BioShock is Irrational’s finest offering to date, as well as the swan song for the Irrational brand in a way, since they recently relinquished their longstanding and well-established studio name for the more corporate, faceless tag of 2K Boston and 2K Australia. BioShock is a first-person shooter set in the fantastically unsettling city of Rapture, a metropolis built under the sea by the megalomaniacal Andrew Ryan. Throughout your lengthy stay, you’ll find options for combat as intricate and enjoyable as the story and characters are to interpretation, something that only a handful of games can ever claim to offer.
But to call this game simply a first-person shooter, a game that successfully fuses gameplay and narrative, is really doing it a disservice. This game is a beacon. It’s one of those monumental experiences you’ll never forget, and the benchmark against which games for years to come will, and indeed must, be measured. This isn’t merely an evolution of System Shock 2, but a wake-up call to the industry at large. Play this, and you’ll see why you should demand something more from publishers and developers, more than all those derivative sequels forced down our throats year after year with only minor tweaks in their formulas. It’s a shining example of how it’s possible to bring together all elements of game design and succeed to the wildest degree.
Things kick off with your plane smacking into the ocean and your character having to take refuge in Rapture to survive. Irrational plays on the conventions of the first-person perspective by thrusting you through experiences that toy with and vastly strengthen that fragile, intangible bond between in-game protagonist and yourself. At times, it forces upon you moments of reflection, which is so important and rare in games, where you contemplate the nature of blindly accepted game conventions, which we can’t get into for fear of spoiling things. It lays a relatively straight narrative path for you, but it never feels linear, a result of the gameplay as much as the narrative.
The target in BioShock, Andrew Ryan, is anything but a prototypical villain. He’s a man of bottomless ambition who built a city under the sea, obsessed with the idea of what makes a man, what differentiates a man from a slave. He’s the Randian hero, a man who holds his own creative vision above all else, and he’s Rodion Raskolnikov’s exceptional person, someone who can be excused for committing crimes to achieve a goal–and he knows it. His vision, Rapture, is clearly a colossal failure. The driving force behind the game is your quest to discover why this man’s alluring vision of an artistic utopia failed so completely and why you’ve stumbled upon it. Even though Ryan spits out what seems to resemble totalitarian propaganda, you can’t help but sympathize with him. He has alluring ideas, speaks them with conviction, and comes off as a sympathetic visionary despite his severe eccentricities.
As you continue through Rapture, you’ll discover it speaks to the nature of what a single-player game is–why do we choose to play a game that isn’t online, where you can’t interact with others? Like reading a novel, it’s to form your own impressions, to see the same events, hear the same words, and come away with a unique viewpoint. The thematic blending and twining of BioShock’s personalities is so powerful, it acts like any good book or movie, assaulting you with its ideas, popping into your thoughts when you least expect it, and broadening your understanding of what a game can achieve. Instead of painting Good and Evil across the foreheads of Rapture’s denizens with a neon brush, Irrational gave everyone murky motives, much like the shadowed, soaking environments you’re constantly plodding through, or the blurred vision you get after walking under one of Rapture’s ubiquitous waterfalls.
It’s the little ideas that pop up from time to time that make this world so believable: the piano plinks that resonate as you browse menu options; the guitars you can actually play randomly scattered around Rapture; the way every room is realistically constructed reflects both the heights to which Rapture managed to climb as well as the decadence and sense of voracious, selfish entitlement that brought it smashing down. You’ll hear some of the voice-overs muse, “Why do they wear the masks? Maybe there’s a part of them that remembers how they used to be, how they used to look, and they’re ashamed.” Little bits like that get tossed at you, and you don’t necessarily have to absorb them–they’re not essential to plot or anything, but they’re instrumental in making BioShock as immersive as it is.
The game is broken up into large sections, each separated by load times. Don’t worry; these aren’t load times like in Half-Life 2 where the game pauses unexpectedly. Instead, the load times are logically placed and never jarringly interrupt the experience or mar the immersion. Each section comes with its own cast of NPCs who aren’t mere stage bosses–oftentimes you don’t even engage them in combat. Instead, you are battling their ideals and their insecurities, grappling with their motivations as much as the splicer minions who so frequently assail you.