or not you are good or evil. Perhaps the developers feared backlash, or the producers feared incentivizing child murder through play; but I still think such a profound opportunity was missed in favor of mass marketing.
Imagine if your moral choices affected your survivability within Rapture?
What if continuous harvests helped you fare better against the terrors of Rapture, while remaining the good guy compounded the struggle. To a struggling player, the promise of easy ADAM becomes an imposing temptation in an unforgiving world; a necessary evil despite the abject horror it implies. To a player that chooses to persevere, however, the duty to be good becomes more meaningful even if there is seemingly no reward in doing so, kind of like in real life. Could you imagine how profound that could have been? And yet, that hypothetical Bioshock never came to be.
Perhaps an alternate history of Bioshock’s game design is worth looking into – but that’s a topic for another time.
Still, I don’t want to detract too much from Bioshock’s accomplishments.
It still is a groundbreaking game, and is a masterwork of its genre, even with its flaws. It may not have the morality system of my dreams, but that still makes it a cut above its contemporaries.
The Lightning in a Bottle for its Time
There’s no telling if another shooter game like Bioshock will step into the spotlight. In an age of lootboxes, pay-to-win multiplayer and blockbuster mentality, it’s easy to be cynical that the golden age of shooters has long gone.
I’m glad that Bioshock was able to leave its mark, even if only for a moment. At the very least I hope that it will be long remembered as a high watermark in our gaming culture. Maybe then it will become a shining example for future developers of what a game can really be.
Nothing is more inspiring than seeing young developers pay tribute to the games they love. Hopefully that Bioshock spiritual successor isn’t too far off. And when it finally arrives, I hope it blows our socks off so that it too is worthy of its own 10th anniversary.