BioShock is a rarity. Technical, emotional and beautiful. This game affected me so deeply, I mourned for it after I finished it. And I very nearly didn’t play it at all.
The best thing about Bioshock is the story
Taking place in an alternate 1960, the game begins with a plane crash way out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As the crashes only survivor, you find refuge in a conveniently nearby lighthouse. Inside the lighthouse is a Bathysphere, an underwater transportation system, leading to the spectacular underwater city of Rapture.
Built years prior, Rapture is a failed social experiment built by an industrial giant called Andrew Ryan. Tired of 20th century ideals like ethics or civil rights, Ryan built his own objectivist society. Free from politics, free from religion. Free from control. A society which wouldn’t censor the work of its population. Science, art and philosophy would flourish freely without state intervention.
By the time you arrive, Rapture is anarchy. The place is rotting to bits. Rusty water spilling out of burst pipes, broken furniture everywhere. A vista of total devastation. After being attacked by mutants, you’re contacted by Atlas. Atlas becomes your mentor and guide throughout Bioshock.
Atlas tells you that the mutants that attacked you are called Splicers. Splicers were once human, but have altered their DNA using plasmids. Plasmids are one of Rapture’s crowning achievements. They allow any human to rewrite their own genetic makeup, to unleash the hidden potential in the human genome. From pyrokinesis to invisibility, from hypnosis to teleportation. You quickly realise that to survive here, you have to adapt. You must accept the Plasmid.
Splicers are what happen when you get deep into Plasmid addiction. The number of genetic therapies they’ve undergone, they’ve turned themselves into gibbering mad wrecks. Rattling about in the dirt, Splicers are driven by hunting for hits of Eve. Eve is the refined form of Adam and the the fuel that drives plasmid abilities.
Adam is found in corpses, which is then converted into Eve by these creepy little eight year-old girls called Little Sisters. Little Sisters are the only creatures capable of harvesting Adam and so you and the splicers quickly come into conflict for control of them.
Each Little Sister would be an easy target for you both were they not accompanied by a giant genetic powerhouse called The Big Daddy. It’s a lot of get your head round at first but it’s a perfectly working ecosystem.
You, the splicers and the little sisters form a darkly surreal love triangle. As the story picks up pace you learn more about each side of this triangle and their effect on Rapture. You’ll see all three of them in a different light by the end of the story. Even Andrew Ryan, the game’s main antagonist is a more subtle villain than you expect. The objectivist visionary who built his own society then watched it tear itself apart. You can’t help but sympathize with him. His philosophy might be horrible but he’s a man of conviction and charm.
That’s the brilliant part of Bioshock for me. No character or faction has a clear moral objective. Good and evil have sort of lost their meaning down in Rapture. Ryan’s a murderer and an all-round deplorable prick but I still felt sorry for him. God and I ended up feeling so sorry for the splicers too. I can’t help but think the blurry vision effect you get after walking under a waterfalls is a visual analogy for the world of Rapture.
Bioshock’s gameplay is deep and rewarding
The world of Rapture is divided into large map areas, each one separated by a forced loading sequence disguised as a Bathysphere journey or bulkhead decompression. I was impressed at the overall lack of load times in Bioshock This era had some absolutely hench load times and I like that they were intelligently tackled here.
Rapture has a satisfying depth. You’re free to roam about as much as you wish, and there’s a lot to discover. Stumbling over a splicer fighting a Big Daddy gives you a bit of insight into the world. But listening to audio diaries or finding a murder scene gives you just a snippet of the history, meaning Rapture really comes alive in the imagination. It’s the negative space between this stuff that really fired my brain up.
The combat gives you a crazy amount of options to suit your style. Each of the eight weapons fire three different types of ammo. On top of your guns you’ve got the real star of the show, the plasmids. As the game progresses you’ll unlock new guns, new ammo types, new plasmids and gene tonics. This gives you a mad range of options when it comes to combat, abilities and passive buffs.
You can stick to the vanilla pistol all the way through if you want, but there’s some great synergy between certain weapons and plasmids that’s too good to ignore. Call a security bot to fight on your behalf. Enrage your enemies to fight amongst themselves, or hypnotise a big daddy to fight alongside you. And then set him on fire when his health is low. Build a web of electric wire traps with the crossbow and sonic boom your enemies into it. If that’s not chaotic enough, launch dozens of bees out of your arm and see what happens.
The combinations are limitless, limited only by your creativity. What I love though is that the wrench remains just as deadly late in the game as it does when you first pick it up. There’s a whole slew of tonics to buff your swing speed and damage output and there’s great plasmid synergy. Even against the hardest enemies in the game, the old one-two punch can still be more effective than your guns.
Splicers tend to attack in groups, but will occasionally launch a solo attack. This is when I felt sorry for them. It’s like the actions of a desperate drug addict with nothing left to lose. What idiot would jump a this lad, holding a sawn-off shotgun in his right hand with flames shooting out of his left? Fighting big daddies is exactly where your reflexes and plasmid configuration comes into play. Get it right and you can finish the fight quickly. Get it wrong and it’s a quick trip to the Vita-Chamber.
Hacking is an important part of the BioShock experience, as with it Jack can not only reduce prices at vending machines and open doors and safes, but he’s also able to gain control of the flying security bots and the hastily-constructed gun-turrets. To hack something, the player is engaged into a mini-game which is essentially Pipe Mania. There are some great Gene Tonics which can make the hacking easier, the alternative of course being your trusty shotgun.
Bioshock is one the best looking games
Bioshock is one of best-looking games on the 360. The industrial environment design, water effects and lighting make Bioshock a joy to play. The attention to light and shade is as aesthetic as it is technically brilliant. Every instance of chipped paint, flickering sign and torn poster is rich in detail and is so brilliantly realised.
The weapon models look fairly generic to begin with but once you find a few power-ups, the models really come into their own. Flywheels, cogs and pipes are bolted on to boost anything from reload speed to splash reduction. Each upgrade is rendered in that Bioshock steampunk style.
The actual best thing about Bioshock is the metafiction
About three quarters of the way through Bioshock I had a realisation. I was waiting behind a billboard, clutching my wrench. I was listening to the approaching footsteps of a thuggish splicer. Seeing his shadow getting nearer, I prepared myself. As he rounded the corner I didn’t hesitate to smash him hard in the face. One hit was all I needed. He crumpled like a paper bag. I was spliced to the hilt to deal maximum damage in melee, double if the attack was a surprise. Rooting through the dead Splicer’s body I found two metal screws and a tube of glue.
I realised that not only did I not need to kill the Splicer, but that I had killed him for three dollars’ worth of rubbish. I legitimately shuddered at the thought, but then a great grin crossed my face. I’d been in Rapture too long, the city had affected me. I had become a splicer. Hopped up on plasmids, my skin was hardened like an armadillo. I could turn invisible. I could swing a wrench with the power to level a building. I was sneaking around in the shadows, beating people to death for a few resources that could be found by rooting around in a bin. I was already regularly doing that too, my main source of food was candy bars I found in ashtrays.
I was meta-thinking about “my” actions in the game and this made me step outside of myself for a second. The fact I was thinking this way made me realise I was playing something special. It was a real lightbulb moment for me. I contemplated the relationship of player and game, of accepted game design. Exploring the relationship between the icharacter and the player is powerful stuff. Bioshock confronted me with difficult concepts and challenged my sensibilities of what a game should or should not be. It bends the accepted practices of the first-person shooter and transcends the medium of entertainment.
Bioshock is a true paragon. It’s a shining example of how a computer game should be crafted. There’s consideration not just for the elements of storytelling but also for technical brilliance. It’s a game made by artisans. Bioshock is the tidemark which I measure other games against.
If you have never played this game or you want to understand why I’m so obsessed with it, please play it. Bioshock is the only game that showed me that not only can I affect the game, but the game can also affect me.