There’s been a spate of story driven action-adventure games this console generation. It’s a genre that doesn’t get a huge amount of love from games designers, or at least it didn’t until Ken Levine and his team of geniuses at Irrational Games dropped a bomb on our collective heads at the tail end of 2007. BioShock was a very special game for me, not just because it harkened back to a time of great innovation in which games like Thief and the original Deus Ex showed us how engaging a story driven FPS could be, but because it paved the way for brilliant modern day experiences like Dishonored and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which revel in letting players explore their strange science fiction environments.
Without the huge commercial success of BioShock, who knows if those fantastic story driven open world games would have even been made? Let alone, of course, the fast approaching BioShock: Infinite, which promises to be one of the biggest releases this year. But, what was it exactly about BioShock that captured gamers’ imaginations so much? The truth is that there’s no all-encompassing answer. Everyone has different reasons for loving it. But, in honour of BioShock: Infinite’s fast approaching release window, please allow me to share what it was exactly that made this game have such a large impact on me.
As I said in a previous article, I love the idea of dystopian worlds. I don’t know what it is exactly that I find so fascinating about the idea of an idyllic society gone wrong. Perhaps I have a pessimistic view on things. Maybe I just have a macabre sense of humour. Whatever it is that makes these stories so appealing, Ken Levine certainly gets it.
The story of BioShock is quite unlike anything I have read before, and yet it fits perfectly into the mould of dystopia. Rapture as a concept is excellent: The great minds of the early twentieth century shut themselves off from the prying eyes of their respective governments in order to pursue their genius in peace, free from the limitations of morals and laws. They make huge leaps forward in science and the arts, giving birth to the concept of gene therapy and discover a substance called “ADAM” that can reshape a person’s genetic structure to give them superhuman abilities. Indeed, it would seem that Andrew Ryan created the ultimate society, but for one crucial flaw: everything went horribly wrong.
And when I say “horribly” wrong I mean horrendously so. In short, a class war erupted and the plasmid enhanced lower classes lead by a mysterious figure called Frank Fontaine attempted to steal ADAM from Ryan industries. To combat this, Ryan created his own army of plasmid junkies called “splicers” and protected his precious ADAM carrying “Little Sisters” with Big Daddy escorts. Hijinks ensued.
The excellent plot could carry the mood of the game on its own, and is easily the most compelling aspect in my opinion. It’s not like BioShock has a very changeable story, with only two true endings to speak of. I’ve played RPGs with more freedom and opportunity to change the outcome of events, but that’s not the point. When you arrive on Rapture, you have only the words of “Atlas” to guide you, and you feel compelled to go along with his instructions. He is the only voice of sanity in an otherwise insane world. You also sort of hate Ryan for letting Rapture become so messed up. This dislike of Ryan is compounded when you witness what he does to Atlas’ family. All that changes though when you actually find Ryan and your attention is redirected to a far worse foe.
In my opinion the story of BioShock would make a fantastic novel and a very good movie (even though a film doesn’t look likely). I think that neither of these would have the same impact as playing through the story though. There is a great difference in witnessing the massive plot twist in BioShock passively and actually having a hand in it. It’s brilliant because it actually makes the gamer feel as though they have been tricked by the game in some way. It’s a technique that I haven’t really seen since.
At the heart of BioShock is a fantastic FPS game. There is no doubt that the weapons on offer in Rapture will bring a smile to the face of even the most battle hardened FPS fan. Shotguns kick back with satisfying authority, Tommy Guns blaze with deafening machine gun fire, and flamethrowers shoot everything from napalm to electrically charged gel. There are a lot of weapons in BioShock and many of them are far from what people have come to expect from an FPS. The crossbow, in particular, is fantastic and a sadistic favourite of mine.
There is so much more to the shooting mechanics than varied weapons though. BioShock has an incredibly addictive element to its gameplay that is prevalent in many RPG games in that it will let you upgrade all of your weapons in whichever way/order you wish. It will also let you purchase a myriad of different ammo types to combat the varied enemies you will encounter in Rapture. And that’s not even the best part – there is another tool that can be used to fight Rapture’s armies of splicers: plasmids.
I had a huge amount of fun discovering and using all the Plasmids that can be found in BioShock. Some can be used to directly injure enemies (Incinerate, Bee Swarm, Electric Shock) and some of them can be used to exploit elements in your surroundings to take the emphasis away from you (Enrage, Decoy Target, Hypnotise Big Daddy). Whichever combination you choose, you are sure to have a great time balancing the use of these abilities and your limited ammo supplies when facing down enemies. The brilliant rag doll physics of BioShock invariably make for some genuinely hilarious splicer death sequences.
On top of all this customisation you have the responsibility of managing resources. This is, again, very similar to the sort of system found in many RPG games. As well as spending all your hard earned cash on ammo and “Eve Hypos” for Plasmids at Circus Of Values machines, you also have to consider how many health packs you will need along your travels. On top of all this is the never ending quest for ADAM and the question of whether you choose to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters. Whatever you decide though, you will have to stray off the beaten path of the game if you want to find enough quantities of everything. Even though this game has quite a linear plot, this element of resource scarcity makes you feel as though there is a free-roaming element. There have been many games that have incorporated RPG or FPS elements into their gameplay, but very few have done so with such aplomb.
I can’t think of many games that have made old 40′s big band and boogie woogie music seem so badass, but BioShock certainly does. You may be blasting splicers with barely any life left one minute, and the next minute “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” by the Andrews Sisters will come blaring out of your speakers to spur you on. The macabre depravity of Rapture and the jovial, foot-tapping beats are in stark contrast to each other, but it works. The music partially takes you back to a time before the fall of Rapture, and serves as a creepy reminder that many people used to live there in peace and happiness.
There is plenty in the way of disturbing jingles though. The game’s soundtrack is filled with tracks that are both grandiose and haunting. They truly instil a sense of awe about Rapture and seem best suited to a blockbuster film and not a game. Indeed, there were a lot of times when I stopped playing simply to appreciate the time that has gone into the audio design. Off-key violin strokes and deranged mutterings will set your nerves on edge many times without having to actually see any enemies. There were occasions when I was scared whilst playing simply because of the creepy audio. The point in the game where you first find a shotgun was a stand-out here; I’m sure a few of you will know what I’m talking about!
A vital part of the audio design is the voice acting. I can shut my eyes and imagine Andrew Ryan’s voice very clearly. The actors really sell the story to you and although you will rarely see the faces of their in game characters, you will hear from them a lot via the numerous audio diaries you pick up during your travels. I absolutely loved these little insights into the plot, and found them a great tool for drip feeding the player the story and making them want to explore deeper into Rapture. In short, the audio design is a very strange mixture of 40′s and 50′s popular music, excellent voice acting, and disturbing sound effects. No one can accuse the audio design of BioShock of being unoriginal.
This is only a brief trip back to the beauty and horror of BioShock. And again, it’s just my opinion. The really great thing about Rapture is that it has something for everyone, and everyone leaves with something different. If they ever leave. The game upped standards for video game presentation and storytelling, and we can only hope this carries over to future titles like Infinite. And it will always serve as a reminder to me about the power of a game to transport you into a world other mediums would merely let you take a quick glance at.