Spoiler warning: This article discusses key aspects of BioShock’s story and the infamous plot twist.
Bioshock is one of the most well-regarded games in the medium, but when I played it on the Xbox 360 many years ago, it didn’t grab me like others did. Next to the shooting in something like Call of Duty 4, Bioshock felt floaty and the weapons lacked weight. I loved the underwater setting of Rapture, and while I did appreciate the story on a basic level, I felt no emotional connection to it.
Around that time, I was more enthusiastic about the story of Mass Effect. Here the player had the opportunity to shape the player’s character, Shepard, and the story as well. I was seduced by the concept of choice, and this felt like the way forward for the medium. In contrast, the constrictive and linear story of Bioshock felt like a step back. This was probably why I didn’t completely understand the acclaim, and thought Bioshock was overrated.
With Bioshock’s reputation only growing over the years, I’ve often thought about giving it a revisit, particularly since my views on the concept of player choice have dramatically changed over the years, and now have a preference for tighter narrative experiences that linear games can provide. After seeing the HD collection on sale, it was the ideal opportunity to jump back in.
Unfortunately, this replay hasn’t changed my opinion of the combat — and if anything, it’s only worsened. I like combat that feels weighty and impactful, and Bioshock is unimpressive here as the weapons feel light and lack power, and enemies don’t seem to react to gunshots.
The combat can also become repetitive. While there are different options like the various Plasmids or doing things like hacking turrets to fire on enemies, some of these are clearly more useful than others, and combat becomes a repetitive process. For example, the player is given the Electro Bolt Plasmid early on, which is used to stun enemies. I upgraded it in conjunction with the wrench, and the stun/wrench combo remained the most effective strategy throughout.
However, one aspect that holds up is the setting of Rapture. This underwater city remains a unique one in videogames, and during its first reveal in the campaign, my hair still stood on end despite knowing exactly what was coming.
Rapture inflicts a sense of wonder because it’s a fantastical setting that shows the power videogames have in transporting players to other worlds. In reality, day-to-day life is characterized by mundanity, particularly in the current context of a worldwide pandemic. Videogames let players experience situations they otherwise never would, and Rapture is a strong example of this as a city that has no real-world equivalent, but with enough grounding to ensure that it’s not too far removed from reality. Being undersea was truly immersive, and a welcome distraction at a time when I needed one.
What makes Rapture even more impressive is finding out why the developers came up with it. In interviews after release, they’ve said that they wanted to craft something which hinted at a wider world without having to construct one due to limitations of technology and budget. Rapture is just a series of corridors connected by larger rooms, but by being so creative with its setting, the illusion of a larger world is maintained.
Environmental storytelling is a large part of why it’s so successful. Rapture is characterized by frequent use of glass structures, so the player is constantly reminded of its fantastical location, but its current status is shown via leaky ceilings and flooded areas. The developers also use dead bodies in key locations, messages scrawled on the walls and various audio logs. In total, it all delivers a powerful sense of a successful city that has since gone to hell.
In looking at how the developers crafted BioShock‘s narrative, the developers used linearity to their advantage and tied it to plot themes and the script’s famous twist.
For those who haven’t played it, I’ll outline it here — after a series of events, it’s revealed that the player’s character has been brainwashed and manipulated by the character who’s been “guiding” him throughout the course of the game. Instead of the player having an adventure like any other title of the time would have offered, they’ve actually been unwittingly following orders, both in-game and in reality.
When I originally played BioShock, this twist didn’t land with me like it did with others. This was probably not helped by a friend who had already completed it and gave me vague hints, so when I reached the big reveal, I wasn’t truly surprised. However, playing through BioShock again has given me a newfound appreciation for it.
By including this twist in a linear game, I felt as though it could be seen as a comment about videogames and player agency. I have since realised that complete player choice is a myth since developers have to account for all possible outcomes, so when the player is ‘forced’ to kill his target in Rapture when the order is given, it highlights the absence of player agency in the medium.
Sadly, BioShock peaks here and soon loses its way. From this point forward, it becomes a slog that culminates in a poorly-conceived final boss battle that suggests the developers ran out of ideas, and they have admitted as much since.
Apart from ‘linearity’, another dirty word in gaming is ‘politics’. It’s a ridiculous notion to claim that games aren’t or shouldn’t be political, but that hasn’t stopped a subsection of players from pushing back against any perceived elements of politics and developers bending over backwards to make their games appear apolitical, or to at least to claim that they are. With BioShock, the Ayn Rand-inspired politics are front and center.
BioShock features a character named Atlas — a clear reference to Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged. BioShock is also evidently inspired by the philosophy of the book, Objectivism. This is a philosophy that states as rational beings, morality should be driven by an individual’s self-interest, and society will flourish as a result. To achieve this, Rand supported capitalism and reduced government control. We can see these themes reflected in the script’s discussions on state support, communism and religion.
In an excellent Ars Technica piece titled “Why BioShock still has, and will always have, something to say”, John Robertson argues that BioShock is not a critique of Objectivism, but of how power corrupts. I don’t disagree with this (and it is certainly an element of Rapture’s fall) but I would suggest that Rapture fails due to the flaws of capitalism, and the game could therefore be seen as a critique of neoliberal capitalism that we now experience.
In Rapture, this underwater society displayed the same split between the haves and the have-nots that we see in the real world, and we can also see parallels to the rise of populism and figures like Donald Trump, exploiting those inequalities created by capitalism. In Rapture we can also see the path for a descent into dictatorship, and that the crazed enemies the player encounters are the result of unchecked individualism and self-interest — problems plaguing us in the real world today.
Despite my views on the material, BioShock is a game that can be interpreted because it’s packed full of interesting ideas (even if they run out towards the end) and offers many connections to contemporary issues. The gameplay may have aged poorly, but today, thirteen years after its release, I can honestly say that I now agree with those who called it a masterpiece of the medium back then.
— Gareth Payne