BY NICK McCOY
Warning: This article will contain spoilers for certain sections of BioShock. Keep reading at your own risk.
When playing or producing a video game, one of the most important aspects is the blend of gameplay and story. There are plenty of games where the story and the gameplay are pitch-perfect, but a lot of times, you’ll get one or the other. You could have a game with an incredible story and an amazing cast of characters hampered by mediocre, uninteresting gameplay. Or, you could be playing one of the most fun video games ever, with amazing combat and excellent levels, with no story to speak of. Whichever you prefer is entirely up to you, but it can be hard to find the perfect mix between the two.
Then, there’s a game like “BioShock,” which is not only the perfect blend of outstanding storytelling and addictive gameplay but still stands as one of the most immersive and captivating titles ever put onto a disk and sold in stores. “BioShock” features one of the best stories in gaming, full of many twists and turns and memorable characters, along with probably the most awe-inspiring and genuinely revolutionary worlds in any medium. This is only aided by one of the most endlessly fun gameplay loops that has been perfectly integrated into the narrative and world. Plus, its themes and the choices it throws onto the players can generate hours of discussion long after you’ve turned the game off.
“BioShock” was first released on August 21, 2007, for PC and Xbox 360, and was ported to the PS3 the following year. Following versions for mobile devices, a remastered version of “BioShock” was released for the PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. The game was produced by Irrational Games, formerly known as 2K Boston, and published by 2K. The game became the first in the BioShock series, followed by “BioShock 2” in 2010 and “BioShock Infinite” in 2013. The game was designed by Ken Levine, who was co-founder of Irrational Games, now known as Ghost Story Games.
“BioShock” follows the silent protagonist Jack who, after surviving a plane crash, finds himself taking refuge in a lighthouse. After some brief exploring, seeing a massive statue of a man with a banner reading “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” he enters a bathysphere which takes him to Rapture: A massive underwater city created by Andrew Ryan (the man you see as the statue), as a means of establishing a society free of governmental control and general morality.
However, as Jack soon finds out, Rapture went from a flourishing utopia to a nightmarish hellhole filled with crazed survivors, heavy security and destruction lying all around. This was in large part thanks to a substance called ADAM, found in a species of sea slug, which granted users superhuman abilities, and led to a massive war between Ryan and infamous crime boss Frank Fountaine. ADAM users, now known as splicers, roam the various districts of Rapture, along with some other crazed inhabitants, such as surgeon Dr. Steinman and artist Sander Cohen. Jack explores the ruins of Rapture, guided by a mysterious man named Atlas, as he attempts to escape the city and eventually, defeat Andrew Ryan.
From the very second that Rapture is introduced, there is an overwhelming sense of awe and intrigue. That feeling is amplified tenfold when you finally venture into the city. Rapture is easily one of the most immersive and jaw-dropping worlds that you can explore in any video game. This is helped by the truly impressive graphics. While I did play the remastered version of the game for PlayStation 4, the original release is still an absolutely gorgeous game, thanks in large part to the art direction. The lighting, textures, and environments are all sights to behold. Rapture’s design is heavily inspired by 1950s Art Deco, which helps give the city an instantly recognizable and familiar art style. The environments of the city are inspired by various different genres, most notably Biopunk (essentially Cyberpunk, but focusing on genetic alterations instead of cybernetics), and even survival horror. Each of Rapture’s districts and areas are filled with so much detail and richness to help them stand apart, and exploring each of these is worthwhile just to take in the breathtaking scenery.
The story that unfolds in “BioShock” is one of the best in the medium. The characters and writing are among the best of any game ever created, with some of the most quotable lines and immensely interesting characters. Even characters that don’t appear in the game for very long make you curious and want to know more about what happened to them. Plus, the game has one of if not the best twists in any video game. I won’t spoil what it is, but it turns the narrative on its head and will make you question everything that had happened up to that point.
What makes “BioShock” stand out from so many other games of its type is how it presents its story and themes to you. There are very few cutscenes in this game, and the ones that are there keep the first-person perspective the entire time. Instead of having a character spout off some expositional dialogue about what exactly happened to Rapture, it relies heavily on environmental storytelling. Just by exploring Rapture and listening to various audio logs scattered throughout, a vivid picture is painted about what went down; you see dead bodies everywhere, multiple machines are destroyed, and many parts of the districts are flooded. It’s so refreshing to play a game that doesn’t treat the player like an idiot, instead trusting them to figure out things themselves.
A major aspect of “BioShock” is player choice and free will. The game is, by all accounts, an immersive sim, giving players free rein and choice when it comes to the game’s objectives. While Atlas gives instructions throughout your journey, you don’t necessarily have to follow them right away; instead, you can explore the various areas of Rapture. While “BioShock” isn’t an open-world game, it does allow you to go back and explore districts to see what you missed. Sure, the story obviously needs to continue at some point, but letting players explore the city at their leisure is an amazing touch.
The major choice aspect of “BioShock” involves the little sisters. As mentioned before, ADAM is a substance that grants users superhuman powers, and is an important resource for the people of Rapture, as well as the player. The little sisters are orphaned girls who, through genetic experimentation by Fontaine, German scientist Dr. Tenenbaum and Korean scientist Dr. Suchong, are mass producers of ADAM. Their main goal is to scour Rapture and gather ADAM from corpses. They are protected by Big Daddies, massive creatures who are citizens of Rapture mechanically grafted into giant diving suits, and are also what you see on the “BioShock” cover.
Before you can have access to the little sister, you must first defeat the Big Daddies, which is no easy task. After killing them, players are given two options for the little sister: Harvest or rescue. Harvest means you take the ADAM directly from the bodies, gaining lots of it at the cost of her life. Rescuing them, on the other hand, allows you to safely remove the ADAM from their bodies through the use of an ability granted by Tenebaum, which gives you less ADAM but lets the little sister live. This not only presents an interesting moral dilemma, but also directly affects the game’s ending.
Now, let’s finally get into the gameplay. I refuse to believe there’s anybody out there who doesn’t enjoy “BioShock’s” gameplay. Even if somehow the story and environment didn’t catch your attention immediately, then the gameplay definitely will. Seriously, I really can’t think of a first-person shooter I’ve played recently where I’ve had so much fun experimenting and thinking of different ways to defeat enemies. These include Electro Bolt (electrokinesis), Incinerate (pyrokinesis), Winter Blast (cryokinesis), Insect Swarm, and Cyclone Trap aka the best ability in the entire game. ADAM also allows the players to buy various upgrades, and gives them more access to tonics, which are various power-ups the player collects over the course of the game. These include things such as taking less damage, making you less visible to security systems, and even lowering the price of in-game items.
Looking past the use of plasmids, the core gunplay is still remarkably fun and satisfying. Originally starting off with nothing but a wrench, Jack ultimately acquires a pistol, a machine gun, a shotgun, a grenade launcher, a crossbow, and a chemical thrower, which can freeze, burn, and shock enemies. Each weapon has a distinctive feel, with the machine gun not being super accurate but having a high fire rate, the shotgun being an absolute beast up close, and the crossbow being a one-hit kill at the cost of a slow rate of fire. They also each have different ammunition, which is useful for different situations; armor piercing rounds with the pistol and machine gun are extremely effective against big daddies, trap bolts from the crossbow are a great way of keeping enemies at bay, while proximity mines from the grenade will send unaware enemies flying. Now, combine this fun gunplay with some of the best abilities in any video game…you are in for a blast.
The themes of free will and choice are perfectly encapsulated in the gameplay as well. When dealing with any of the game’s enemies, whether it’s splicers or big daddies, there are numerous ways the player can take them on. You can shock them with an electro bolt, then hit them with your wrench, sneak up behind them and whack them over the head, electrocute them by shooting the water they’re standing in with an elector bolt, freeze them, then set them on fire, use telekinesis to throw explosive barrels and their own grenades right back at them, sting them to death with a swarm of insects, send them flying into the air with cyclone trap, and even hack turrets and security drones to fight for you. The myriad of ways players can approach confrontations is nothing short of amazing.
Another incredibly impressive aspect of “BioShock” is just how many elements of the gameplay are translated into the game’s world. Most often in video games, things such as superpowers and character upgrades are thrown into the game world without any explanation, and players usually just accept it. This system isn’t bad at all, but “BioShock” manages to make everything like this work in the world of Rapture. Things you normally wouldn’t wonder about, such as audio logs, are explained via advertisements. Superhuman abilities are fully believable thanks to ADAM, and you’ll even hear ads over speakers talking about Plasmids and their benefits. Even things like respawning are fully made real in the world of Rapture through Vita Chambers, tubes scattered around the map that revives the player on death with limited health.
You are also given context clues to certain abilities; for example, when you first find a vending machine, where you can buy things like health kits and ammo, you’ll find an audio log where Andrew Ryan complains about people hacking vending machines. From there, you can hack the machine to get lower prices and more available items. When a game is able to integrate things like superhuman powers and respawning and make it believable, you just know the developers created an amazing world.
Unfortunately, now I need to talk about easily the weakest part of “BioShock”: its final chapter and boss fight. While players are able to move at their own pace during the game’s entirety, it was still relatively fast-paced and exciting. All that pacing and excitement is thrown out the window for the game’s final section. The final part of the game sees Jack escorting a little sister through various parts of Rapture in order to reach Frank Fontaine, all while protecting her from splicers as she extracts ADAM from dead bodies. So, the endgame of “BioShock” is an escort mission; AKA one of the worst types of levels ever created next to water levels.
Escorting the little sister is an absolutely miserable experience; she moves at the speed of a snail covered in glue, is constantly repeating voice lines that will annoy you to no end, and constantly gets in your way. That last part is especially infuriating when you encounter a big daddy near the end who will charge at you and deal a massive amount of damage, only for the little sister to stand directly in front of you, keeping you from jumping or moving as a walking diving suit with a drill for hand charges at you at full speed. The only way I was able to survive was by spamming Winter Blast over and over. This whole experience was made slightly less painful by the fact that, if the little sister dies, you’re able to summon another one. Still, this section is nothing but a slog.
Then, there’s the final boss fight with Fontaine. As you go up the elevator to fight him, there is a lot of anticipation; the game tells you there are no vita chambers, and you can’t save your game, so if you die, you have to respawn at your last manual save. Considering my last save was directly in the middle of the little sister mission, I was genuinely scared of dying…but then the game autosaved right as I got out of the elevator.
However, even if it didn’t, I wouldn’t have anything to worry about; The boss fight against Frank Fontaine probably takes the cake for the most disappointing final boss fight in gaming history. He goes through three entire forms, forcing you to change up your plasmids to fight him, before draining the ADAM from his body. This entire fight is insultingly easy, and unless you started the fight with half health and have the reflexes of a cat on heroin, you have nothing to worry about. Plus, factor in Insect Swarm 3, one of the most overpowered plasmids in the entire game, and you have a final encounter that won’t last above five minutes. It’s like the developers put so much love and care into the entire rest of the game, and didn’t have time for the final boss battle. It’s so soul-crushing considering how good of a character Fontaine was, and how the gameplay and story had built up to this point.
As much as I despise the final moments of this game, “BioShock” is still a masterpiece in every other conceivable way. Its gameplay, story, and world are some of the best in video game history, and it’s genuinely incredible how Irrational Games and 2k were able to come up with this. If you haven’t played “BioShock” yet, you need to as soon as you can. It is an experience you aren’t going to forget.