Late to the Party: The Bioshock Trilogy

There is always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city…

And today the lighthouse is my Nintendo Switch, the man is me, beloved Avocado space robot, and the city is a digital download of the Bioshock Collection. Or something like that.

The Bioshock series came out in a period of my life when I wasn’t really into video games that weren’t Guitar Hero, so I missed most of the hype train at the time. I was on Tumblr when Infinite came out, so I heard a little bit about that

Mostly regarding this kid and his baguette.

but by and large all I knew about it was “underwater city, scary diving suit man, something about Ayn Rand?”

Which made the stuff about the bread child pretty confusing, I gotta say.

In the interest of making this article easy to read and the comments easy to access, each game is under its own little spoiler heading. Beware, nothing under those headers is spoiler-tagged further. I’ve also split each review into sections: Synopsis, Story, Gameplay, Aesthetics, Final Thoughts, and Final Score (out of 10). There are also some series-wide judgements at the very end.

So hop in the bathysphere and get reading…and would you kindly let me know what you thought?

This will be referred to as “Bioshock 1” from here on out even though that isn’t technically its title.

SYNOPSIS: The year is 1960, and our (mostly) unseen protagonist Jack is the only survivor of a plane crash into the ocean. Lucky for him, there’s a lighthouse right there that can take him down to the underwater city of Rapture! Unluckily for him, Rapture’s undergone quite a societal collapse recently and it’s filled with pissed-off mutants and Objectivists. Will he escape? Will he find out what the hell happened in this libertarian fishtank? What’s up with the walking diving suits and their creepy daughters?

STORY: All in all, Bioshock 1 has a pretty good story. It’s not without its cliches (we’ve all seen mad scientists and mad artists and dystopias before), but it’s very effective at what it’s out to do on two major fronts: the political, and the meta-commentary about video games.

First of all, politics. It probably helps that I’m a leftist, so my immediate response to “an Ayn Rand fanboy builds a fiefdom of unregulated capitalism to lord over and also it’s at the bottom of the ocean” is “obviously there will be huge social problems because everyone who moves there is going to be some kind of grifter with no empathy, and no Objectivist is gonna pay for legitimate construction so there will be rampant structural failures”. And lo and behold, I was right about both of those things. I mean, I didn’t predict the part where Frank Fontaine set up social programs to shuttle society’s lower classes into the poorhouse-to-forcibly-converted-into-a-Big-Daddy pipeline, but that’s simply a science fiction illustration of how capitalism will fuck you up until you are no longer in control of your own mind and/or body. So far Elon Musk hasn’t found a magic sea slug that’ll give us superpowers but also mutate users horribly, but if he did he would probably also be fusing human people into diving suits.

Please don’t send me to your secret emerald mines for dissidents, Elon Musk

Secondly: video games. Since the dawn of time, video games have been giving you Some Guy Who Tells You Where To Go And What To Do, and at least half the time they don’t explain who this person is or why they want you to do those things. So when Bioshock told me to pick up a radio and an Irish guy started giving me instructions, I thought nothing of it. I extra thought nothing of it when it was revealed “Atlas” was a known subversive trying to overthrow Andrew Ryan. …And then it turns out Atlas has been playing the long con and bought a zygote off of Ryan’s mistress that he then age-accelerated and brainwashed into an automaton who will do literally anything if prefaced by the phrase “would you kindly”.

uh that explanation made sense i promise

You haven’t been doing the quests because it’s a video game and that’s how it works, you’ve been doing them because Frank Fontaine is literally hijacking your body and making you do them. Ugh. Hit me like a ton of bricks. I haven’t been caught off-guard by an intentional twist in years, good job, Bioshock.

Criticism time! Mostly my problem was that I found it a bit hard to follow when the story is largely fed piece-by-piece in the audio diaries – this is partially just a Me Thing, I don’t follow audio-only storytelling super well, but coupled with the fact that you might get attacked in the middle of listening to something, or you might not find an important diary or two, it’s not the strongest delivery system.

I also found some of the villains a bit…tasteless, especially Tenenbaum. Like maybe don’t make one of your mad scientists a Holocaust survivor, it just makes the whole thing feel gross and not in the way the game wants you to feel. Cohen and Suchong also suffer a bit from being a stereotypical flamboyant gay guy and a Yellow Peril-esque bad guy respectively. All three of them have extra depth that keeps me from straight-out being too offended to continue playing or anything, but they still could have used a couple more drafts and maybe a sensitivity consultant.

GAMEPLAY: Pretty standard FPS-RPG, I guess. Has a couple major stumbling blocks, most of which are thankfully ironed out in the sequel – not being able to wield your weapon and your plasmid simultaneously is a big one. I also could’ve stood for the game to make what’s a “plasmid” and what’s a “gene tonic” a little clearer; I ended up finishing the game with an empty plasmid slot because I didn’t realize some of the stuff in the Gatherer’s Gardens weren’t tonics despite being labelled the same way. But I’m also stupid, so there’s that.

The combat’s pretty fun – stunlocking people with the electrobolt/wrench combo or reflecting projectiles with Telekinesis are highlights – if not super innovative. I kind of wish there was a mechanic other than killing everyone, though; with the game fucking me up re: questgivers, I think there’s a space here for dissecting the “shoot first, questions later” tendencies of gamers. But also it’s a first-person shooter and Atlas probably Would You Kindly-ed me into killing everything, so it’s not surprising that there isn’t.

AESTHETICS: The Look of Bioshock is probably its biggest selling point, or at least it’s up there. It still looks fantastic (but to be fair I’m playing a remaster and I don’t know how much of that is the update), it has a unique and unified aesthetic, it has several iconic designs. Can’t ask for a whole lot more on the visual design front. Particular standouts: Big Daddies, Jack’s plasmid-mutated arm(s), and that opening shot of Rapture.

*chef’s kiss*

…But I’m still going to ask for more. I wish the game was slightly less dark – I know it’s for Atmosphere and I could’ve just messed with the brightness (but this is apparently the Intended Setting), but it’s very hard to figure out where I’m going or what I’m looking at on a semi-regular basis. I also would’ve liked a few more designs for the generic Splicers; what we have looks great, they’re all distinct and creepy, but seeing the same handful over and over takes a bit of the “big city fallen into ruin” feeling out of things. Even my cursory research after playing has indicated this is because of time/budget constraints, and as someone who’s firmly against crunch in the video game industry I would rather have fewer models than a bunch of real people not sleeping for three months; more models is a “in a perfect world” wish rather than a “why didn’t they?!” complaint. The only design I’m really iffy about is the Little Sisters; I’m not sure if they’re these bug-eyed Gollums on purpose because they’re Little Sisters and they’re creepy, or if it’s a case of video games’ ongoing issues with modelling children. Haven’t made up my mind if I think it works or if it’s just distracting.


Speaking of distracting: when Jack becomes a Big Daddy towards the end of the game…and according to the first-person view, he’s still wearing his little sweater under the helmet.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Not flawless by any means, but a game where I had a lot of fun and got to kill a bunch of capitalist pigs. I wanted more when it was over, which seems like a point in its favour.

Points deducted for killing Andrew Ryan off in a cutscene. A man chooses, a slave is railroaded into plot points.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

SYNOPSIS: It’s eight years after Jack murdered his way through Rapture, and you’re the Big Daddy known as “Subject Delta”. Ten years prior, Delta was thought to have died when the biological mother of the Little Sister he was bonded to forced him to shoot himself, but his bond with said Sister, Eleanor, has reawakened him in an even-more-decaying-than-last-time Rapture. Sofia Lamb, Eleanor’s mother, has turned it into some kind of cult compound, and it’s up to Delta to save Eleanor from her dastardly clutches.

STORY: First off, getting to play as a Big Daddy is a great choice. Just throwing another regular(ish) human in there, even with – one hopes – a very different backstory than Jack’s, would feel too samey. The player being a Big Daddy automatically adds a sense of pathos, considering what we learned about them and their little ADAM-gatherers last time, and this is only intensified as you play through the game. Delta’s bond with Eleanor and his determination to save her is the heart of this game.

The supporting cast is pretty good this time around — Sinclair was an interesting case; after Atlas/Fontaine in the first game, I was automatically suspicious of him, but the game seems to realize that, so he’s open about his flaws and the bad things he’s done, and by the time Lamb has him converted into another Big Daddy and you have to kill him I was surprisingly invested in our little friendship.

As for the Moral Choices characters, while to me there’s a clear answer to give Grace, Stanley, and Gil Alexander, I can easily see why someone would go the other way on each. Well, maybe not on Grace, leave her alone.

Unlike Bioshock 1, the weak point here is the political part of the story. It might just be my Personal Bias as a leftist, but I found Bioshock’s critique of collectivist politics weaker and less convincing than when it took on Objectivism; even transposed into the exaggerated sci-fi setting, Lamb’s decisions and plans don’t feel like a logical outgrowth of her beliefs. Instead of Objectivism/unregulated capitalism, the extreme here is repressive Communism, and while I get that the game’s going for a “sacrificing everything for The Greater Good

THE GREATER GOOD

might mean sacrificing your own identity” thing, Lamb’s plan to download everyone’s brains into Eleanor’s to make her into some kind of super public servant doesn’t follow to me. Like, somehow giving her a bunch of identities will cause her to …not have one at all? Seems like this allegory would work better if Lamb was trying to lobotomize people or copy her own conscience into everybody’s brains or something.

Regardless of its flaws, I had more than enough #feels about Delta and Eleanor and their weird little forced-found-family to make up for it. I was so proud of my daughter when she started kicking ass as a Big Sister in the lategame, let me tell you.

pictured: me

GAMEPLAY: Basically an improvement on the last game’s in every way. It really feels like the team behind this one got the criticisms and implemented solutions that streamline the clunkier bits (letting me have my plasmid hand and my weapon hand out at the same time) and tweak the things that didn’t quite work (improving some of the plasmid abilities). Speaking of plasmids: Insect Swarm is fun as hell, I love it. It was probably good in B1, but I didn’t have it in that game so fuck if I know. But this game? BEES BEES BEES BEES

The new weapons are good, love the big ol’ drill, rocket spears are the way of the future, and trapping the crap out of a corpse your Little Sister is ADAM-harvesting is never not funny.

I’m probably the only person who felt this way, but I missed the original hacking minigame with the tubes. I don’t know, I enjoyed it.

also i kept shooting the hacking gun at enemies and wasting all my darts

It’s also more difficult than the last game, or at least that’s how it felt to me. Admittedly I played B1 and B2 on different difficulties, but the jump seemed so massive that it wasn’t accounted for simply by moving from Easy to Medium – I didn’t die at all in Bioshock 1, but I died constantly in Bioshock 2. Which is a little unintuitive considering I was Some Dude In A Wool Sweater in B1 and a Big Daddy in B2, but it would probably be too easy if Delta was as durable as most Big Daddies.

AESTHETICS: Again, mostly a direct improvement on Bioshock 1. It takes the same general look and applies three more years of experience and what seems to be a less-rushed development, making the setting look even better than before. There are more Splicer designs this time out, the Little Sisters look like actual children (again, this might be intentional; you’re a Big Daddy now, so they should seem cuter to the player than last time’s little gremlins), and there are a couple of interesting sequences, especially the section where you see Rapture through the eyes of a Little Sister. I wasn’t expecting that overhaul.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Basically it’s Bioshock 1 but better in almost every way. Some people might consider that insufficiently interesting, especially given the unevenness of the story, but since I liked B1 this is just More And Better and I won’t say no to any of that.

also BEES BEES BEES BEES

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

SYNOPSIS: You’re Booker DeWitt, former genocid—uh, soldier for the U.S. Army/union bus—er, Pinkerton and current private investigator/guy with gambling problem. In order to square up a mysterious debt, Booker has agreed to find a girl named Elizabeth in the flying city of Columbia and bring her back to New York…but of course, it’s not going to be that easy. Enter some truly insane levels of racism, a potential anarchist revolution, and a whole lot of quantum physics.

STORY: This one’s gonna be a doozy, bear with me.

Infinite’s got A Lot of Shit to Say, that’s for certain. And some of it is effective as fuck. When it’s making its points about “hey, maybe racism is FUCKING BAD” and “all white people in settler states kind of have a little blood on their hands” I think it does a great job. I wanted to cry going through that Wounded Knee/Boxer Rebellion museum, Jesus Christ.

Columbia in general is a very chilling experience. It’s not remotely subtle, but I’m not of the opinion that things need to be done subtly to be good or effective. Instead, it beats you over the head with America’s dark side until you accept it (or presumably until you lose your shit under the cognitive dissonance and become a MAGA chud, but I digress). Released in 2013, it really feels like Infinite knew which way the wind was blowing in America and was intended as something of a cautionary tale: we need to reckon with our shit before some lying dipshit swoops in and plays on everyone’s nationalism until they create a fascist nightmare where “racism” is a personality trait.

It’s when the game gets into the politics beyond “don’t do a genocide” that things get kind of weird. One of the things Infinite wants to talk to you about is capitalism, and again, it does a pretty good job of illustrating both real-world Fucked-Up Shit (Finkton’s workers are paid in money you can only spend at the Finkton Company Store) and potential evils (Finkton makes workers outbid each other on who can do a job the fastest in an auction every morning; might as well just snap your own neck and save ol’ Jeremiah the trouble). So for the first chunk of the game, it seems like Infinite is at least left-leaning: capitalism is bad, and the opposing force, the anarchist Daisy Fitzroy and her group the Vox Populi, are mostly good. There’s no real indication that the Vox are doing bad things in the name of The Greater Good

SHUT IT

and Daisy herself seems entirely genuine about what she’s trying to do in her audio diaries. …And then you go through a couple parallel dimensions and get to the part where the Vox actually manage to take Finkton in a military action and Infinite suddenly decides “wait we gotta Both Sides this, we made the Vox mostly good with a dash of ‘is violence really the way’ but the other side is American Exceptionalism times all the worst parts of Christianity to the power of Nazis” so Daisy goes ham and starts murdering people left and right, including (well, attempting to include) Booker himself and a child. And it’s just like…Bioshock, please. Sometimes a fight really is one-sided. It’s okay to go with the imperfect side who’s after justice and freedom and equality over, again, the xenophobic religious zealots who still use slave labour. A dispute can be one-sided, it’s fine!

screams internally. screams externally. screams eternally.

At the very least, give the Vox more authoritarian traits than “uses Soviet/Maoist artstyles in their propaganda”, jeez.

Then after a certain point, the story pivots nigh-entirely to being about the multiverse stuff and leaves the political thread basically unfinished, except that I guess it never happens because Bookhary ComWitt is dead now. For a game that’s spent all this time trying to tell me that dialectic-ing ourselves into the centre is The Best Way, it’s weird that they didn’t balance the parts of the story a little better.

I also thought the Booker Is Comstock So Elizabeth Is Anna twist was not very interesting; it feels very standard for a multiverse story. Plus Bioshock as a series has always had this strong parent-child (and especially father-daughter) theme going through it, so when you’re playing as a middle-aged man and your sidekick is a young woman, finding out that, yes, she is your biological daughter is very “well duh”. It’s what I expected once the game starts getting into all the quantum stuff, and after Bioshock 1 got me so good with the Atlas twist I was hoping for something crazy.

I also don’t know quite how to feel about all the obvious nods to real-world history (like naming your self-righteous villain Comstock, I mean really). Some of it works in the “yeah, this actually happened!” sense, and sometimes it’s just like “yes, I get it already!” I don’t have a good grasp on whether they’re intentional winks to people who are familiar with American history or if being able to “see the Matrix” is kneecapping the storytelling, I really don’t.

Infinite’s also the oddball of the series in science fiction terms; the first two games mostly use a biological approach with a lot of genetic engineering, while this one shifts to quantum physics. It’s partly out of necessity, since Bioshocks 1 & 2 establish that most of the discoveries those games run on were recent and thus can’t show up in 1912. I’m not sure this is a Valid Criticism, but it was like a weird itch in my brain the whole time so I’m putting it in here.

I think Infinite’s ultimate strength might be its characters. The Luteces are instant classics, Booker walks this great fine line between being a piece of shit that you hate and someone you deeply pity, Elizabeth is sort of like a dystopian Disney Princess.


Though I wouldn’t mind if she’d stop telling me about all the books she’s read.

This section makes it sound like I didn’t like this game, which isn’t the case. I had a lot of fun playing through it, it’s just…this could’ve been something really good and instead it settles for mediocre and occasionally very tone-deaf.

GAMEPLAY: Perhaps I was ruined by Bioshock 2’s quest to perfect the game mechanics, but I felt like most of the changes in Infinite were downgrades. I don’t like the loss of the weapon wheel, most of the new guns aren’t very interesting, hacking turrets is temporary, and keeping plasmids in a time where we shouldn’t have them yet (I know they’re called “Vigors” here but they’re plasmids, okay) is understandable as a hallmark of the series but just feels wrong. And you can’t stock up on first-aid kits and EVE hypos(/Salt bottles) which is a pain in the ass of the first order. I kept trying to heal myself only to realize that I couldn’t, turn to look at Elizabeth in desperation, and then dying.

THROW ME AMMO AGAIN, ELIZABETH, AND I WILL PUT YOU BACK IN THAT TOWER WHERE I FOUND YOU SO HELP ME —

The skyline hook-travel thing is a mixed bag. It’s pretty fun to just whip around through the sky, sure, but the actual controls on it are clunky AF. Maybe I just don’t have the reflexes for it, but I found it difficult to time my jumps and dismounts and sky strikes and what have you and it took a bit of fun out. If they ever make another Bioshock and include this, I’d just have it be a fun travel conceit that can show off scenery, or maybe an optional minigame-type thing. This is more of a personal opinion than most of this review, but I feel strongly about it.

Much like the game kind of forgets about the whole “America is fundamentally sorta fucked-up” story thread, it also drops mechanics. Early on, you get a handful of quicktime events (deciding where to throw the baseball at the raffle, heads or tails with the Luteces, which brooch Elizabeth should pick), but the rest of the game just…doesn’t have any? I’m no great defender of the QTE or anything, but I find it distracting that the game sets you up to expect this as a recurring element and then it just stops happening. It feels sloppy, like they didn’t go back and change these after realizing the rest of the game didn’t provide any opportunities for more.

But Undertow might be my favourite plasmid/vigor of the entire series, that shit’s great.

at least until Bioshock 4 undoubtedly introduces Splash o’ Bees

AESTHETICS: The scenery looks amazing, I cannot lie. Beautiful. And the turn-of-the-century aesthetic is carried off as perfectly as the Art Deco of the earlier/later (prequels are confusing) games is – it’s got that exact touch of creepiness that everything from that era seems to possess.

What is weird is that this game is missing a huge chunk of the first two games’ most famous designs – no Splicers, no Big Daddies, no Little Sisters. It makes Infinite seem like it’s a weird cousin to the first two that uses some of its setting and gameplay but isn’t directly in line with the other two. Which I guess is strictly true given the whole alternate-universe thing, but that’s only a Watsonian explanation. My inner Doylist is unsatisfied.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Starts strong with beautiful graphics and some very meaningful things to say about (white Christian) American culture, devolves into a head-up-the-ass mess divorced from both its starting point and the rest of the series.

FINAL SCORE: 5/10

BEST STORY: Bioshock 1

BEST GAMEPLAY: Bioshock 2

BEST AESTHETICS: Bioshock Infinite

BEST PROTAGONIST: Bioshock 2

BEST ANTAGONIST: Bioshock 1

BEST IN SERIES: Bioshock 2

DID YOU PLAY THE DLC? The edition I bought didn’t give me the ones for Bioshock 1 or 2, but I did get Burial At Sea for Infinite. It certainly makes Infinite feel more like a real series installment by sending you to Rapture, but I was Not Ready to play a stealth game so Episode 2 was a struggle.

this poster was completely worth it though

The “Daisy was just pretending to go mad with power!” attempt to save that plotline is weak and kind of racist, and I’m not sure how I feel about Elizabeth dying to regular ol’ Frank Fontaine. Wasn’t there a door where you also survive, Elizabeth, c’mon. Overall it was fine. 5/10, same as the base game.

WHAT ENDINGS DID YOU GET? The bad ending of Bioshock 1, the good ending of Bioshock 2. Bioshock Infinite dropped this gimmick so I got the same one as everyone else.

DIDN’T SOMEONE ALREADY DO A LATE TO THE PARTY ON BIOSHOCK? As it turns out, yes. Razz Matazz covered the first game last year. Somehow I missed it when looking through the LttP tag for this exact reason, but I had already done all the writing and image-editing so I’m posting mine anyway. Hopefully mine being about all three games is sufficiently different for anyone who read both, and apologies to Razz for unintentionally stepping on your toes.

SERIES SCORE: Averaging out the three games gives us a 6.5/10.