Franchise Festival #22: BioShock

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be plumbing the depths of BioShock‘s rich universe. Year of release indicates the North American version.

Sources are numerous for this one, so I’ll itemize them at the end for easy reference.


Ken Levine, the game development auteur behind the BioShock series, got his start in the industry at Looking Glass Studios during the 1990s. Looking Glass had formed in 1990 and had already produced the highly influential first-person role playing PC games Ultima Underworld and System Shock by the time Levine joined its staff in 1995. Levine quickly got to work assisting with the production of another important game – Thief: The Dark Project – before departing to form his own studio in 1997.

Sneaking around a medieval city in Thief: The Dark Project.

Irrational Games was established with a plan to iterate upon the first-person, physics-based narrative role-playing games developed by Looking Glass Studios. Ken Levine had played numerous text-based PC games alongside Dungeons and Dragons during his youth in the 1980s and believed he could deliver more richly intertwined narratives and gameplay mechanics than those which had become common with the rise of console gaming in the 1990s. With this in mind, Irrational Games rapidly developed System Shock 2 and released it in August 1999.

Fighting mutants with a wrench, as the protagonist does here in System Shock 2, would prove to be one of Irrational Games go-to scenarios.

This dystopian first-person horror RPG, set on an abandoned space station, would prove to be even more influential on game storytelling than its predecessor had been. Having initially been developed as a new IP before evolving into a sequel to Looking Glass Studio’s 1994 cult classic at the request of publisher Electronic Arts, System Shock 2 pioneered the genre now known as the immersive sim. It marries the first-person shooter gameplay and horror tone of the original System Shock with a role-playing skill system, enhancing the opportunity for alternative approaches to progression. Along with Half-Life (1998) and Deus Ex (2000), System Shock 2 is seen as one of the key shifts away from arcade mechanics in the first-person shooter genre at the dawn of the 2000s.

Deus Ex‘s moody, narrative-heavy approach to the first-person shooter experience was highly influential.

While the title was a hit with critics, it failed spectacularly in the marketplace; commentators have suggested that EA was hesitant to heavily promote a first-person shooter so soon after the Columbine Massacre had occurred in April 1999. Due partially to this financial disaster, co-developer Looking Glass Studios shuttered in 2000 and the System Shock IP was abandoned by EA. Looking Glass Studios had retained sole development rights for the series even as EA had purchased the publishing rights and Irrational Games had taken on most of the programming, so System Shock had stumbled into copyright limbo.

2002’s superhero role-playing game Freedom Force was a radical departure for Irrational Games, and remains an anomaly in their library.

Irrational Games would manage to outlive Looking Glass Studios. Ken Levine’s small team developed several successful projects in the 2000s, including Freedom Force (2002) and Tribes: Vengeance (2004), before being acquired by Take-Two Interactive in 2004. Early in the new decade, though, Levine had begun to look back at the development of System Shock 2 and speculate on ways to bring that formula into the new century while still producing a game that would sell. From this concept, as well as an extraordinarily tempestuous development process, BioShock was born.


BioShock (2007)

Irrational Games had worked up the outline of BioShock as early as 2002. Unsurprisingly for such a systems-oriented genre as the immersive sim, the first step was establishing basic gameplay concepts. The central emphasis was on protectors, drones and harvesters; these would eventually become Big Daddies, Little Sisters and splicers respectively.

Early Big Daddy concept art.

The first phase of development was close in setting to System Shock 2. The player would take on the role of a cult deprogrammer, Carlos Cuella, sent to investigate an uncommunicative space station by a United States senator; this seems reminiscent of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre cult incident in Guyana. Gameplay was planned to be a first-person RPG with little of the gunplay that would define the player’s eventual interactions with Rapture. Enemies were much more alien than the splicers of the final game, and a species of sinister space eels was even part of the game’s narrative backdrop.

The final game features enemies that are horrifying, yet recognizably human.

After dissatisfaction with the original setting and narrative, the team almost abandoned the idea entirely. Acquisition by 2K Games and widespread interest from gaming publications convinced them to continue honing their ideas, however. The second iteration had elements similar to the final game, but was much more rudimentary and featured a radically different setting – it centered on an island populated with Nazi soldiers, which was in tune with the emphasis on World War Two games in the early 2000s. The demo was visually rough and fairly derivative in its content, but had begun to integrate more action elements and the three types of NPC characters – the aforementioned protectors, harvester and drones. The iconic Big Daddies, along with the Little Sisters and their related morality system, were still absent from this early build.

The iconic Atlas statue at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in NYC.

Much of the inspiration for the final game concept would come from a visit by Ken Levine to the GE Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. While exploring, he took in the Art Deco design, the sculpture of Atlas holding the globe, and the story of John Rockefeller finishing the expensive project alone after collaborators pulled out during development. This rather surprising source became a significant influence on BioShock’s Art Deco setting and Randian philosophical underpinnings. The team simply needed to add the splicers, a common enemy type, Big Daddies, the horrifying antiquated diver bosses featured on the released game’s cover, and the Little Sisters, which function both as enemies paired with the Big Daddies and a mechanic that determines the game’s ending.

Alternate proposals for the Big Daddy.

By 2006, the game was well underway in a state similar to its final release. An E3 2006 appearance stoked fan excitement still further. The underwater Art Deco dystopia of Rapture had been rendered with all the effects that 2K’s massive budget would allow; Irrational Games, now known as 2K Boston, had expanded from fewer than ten full-time employees to sixty during the final year of the game’s production. Though Big Daddies had gone through several design phases, including being depicted as dogs in wheelchairs during one stage of development, the terrifying final design had been established. Little Sisters had been successfully pitched and the team believed that they would be a useful way to establish a morality system – an increasingly popular feature during the mid-2000s – but it was quickly determined that they should not be able to be directly harmed by the player during combat due to the controversy that would bring. Instead, Irrational Games decided to offer the player a binary choice upon destroying the associated Big Daddy guarding a Little Sister: the child could either be saved or be harvested. The former option would be more satisfying but would come with less of the in-game currency needed to improve the player character’s abilities; the latter would be crueler, but the player would be rewarded with a greater opportunity to improve their character in the short term. Both choices would have an impact on the game’s ending.

Jack seems to have brought a wrench to a drill fight. This Big Daddy is mad.

With its release in August 2007 on the Xbox 360 and Windows PC platforms, the game skyrocketed to national attention. Ken Levine and 2K Boston had finally found a way to seamlessly blend complex philosophical ideas, a unique science fiction setting, horrifying atmosphere, evocative visuals, and role-playing mechanics within the comfortable package of a first-person shooter. Unlike System Shock 2, which had been similarly ambitious but fell short of its commercial goals, BioShock was an overnight success.

BioShock‘s breathless opening sequence.

The player takes the role of Jack, a man whose plane crashes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and who discovers, by entering an incongruously placed lighthouse, a vast underwater city called Rapture. Rapture had been founded by a wealthy man named Andrew Ryan on the Objectivist ideals espoused by mid-20th Century philosopher Ayn Rand. By the time of the game’s inciting incident in 1960, the city has descended into civil war between the elite, led by Ryan, and the poor, led by Frank Fontaine; this strife is coupled with social breakdown due to self-manipulation by citizens of their own genetic structure through the use of a bizarre resource discovered in formerly unknown creatures on the ocean floor. The resource, called ADAM, permits the use of disturbing powers and is accompanied by physical deterioration of the user.

bathysphere view
The player’s introduction to Rapture.

Upon his arrival, Jack is greeted remotely via radio by the unmistakably Irish voice of Atlas. This voice, in fact, had been one of the last changes to the game after test players in January 2007 had complained that the character’s former Southern accent had been too unbelievable. Atlas directs the player throughout his adventure as he attempts to save Atlas’ wife and child from the crumbling, once-impressive city. Along the way, Jack collects firearms and injects himself with plasmids – special powers like electricity that are fueled by ADAM.

Making use of the Electro Bolt plasmid.

Halting Jack’s progress are several enemy types. Splicers are standard foes, disfigured and insane residents of the city armed with weapons and plasmids. Big Daddies and Little Sisters have been covered already. The third major enemy type consists of boss characters; these are former luminaries of the city and allies of Andrew Ryan, including a deranged artist and mad doctor. Surprisingly, Ryan himself is slain by Jack during a cinematic sequence roughly ⅔ of the way through the game’s narrative; it is revealed that Atlas was Frank Fontaine and that he had orchestrated the preceding events (including Jack’s entry to Rapture) to assassinate the city’s founder. Jack then seeks out and kills Fontaine before returning to the surface. At this point, several endings are possible based on the player’s interaction with the Little Sisters.

BioShock‘s unimaginative final boss battle is one of its few missteps.

Thematically, the game is rich with both philosophy and metacommentary on game narratives. Objectivist philosophy is the primary topic of discussion, as the game is in many ways a heightened satire of what might happen to a society cut off from the world and fully committed to that inherently selfish moral code. At the same time, Levine’s emphasis on Atlas’ hypnotic sway over Jack and the player’s inability to prevent Ryan’s murder by his or her own avatar functions as a counterpoint to the medium’s increasing focus on player choice. Ironically, one of the few elements of the game to come under criticism is its own meager offering of two endings determined by a rather punishing morality system; one of the game’s two original endings can only be achieved by never harvesting a Little Sister.

The Little Sisters function as BioShock‘s morality system.

The gameplay itself would be seen as a thorough improvement on System Shock 2 by most players. The features that had made the 1999 title a cult classic were all enhanced in its spiritual successor. Players have access to numerous weapons and supernatural abilities that can be enhanced according to the player’s choice. Set-piece sequences can often be overcome in myriad ways, including stealth, straightforward combat and the use of environmental features or hacked enemy security systems. In spite of its thematic commentary on the limits of player choice, BioShock is beloved for the ways in which it permits the player to advance through the game in his or her chosen manner.

One of BioShock‘s most iconic  terrifying sequences: battling insane artist Sander Cohen in Fort Frolic.

Given the challenges faced by the development team, 2K Boston was undoubtedly relieved when the game went on to become one of the most acclaimed titles of the decade. By 2009, it had sold over three million copies, establishing it as powerful evidence that a game could aspire to high-minded ideals while still being an unmitigated commercial success. Its popularity led to ports on the PlayStation 3, Mac OS, and even mobile devices. Publications and fans raved about the game’s artistic merit, with some mainstream news outlets considering it a ‘coming of age’ for the medium. This scrutiny brought with it an increasingly critical eye, of course, and the apparent disconnect between BioShock’s narrative emphasis on selflessness and its gameplay emphasis on selfishness led to the (now famous) term ludonarrative dissonance. Whatever its flaws, BioShock was a game with massive cultural significance and would quickly usher in an era of change within its medium.


BioShock 2 (2010)

Given the strong critical and commercial performance of BioShock, the negative reaction to BioShock 2 is more than a little surprising. The sequel’s tendency to thoughtlessly emulate its predecessor lies at the heart of this disparity in reception, though some consider it even more effective than the original game.

Rather than being developed by Ken Levine and Irrational Games (renamed from 2K Boston in 2009), BioShock 2 was assigned to the new 2K Marin studio in California. A handful of veterans from Irrational Games had been hired by this studio and Levine gave suggestions, but the bulk of the game’s development was handled by a new team that fluctuated between eight and seventy eight staff members. For better or for worse, they looked to the first game for direction.

Rapture has sunk even further in decay.

The setting is again Rapture, though the majority of the narrative occurs a decade after the events of BioShock. Consequently, the city is in a state of decay and some exploration sequences even take place along the ocean floor. Early development images reveal numerous new enemies, mutated over the ten years of isolation, but most of these were cut in favor of reusing assets from BioShock.

BioShock 2‘s unused leecher enemy.

The player takes on the role of Subject Delta, the fourth Big Daddy to be created and the first to have been successfully bonded with a Little Sister (named Eleanor). Eleanor’s mother, a charismatic psychologist named Sophia Lamb, badly injures Subject Delta while retrieving her daughter prior to the outbreak of Rapture’s civil war in 1959 and much of BioShock 2’s narrative hinges on Delta’s attempt to find and reconnect with Eleanor upon recovering from that injury in 1968; if he fails at finding Eleanor, Delta will perish. Along the way, Delta must confront several significant public figures of Rapture’s poorer districts and eventually overcome Lamb herself. Eleanor periodically assists, and her relationship with Delta is the focus of the game’s final chapters.

The Big Sister, a terrifying addition.

Gameplay is largely unchanged from BioShock with a handful of exceptions. The developers sought evolution rather than revolution, and the combat system is consequently a straightforward enhancement with little significant overhaul. The use of plasmids and gunplay make up the majority of action sequences. The addition of agile Big Sister enemies also reflects the combat’s increased tempo. Little Sisters make their return, and now bond with the player character rather than being antagonists. Escort elements are present, as Delta must actually protect the Little Sisters from splicers as they harvest corpses for ADAM; after an escort sequence is complete, the player has the option to harvest or adopt the Little Sisters. This was included as an attempt at fostering empathy within the player and making the choice of how he or she interacts with the game world more challenging. 

Note that the player can now adopt Little Sisters rather than freeing them, a reminder of the player character’s role.

Choice is again at the heart of the series’ narrative and mechanical arcs. Along with the handling of Little Sisters, how the player interacts with and defeats three major enemies has a bearing on which of six potential endings is received. The primary variable in the endings is how Eleanor behaves, based on the example set by Delta, her surrogate father. These endings and the branching paths that lead to them were conceived as a response to players’ primary criticism of BioShock.

Subject Delta, a prototype Big Daddy and the main character of BioShock 2.

2K Marin also opted to eliminate the Pipe Dream minigame encountered when hacking terminals in the series’ debut. This was a point of contention among some players who felt that it grew too easy over time and distracted from the tense, atmospheric elements of Rapture. The new hacking mechanic occurs in realtime, exposing Delta to nearby dangers, and also has the potential to attract additional enemies or inflict damage. The heightening of hacking’s risk/reward system was met by praise from most fans, though the disappearance of the original minigame brought disappointment to some (myself included).

BioShock 2‘s new hacking minigame.

Thematically, BioShock 2 is a direct response to BioShock rather than an emulation or echo. Sophia Lamb, the title’s antagonist, represents an extreme approach to collectivism in much the same way that Andrew Ryan had represented objectivism. Where Ryan had stood for the hubris of privileging individual autonomy to the detriment of community, Lamb stands in for the crushing impersonality of collectivism run amok. There is no room for the individual in Lamb’s vision of Rapture, and the personal connection formed between Delta and Eleanor functions as a counterpoint to her ideology.

BioShock2 Snap 3
Eleanor Lamb.

Simultaneously, the game reinforces BioShock’s theme of the oppressed becoming oppressors when given the opportunity. The antagonists of both games are in some way isolated or marginalized, turning to cruelty in an attempt to mitigate or respond to their treatment by society. While BioShock emphasized individuals who were prevented from achieving their goals by social norms, BioShock 2 instead focuses more on rigid social hierarchy holding groups of people down. This is a fine distinction, but is in keeping with the philosophical systems being critiqued by each title. In addition, a recent Kotaku article explores the significance of oppression in the context of Ken Levine’s cultural heritage. Mainstream society and its influence on outsiders is one of the key throughlines in the BioShock saga.

Confronting Grace Holloway, one of the game’s bosses and a former jazz singer trampled by Ratpure’s elite.

In many ways, BioShock 2 is an improvement on its predecessor. It refines combat mechanics, offers more opportunities for player choice, and explores philosophical elements left unexamined in BioShock. An expansion, Minerva’s Den, concludes the story of Rapture with a story about a man trying to retain his humanity as the hulking physical structure collapses around him in its final days; some critics, including Noah Caldwell-Gervais, consider this story the most effective sequence of entire series. Still, BioShock 2 has typically been considered a less effective follow-up to the revolutionary BioShock. Recycled assets and a lack of direction from the franchise’s creator led many fans to dismiss it outright. Happily, its inclusion on a remastered collection of the series in 2016 has led to a critical reappraisal, placing the game in the context of the titans which bookend it.


BioShock Infinite (2013)

Only six years went by between the release of BioShock and BioShock Infinite, but this would prove to be a vast gulf separating the critical landscape which greeted each game. Where BioShock was hailed as a masterpiece that moved the first-person shooter genre forward in key ways, BioShock Infinite would be greeted first by rapture and then by an outcry that it failed categorically at what the series’ identity had once been based on – meaningful engagement with socially relevant philosophical themes. Rather than pushing the medium forward, BioShock Infinite‘s foundation instead consists of cynical cultural and philosophical trends of the 2000s that had grown stale and antiquated by the early 2010s. 

Lush art of the Columbia cityscape.

Lest we get ahead of ourselves, it is important to establish that BioShock Infinite is a technical marvel. Much to the joy of series fans, Ken Levine and Irrational Games were back to spearhead development. It is one of the most beautiful games of its generation, depicting a wholly unique environment in much the same way that BioShock had done six years earlier. Columbia is a vast flying superstructure decked out in the full regalia of 1912 America. Layered on top of this Edwardian splendor are purposeful anachronisms, contributing to the quietly postmodern aesthetic.

Irrational Games succeeded, somehow, in translating the ambition of their concept art to the final game.

The player inhabits Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton detective mentally scarred by his participation in the Battle of Little Bighorn. He is hired by two mysterious figures to retrieve a young woman, Elizabeth, from her imprisonment in Columbia. In this universe’s key historical deviation from our own, Columbia was funded by the US Government, built and populated by a Fundamentalist Christian zealot named Zachary Comstock, and then went rogue after butchering Chinese rebels during the Boxer Rebellion; at the game’s outset, Booker ascends through the clouds to Columbia through a mysterious lighthouse and anonymously prowls its apparently utopian streets.

I wonder if the average citizen needs a license to travel by sky-line.

Of course, not all is as it seems. The society is quickly revealed to be built upon a foundation of profound segregation and slavery, with its white residents’ privilege coming at the expense of its people of color. At the moment when this is revealed, through Booker’s participation or rebellion against the public stoning of an interracial couple (depending on the player’s choice), the game swings from non-violent exploration to the first-person shooter mechanics that had defined its predecessors. Booker shoots his way through the city, breaks Elizabeth out of her prison, gets engaged in a violent revolt by the marginalized people of Columbia under the name Vox Populi, and travels repeatedly through time to alternate realities. Plasmids return under the name “vigors,” and combat is made significantly more mobile by the addition of mounted sky-lines on which Booker can jet around battle sequences.

A vigor distribution device. While not as tightly connected to Columbia’s lore as plasmids had been to Rapture, their presence is eventually explained through the complex time-traveling and parallel universe-hopping late-game.

Attempting to explain the nuances of the game’s plot here would fail to do justice to its sweeping narrative, but the key feature is a reexamination of the series’ perennial theme: the oppressed becoming oppressors. Booker turns out to be Comstock from an alternate dimension – in at least one parallel timeline, his despair at manipulation by the American Government in the Great Sioux War led him to be baptized, be renamed and declare himself a prophet. More importantly, leader of the Vox Populi Daisy Fitzroy is depicted as an increasingly bloodthirsty tyrant fueled by hatred of Columbia’s white elite. She is also the game’s only significant person of color. The Vox Populi’s attempt to overthrow Columbia’s profoundly racist nationalist autocracy is sadly undermined by this revisitation of one of Levine’s favorite themes.

Songbird, one of BioShock Infinite‘s most visually striking creations.

With regard to the positive side of character designs, the art and mechanics are again superlative. Standard enemies are not particularly imaginative (particularly when juxtaposed with BioShock’s splicers and Big Daddies), but the Songbird is an evocative wonder. This massive steel bird functions as Elizabeth’s jailer and eventually becomes a tool she is able to harness as she and Booker make their getaway. Less effective, if still interesting, are the mobile turrets designed to resemble American political leaders – being chased by a machine gun-wielding George Washington robot manages to be simultaneously ridiculous and frightening.

Yes, that’s George Washington. Yes, he’s holding a turn-of-the-century mounted machine gun.

Elizabeth herself is one of the game’s more interesting elements. Plot functionality aside, she represents a significant enhancement in the ‘escort mission’ game design trope. Irrational designed her to be useful, occasionally offering the player character currency or ammunition, while also being invulnerable in combat. This is justified by the narrative, as Elizabeth is Comstock’s daughter and is being hunted for recapture, unlike Booker. Her character journey is an engaging experience, tying together with gameplay as she learns about the world outside of her tower and helps the player navigate through tears – openings that Elizabeth creates between her world and other potential timelines.

Elizabeth stepping through a tear from 1912 Columbia to 1983 Paris.

BioShock Infinite’s combat is something of a mixed bag, as explicated at length in a Kotaku article by Kirk Hamilton. On the one hand, the sky-line and Booker’s movement speed make mobility a source of excitement, upending the slow crawl that had defined earlier series entries in a thrilling way. On the other hand, increased enemy numbers and more open spaces lead to a lack of clarity. It is easy for the player to lose sight of his or her targets and experience repeated attacks by an unseen firearm-wielding enemy in the distance. Borrowing a gameplay trope from contemporary first-person shooters, Irrational Games also opts to permit the player to carry only two guns at a time; when combined with BioShock Infinite’s weapon upgrade system, this can lead to instances where the player must choose to swap an upgraded weapon for a basic weapon because the former has run out of ammunition. Weapon upgrades are distinct to each gun, so while this may have been an evolution of Ken Levine’s interest in forcing players to make difficult choices, it results in a sense that progress is meaningless.

Elizabeth lighting a cigarette in BioShock InfiniteBurial at Sea.

After release, BioShock Infinite was supported with two pieces of downloadable content set in Rapture prior to the events of the original BioShock. This is made possible through the tears in space that Elizabeth can open, and expands upon a brief visit by Booker and Elizabeth to Rapture during the events of the base game. The first of the two Burial at Sea episodes sees the player returning to the role of Booker in an alternate timeline, while the latter stars Elizabeth as the player character. Both are intriguing, though neither are essential to the series in the way that Minerva’s Den had been. Their greatest feat is likely their art direction, as both contain well-crafted noir elements and allow players a window into what the decadent Rapture had been prior to its collapse.

Levine has stated that BioShock Infinite is a shooter because it more or less had to be; while indie games had pioneered new storytelling mechanisms throughout the early 2010s, and the slow-paced introduction to BioShock Infinite hints at nuanced approaches to exploring Rapture, in the end Irrational Games opted for shooting mechanics because they uniquely tap into games’ skill-based sense of progression. This contrasts with early previews of the game, in which alternate methods of interaction including stealth and de-escalation were demonstrated. These would have intersected with a similarly abandoned morality system in which the player would need to decide whether inflicting violence was necessary if it served to protect vulnerable citizens of Columbia. Sadly, these ambitious approaches were left behind as the game developed into a more linear, cinematic experience.

Booker utilizing his hook hand.

Interlinked with the combat system, but more problematic for many players, is the pervasive graphic violence of BioShock Infinite. The game’s peaceful opening hour reveals a beautiful city, then challenges its surface-level glamour by foregrounding the class system on which the society is built. Rather than working through this thorny, dense topic with the attention it requires, the game immediately shifts gears in a moment of staggering violence: from the player’s first-person perspective, Booker DeWitt uses a hook to murder two law enforcement officers. After this, the game lurches between open-air shooting galleries, tense indoor ambushes, and more narrative sequences depicting grisly violence from the player’s perspective; often either the player character or the partnered Elizabeth are the source of these violent acts. Bodily harm had always been a key part of BioShock’s visual palette, but enhancements to the realism of human avatars and the intensity of the game’s gory details make BioShock Infinite uniquely challenging for sensitive players.

A propaganda poster for the Vox Populi. Heck, I’d join any cause with art that good!

Some commentators have argued that focusing on the game’s violence problem, however, comes at the expense of focusing on what is perhaps BioShock Infinite‘s most serious flaw: its equivocation on the morality of oppression and the response of the oppressed. While Columbia’s Founders, led by Comstock, are depicted as brutal racist authoritarians, Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox Populi are depicted as equally horrific. Their struggle is one of economically and socially disenfranchised slaves fighting back against an unjust regime, but the script is unwilling to side with their cause. The player is actually expected to gun down members of the Vox Populi, reinforcing Columbia’s repugnant status quo in favor of an unsatisfying (and indeed dangerous) argument that “both sides are bad.”

Daisy Fitzroy holding hostage a wealthy industrialist and his son.

This moral relativism stands out as inextricably linked with the guiding principles of late 20th century mainstream entertainment. It is unclear whether Levine genuinely believes that oppressors and the oppressed are to be viewed as moral equals, or if BioShock Infinite’s voice was compromised by corporate interference designed to help the game avoid controversy. Perhaps this unwillingness to side with the Vox Populi is a consequence of the game’s lengthy development cycle, where it went from a more open-ended adventure that included more narrative elements determined by player choice to a purely linear experience. Whatever the cause, BioShock Infinite’s narrative became one of the most roundly criticized elements of a once-beloved series. Rather than engaging with the complexity of class and ethnic conflict, Irrational Games had made a morally dubious narrative in which serious issues of American racial violence and oppression are used as props to fuel a white protagonist’s character development.

The Vox Populi uprising seems to draw inspiration from Nat Turner’s Rebellion and problematic contemporary depictions, like this 1831 woodcut.

In the 1990s or the 2000s, criticism of BioShock Infinite would likely have been muted. Most players would have been excited to have such a beautiful game, entranced by the excellent AI and voice performance of Elizabeth, or thrilled by the genuinely ambitious universe-hopping narrative. Unfortunately for Ken Levine and Irrational Games, the critical landscape had changed significantly in the preceding years, not least due to the impact of their own original BioShock. It had raised the bar on what people expected from mainstream games, both mechanically and thematically, and an anemic exploration of early 20th Century political ideologies was no longer exciting. More importantly, the rise of voices which had previously been marginalized in favor of the typically white, typically male gaming critic offered the perspective of those for whom BioShock Infinite’s narrative came at the end of a long line of problematic texts. Finally, white nationalism’s return to prominence in mainstream political discourse throughout the 2010s makes it very hard to see BioShock Infinite as a piece of art with anything positive to say; if anything, its neutrality in the battle between systemic racism and people of color feels downright irresponsible.


Spinoffs and Unreleased Games

Unfortunately, few video game spinoffs of BioShock have been produced. This is a bit surprising, given the rich worlds they inhabit, but at least other media has filled in some of the gaps.

Two books were published, each offering insight into characters beyond the games’ scope of events. The first, BioShock: Rapture (2011), was written by John Shirley and concerns the early days of Rapture. The second, BioShock Infinite: Mind in Revolt (2014), offers some background context on Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox Populi; this novella was written by Joe Fielder and Ken Levine. A film was also in production around 2010, led by Gore Verbinski, but Levine confirmed in 2013 that it had been abandoned due to issues securing funding for an R-rated video game adaptation. Recent rumors suggest that the success of 2016’s Deadpool may kickstart a new round of planning for the BioShock movie.

Nothing to get fans excited for the lush exploration of BioShock Infinite‘s Columbia like… arranging cogs.

A browser-based puzzle game called BioShock: Industrial Revolution was also released in advance of BioShock Infinite’s release. This was developed by Lazy 8 Studios with support from Irrational Games, and was heavily influenced by Lazy 8 Studios’ acclaimed PC title Cogs (2009). Surprisingly, the browser game allows the player character (a mechanic in Columbia) to decide whether they will support the Founders or the Vox Populi. This level of narrative choice is actually more reminiscent of BioShock and BioShock 2 than BioShock Infinite.

Ken Levine onstage at E3 2011 announcing BioShock Vita. Sadly, no stills from the game development have been made public since its cancellation.

The most interesting spinoff is one that would eventually be canceled. BioShock Vita was in planning as early as 2011, though it was put on hold as Irrational Games finished BioShock Infinite. It would have been a turn-based strategy game in the style of Final Fantasy Tactics, and would have been set during the fall of Rapture. Sadly, the project would be canceled by 2014 with little development work having been completed.

With the release of BioShock Infinite’s expanded content, Irrational Games’ work on the seminal saga came to a close. The rights to the series were retained by publisher 2K Games and work on the next series entry, tentatively titled Parkside, has been proceeding slowly; little is known about this aside from the involvement of staff formerly employed by Hangar 13, the studio responsible for Mafia III (2016). Ken Levine, on the other hand, downsized Irrational Games from 90 to 15 staff members in 2014. He rebranded the studio Ghost Story Games in 2017 and, while still interested in pursuing complex narrative games, has no future plans for involvement in the BioShock franchise. Though BioShock may continue in some form, its originating auteur has moved on.

What’s your opinion on BioShock? Do you prefer prowling the deep, dark crevices of Rapture or the riding the wild sky-lines of Columbia? Do you think the controversies surrounding the series are overblown or understated? What’s your favorite plasmid or vigor? Let’s discuss below!

Of course, be sure to come back next Friday as we discuss the Jurassic Park series!