In the Summer of 2007, Bioshock was unleashed upon the gaming world and with it rippled across the industry for years to come, becoming popular within pop culture and one of the greatest games ever made. The memories of loading up the demo for the first time and indulging myself in the pitch perfect opening section of the game that introduced the beautiful world created would resonate with me forever. It was the first time, as a gamer, that I felt games could transcend the realms of being pure throwaway fun and become something greater. Bioshock is a masterpiece and proves that video games can be an art form and not just a source of entertainment.
At the centre of Bioshock is Rapture, an underwater utopia created by the game’s antagonist, Andrew Ryan, a visionary who saw a world without law and morality. Rapture embodies everything that is Andrew Ryan, represented by the vibrant world which represents his huge ideas, counteracted with the destructive nature of the environment which mirrors his inner psyche. Every corner of Rapture is utilized to its full capability and showcases the decaying beauty compressed within. It’s an atmosphere that is unmatched and as you venture into bathysphere at the beginning and descend deeper below the water, it showcases itself as a practical sense of descending into the madness that is Andrew Ryan.
Rapture has such beautiful character and is built around level design that begs the player to explore. As you peel the layers back and discover more through audio logs, set pieces and seeing the effect on what Andrew Ryan’s vision has had on this world, the themes of this game become more apparent. Seeing the dangers of the lack of restraint and how people’s ambitions and desires can overcome people is truly fascinating and is represented in the world itself via set pieces and how the player interacts with the enemies. From every bloodstained wall, to the crumbling nature of the world around, Rapture consistently puts you face to face with horrifying feats that further expand on the world
What remains so great about this environment is that the game is genuinely scary, still to this day. The inhabitants of Rapture have spent years losing their minds to the addiction of splicing themselves with plasmids and tonics which gained them the ability of powers such as telekinesis and being able to shoot fire from their hands. Appropriately named Splicers, these enemies react to your movement in completely different ways during every playthrough. It’s easy to get conditioned to scripted moments that employ tension and fear, but the AI within the game can react to each situation different every time, that it makes every playthrough feel fresh and as terrifying as the first.
Perhaps the greatest foe within the game are the Big Daddies. These enemies protect children known as Little Sisters, who can extract ADAM from the inhabitants – the game currency which allows the player to purchase more powers. Sourcing ADAM from Little Sisters is vital to your survival in this world and engaging with combat to overcome the obstacle of the Big Daddy is your only way to source this. These battles invite you to use all your abilities so far and the environment to your advantage. With the ability to hack turrets, set traps and plan accordingly, this can make or break a fight which constantly ramp up in difficulty as the game goes on and you’re introduced to different variants of the enemy. Their imposing physical nature and deafening sound are enough to make you buckle under the pressure, but thinking outside of the box on how to approach each tactical situation makes for a combat experience that is hard to find in other shooters.
Going back to the use of powers, Bioshock was one of the first games that infused the shooter and RPG genre together. Plasmids and tonics are slowly distributed to the player and rewarded to those who engage with the Big Daddies and harvest ADAM for themselves to purchase further abilities. It’s an interesting mechanic that can craft different experiences depending on the play style of the player. Those who push forward, harvest the ADAM and gain new powers will have an easier experience to those who succumb to the fear of gaining this currency. Having a variety of enemy types who also employ the weapons you have forces you to use a plethora of powers to counteract each fight and emerge victorious. Exploration serves as a primary purpose to further yourself and learn more about the world, as well as discover new abilities which crafts a perfect dynamic.
Bioshock has one of the greatest stories melded with its absorbing atmosphere. Starting you out after a plane crash in the ocean, your descent into Rapture is experienced through fresh eyes as you are led by a mysterious voice on a radio known as Atlus, giving an objective to move forward. A lot of the story and lore is left for you to discover. You can grasp the fundamentals of the story through main progression, but by venturing off the beaten track to discover audio logs, optional rooms and study this once haven of paradise, you become more versed into the reality of events as to what transpired to turn this place into a pit of hell. The best storytelling mechanics are those that are subtly left to the player. Bioshock prides itself on using its expertly crafted level design to promote visual clues as to the backstory, leaving it up to the player’s imagination to design the rest of the tale.
Each level is presented as a semi-open environment and offers the option to either explore or continue with the main story. Every section of the game is expertly crafted to give each its own character and flair. The most notable of these takes place around halfway through, in a level known as Fort Frolic, which is perhaps one of the greatest levels ever made. This whole area beams with personality and creativity, showcasing Rapture’s entertainment district and employing a larger than life sense of style. From the eccentric character known as Sander Cohen, who perfectly embraces the grandeur of this area, to enemies who will disguise themselves as statues before attacking you suddenly, this district pushes you through a variety of emotions such as wonderment and pure fear, but then charges through you at such speed that you can experience a wide range in a few short seconds. Everything about Fort Frolic embodies what makes Bioshock so great and captures the pure horror and spectacle of the series. Can you name another game that forces you to fight off waves off inhabitants while the theme from The Nutcracker plays? I think not.
Thematically, everything revolves around the concept of gods and monsters. “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” asks Andrew Ryan. A man who wanted to be god, a man who wanted a world removed of rules and law. Rapture is a system that has free will, free markets and a free economy. It explores the idea of what happens when people are allowed to experiment and explore themselves that society has dictated to be unreasonable or if not sane of mind. What happens when all these people live in one city, segregated from the rest of the world and free to push themselves however they want to?
Bioshock is a masterpiece of gaming, but also as a study of the human mind and what happens once the shackles are let loose and we are free to be not as what society deems the norm, but what we, as creators, believe is fundamentally right. The gameplay of Bioshock offers you the same free limitations to showcase this, and through your control, determine how your abilities will affect the scheme in the long run. Quite often, Bioshock offers the player choices, but often, the illusion of choice. Game director Ken Levine wanted these moments removed as fundamentally, the main principle of the game is that we have no choice. It’s a balancing act that is perfectly realised and comes to a crescendo within the game’s final hours.
Bioshock is a masterclass of storytelling, world build and incredible gameplay, and it may just be the greatest game ever made.