2KBoston’s BioShock came out in 2007. In the nearly ten years that have followed, mainstream, big-budget videogames haven’t changed as much as might be expected. This isn’t all that surprising, given that BioShock is the rare game that manages to marry (relatively) lofty narrative ambitions with the sort of mechanics and storytelling style that appeal to a wide-scale audience. It’s a summer blockbuster with something to say–serious enough about delivering its message that it gives an aura of importance while also full of the kind of action and plot twists that make an experience engaging on an immediate level.
Given this, it makes a lot of sense that BioShock casts such a long shadow.
But, again, almost a decade has passed since its release and this makes it hard to judge the game on its own merits–to look at it outside of its context as a tremendously influential entry to the medium+. Getting into BioShock requires talking about design elements that have since become ubiquitous—like the scattered audio-logs (which try to reduce the need for non-interactive cinematics to move the plot forward) and the light character customization (the protagonist Jack can be outfitted with different stat-boosting items and choose between combat powers) that has creeped into the majority of modern shooters. What looms largest, though, is the game’s use of its own narrative as a means to comment on the very medium it’s presented through.
When a plot features a twist as memorable as BioShock‘s there’s a good chance that it will end up defining the entire story in its audience’s memory. And the game’s fatalistic reveal–that Jack (and, by extension, the player) has been psychologically conditioned to blindly follow orders from his guide and mission giver, Atlas/Frank Fontaine–has definitely done just that. BioShock isn’t often talked about without reference to this moment, the implications of the story beat forming the centre of any analysis related to the game. That’s for good reason. Aside from being a solid bit of “gotcha!” storytelling, reflecting on the nature of free will from within the confines of an objective-based videogame is a clear invitation for critical response. In 2007, within the context of mainstream games, it was a watershed moment. Konami (KCEJ)’s Metal Gear Solid 2 may have posed similar questions regarding the relationship between player and game designer more honestly (and thoughtfully) back in 2001, but BioShock didn’t couch its point in the easily dismissed “weirdness” of Solid 2‘s narrative. Because it’s so straight-faced–because it has almost no sense of humour about its story and attempts to fully ground its fantasy in familiar references to the American past–players were forced to finish the game thinking about what it was saying. There’s nothing opaque about its themes. They’re presented too clearly and deliberately to ignore.
Playing the game now, knowing what to expect from (and having read heaps of criticism regarding) BioShock‘s famous twist, it’s easier to see other areas where the game succeeds or falls flat. Foreknowledge of the crucial story beat means that the recontextualiztion of its last few hours goes away, the player already expecting that killing Rapture founder Andrew Ryan is only a speedbump on the road toward the ultimate (kind of shitty) final fight against Atlas/Fontaine. Stripping away the element of surprise leaves the reveal oddly anti-climatic and highlights BioShock‘s largest problem: an unevenly paced, basically flat storytelling style.
For roughly the first half of the game, the player is encouraged forward by the alien nature of Rapture. The opening minutes’ reveal of the underwater city is presented with a grand scope, an ominous orchestral score and Ryan’s scratchy, radio transmitted reading of his Objectivist mission statement coming together with a sweeping view of a submerged art deco urban sprawl to inspire a sense of awe. Stepping into the first ruined halls of Rapture, fighting off rabid enemies and scrounging for supplies to the backdrop of Reinhardt guitars and Grapelli violins creates a sense of place strong enough that even repeating the early hours imparts a powerful feeling of discovery.
It’s only when the game settles into its structural rhythm, throwing convenient obstacles in the player’s path as a means of extending their journey, that this sensation fades. The overarching objectives are always simple in BioShock–find Atlas’ family; kill Ryan; prepare to fight Atlas/Fontaine; fight Atlas/Fontaine. But achieving them is artificially extended through a litany of “surprisingly” blocked passageways and doors locked by Rapture citizens who need errands fulfilled. The idea is to provide reasons for the player to explore the city’s various, unique districts and learn more about what life was like there before disaster struck, but the justification for doing so is handled with all the grace of a long-running Saturday morning cartoon.
BioShock‘s greatest failure is that its overarching design (aesthetic, thematic, and mechanical) is well thought out from a holistic perspective, but the actual moment to moment execution of its ideas seems oddly clumsy. For all the plot consideration given to “plasmid” superpowers and the financial cost of staying alive in Rapture, there’s very little evidence that anyone considered how best to write a story that warranted a dozen hours of shooting and exploration. Without the encouragement of small-scale plot progression, the player is quickly worn down by the repetitive process of gunning down enemies, upgrading their character, and ignoring the digital architecture in favour of looking downward for new garbage bins and cabinets to loot essential supplies from.
These are the kind of problems that are easy to forget in hindsight. The big moments overtake other memories, making it easy to forget that, despite how well the game works as a whole, it’s still deeply flawed. In retrospect, it would be a good thing to remember that BioShock offers an experience whose high points are matched with almost equally low ones. It’s only because it’s both tonally confident and determined to actually say something that it’s had such lasting influence. These are pretty low bars for a “classic”, sure, but they represent at least some level of basic artistic purpose for the medium’s commercial mainstream to aim for.
+ This influence even extends to its own sequel, 2013’s BioShock Infinite. Despite having an entirely different premise, Infinite borrows liberally from its predecessor’s story and gameplay structure.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at Kill Screen, Paste, VICE, Playboy, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.