With many alumni from Looking Glass Studios, game designer Ken Levine founded Irrational Games in 1997. Their first game was System Shock 2. Released in 1999, it was a sequel to System Shock, a first-person shooter released five years prior. Despite gaining a following, it fell by the wayside in favor of the more popular Doom. This seemed to foreshadow the fate of System Shock 2, as it had been released in the wake of Half-Life, causing it to disappear from the public consciousness rather quickly. Mr. Levine attempted to pitch a sequel to System Shock 2 to the game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, but they were ultimately rejected due to its poor sales performance. The subsequent dissolution of Looking Glass Studios in 2000 all but ensured the series’ abrupt end as the rights were acquired by Electronic Arts.
Irrational Games would go on to develop other titles such as Freedom Force, Tribes: Vengeance, and SWAT 4. Though these titles were modest successes, Mr. Levine desired to create another game similar to that of System Shock 2 – one with a free form and a strong narrative. In 2002, his team came up with a gameplay mechanic centered on three factions: drones, protectors, and harvesters. Guarded by protectors, drones would carry a desirable resource while harvesters attempted take it away from them. With a rough outline of what this hypothetical game entailed, all they needed was a setting.
The team unveiled a demonstration in 2002 built on the second Unreal Engine for the Xbox. This demo was set on a space station overtaken by genetically altered monsters. The protagonist was named Carlos Cuello, who worked as a cult deprogrammer – that is, someone charged with rescuing people from a cult, readjusting them to a normal life. They could be hired for much more nefarious purposes as well. As an example Mr. Levine gave, parents could use their services to deprogram their daughter who was in a lesbian relationship. The narrative was also intended to be political in nature with the main character having been hired by a senator. Unfortunately, the team ran into a twofold problem with this concept. They collectively agreed it was not what they set out to make and were having difficulties finding a publisher. They considered scrapping the project, but once their efforts to make a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 began appearing in various gaming publications, they decided to go forward and fully revamp the concept.
In a stroke of good fortune, 2K Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, offered to publish the game based on the core drone/protector/harvester concept in 2004. Even better, the team was allowed freedom to develop both the story and the setting. Both had changed considerably since the project’s inception. By the time Mr. Levine and his team found a willing publisher, they contemplated setting the game in an abandoned World War II-era Nazi laboratory unearthed by twenty-first century scientists. The experiments then formed the ecosystem centered on the three aforementioned factions. Many elements from System Shock 2 found their way into this project including psychic powers, a character relaying important information to the protagonist over a radio, and story elements delivered through scattered audio recordings.
Internal strife and communication problems brought about due to the team expanding from six to sixty people wound up making for a somewhat troubled production. To make matters worse, the environments they came up with were considered bland. Fortunately, these issues were resolved when the team’s artists realized the true importance of coming up with visions to meet the goals of the level designers.
This wasn’t the end of the team’s production woes, however. According to level designer Jean Paul LeBreton, Mr. Levine was distrustful of the more egotistical new hires. He often got into arguments with them to enforce his vision. Moreover, the executives of 2K Games were concerned with the project’s growing budget. As the mid-2000s saw an increase in popularity for the first-person shooter genre thanks to Halo and Call of Duty, they requested that Mr. Levine market the game in a way so as to compete directly with those franchises. This meant having to shift away from the first-person shooter/role-playing hybrid they set out to create in favor of placing more of an emphasis on the former half of that equation. As the targeted release date drew near, Mr. Levine ordered the team into round-the-clock development, only exacerbating the strife among themselves. Thankfully, 2K Games granted Mr. Levine’s team an extra three months, allowing them to fix programming errors that were otherwise difficult to catch.
January of 2007 marked a crucial moment for playtesting. Damningly, the feedback they received from players was mostly negative, as they believed the game to be too dark to see, causing them to get lost. They couldn’t even trust the man on the other side of the protagonist’s radio feed, describing him as a “lecherous Colonel Sanders”. Taking these criticisms to heart, the team addressed the problems. In a second late-stage playtesting session with the game being described as being ninety-nine percent complete, the feedback was still negative with the audience feeling no connection to the protagonist. The next day, Mr. Levine and his team decided to add an introductory cutscene to the game. He originally opted not to include any cutscenes, feeling ideologically opposed to them, but he and his team felt it was a good, quick way to respond to the criticism.
At long last, the game was released in August of 2007 under the name BioShock. While System Shock and its sequel wallowed away in obscurity for the longest time before receiving retroactive vindication, BioShock was a commercial success upon release. The Xbox 360 version sold nearly 500,000 copies. Meanwhile, critics adored the game, believing it to be a significant step forward in storytelling for the medium. On the subject of the best years in gaming, 2007 is popular choice with the release of BioShock being a common reason to cite for holding such a belief. Despite all of this, the game’s hellish production cycle ended up causing many members of the team to leave Irrational Games to pursue other projects once it was finished. Whenever one wished to extol the medium’s artistic qualities, BioShock was quick to be mentioned. Does it stand to this day as one of the medium’s greatest story-driven experiences?
Playing the Game
WARNING: Due to the nature of this work, there will be unmarked spoilers throughout this review.
The year is 1960 and a man by the name of Jack is on an airliner when something causes it to crash land in the Atlantic Ocean. Surfacing, he finds that he is the sole survivor of the crash. He swims to a nearby island on which lies a towering lighthouse. Descending down the stairs, he finds a bathysphere which plunges him into the darkest depths of the ocean. At the very bottom, he is led to the entrance of Rapture, an underwater civilization conceived by one Andrew Ryan. Almost immediately after arriving, he is accosted by several people who have gone insane.
Just as things look hopeless, a man calling himself Atlas contacts him via a service radio found in a submarine vessal. Jack is successfully guided to safety by his mysterious benefactor, though it doesn’t take long for Andrew Ryan himself to discover his existence. Believing him to be an agent of a surface nation, Ryan uses Rapture’s automated systems and his mind-controlled citizens in an attempt to eliminate him.
Rapture was once a thriving utopia made up the members of society deemed the best and brightest. However, a recent event caused the city to decay from the inside. As such, the world you perceive is the result of a contained apocalypse. It is from this development that the first thematic parallel between System Shock 2 and BioShock is established. You’re made to explore an area long after it has been ravaged through means not immediately made clear to the player. As Mr. Levine was opposed to adding cutscenes to his games, you’re never explicitly shown Rapture’s glory days. Instead, much of the backstory is told through audio recordings left behind by its deceased citizens. Furthermore, certain environmental details can cue you into the fate of certain characters. One I distinctly remember was the log of a criminal who claimed to not to be afraid of the Rapture police force, believing that as bad as they are, the local mob boss is twice as terrifying. Tellingly, the audio log is found on his charred husk of a corpse.
The amount of similarities between the two games only increase from there. Much like the unnamed protagonist of System Shock 2, Jack’s first weapon is a wrench. Shortly thereafter, he receives a Plasmid, a special serum found only in Rapture made from a processed substance called ADAM. As it would turn out, the reason Ryan had Rapture built on the ocean floor wasn’t just so he could remove himself and his followers off from the outside world. There exist sea slugs that naturally produce a raw form of the volatile genetic material dubbed ADAM. The close proximity between Rapture and these creatures allowed research into gene alteration to progress far faster than on the surface world.
Among other things, this led to the creation of Plasmids, which allow its users to utilize what some would call superpowers. These powers are fueled by a complementary substance called EVE.
In a fantasy game, EVE would be referred to as mana, MP, or any number of fantastical terms. It’s essentially magic, but with a science-fiction twist. The first Plasmid Jack gains allows him to shock his opponents, rendering them immobile for a few seconds. A subsequent strike with the wrench in this state does more damage to a foe than mindlessly running up to them and hitting them. Though it’s one of the first methods you have of dealing with enemies, you’ll find yourself falling back on it whenever your ammunition begins running dry.
EVE is measured as a blue bar on the top-left corner of the screen. The red meter above it represents Jack’s health. Though it may seem like an obvious thing to point out, such a feature was actually quite rare in a contemporary first-person shooter. Halo in particular popularized the concept of regenerating health in AAA titles. Whenever your character was injured in those types of games, all you needed to do was to get them out of the line of fire and wait for their strength to return. This isn’t the case in BioShock; if it runs out, Jack collapses. Fortunately for him, this is of little consequence, for if he perishes in battle, he is revived in a device known as a Vita-Chamber. To aid him, Jack is given first-aid kits and hypodermic needles containing EVE, which restore his health and EVE supply respectively. First-aid kits are used manually while hypodermic needles are expended atomically whenever his supply runs low – not unlike how one would reload a firearm before using it.
The firearms themselves run the basic gamut of first-person shooter weapons. BioShock does change things up by making the pistol and the rapid-fire weapon a revolver and a tommy gun respectively, but they’re functionally identical to standard examples. An aspect carried over from System Shock 2 is that the guns have alternate ammunition. The types of ammunition available for each individual weapon vary, but they have similar properties to their System Shock 2 counterparts. In addition to the standard rounds, the revolver can be loaded with armor-piercing and antipersonnel bullets. The former inflicts higher amounts of damage on security devices while the latter is ideal for taking down organic foes. There are plenty of new ammunition types as well, which can lead to interesting situations where you’re firing electrified shotgun blasts and incendiary crossbow bolts.
A lot of what helped System Shock 2 gained its cult status in the late 2000s was when two prominent personalities in the gaming sphere at the time mentioned it in their analyses of BioShock. One claimed that BioShock was a carbon copy of System Shock 2. The other expressed a similar opinion, believing there was nothing BioShock did that wasn’t done better in System Shock 2 eight years prior. BioShock was doubtlessly the bigger success between the two, and certain fans of System Shock 2 felt that the former was simplified in order to capture as large of an audience as possible. One could see how they drew such a conclusion. While System Shock 2 required one to build their characters in specific ways, theoretically leading to various playstyles across multiple runs, BioShock is more of a straightforward first-person shooter. Both games are linear affairs that give players a degree of freedom when it comes to exploration, but one requires more planning and foresight than the other.
However, though the RPG elements in System Shock 2 were a novel concept, especially for the time, they turned the experience into a needlessly obtuse guessing game. It was very easy to run into a dead-end situation whenever the game required a specific ability you couldn’t use. To make matters worse, many of the skills were practically worthless, meaning it was a waste to invest in them for any reason. I can imagine an incredibly cynical person accusing Mr. Levine of dumbing down his game to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I feel it’s far more accurate to say he kept a lot of what made System Shock 2 good while doing away with the concepts that sounded intriguing on paper, but didn’t work in practice.
Despite taking place in 1960, Rapture’s technological advances afforded them the ability to create a state-of-the-art, automated security system. If you are spotted by a camera, you only have a few seconds to move out of its range before you get swarmed by flying robots. If you’re quick, you can attempt to hack the camera.
In System Shock 2, hacking involved clicking on nodes and hoping for the best. The process could be aided by improving the appropriate stats, but it was usually more practical to save beforehand and reload if it didn’t go your way. Meanwhile, BioShock turned the hacking mechanic into a minigame. It is very similar to the classic puzzle game Pipe Mania (also known as Pipe Dream). Liquid flows in from a source, and your goal is to guide it to the exit valve, represented by a green arrow. You must quickly uncover each section of the machine, each of which houses a pipe. Pipes can only be rotated if there is no liquid currently flowing through them. As you advance in the game, machines become more difficult to hack as overload pipes are added. If the liquid passes through those, you will receive a damaging electric shock. Though this does cause minor pacing issues, I give it more credit than the corresponding mechanic in System Shock 2 because it’s more reliant on skill than luck. Even better, if you have sufficient funds, you can simply opt to buy out the machine, skipping the minigame entirely.
What I especially enjoy about the mechanic is the sheer variety of objects you can hack and the effects they have. Among other things, you can hack a security camera so it will send security bots after your enemies and vending machines in order to obtain an illegal discount. In some cases, vending machines need to be hacked in order for you to obtain certain items from them. This is all important because it’s easy to deplete ammunition in this game, meaning you will need every advantage at your disposal to have a chance of surviving.
Although the RPG elements were excised from BioShock at the request of the publishers, trace elements of their presence remain in the final product, and there is a fair bit of customization allotted to players as a result. Whenever you gather ADAM, you can use it at an appropriate vending machine to enhance your character. In addition to health, EVE, and Plasmid upgrades, there is a sizable variety of Gene Tonics available to you. These tonics typically provide passive bonuses to Jack, and are divided into three categories: Combat, Engineering, and Physical. There is a limit to how many you can have equipped at a given time. With all of the Tonic Slot upgrades, Jack can have up to eighteen equipped at once – six for each category. Again, this system succeeds in giving players leeway in how they choose to play the game without punishing them too severely if the current situation doesn’t call for a given loadout.
However, one cannot typically expect to find ADAM simply lying around like they could money, ammunition or crème-filled cakes. This is where Mr. Levine’s central concept involving drones, protectors, and harvesters comes into play. Splicers, who constitute a majority of the foes that Jack faces, are remnants of Rapture’s human population. Their excessive use of ADAM has resulted in their violent tendencies and superhuman durability as their bodies and minds are warped beyond recognition. Their insatiable psychical and mental dependence on ADAM renders them the harvesters in this relationship. As such, they tend to draw near drones, who take the form of Little Sisters. They are genetically altered young girls with sea slugs implanted in their stomachs. Children were chosen because they proved to be the only viable hosts for these creatures. Their purpose is to reclaim ADAM from corpses around Rapture, having been mentally conditioned to seek them out. Attempting to harvest ADAM from a Little Sister typically gives the average Splicer more than they bargained for because they are invariably accompanied by a Big Daddy. These hulking, mindless monstrosities are genetically enhanced human beings who have had their skin and organs grafted into a giant diving suit. Their original purpose was to perform maintenance tasks and other jobs deemed not profitable by their society, but they now accompany Little Sisters, keeping them safe from harm.
In gameplay terms, splicers are simply enemies Jack must deal with. Their minimal importance is accented by the fact that, much like the Many-possessed crew members in System Shock 2, the game has a habit of spawning reinforcements in a location distant from Jack’s current position. It is every bit as effective of keeping players on their toes in that game as it is here. Dealing with the Big Daddies and Little Sisters, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. Despite their intimidating build, Big Daddies typically refrain from metaphorically casting the first stone. Only after sufficiently angering them will they come after you. Anyone under the belief that they are mere paper tigers will be sadly mistaken. They are blindingly fast and will not stop in their merciless onslaught until one of you is dead.
When you successfully fell a Big Daddy, all that’s left is to deal with his Little Sister. Atlas suggests removing their sea slug to obtain their ADAM, but the Little Sister will not survive the process. If you’re feeling merciful, you can instead opt to rescue the girl, draining just enough ADAM to restore them to the way they were before they underwent their transformation. Around this time, it was common for games to feature what is commonly referred to as a karma meter. How it works in a typical game is simple; if you do good deeds, you become more heroic and if you commit evil acts, the world considers you a villain. Theoretically, choosing to be a paragon of virtue or a complete monster are equally viable options.
However, early attempts at implementing this idea left a lot to be desired. Ignoring the fact that it often didn’t make sense in terms of the narrative for the protagonist to be evil, the two paths your character could take were often interchangeable in terms of difficulty. You could be expected to be met with the same amount of resistance regardless of whether you were good or evil. It also rarely paid to be neutral; most of these games’ stories were written assuming a character was completely good or entirely evil. This is not the case with BioShock. The fate of the Little Sisters influences how the narrative pans out. Obviously, rescuing the Little Sisters is the morally correct thing to do, yet doing so yields half as much ADAM as harvesting them. Though the karma system in BioShock is straightforward in its implementation, Mr. Levine and his team had the right idea. There is little stopping you from being good, yet it requires a small sacrifice on your part. A kindly doctor named Brigid Tenenbaum who has set up a safe house for the Little Sisters will gift you extra ADAM if you rescue enough of them, but it still doesn’t add up to the same amount as if you harvest them all. It makes being good far more satisfying than if it were just as easy as being evil.
Although plenty of great things have been said about BioShock, it’s not without its flaws. When BioShock debuted in 2007, one of the most commonly criticized aspects about the experience concerned the existence of Vita-Chambers. The extent to which this mechanic was lambasted ensured that even people who had never played the game before knew about it. It should go without saying that Jack will die when his health meter is depleted. However, if Jack does die, he is immediately revived in the nearest Vita-Chamber with a fair bit of health and EVE. Given the emphasis on narrative, this mechanic is understandable. Though it wouldn’t become fully apparent until the coming years when more developers attempted to make cinematic experiences out of their games, repeatedly dying and restarting from a checkpoint tends to ruin any sense of pacing. As a side effect, it was common for players to feel immense frustration when a cutscene for which such emotions would be inappropriate played out. A lot of this was the result of the assumption that every single narrative trope humanity had pioneered throughout an impressive history of writing fiction would perfectly translate into this new medium when it quickly proved not to be the case.
In some ways, Mr. Levine and his team deserve a modicum of credit for being ahead of the curve when it comes to addressing this dilemma, but I ultimately feel their solution doesn’t quite work. Though BioShock boasted an ambitious narrative, it was still a game in the end. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game was specifically engineered around the concept of being unable to die, but Irrational Games attempted to have their cake and eat it. What we’re left with is a game that, despite touching upon many thought-provoking themes, is a vaguely mindless affair you can easily brute-force your way through. Facing down powerful foes with no health kits or money? You can still launch an all-out attack and wear them down through attrition.
This is one of the few areas in which System Shock 2 had the edge. A similar mechanism existed on the space station that could reconstruct your character’s body in the event of his death. However, they needed to be activated in order to function, and there was typically only one per area. In addition, they required nanites, which functioned as currency, to use. As a result, the game did a reasonably good job giving players a form of insurance while also discouraging them from growing reliant on it. This was also helped by the fact that they barely restored any health, so if one attempted to use the strategy of whittling down an enemy through repeated revivals in System Shock 2, it would only ensure the rapid depletion of their resources for practically no gain. The developers caught wind of this criticism and added an option to disable the Vita-Chambers in later patches. Though this would appear to be a serviceable compromise, dying with the Vita-Chambers disabled returns the player to the main menu. From there, they have to load a previous save. If one was so determined to beat the game without ever using the Vita-Chambers, it would take less time to simply revive in one and reload a save file from there.
Due to the Vita-Chambers’ presence, the gameplay itself has an overall lack of polish. While System Shock 2 could theoretically be played as a first-person shooter, it was usually a survival horror first and foremost. Because of this, it subtly encouraged a stealthy, methodical approach when it came to dealing with enemies. As a possible consequence to having been originally conceived as a first-person shooter with RPG elements, BioShock paradoxically encourages its audience to play the game as a fast-paced action title while simultaneously making it a bad idea. It’s very easy for enemies to swarm and overwhelm the player. In a typical shooter, finding ammunition is usually a simple matter of defeating an enemy and taking their gun. In this game, enemies typically fail to drop enough rounds to make up for the ones you expended to take them down. The only reliable method of obtaining ammunition is to purchase them from vending machines, but money too is a scarce resource. It is helped somewhat in that money is primarily used to purchase ammunition and restorative items while the substantial upgrades are obtained using ADAM, but it’s not a good sign when a game has trouble making up its mind what it wants to be.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section will contain major, unmarked spoilers.
Much of the inspiration for BioShock came about when Mr. Levine was walking around Rockefeller Center near the GE Building in New York City. In particular, he took note of the unique qualities of the art deco styling of the building along with the imagery surrounding the building – particularly a statue of Atlas. He recognized then that these were spaces never before utilized in a first-person shooter. Learning about the history of the Rockefeller Center also led to the story’s central concept. The edifice’s construction started prior to the Great Depression, which came about due to the devastating 1929 stock market crash. John D. Rockefeller financed the center’s construction after the primary financiers had pulled out, managing to see the project to its completion himself. To quote Edge magazine, it was “a great man building an architectural triumph against all the odds”.
It is from this story that the character of Andrew Ryan, the founder of Rapture, is loosely based. A visionary in the purest sense of the term, Ryan’s primary goal was to create a paradise free from anyone he deemed parasites. The city’s name is intended to evoke religious symbolism, with the world’s best and brightest being whisked away to a walled off society where they have free reign to do as they pleased. Businesses would be allowed to maximize their profits, governmental decisions would be made without interference from religion, and scientists were able to achieve their goals without being restricted by what Ryan deemed “petty morality”.
With these philosophies having gone into Rapture’s conception, it’s clear that the narrative is intended to be an examination of objectivism, the ideas of which originated in Ayn Rand’s most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged. The symbolism is about as transparent as it gets with Rapture’s founder and the person giving you guidance being named Andrew Ryan and Atlas respectively. Objectivism, at its core, is capitalism taken to a logical extreme. Ms. Rand proposed that one’s value in society was only measured by their skill. However, this only applied to white-collar workers. Blue-collar workers, such as janitors and manual laborers would be deemed to have no intrinsic value. A society such as the one Ryan envisioned and brought to reality would give the great carte blanche to do whatever they wished in the name of progress. Keeping in mind that games from this era were lambasted for not having plots more mentally challenging than the average B-movie, BioShock deserves praise for touching upon these themes and expecting audiences to keep up.
Indeed, if deconstructing the notion of objectivism was all Mr. Levine set out to do, that alone would make for a great conversation piece, but he and his team didn’t stop there. Although one could say BioShock is more high-minded than the average contemporary first-person shooter at the time, this hypothetical person would be forgiven for believing it to possess a typical game plot at heart. Despite his grandiose ideas, Andrew Ryan is still the bad guy Jack must take down in order to escape Rapture. A lot of the first half of the game goes out of its way to enforce such a belief. Ryan even commits the obligatory heinous action that officially makes him irredeemable when he destroys a submarine containing Atlas’s wife and child just as Jack reaches it.
In other words, BioShock does it what can to convince you it has a standard action-game plot – objectivism notwithstanding. From there, it proceeds to pull the rug out from under the player. When Jack confronts Ryan in his office, the latter, rather than giving a stereotypical villain speech is casually playing golf on a miniature putting green. He reveals that Jack was born in Rapture a mere four years prior. Jack is his son born out of an affair between Ryan and an exotic dancer. The reason he appears as an adult is because he was genetically modified to mature at a rapid rate. The embryo that would develop into Jack was purchased by a mobster named Frank Fontaine, who proceeded to program him to obey orders. These orders are triggered whenever somebody says “Would you kindly…” Ryan demonstrates this by saying the phrase, and you get to watch as your own control over Jack dissipates.
He was then sent to the surface when a conflict between Fontaine and Ryan dubbed the Rapture Civil War started. This was done to keep Jack out of Ryan’s reach. After all, as your own experiences of playing as Jack demonstrate, his presence would be enough to turn the tide of the conflict in Ryan’s favor if he ever got ahold of him. It was when the fighting reached a stalemate that Jack was sent instructions to board a flight, hijack the plane, and crash it near the lighthouse, thus allowing him to fight against Ryan’s forces. The Vita-Chambers were advertised as being able to “[restore] vigor and spirit with the touch of a button”, suggesting their true nature was kept a secret from the populace. In reality, they were attuned to Andrew Ryan himself, ensuring his survival even if a rouge assassin made an attempt on his life. Sharing enough of Ryan’s genetic code is the reason Jack himself is able to utilize these devices or Rapture’s bathysphere system, further cementing his status as an invincible asset to whichever side controlled him.
Once he has finished providing this exposition, Ryan orders Jack to kill him, wishing to die on his own terms. In a clever touch, he sneakily deactivates his Vita-Chamber, thus preventing his own revival. After this, Atlas reveals his true identity: Frank Fontaine. He had faked his death to deceive Ryan, and he now has control over the entire city. He then intends to use it and the ADAM technology to extend his power to the surface world and become an industrial tycoon with unmatched power.
Few games in 2007 could claim to have a twist as powerful as the one that features in BioShock. It’s true some pioneering titles such as King’s Quest III and the original Metal Gear had twists in an era when game plots weren’t taken seriously, but they only managed to be shocking developments in terms of the narrative itself. What BioShock does is take the basic idea of a plot twist to the next level by deconstructing the very nature of the medium. Generally speaking, linear games reduce a player’s agency. They may be given significant choices to make, but they are dancing to the creator’s tune. Because there’s only one way to advance in these types of games, the idea that the protagonist has their own will is an illusion. Thus, Mr. Levine and his team crafted a narrative where that is indeed the case. The reason the game never gave you an opportunity to meaningfully stray from the path is because your character has no choice but to fulfill the goals Atlas gives him. The chain tattoos that adorn Jack’s arms serve as an extra layer of foreshadowing to this reveal. System Shock 2 had a similar twist, but it was undermined by its box art. Even the savviest player will be completely blindsided by what BioShock throws at them.
Unfortunately, I have to say that as creative as this twist is, it does suffer from a litany of execution errors. The most glaring problem is that the twist doesn’t meld with the actual gameplay. As Atlas, Fontaine asks Jack to harvest the Little Sisters, yet because he didn’t specifically use the trigger phrase, you can rebel against him and rescue them instead. It raises the question as to why Fontaine never learns from this mistake considering how often Jack must decide the Little Sisters’ fate before meeting Ryan. It’s especially bad because Fontaine would not want someone as intelligent as Dr. Tenenbaum helping Jack out in any way, and rescuing the Little Sisters is what gains him her favor. Dr. Tenenbaum still helps Jack out even if he opts to harvest the Little Sisters, but Fontaine has no reason to believe she would do that. Considering Fontaine’s primary strength as a villain is his ability to think several steps ahead, it’s odd that he would overlook such a crucial detail.
What’s worse is that the gameplay does not change substantially after Dr. Tenenbaum disables Jack’s mental conditioning. The game is the exact same linear affair after this moment as it was when Fontaine had complete control over Jack’s actions. I personally feel it was a missed opportunity that the developers didn’t make a Metroidvania out of the second half of the game. At the very least, it could have been like in System Shock 2 when two floors opened up simultaneously at one point, allowing players to explore them in whichever order they preferred.
As essays discussing the medium became more sophisticated, extensive analyses of BioShock revealed this jarring disconnect between its gameplay and the narrative choices surrounding it. The term for this disconnect became known in some circles as “Ludonarrative Dissonance”. This kind of criticism was generally applied to games that featured non-interactive, cinematic cutscenes as a means of conveying a plot. For example, it wouldn’t make any sense for the protagonist of a third-person shooter to gun down hundreds of people and still be considered a nice person. It’s a bit ironic in hindsight that BioShock gave rise to the term given its lack of such cutscenes along with Mr. Levine’s distaste of them.
A minor issue with the narrative itself is that it arguably doesn’t do a good job deconstructing objectivism. Mr. Levine’s aim was to apply reductio ad absurdum to the basic ideas of objectivism to show why such a society would crumble quickly. Indeed, Rapture didn’t last a decade before Ryan’s dream came crashing down. However, close examination of the events that caused the city’s downfall suggest it was more or less functional before Fontaine enacted his plans. He was probably intended to be the kind of monster such a society would generate, yet in practice, he comes across as an outside influence. This causes the otherwise legitimate critique of the philosophy to fall somewhat flat.
Finally, it should be noted that, just like System Shock 2, Bioshock hits a brick wall in the form of its endgame. The penultimate area has you escorting a former Little Sister across a Splicer-infested area so she can open the door leading to Frank Fontaine. Escort missions are one of those strange mechanics that developers insisted on latching onto despite being enjoyed by very few enthusiasts. A lot of the enmity stems from forcing players to protect NPCs from harm when in most cases, it’s difficult enough to keep the protagonist alive. There is no substantial consequence for failing to keep the Little Sisters alive, as the vents littered throughout the stage produce an infinite number of them, but it causes the pacing to screech to a halt as they’re rather slow and pause at every ADAM filled corpse along the way, dragging the process out even more. It’s not quite as bad as the convoluted maze that made up the endgame of System Shock 2, but it’s a shame Mr. Levine didn’t learn from his mistake.
Then again, I believe Mr. Levine’s biggest misstep in the planning phase was making it so that how you choose to play through the game doesn’t matter. He desired for there to be a singular ending in which the fate of the characters is ambiguous and it’s up to you to infer what happened to them. This is why I’m glad he was ultimately overruled. In the end, whether Jack escapes Rapture and begins a new life on the surface after adopting some of the former Little Sisters or seizes control of the city in an effort for world domination depends entirely on your choices. This went against Mr. Levine’s original vision, and while some critics feel an artist should have complete creative control, it’s not always going to result in a masterpiece. There have been numerous provable instances in which executives botched an otherwise fine work, but just as many scenarios exist wherein artists without anyone around to point out their bad ideas wound up creating something utterly unsalvageable. Some artists do just fine without a safety net while others flounder. After observing the way System Shock 2 ended, I would say it was for the better that the executives made sure this game stuck the landing.
Drawing a Conclusion
Assessing BioShock is interesting now that its legacy has had plenty of time to sink in. Upon its release in 2007, it received a nearly unprecedented amount of critical acclaim. Ever since the mid-nineties, video game plots began evolving past the point of being mere instruction manual filler, and first-person shooters were no exception. The original Modern Warfare was a surprisingly effective anti-war piece while Valve had experimented with first-person narratives in a similar, yet distinct fashion as Irrational Games did with BioShock. However, BioShock distinguished itself in that the strong narrative wasn’t just a bonus – it was the primary selling point. Though similarly true of classic adventure games, the idea of selling a first-person shooter in such a way was practically unheard of at the time – it didn’t even have a multiplayer component. Because one couldn’t help but pay attention to the narrative, BioShock quickly gained a reputation for its stellar writing.
Though one could argue that BioShock is one of the greatest story-heavy games of all time, I personally don’t believe it to be the case. A lot of what helped it in 2007 was that it didn’t have much in the way of meaningful competition. With superb titles such as Metroid Prime 3 and Super Mario Galaxy electing to focus primarily on gameplay and Modern Warfare having a more straightforward, if pensive plot, it’s not terribly surprising BioShock swept the competition in that particular field. Meanwhile, games that could match or surpass it such as Planescape: Torment or Grim Fandango were easy to ignore due to having left little impact on the mainstream, instead garnering cult followings much like System Shock 2. Indeed, once the indie scene in particular took off in the following decade and began exploring avenues of storytelling not yet extensively tapped, BioShock looked underwhelming by comparison. With all of this progress made, most people going back to BioShock would be judging it on its merits as a first-person shooter. On that front, I would say it’s merely decent. If you haven’t played any story-heavy games, BioShock wouldn’t be a bad one to start with, as it’s easy enough to pick up and play. Regardless of whether or not it has held up well, Mr. Levine and his team do deserve credit for attempting to lend the medium artistic credence in a time when most developers were unconcerned about such a thing.
Final Score: 6/10