Late to the Party: Bioshock

Spoilers for Bioshock abound! 

Version played: 2016 remaster in the Bioshock Collection on PS4. All screenshots below from my own playthrough.

I’ve never been a great lover of first person shooters. While I was aware of the prominence of Halo and Call of Duty and their like as a teenager I dismissed them as overly violent, aimed at an audience I didn’t belong to and instead focused my energies on JRPGs, action-adventure titles, and the odd TV show spin-off game (I was in love with that clunky Sabrina the Teenage Witch PC game from the late 90s). So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I wholly missed Bioshock in 2007, though it was impossible to miss the lavish praise and assertions of brilliance that followed in its wake. Bioshock was the saviour of first person shooters. Bioshock was the “smart” shooter, unlike the mindless violence of its predecessors. Bioshock was the title illustrating the capacity for games to achieve artistic merit (whatever the hell that means). In truth, even in 2020 Bioshock remains an interesting and clearly well-crafted title, albeit one that was always going to underwhelm me to some extent because it inspired later titles that often surpass it.

I do love a man in a cable knit sweater. Very subtle tattoos there, pal.

I found that I appreciated BioShock’s mechanics the further into the game I journeyed. This is the third time I’ve attempted to play this game, having tapped out only an hour or so in on another occasion and less than that on another. In my initial playthroughs the game’s use of heightened tension and fear in combination with the fairly standard wrench/pistol weaponry you begin with left me disincentivized to continue. For me, BioShock’s true joys come from utilizing and playing with plasmid builds, powers you acquire throughout the game that range from the utilitarian but incredibly useful electric shock to the bizarre insect swarm which has you showering enemies with stinging bugs. One of my favorite portions of the game occurs when protagonist Jack loses control of his plasmids, and I was briefly able to try nearly every plasmid and power in the game. Outside of the plasmids, the more interesting weaponry takes some time to acquire. Every FPS loves to dole out a shotgun. Fewer have a spring loaded crossbow capable of shooting flaming, explosive bolts. Once I acquired that thing I used it with great glee.

BioShock largely relies on radio messages communicated through a handful of characters and recordings from long dead, often horribly murdered, residents for its worldbuilding. I usually love this type of worldbuilding, but I largely found BioShock’s use of recordings to be a mixed bag. For every Atlas with his easy charm and (clearly suspicious) guidance, there’s a recording of an over-the-top gangster doing a teeth-grating facsimile of a 1930s New York accent. Half the time I missed both mission necessary details and codes or integral character building and world enrichment because I was trying to wade through the overblown voice acting.

If BioShock stumbles in some of its worldbuilding via audio recordings, it truly shines, quite literally, in its environmental design and aesthetics. The architecture of the environments is truly beautiful. From the art deco posters littering the hallways and walls to the neon illuminating its mall areas and shops to the pale glow of Rapture’s other submerged buildings lighting its underwater tunnels. I often found myself getting distracted by the sheer detail and loveliness of BioShock’s environments, leaving myself wide open to attack from impatient enemies.

I stood in this spot for way, way too long staring at various posters and neon signs.

If there’s one video game genre I’ve had more of a previous aversion to than first person shooters, it’s horror, and BioShock wholeheartedly earns it horror-shooter hybrid label. Even now with my increased comfort with horror titles and shooters, I often found myself gritting my teeth and forcing myself to continue despite my heightened anxiety and paranoia. Most notably, the game has one of the most disorienting and unnerving soundscapes I’ve experienced. The splicers–the game’s most common enemy, unhinged and mutated former residents of Rapture–fill the environments with their ramblings: singing, laughing, crying, screaming, knocking chunks from the ceiling as they unnaturally crawl around, just out of sight. I spent an inordinate amount of time whipping around to check my back, unable to locate any enemy but nevertheless assured of their presence because I could always hear them. It’s incredibly effective. It’s absolutely terrifying, particularly in the early game when your lack of power always leaves you feeling just a little too vulnerable.

Outside of the soundscape, I found most of the music fairly standard and uninspired. One too many scare chords for cheap thrills, though I’ll readily admit they worked. More than once I ended up screaming in terror and shooting wildly after being startled by a jumping enemy heralded by a scare chord.

In previous playthroughs I considered putting the game down in this initial encounter with a clearly maddened Rapture resident whispering to her beloved….machine gun.

I was vaguely aware prior to playing BioShock that it had some type of morality system, but I would honestly call it less of a morality system and more of a cartoonishly evil choice versus the only sane decision that ends with you being rewarded anyway. It never even occurred to me to harvest a Little Sister. Even in a dystopian Randian hellscape, the prospect of murdering an abused child for the sake of a stronger plasmid or health upgrade rang as inherently absurd. The game is overflowing with examples of the horrifying consequences of engaging fully with the selfishness inherent in antagonist Andrew Ryan’s (a clear stand in for Ayn Rand) philosophies. At no point does acting within this level of callousness seem appealing or even advantageous, and by game’s end it seems I was entirely correct. I wasn’t particularly weakened by choosing to save the Little Sisters instead of killing them and had no issues plowing ahead through endgame feeling like an overpowered beast, or Big Daddy as it were.

This is, in fact, the energy I aspire to embody at all times.

For all of its aesthetic confidence, fun and varied combat, and twisty narrative the game weirdly comes to a record scratch stumble after its big twist reveal. To put it bluntly, I didn’t really know or care about Frank Fontaine, compared to the ever present and suffocating spectre of Ryan, and so much of the tension that comprises the first 3/4 or so of the game is lost once he’s eradicated. Add to that, I found the final boss confrontation with Frank to be one of the most underwhelming set pieces in the entire game. I knocked it out in one go with plenty of health kits left, convinced for several moments that I was likely moving into another stage of the fight before Frank is engulfed in irritated, stab-happy children and unceremoniously defeated.

Weak finish aside, it’s impossible to ignore the clear influence BioShock has had on gaming over a decade later. In playing BioShock I was continuously struck by just how much 2017’s Prey–a game I love from near top to bottom– pulls from BioShock’s foundations, from its marriage of exploration, horror, and shooting to its innovative weaponry to its dual use of powers and weapons all the way to its reliance on audio recordings to form the basis of its narrative and worldbuilding. If BioShock suffers from anything in 2020 its largely in comparison to the later titles that would take its bones and build, polish, and innovate them far beyond the originator.

I don’t believe I would have appreciated BioShock in 2007 to the extent that I do today. I absolutely know I wouldn’t have finished it, given my recent struggles to engage with it before becoming solidly invested. The beginning hours of BioShock are truly stressful, impressively so, and I think I need my current knowledge that I can knuckle through the fear if I’m determined enough. I wouldn’t call myself a BioShock stan in the vein of those who truly adore this game, but I went into this experience expecting I would not be convinced it deserved its years and years of praise. I’m willing to admit I was largely mistaken. 

The final shot of BioShock or a 2020 Etsy commercial?

That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least address some of my grievances, so have an abridged version:

  • I love a minigame, truly. My reaction to the hacking minigame was toleration at best and fist-clenched irritation at worst and it largely boils down to this: there’s too fucking many of them. 
  • In its attempts to unnerve I often found the game’s imagery veered into comically try-hard. Oh, yet another corpse impaled on a wall covered in blood? Charming. Sander Cohen’s macabre pieces throughout the mall were much more disturbing, even absent any blood. 
  • The security cameras in Neptune’s Bounty are a true horrorshow, and I mean that in a bad way. I had to redo a certain portion upwards of a half dozen times because I couldn’t locate the numerous cameras fast enough to disable them and was summarily murdered by bots over and over again. Harsh to place this obstacle so early after introducing the cameras as a threat.
  • I will pretty much never enjoy taking photos in game unless it’s for purely aesthetic purposes. I didn’t like the research photo mechanic and found it particularly annoying every time I forgot to take a picture before killing an enemy.
  • I was playing the 2016 BioShock Collection remaster and lord, the crashes. They’re numerous and terrible, seemingly triggered by breathing too hard in the game’s presence. I can only be thankful that I’m naturally a save every 5 minutes type of person.
  • It bears repeating that Frank Fontaine is so much less interesting than Ryan, and Ryan’s absence really kills the momentum of the final quarter of the game for me
  • I find the charges of ABSOLUTE GENIUS regarding BioShock’s story to be incredibly hyperbolic. BioShock is committed to its themes and explores them in interesting ways, and that’s enough.

If you haven’t already, make sure you check out SingingBrakeman’s wonderful Franchise Festival write-up of the BioShock series, which I can finally read now!