Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game is one of the most memorable game universes of all time, in one of the most idiosyncratic genres ever.
#7. BIOSHOCK, by Daniel Pereira
From the shimmer on the city’s water-washed steps, to the claustrophobic descent into madness, everyone’s first trip to Rapture is unparalleled. Andrew Ryan’s failed utopia represented a flawed vision of reality, where the individual is the pilot of their own destiny. Despite experiencing the same journey, every player who spent time in Rapture left with their own understanding of the events that took place. BioShock holds a wealth of secrets left buried within its walls, so would you kindly join OnlySP in discussing why BioShock is on our list of Top 50 games. Editor’s note: prepare for full spoilers ahead.
Many elements are required for a game to be considered one of the greats: primarily, intricate level design, fluid controls, and a captivating narrative are among the most important. BioShock not only succeeds in each category but maintains relevance more than a decade after its initial release. Spawning a direct sequel, and one semi-prequel, BioShock has left a legacy on the video game industry that still spawns philosophical debate.
BioShock, as a game, is the sum of its parts. Honoring BioShock would not be justifiable without recognizing the prior works that the developer shamelessly pulled from. For some people, the concept surrounding Andrew Ryan’s underwater utopia might sound a bit too familiar. Heavily inspired by the works of Ayn Rand, BioShock can be seen as a byproduct of her works in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Story similarities aside, other inspirations might have gone unnoticed, despite being blatant. For example, Andrew Ryan, the main man himself, is a wordplay on the author’s name Ayn Rand. Additionally, two of the characters featured throughout the game, Atlas and Frank Fontaine, are also named after Rand’s two novels.
Upon first descent into Rapture, the player discovers that the city is not as grand as its spirit claimed to be. Due to the environmental limitations, Rapture’s buildings are sectioned off from each other, only accessible via passenger tunnels or the Bathysphere, an underwater elevator that is capable of transporting individuals across its empty space. The dark hallways and heavy atmosphere serve only to heighten the sense of dread found within Rapture’s walls, as further exploration leaves the player with the thought that an escape from this underwater hell may not exist. The limited structure of Rapture evokes a sense of curiosity and wonder. While many games today try to create a world as big as the technology allows, BioShock was able to capture the same amount of wonder in a smaller package. Rapture proved that bigger is not always better with level design.
From the water seeping through the cracked lining of passage tunnels, to the moaning of each structure as the water weighs in from the outside, the sound design in BioShock perfectly enhances the claustrophobic experience of Rapture. Upon first entry into Rapture, the player is greeted by a rustic recording of Andrew Ryan advertising what makes his underwater utopia unique. From that point on, every scream from a Splicer and grunt from a Big Daddy evokes terror around every corner. The sounds found throughout BioShock are designed to create tension and uneasiness from the player, further emphasizing the reality of Rapture’s flawed ideology. The halls that were once filled with music and partying are now left with the cries of madmen and scuttling scavengers.
A myriad of ideologies are explored throughout the BioShock games, but one that remains a franchise staple is the concept of free will. Players assume the role of Jack, BioShock’s silent protagonist, as his plane crashes into the ocean. Having miraculously survived, he surfaces and sees nothing but a lighthouse, and within the lighthouse an elevator. Given no other option, the player is forced to take the elevator down into the underwater depths and figure their survival from then on. Not long into their journey, the player is rescued by Atlas, a man with a simple request: help save his family from a premature underwater grave and take revenge on Andrew Ryan.
BioShock’s use of a silent protagonist combines in philosophical harmony with the concept of exploring free will in video games. Due to Jack being silent, the player assumes his role for themselves, experiencing their own journey into Rapture. Upon entry, the player is immediately faced with propaganda regarding the free man and his entitlement to the sweat of his own brow. Throughout the game, the player encounters characters who all have their own flawed vision of what Rapture was to them, which in turn led to its inevitable downfall. Despite being faced with the question of free will at every turn, the player is driven only by the requests of Rapture’s inhabitants.
From Atlus’s first request, to the climactic encounter with Andrew Ryan, the only thing the player does out of their own volition is upgrading Jack’s weapons and abilities. Where some games that implement a similar quest structure would be disregarded as fetch quests, BioShock weaves this into a narrative that is sure to evoke a jaw-dropping reaction from any first-time player. The beauty of BioShock’s narrative and the legacy it has created can all be summed up by one simple phrase: “Would you kindly”.
Throughout BioShock, the player is driven through Atlus’s rage at Andrew Ryan, completing tasks that bring them one step closer to revenge. When finally placed face to face with Ryan himself, the game reveals that the player has had no free will at all. Rather than forging their own path, the player has been guided throughout the game by Atlus, who is now revealed to be Frank Fontaine, with the trigger phrase “would you kindly”.
During the climactic encounter with Ryan, the player completes their task of murdering Ryan, who is shouting another phrase that has become iconic with the game: “A man chooses, a slave obeys”. In this moment—the only non-interactive, cutscene sequence between the opening and closing cinemas—Ryan puts the entire game into perspective, and brings into question the nature of the title’s relationship with free will. In this moment, the player is then faced with the thought of whether Jack is killing Ryan because he was told to, or if he is doing it out of hatred towards this man. Regardless of the conclusion, the truth of the matter is that in Ryan’s Rapture, free will is an illusion and the thought of it only fuels the propaganda of its leader.
BioShock’s legacy within the video game industry is one that should be honored for future generations. The game not only helped propel the significance of single player games in an ever-growing mosh pit of multiplayer titles, but did so by sculpting a narrative that is unique and thought provoking long after its conclusion. The twists and turns encountered within BioShock’s story are among some of the greatest writing within a video game, and the philosophy behind Rapture’s existence is sure to make every player reflect on their own life, even if only temporary.
BEYOND RYAN’S RAPTURE
The story behind the BioShock series is as involved and engaging as the tale that the game itself weaves, but the short version is that the team that developed the game was formed from key personnel behind the famous immersive sim series System Shock and Thief. The immersive sim genre had emerged all the way back in 1992 with Ultima Underworld, though it evolved across the Thief and System Shock series, and is chiefly characterised by a focus on player choice and an array of game systems that interact in novel ways.
In the mid 2000s, the time of the aforementioned multiplayer mosh pit, a good immersive sim like Deus Ex or System Shock had not come around for years. BioShock‘s release in 2007 was therefore exciting for fans of player-choice driven, non-linear first person experiences, despite concerns that the game was ‘dumbed down’ for consoles in comparison with the PC-only System Shock games.
BioShock was ultimately more memorable for its well-executed narrative than any of its individual immersive sim features. Complaints about, for instance, the lack of an accessible inventory paled in light of the progress that BioShock made for storytelling in first person games as a whole. Parts of that story are still rooted in System Shock 2—including one twist that is essentially ported over whole—but the slick controls, crafty enemy AI, and improved presentation of the game world allowed the excellent story to shine through all the brighter.
After BioShock 2 was announced, fans of that story awaited with trepidation to see how it might be continued in the sequel. Unfortunately, the big picture storytelling that won the first BioShock its accolades was given a deliberate back seat in the 2010 sequel.
Rather than a straight-up sanding off rough edges as in the successive Elder Scrolls games (a process of making these once-PC-only series more palatable to a mainstream audience), this entry was more a striving to refine different aspects of the traditional immersive sim experience. Readers can get a better and more in-depth history of this evolution in Noah Caldwell-Gervais’s look at the System Shock and BioShock series, but the improvements were mainly in the freedom of action—such as the increased variety of options when it came to combinations of weapons and plasmids.
This focus on action took another leap forward in BioShock Infinite, perhaps the most divisive of the series, but also the most ambitious in terms of narrative. The third BioShock title flipped the series’s relationship with the immersive sim genre on its head, in some ways working as an entire-game equivalent to the “Would you kindly?” twist from the first game. On the other hand, its action game sensibilities and linear levels were so unlike the immersive sim template that the fanbase quickly turned on BioShock Infinite, preferring games such as Dishonored for their similarly advanced, yet more reverent take on the genre.
Thanks for taking some time to visit Rapture with us, and take a trip through the history of the BioShock series up to this point. Industry murmurs certainly suggest that 2019 will be the year the next BioShock game is revealed, but nothing official has been announced—so why not comment below with your guess as to what it might be? Keep your bookmark on OnlySP and we will return next week with another immersive sim with very different priorities.