“To build a city at the bottom of the sea…insanity! But where else could we be free from the clutching hands of the parasites? Where else could we build an economy that they would not try to control? A society that they would not try to destroy? It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea…it was impossible to build it anywhere else.” — Andrew Ryan
In December of 1971, libertarian futurist Werner Stiefel took a major step toward realizing a dream possessed of a grandiose daftness worthy of Cobra Commander: to establish a sovereign nation, a new libertarian utopia, by building his own landmass in international waters. Schemes like these are why I love nutjob libertarian dreamers. Unlike their republican and democrat counterparts, libertarians don’t usually find themselves with any real political power or popular talk shows. This means that the lunatic libertarian fringe has a lot more time to devote to crackpot sci-fi aspirations straight out of Omni magazine. While Nixon was busy stinking up the White House, those libertarians still riding the tail end of the hippie era were busy designing impractical alternative societies that probably consisted of orbiting space platforms maintained by dolphins in spacesuits with robot arm appendages. Hell, to this day, a huge number of libertarian “free thinkers” are obsessed with the idea of “seasteading” — getting off the rotten, over-governed mainlands and building new societies on or in the ocean. Unfortunately, almost all of these lofty visions of escape from the burdens of a bloated and corrupt political system end up being nothing more than awesome concept art or five dudes in rain slickers living on an old deep sea oil rig.
While Stiefle’s plan to drift to freedom on a man-made libertarian flotilla smacks of Music Man-esque scammery, what makes it (and other futurist dreams of the 60s and 70s) so endearing is that Stiefel wasn’t a flim-flam man. Or rather, he wasn’t just a flim-flam man. He was that very special brand of flim-flam man — the one who believes his own flim-flam. You might label that “delusional,” and it probably is, but I’ve always found that sort of crackpot insanity charming in the same way I admire a totally inept but thoroughly enjoyable b-movie. Stiefel was nothing if not his own most devoted true believer, committed to an unfortunately — and obviously — doomed scheme that fascinated a motley crew of idealists, visionaries, loony eggheads, hippies, freaks, political radicals, and smirking smart-asses who recognized the madness around them but still chose to immerse themselves in it for shits and giggles.
Working out of an old motel he purchased and dubbed “Atlantis I,” Stiefel threw himself into the realization of “Operation Atlantis” with zeal. He founded a newsletter, to which he was the primary contributor, and published the first issue in September of 1968. He lined up multiple corporations that threw their support and endorsement behind Operation Atlantis — never mind that Stiefel himself had founded them all and seemed in every case to be the sole employee. He began recruiting believers, most of whom appreciated the cleanliness and low rent at Atlantis I, if not the overall dream itself. In November of that same year, he announced that the Atlantis Development Corporation was expanding beyond the confines of the motel, having also recently purchased a two-bedroom house that would allow a family to join the project. Conferences and town hall meetings were held, though most of them seemed to be overhyped gatherings of a couple dudes in a Chinese restaurant. They even did what all futurists in the late 1960s did: built a geodisic dome. Soon after, he published The Story of Operation Atlantis, a manifesto on the state of the United States and the need to establish a new society governed by reason, science, and of course, sound libertarian principles.
Although the objectivism espoused by sociopolitical philosopher and terrible writer Ayn Rand always seems to serve as the foundation for any talk of a futuristic, anarcho-libertarian society, the early recruits to the Operation Atlantis project also included adherents to the secretive philosophies of another libertarian thinker: Andrew Galambo. Much like other pay-for-revelation philosophies, Galambo’s ideals were closely guarded behind a veil of intellectual property copyrights and threats of lawsuits should you divulge them to anyone who hadn’t paid for the privilege. At times, the philosophy for which you paid seemed like a snake eating its own tail — you learned a lot about how ideas should be protected property, sort of like paying to sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for enlightenment, only to discover that the idea of having people pay to sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for enlightenment makes up a large part of the enlightenment. Eventually, philosophical differences between the Randians, the Galamboans, and the hippie futurists — who dug the idea of a free society dedicated to liberty and scientific advancement and general grooviness but had trouble (like me) reconciling themselves with the more vicious aspects of objectivism — would begin to undermine the entire endeavor.
Project Atlantis was originally envisioned as being close to the Florida coast (which, in true futurist fashion, they would travel back and forth from via hydrofoil), but Stiefel and his merry band of engineers and dreamers soon found such a set-up to be unobtainable. The U.S. governmer wasn’t too keen on a bunch of dope smoking freaks starting their own country and then expecting to do their grocery shopping in Cocoa Beach all the time, and the Coast Guard was probably already pinching the collective bridge of their nose thinking about the inevitable rescue missions they’d have to run come hurricane season. Stiefel began shopping around for alternatives and was soon negotiating for the purchase of two uninhabited islands in the Caribbean Sea. Unfortunately, the owner was unwilling to sell, though they would lease — an arrangement which would serve to undermine Atlantis’ status as an independent and sovereign nation. Plus, the deeds for the two islands were a maddening tangle of co-owners and bureaucracy, making the successful purchase of them — to say nothing of their use as a libertarian paradise — an increasingly remote prospect. Not one to be deterred, Stiefel started looking into alternative solutions, including the construction of a man-made floating platform. In the end, building their own land mass seemed like the best idea.
So it was that in December of 1971, Stiefel and his cabal launched Atlantis II, a ferro-cement boat that was to serve as the foundation for Atlantis III, the true fruition of Stiefel’s dream, his glorious libertarian alternative society presumably comprised of lots of geodesic domes. There were some forboding snags during the maiden voyage of Atlantis II that should have raised serious doubts about the soundness of the engineering and construction that went into it — not to mention the wisdom of the people in charge. The boat was initially launched with what I guess was some disregard for the fact that the Hudson River is a tidal river, meaning that shortly after leaving port, the thing was stranded by low tide. Once they actually managed to get the thing out of New York Harbor and start it down the coast, the propeller broke. Eventually, they got that fixed as well and continued on their merry way. Shortly after arriving at its permanent home in the Silver Shoals of the Caribbean Sea, a hurricane passed by and Atlantis II sunk. No one died in the accident, but that was pretty much it for Stiefel’s dream, though he persisted in efforts to revive it for several more years.
If only Stiefel has shared the vision of BioShock‘s captain of industry, Andrew Ryan, the sinking of Atlantis II may have been seen as the next step in the process rather than the final nail in the coffin. BioShock imagines a society built on very similar principals a those of Atlantis I, II, and III, but instead of geodesic domes floating on the surface of the ocean, Ryan’s libertarian utopia is a city at the bottom of the sea.
BioShock begins with you, Jack, enjoying a drink aboard a well-appointed plane when something goes terribly wrong, and the plane crashes in the ocean. The apparent only survivor, you cling to a piece of flotsam and have what at first appears to be the good fortune of washing up on some sort of island. It turns out, however, that the island is actually a mechanism by which one enters Rapture, an underwater city founded by industrialist Andrew Ryan (voiced by Armin Shimerman, best known for his role as Quark in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine but also, coincidentally, one of the actors in Atlas Shrugged), who imagined it to be a utopia where “the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small.” And for years, Rapture was just that and enjoyed a golden age of scientific and artistic advancement, culminating in the discovery of a genetic material called “Adam,” which when combined with another substance dubbed “Eve” allowed humans to take advantage of “plasmids” — substances that give the user incredible mental and physical powers.
Like most utopias, however, it didn’t last. Ryan’s anarcho-libertarian city built for and populated by great and ambitious thinkers who, in the tradition of objectivism, disdained “altruism” and dedicated themselves to higher, often more self-serving pursuits, didn’t factor in the uniwillingness of its citizens to take on the grunt work required for a society to function — the sewer cleaners, the fishmongers, the construction workers. In the shadow of Ryan’s ambitious vision, the circumstances became ripe for a criminal underworld. In turn, Ryan became increasingly paranoid and antagonistic, and Ryan’s own belief that humans could overcome their baser instincts allowed the criminal underground to flourish. Scientists delved further and further into research that was becoming increasingly twisted, and in the rush to embrace the powers granted to them by the new science of gene splicing, the citizens of Rapture — the artists, the creators, the scientists, the great men and women — failed to fully grasp what it was doing to them. By the time you find yourself clamoring out of a bathysphere and into the city, Rapture has become a crumbling madhouse beleaguered by structural flaws, civil war, and insanity.
Most of this you have to figure out as you go. Andrew Ryan taunts you from time to time over a citywide intercom system, which he also uses to push snippets of his philsophy. At the same time, a man named Atlas urges you to venture further into the city to help his family escape the madness and violence that has consumed Rapture, doling out bits and pieces of the city’s history as you progress. Other characters emerge from time to time, the other main one being scientist Brigid Tenenbaum (voiced by Anne Bobby from Nightbreed), who discovered Adam only to see her breakthrough used to create monsters. There are also audio logs scattered throughout the game that provide you disjointed bits and pieces of the back story. As fate often does in these sorts of stories, it reveals that you yourself have more of a connection to Rapture than you remember.
Other pieces of the puzzle — a more thorough history, the various philosophical treatises of its most important citizens, the biographies of the principal players — are absent entirely from the game and can only be gleaned through perusal of supplementary material in print and online. Not having this information doesn’t really hurt the overall experience of playing the game, but taking the time to hunt it down provides for an even richer tapestry and gives you the feel of uncovering actual archives pertaining to an ambitious and tragically disastrous social experiment. It would have been nice to have a bit more of this information presented in the game, but to do so would also run the risk of forcing the player to sit through those non-interactive cut scenes full of exposition that kill the momentum of so many other games — and the fact that the game features almost no cut scenes and delivers its narrative more or less on the run is one of my favorite things about the actual playing experience.
Much of what fascinates me about BioShock is implied rather than explicit, as was also the case with the shiny CCTV near-future of Mirror’s Edge. I have always been a smallish guy and nerdy, and while I came up in a school system that seems to have been atypical in its fostering of my weirdness, my career as a youth was not without the occasional bully and parking lot antagonist. In those circumstances, and even more now that we seem to be lorded over politically by a chorus of sleazy buffoons who do nothing all day but clap and laugh as they rock back and forth in a pile of their own feces (and money), a lot of nerds find solace in the idea of a society governed by eggheads and brains, using the powers of science and reason to guide them, rather than greed and superstition. Hell, I’ve spent many pointless hours inside my own skull, designing a really awesome utopia full of scientific and artistic freedom unfettered by scumbag politicians, religious intolerance, and other freaky hang-ups. Also, we will wear those diaphanous mini-togas like in Logan’s Run. Unfortunately, once I get past the basic design phase, I’m forced to tackle the issue of how my grand experiment escapes giving in to the same undermining vices as I was trying to escape. Therein lies the rub, and the Achilles Heel of all Utopian design, be it objectivist or religious or hippie or what have you.
Morality — or at least philosophy, if you consider them to be all that separate — is central to the story of BioShock, steeped as it is in the concepts of libertarianism, objectivism, and human nature; in the conflicts and cooperation between art, science, economics, religion, and bureaucracy. It was an especially potent setting for me, as I have a complicated and usually contentious relationship with the philosophy of objectivism and the politics of libertarianism. I do truly believe that there are tenants of those philosophies that, if adhered to, could elevate us as a species — but I absolutely reject the notion put forth by Rand that we have to achieve that greatness at the expense of other people, or at the expense of our own sense of empathy, altruism, and interest in our fellow man and woman. The respect for science, the encouragement of creativity, the stripping away of oppressive bureaucracy and bloated, corrupt politics — I can and do throw my support behind these ideals without hesitation. But the ideal that in order to realize this also requires me to strip away any ounce of caring I might have for someone who got a bad break, fucked up, or got fucked over — that commitment to the extreme leaves a rotten taste in my mouth.
What I suffer from, and what ultimately sours both objectivism and libertarianism for me is my own personal — admittedly bizarre and perhaps even contradictory — blend of cynicism, nihilism, humanism, and optimism. I am a political nihilist these days — I believe that the political arena has become a revolting, loathsome cesspool from which nothing good or respectable can emerge. Maybe it’s always been that way, and we just communicate it better these days. It doesn’t change my opinion. I regard every atavistic, mean-spirited thug of a politician with intense suspicion — at best. At the same time, however, I believe in the profound potential of the human race. We live in a foul era, but we also live in a time when we as a species have accomplished or are on the verge of accomplishing amazing things. As I write this, researchers just enabled through the use paralyzed of implants a kid to walk across the stage during his graduation ceremony. We seem to be on the verge of finding a reliable cure for AIDS. We might even be able to send messages back in time. Socially, the vestiges of a paranoid and hateful past are putting up a fight that is vicious — but vicious in the way that a dying animal is vicious. Slowly they are being sloughed off like a festering old skin. We have a long way yet to go, and hard battles yet to fight, but in the end, I undermine my own nihilism by believing firmly in our capacity to create a fantastic future.
Or, in the words of Morgan Freeman at the end of Seven, “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”
In the end, I guess my brain is a warzone between right and left, between social Darwinist and hippie and punk, all balanced against one another in some sort of philosophical brinkmanship that, were it to tip, would reduce me to the state of crazed street corner nutjob. If I can trot out another quote, I’d like to turn to, Walt Whitman, creator of an underwhelming box sampler of chocolates (or, you know, something): “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” However mad my outlook on life may be, the end result is that it works well for me. It keeps me happy, hopeful, angry, depressed, energetic, tired, victorious, defeated — everything I need. However, at no point would I think that what works for me could in any way work as the basis for a whole society. People simply will not behave in the way a utopia — any utopia — needs them to behave. The pursuit of the perfection needed to build a perfect society requires us to sacrifice much, and if you have to chop out a part of your brain to conform to the perfect society — well, that hardly sounds like a perfect society.
Utopias always seem to require perfect people, perfectly adhering to the perfect philosophies of the perfect society, and that just ain’t gonna happen. Back when I was in college, I knew a lot of budding libertarian thinkers of all types — from guys who went on to write for Reason to guys who work at the Cato Institute to the one crazy dude in a gray leather vest who worked the counter at the local convenience store and used to sell us malt liquor and snack cakes while espousing the philosophies of limited government and lax concealed carry laws. And as with objectivism, I found a lot to like in libertarian political theories. I did want tiny, unobtrusive government. I did want The Man to stay the fuck out of my personal life. But as with objectivism, there was also a lot in the philosophy that just made it seem like a pipe dream. I was a young punk, and my distrust of the government was second only to my distrust of “the corporations.” The notion that we could leave a corporation be, and they would somehow act in the best interest of the people “because to do otherwise would cause the market to put them out of business” just didn’t fly with me — and I think we’ve all seen recently that multi-national business entities are about as interested in your well being as politicians.
The developers at Irrational Games, under the creative guidance of Ken Levine and whose previous first-person game System Shock provided the foundation for BioShock, created a world whose potential is sometimes far more intriguing and promising than is realized in the game itself, but ultimately it provides a backdrop to the action that is artistically stunning and lends an added social-political dimension to the game that is as engrossing — or dismissible — as the player wants it to be. It’s Atlas Shrugged meets The Great Gatsby meets, well, whatever work of fiction features a mysterious man drifting through an art deco retro-future using weapons and powerful genetic enhancements to fight your way through a deluge of batshit insane dilettantes and grunting guardians in old deep sea dive suits. I think that was more or less the plot of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. More or less.
The ultimate failure of Rapture is almost heart-breaking. Andrew Ryan is a noble thinker, and indeed there is much about the society he builds that is admirable. But it’s not sustainable. It can’t cope with the realities of human nature. Instead, Ryan sticks to the Randian “deny, deny, deny” but how often does that work? No compassion, a demonization of altruism — no concept of noblesse oblige. Ryan watches corruption seep into his perfect society, which increases his reactionary paranoia, which makes room for more corruption… so on and so forth. In the end, Ryan’s solution is an extreme that, like most extremes, could almost pass as reasonable if you only look at the tiny little steps and betrayals that lead to it. But as a late-comer to a ruined Rapture, we the game players weren’t soothed by the incremental approach to madness; all we see is the horrific final outcome of Ryan desperately trying to defend his ideals by betraying every one of them. Now that’s not something modern America could relate to at all, is it?
That’s what undermines Rapture in the end, and leads to civil war and in-fighting (the same ideological splits weakened Project Atlantis considerably). It turns out that if you gather together a bunch of brilliant, ambitious people, and seal yourselves off from all the mundane “little” people, then some basic shit tends not to get done. Things start to fall apart if you don’t have someone willing to clean the toilets, patch a crack in your sea-dome, and take care of other vocations. Atlas can shrug all he wants, but if your great society of incredible minds forgets the value of Mike Rowe and Dirty Jobs, well, then you give rise to civil unrest. Just see how irritable people get of the sanitation department doesn’t come and pick up the trash. Eventually a man like the game’s Fontaine (Greg Baldwin, who took over the voice of Uncle Iroh on Avatar: The Last Airbender after Mako passed away) is going to emerge, a man who’s ambition makes it easy for him to reconcile his morals with smuggling and extortion, and who’s willingness to get his hands dirty with the menial jobs means he ends up as much in control of Rapture as Andrew Ryan. It’s the classic “Who run Bartertown?” dilemma.
Anyway, that’s a confused jumble of thought, but I’m not trying to or even capable of fashioning it into some sort of cohesive world view. I think the thought exercise is fun, as is the debate that can come from discussing it, but I’m not out in this review to issue some sort of manifesto or clarify my cloudy moral and political beliefs. The point is, sort of, that BioShock invites this sort of discourse, something that stays with you long after you’ve completed the game itself. How much of a role this plays in how you approach the game is totally up to you, the player. You can not give a shit about any of it and emerge from BioShock having enjoyed an entertaining, gorgeously designed first person shooter. But me, I got a whole lot more than that out of the game, and just as I can’t make any clear declaration of morality, neither does it. What it did do is something that is becoming all too rare in entertainment of any form.
BioShock ended up being exactly the sort of game that made me want to start writing about video games in the first place. Granted, what I might want from the video game experience could be radically different from what the average gamer wants; this is not to condemn anyone who just wants to play a video game without it becoming some sort of sprawling thought experiment. But it is a warning that my immense enjoyment of BioShock comes from places other than just the game play. I think a game like BioShock is a resounding shot fired in the war over the artistic merits of video games. Debate over, if it was ever worth having in the first place. BioShock (among others — I’m not claiming it to be the first or even the best cases) has as much to offer as any film, musical composition, or book (all forms of entertainment that were derided as being artistically bankrupt when they were introduced to the world).
BioShock may or may not be a great game — I loved it, personally, as is probably obvious — but great game or not, it’s a great example of a game. It works really hard to be something more than a guy strolling through a corridor, shooting aliens. It works really hard on all those pieces that go into great film making — and great video game design. It is a game that lends itself to debate and exploration, even among people who aren’t interested in video games. When someone brandishes some trashy piece of junk in your face, you can brandish BioShock in theirs — or, fuck it. You can flip them off and enjoy the trashy piece of junk and not worry about convincing some prick that something you enjoy is worth their time.
People who don’t see video games as possessing any sort of artistic merit are either restricting themselves to the basest of games, or they are willfully blinding themselves. Modern video games are on their way to becoming the next logical step from film. Film is a medium that demands the creator to be adept at many other mediums. To make a great movie, you have to understand writing. You have to understand composition and art design — painting, if you will. You have to understand photography, theater, and music… as well as a variety of technical vocations. Video games place a similar demand on their creators, and if those creators were underserving one or more of those many components in the past, they’re certainly working harder at them now — and have to contend with the addition of an interactive dimension: game play.
I think we’ve discussed, perhaps in somewhat confused style, the writing and narrative of the game. Let’s look at art design, something for which BioShock is revered even by people who didn’t enjoy playing the game itself all that much. BioShock is an sumptuous combination of styles — the art deco of the 1920s, the futurist technology of 1950s science fiction, the brass filigree and clockwork constructs of steampunk, the filtered sort of retro-future that probably didn’t start with Blade Runner but certainly entered the pop culture zeitgeist through that film. There’s a tremendous attention to detail in the setting of BioShock. In the end, you are still playing a first person shooter, where you walk through an assortment of levels and corridors, but the design team manages to give you something different than the norm. Absorbed in the game, it becomes pretty easy to believe in the technological possibility of Rapture, with its colorful neon signs, faded opulence, bathyspheres, and plastic tubes. Even completely nonsensical things — why the hell do the Big Daddies dress like Tarpon Springs sponge divers? — make perfect sense within the context of the game’s artistic design. It also helps that it happens to tap into a design style that absolutely resonates with me on every level. When people vaguely described the game to me back before I was paying much attention to video games, I formed an image in my head of what it would look (and sound) like. BioShock ended up looking exactly like I wanted it to.
Character designs are suitably creepy as well. Most of those who remain alive in Rapture have become “splicers” — people who have abused the gene enhancing techniques to the point that they have become drug addict psychos. They stalk the leaking halls and ruined ballrooms still clad in the tattered remains of their masquerade party finery, clinging perhaps to some vestige of themselves and Rapture before everything went to hell. The combination of art deco futurism and well-heeled monstrosities, with chipper vending machines and music in the background, reminded me a lot of The Residents’ Bad Day at the Midway, an experimental CD-ROM released by the enigmatic performers in which you navigate through a creepy midway populated by an assortment of seedy carnies and circus freaks. There is perhaps a little too much repetition in the appearance of your sundry assailants — how many crazy doctors and flappers in green dresses does this city contain? — but if they had to skimp on designing a city full of unique looking inhabitants in order to realize the city itself in such breath-taking glory, well then, I’m fine with that. I’m mostly just shooting them with bees anyway.
And sounded exactly like I wanted it to, as well. Before I knew the game, I knew the soundtrack. In fact, as was the case with Mirror’s Edge, the soundtrack is what made me want to play the game. BioShock‘s music is a combination of “old time” American pop standards — think Bing Crosby, Billy Holiday, The Ink Spots, and most thematically important, Bobby Darin — and a creepy score composed by Garry Schyman. Video game music has come as far as video games themselves, and Schyman’s work here measures up against any great movie score (in fact, he wrote the scores for a couple of my favorite movies that aren’t known for their scores — the batshit insane action film Never Too Young to Die and Penitentiary III, a movie so weird that batshit insane movies think it’s batshit insane). It fits the mood of the game perfectly and feels perfectly in harmony with the old pop standards scattered throughout the video game.
Speaking of standards, I think this game makes The Ink Spots the official vocal group of the retro-futurist style. The Ink Spots started their future career in, fittingly, Blade Runner. They would pop up again from time to time, and video games embraced them with the Fallout series. Fallout 3, in particular, made fantastic use of the band’s “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” crackling in and out of tune as the game reveals a burnt-out post-apocalyptic wasteland. The Ink Spots continue to make their presence known in BioShock, which features both “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “If I Didn’t Care,” the latter of which also appeared in Blade Runner. What is it that makes The Ink Spots the go-to group for stories set in this sort of “old future?” I’m not sure, but I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that they sound exactly like what people think of when they think of “old timey” music. There couldn’t be a more pitch perfect example. Plus, despite their popularity for such projects, they are still somewhat obscure to modern audiences, unlike say, Billie Holiday, who has a similar sound but much more pop culture recognition. Finally, although the songs are on the surface just simple little ditties about broken hearts and romance, there’s also something sinister in some of the lyrics — or maybe it’s just fortunate word choice that allows the songs to perfectly match the mood of dystopias and cyberpunk futures.
The Ink Spots are the de facto sound of the retro future, but the official pop standard of BioShock is definitely “Beyond the Sea,” which is presented in the game in both the familiar Bobby Darin version (well, familiar to people like me) and a much spookier sounding instrumental version from famed classical guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, who together founded Quintette du Hot Club de France. Their version of “La Mer” might be the most perfect song in all of BioShock, which is saying a lot, because this assembly of music is far more than just a bunch of old songs thrown together. Like Schymann’s score, the old songs are used to evoke very specific emotions and moods. There’s great care placed in the selection and placement of each tune. Like I said, I owned the soundtrack to this game (actually, I owned a few different soundtracks to this game) before I ever played the game — before I even owned a gaming console, for that matter — and the role the music plays in the game is exactly the role I wanted it to play.
There’s really not a lot to say about the game play. A game, like any other medium that combines a number of other mediums, can succeed at everything but one aspect, and that one shortcoming can torpedo the entire experience. As much as I loved the concept and theories behind Mirror’s Edge, for example, I felt like the game play was ambitious but flawed, making the game frustrating as often as it was fun. BioShock was released in 2007, and by then the concept of first-person shooters had been around for something like fifteen years. The general structure of that type of game was well refined by the time of BioShock, and the designers don’t see any need to mess with a mature concept. You work your way through a series of locations, collecting weapons (shotguns, grenade launchers, machine guns, pistols, and the ever-handy wrench), ammo, and crazy powers, like the ability to shoot fire, electricity, or my personal favorite — angry bees — at your opponents. And your opponents are a motley mix dressed for a New Years Eve costume ball, masked or simply scarred and deformed beyond recognition.
I found the controls (on XBox 360) easy to learn and implement. Switching weapons and powers came naturally after just a little bit of practice, thought o be honest, I pretty much just stuck with the shotgun and the machine gun. I’m conflicted over the weapons system itself — on the one hand, I missed having to make decisions about which weapons to carry; on the other hand, I liked not having to make decisions about which weapons to carry. I’m guessing my guy must have been quite a site, shambling around Rapture while lugging around a machine gun, shotgun, grenade launcher, chemical thrower, pistol, crossbow, and monkey wrench. I switched through powers more often, though my favorites remain electric bolt, incinerate, and as mentioned, the power to shoot angry swarms of bees at people. Other powers give you technical and biological enhancements, the best of which is the power to turn the copious bottles of whiskey, beer, wine, and vodka lying around Rapture into increased health and Eve.
While BioShock doesn’t tinker with the mechanics of the first-person shooter, it does poke at new ways of presenting the content. Your attackers, for instance, aren’t exactly villains. Some are crazy, all are prone to violence, but mixed in with shrieks and madhouse chattering are very lucid comments. Some implore you to leave them alone, even as they uncontrollable lunge out at you. Others seem genuinely to want to die, to escape either what they’ve done to themselves with science or escape Rapture, the utopia that has become a prison.
Most problematic of all are the Little Sisters and their dive suit-clad protectors, the Big Daddies (or “Mr. Bubbles,” as the girls refer to them). Horror has known for years that creepy little girls are creepier than creepy little boys — not because girls are inherently creepy, but rather because little girls are culturally identified most strongly with being sweet and innocent (while little boys are all snakes and snails and puppy dog tails). If quality horror comes from tweaking the familiar into something strange and unexpected, then it stands to reason, good or bad, that spooky little girls are infused with a lot more spookiness than spooky little boys. The little girls in BioShock are indeed pretty spooky — barefoot, clad in ragamuffin dresses, and with lifeless glowing eyes, they prowl the dank, ruined halls of Rapture in search of corpses they can drain of precious Adam. accompanying them are the hulking Big Daddies, sinister behemoths clad in old style deep see diving suits. Like the rest of the history in the game, the origins and purpose of the Little Sisters is revealed in fragmented, non-chronological order as you pick up scattered personal logs and interact with Dr. Tanenbaum.
The nature of the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies makes them the most morally challenging opponents in the game — what do you do with them? BioShock doesn’t really delve too deeply into the concept of the “morality meter,” something that would become integral to the game play of titles like Mass Effect and Fallout 3. But what you do with the Little Sisters does affect the eventual outcome of the game. for me, the decision was pretty easy when it came to the little girls — you can either save them and gain a little power, or “harvest” them and gain a lot. What got me was how bad I felt for the lumbering Big Daddies, creatures who sole purpose is to protect the Little Sisters. Compared to the other citizens of Rapture, the Big Daddies aren’t all that villainous (in fact, assorted Rapture crazies will attack or be attacked by Big Daddies throughout the game). From time to time, you encounter a Big Daddy without a Little Sister, and you can follow them as they walk to a Little Sister “hidey hole” and bang on it. If you’ve already saved or harvested all the kids on that level, no one emerges, and the Big daddies react with an almost poignant confusion. When you encounter a Big Daddy accompanying a Little Sister, however, you really don’t have any choice but to take on these hulking leviathans, even if you don’t think they’re all that deserving of being killed.
Within the game, the idea of morality is employed in, at best, a rudimentary fashion. Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 would realize it in a much more complex way, with myriad decisions substantially altering the events in the game (especially if you carry over your character from part one into part two). While gaming still has work to do, I love that this concept has been introduced. For me, walking down a hall and just wholesale slaughtering everything makes for a game that might be fun for a while but is, ultimately, never particularly engaging. When I got to the Mass Effect games, I found that having to make sometimes very tough decisions throughout the game — and having those decisions reward or haunt you in the future — resulted in a much more emotionally engaging experience. But then, I’m the guy who tried to play as much of Mirror’s Edge as possible without gunning anyone down. It’s not that I’m tut-tutting violence; it’s just that in a medium (action-adventure games) that is built almost entirely on violence, the rare game that gives you a non-violent decision tree stands out as unique.
The game is well paced, with a lot of fast action but also with the option to take time out and poke around the nooks and crevices of the various locations. After all, what would have been the point of such exquisite design if you had to dash by it without a glance? There are very few cut scenes, which helps move things along. It isn’t a perfect game, though. The ending is abrupt, and the final showdown is sort of…silly. It reminded me of The Keep, a moody, experimental horror film that ruins all the work it did on atmosphere by introducing a goofy rubber-suit muscleman monster. But honestly, I’ve never really liked the “boss fight” concept, so if the final throwdown is more of a letdown, it doesn’t phase me all that much. I do wish the resolution was more developed, but even that didn’t ruin the rest of the game for me. I don’t usually review a movie without watching it at least twice. Similarly, I won’t write about a video game until I’ve played it through at least twice. BioShock was not a chore to play multiple times. I had a lot of fun the first time, and maybe even more fun the second time. I could do with fewer turrets and security cams, but that’s how I feel about life in general.
If you’re like me — someone who wasn’t really into gaming until recently — or you want to see if (or prove) the video game has something more to offer than just a buzzcut space marine walking through a cave, shooting giant bugs, BioShock is probably the ideal game. It’s not as involved as Mass Effect, but it’s also shorter and less impenetrable without the huge investment in time. And if you’re the type who likes to ramble on about politics, sociology, art theory, utopian futures, undersea cities, or old songs, I don’t think you’ll be able to top BioShock in terms of either intelligence or game play. I don’t know if Irrational Games will ever have the time or money to realize that insane BioShock world I’ve built up in my head (doing a Rockstar Games style open world in Rapture would have been mind blowing), but they made me interested enough that I enjoy looking around in other media for bits and pieces. BioShock is a great game and a tremendous accomplishment. It delivered just about everything I wanted from the game play and pleased me with how much more there was to dig into if you so desired.