Bioshock – Prepare To Be Enraptured Again

In celebration of the release of Bioshock The Collection, we take a two-part look at its influence and history.

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“A man chooses – a slave obeys.”

It’s a central tenet at the heart of Bioshock, as proclaimed by the charismatic, and horribly misguided, Andrew Ryan. It’s ten years since the doors of Rapture, and the wider Bioshock universe, first opened. The dark marvels beyond were both wonderful and surprising. For, where once story played second fiddle to mindless action in the gaming world, here was something new: a game that put its central plot, and deeply ingrained musings, front and centre.

bioshock_2009-01-09_04-43-59-78On September 13, 2K Games launched the remastered series for current gen consoles. And here is where it meets with a potential issue – the world of First Person Shooters has leapt forward considerably. You need look no further than the excellent, adrenaline fuelled Doom re-master (harking not only to its own history, but also to the twin old school peaks of Quake and Unreal Tournament) or the brilliantly bonkers Borderlands. Shooters are all about fluidity, challenge … and lots and lots of guns.

Except, to label Bioshock in the same bracket would be entirely missing the point. This is, after all, something else altogether, masquerading loosely in the clothes of an FPS. Anyone new to the series might rail against the seemingly clunky shooter mechanics. Look beyond this, venture forward with eyes and mind wide open. For those already well versed in its lore, well, you’ve probably stepped through these doors many times, mesmerised and utterly addicted, like an Adam-fixated Splicer.

But let’s rewind a second. The roots of this particular story lie further back, cocooned in the PC cult classic favourite, System Shock; a survival horror set on a space station which, unfortunately, seems doomed to be lost in the mists of time. Still, its success had given enough clout to creative director Ken Levine to launch into something on a grander budget scale. And the development team were intent on crafting its spiritual successor, this time bridging beyond PC to gaming consoles.

We won’t linger much longer here: there’s a whole wider, fascinating story behind Bioshock’s inception. An essential part of this tale is included with the Collection, as Director’s Commentary reels scattered throughout the first game. When we first venture into Rapture, it is through the eyes of an unnamed character, whose plane has crash-landed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And he finds a most unusual thing – a lighthouse. There’s always a lighthouse.

183932-251309-14689199512bioshock2jpg620xjpg-620xEntering in, we are greeted by a giant banner, declaring “No gods or kings – only man”. Through the doors, into a bathysphere, and then we descend; down to the belly of a modern day Atlantis, as crafted by the aforementioned Andrew Ryan. And from there, well … let’s just stay clear of Spoiler Central, shall we?

Instead, it’s much more pertinent to focus on the style, ambition, impact and wider influence that the series has had on the industry in general. Of course, we’re used to games nowadays expending as much effort on story as they do on their player mechanics. But it wasn’t always that way. There’s good reason behind why the gaming world was generally frowned upon by those of a literary bent. Sure, you could sink a few hours into some button mashing, but it sure as hell didn’t repay the investment in the same way reading Lord of the Rings did. But all that was about to change.

It made sense, after all. There were a lot of great minds playing, and creating, games. So why should story be sacrificed on the altar of design? Of course the most seasoned of gamers would probably refute Bioshock being the first of such ilk. But what is beyond doubt is that few, if any, caused such a seismic change in the community.

After all, here was a game that dared to engage you in conversation; and not just any conversation either. It was examining a whole host of cerebral concerns of the theoretical science fiction, and real life, variety. Most particularly with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Looming large are the pillars of her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Make what you will of those – what the principles inherent in them added to the deeper layers of this canvas cannot be underestimated. Worry not, this is no thinly disguised glorification of self interest and commerce above all else. Instead, it is an examination of rampant ideology run amok.

andrew-ryan-bioshockBioshock touches on so many important concerns of the intellect: propaganda, politically-manipulated paranoia, self interest, commercialism, state-ordered executions, McCarthyism, and what exactly the sweat of one’s brow is worth. Not to mention it’s brain-mangling SF considerations: parallel realities, time-rips, causality, the knock-on effects of genetic modifications … to name but a few.

And then we come to the aesthetics. There’s a good reason to leave pause for this because, really, each of the Bioshock games are works of art in their own right. Of course, it’s easy to call something “art”, with little to back that up. But if we look at its definition (according to Oxford: “The expression …. of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form … to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”), the evidence is irrefutable. This is a living canvas, engaging at least three of the primary five senses, and consistently probing at the sixth. Call it what you will: art deco, steam/diesel/bio/hydro/whatever-the-current-punk-label-is punk, retro-futurism … it’s not really important. Or rather, it is. Because it created its own vision. Primarily, it was concerned with birthing a living, breathing world in which its story could unfold. How very literary.

Like the greatest works, this is one where frequently, you simply have to step back and admire it. Take in every detail, because there’s so much in it: the audio diaries that slowly unveil the sprawling rise, and fall, of Rapture (as below, so above in this case, when it comes to the first two entries and then Infinite); the telling, haunting graffiti; the hypnotic visual and audio touches, from the dripping, creeping damp to the slow-motion-whale warbling of the iconic Big Daddies. And so much in-between. So much detail. So many wonderful touches. The amusing mutterings of the Splicers you encounter on your journey; the easter eggs littered everywhere (Schrodinger’s Cat, anyone?); the variety of experiences each player can take from this world. Because it is also very much about perception. In this, it deserves place alongside the most celebrated works of SF and Fantasy. Because it dares to break new ground, challenge those perceptions, and weave us intrinsically into the fabric of its yarn.

Looking at each of the games in isolation (can we really, anymore?): the first is a triumph on so many levels. It broke the mould, creating an event horizon of fresh ideas. Ideology, politics, religion, spirituality, man’s tendency to violence, the perils of body modification, the benefits of being a hacker (hack everything, that’s the way). As each of the layers are peeled back, the more the hook sinks in. In the way it questioned player agency, and the moral choices it forced upon us, it was ahead of the curve. No room for passiveness: how you chose to be determined your ultimate outcome (or at least the complexion of it). Not to mention the pivotal twist in the tale. Overall this is a classic in every way, across all mediums.

So to the second entry: there are some who have maligned its story as being less effective and therefore, meaningful. This does it a disservice, however. In many ways, Bioshock 2 added extra layers of emotion and meaning. Crucial to its tapestry is the surrogate father (Big Daddy)/mother/daughter triangle of Subject Delta (you, the player), Sofia and Eleanor Lamb; a Rapture-style broken family at the heart of a custody battle with the highest stakes. Where the first entry focussed on your own personal choices and the path that unfolded from that, the second part centred on how the choices you make ultimately determine the moral compass of those who follow.

subject-delta-bioshock-2-artworkFrom a gameplay perspective, the developers made several tweaks to the mechanics which helped give a better flow to the action elements. Though the game itself may start off a bit too slowly for some, the rewards are great for sticking with it. It gathers momentum, ultimately leading to a vivid, electrifying final act. The addition of the Big Sisters was an inspired choice. Each time you harvest or rescue the Little Sisters, it’s a nervous wait to see if they turn up to wreak havoc on you; their brain-jarring, banshee-like shrieks signalling a mammoth battle. It’s great too how you can either choose to take them on in a straight head-to-head, or trick them into a battle with one of the roaming Big Daddies. Two birds with one stone, if you like. Or whatever variation you can concoct. It’s all about strategy, whether it be protecting the Little Sisters or fighting a Big Daddy/Sister.

All important to this sequel, of course, is the DLC entry, Minerva’s Den. It is still hailed as one of the greatest downloadable additions ever released. Rightly so too. It is an affecting, and wholly poignant tale.

bioshock-big-sisterAs fans were left wondering where next for the series, creator Ken Levine was looking not back downwards, beneath the waves, but instead upward, to the heavens …

Part two coming Sunday 2nd October.

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Rob Malan
Rob Malan is a writer, reviewer and freelance editor. He is a self-proclaimed movie aficionado, and passionate advocate of great story telling across various media formats, whether that be in films, TV, gaming, books or graphic novels. He holds a dream of one day finding the means to transmit the multiple epic stories in his head telepathically to the world at large, and retains a vivid imagination.