In Charles Onyett’s original review for BioShock — which this month is celebrating its 10-year anniversary — he predicted that the video game was “the benchmark against which games for years to come will, and indeed must, be measured.” Celebrated as a literary achievement on its release, BioShock even appeared in the London Review of Books, where John Lanchester called it “visually striking, verging on intermittently beautiful, also violent, dark, sleep-troubling, and perhaps, to some of its intended audience, thought-provoking.” Although Lanchester recognized the game’s achievement amongst gamers, he remarked that among non-gamers, “I have yet to encounter anyone who has ever heard of it.”
Ten years later, people still point to BioShock as proof that games deserve the same depth of criticism as literature or art. So given the anniversary, it seems the perfect time to re-enter the Bathysphere and see just how lasting some of BioShock’s innovations really are. (Obviously spoilers ahead.)
Film critic Pauline Kael wrote that, “Art is the greatest game, the supreme entertainment, because you discover the game as you play it.” An apt comment when applied to video games. Discovery is key to the unique way that video games tell stories, and BioShock rightly claims some credit for paving the way. In BioShock we discover the city of Rapture; an Art Deco dystopia at the bottom of the sea. Rapture remains a watermark of “environmental storytelling”: a story told through the setting as you encounter it. Few fictional cities in any medium have ever been so lovingly rendered with such immaculate detail and history.
Imagine Rockefeller Center, with its imposing busts and Modernist frescoes, expanded into a glittering metropolis, decorated with flickering neon, and dropped to the ocean floor. The walls creak and moan like a ship’s hull. Aquamarine views greet me through every sweeping bay window and glorious domed glass ceiling. Dreamy light spills in, muted by the crush of water above. Schools of fish flash by. Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” echoes from a distant radio. Debris litters the corridors. Shops have been looted, beds overturned, and the abandoned remains of 1959 New year’s eve party tells me that something here has gone horribly wrong.
Rapture is the site for creative director Ken Levine’s unique critical perspective: a vision of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, taken to hysterical extremes. Rapture’s founder Andrew Ryan — like Rand not just in name — after seceding from the burdens of state and church, established Rapture as the ultimate capitalist experiment, “a city where the artist would not be confined by the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.” Levine describes Ryan as an “amalgamation of characters from Ayn Rand’s books and from Ayn Rand herself; this sort of idealistic person who says that the only way to do this is to separate from the rest of the world.”
Levine needed a reason for Rapture to be cut off from society; the city’s isolation due to the fact that the world of a video game needs borders. Levine and director Shawn Robertson first played with a spaceship setting, similar to that of their previous game System Shock 2 — a spiritual predecessor to BioShock, which established many of the environmental storytelling ideas that BioShock built on. But a spaceship felt too familiar an environment for a video game; an underwater city had a freshness.
The Randian influence was almost a fluke. “I don’t think I was even aware of the political implications of what I was reading,” Levine admitted, “but I had read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and I thought it was an interesting story. I didn’t realize people were sort of basing their political lives around it.” Rand’s Atlas Shrugged may be the more influential, with its vision of a dystopian America where all creative and capital leaders decry collectivism in favor of the individual. Once Rand’s influence made its way into Levine’s plans, the Modernist style of Rand’s fictions fed into the design of Rapture, making for a unique aesthetic that was grounded in story — much imitated but rarely matched.
A Rogue’s Gallery
The player enters BioShock’s disturbed world as Jack — a mute protagonist that I freely inhabit as the player — so the story is really brought to life through its supporting cast. Rapture’s denizens patrol the halls, mad with the hubris of individualism. That, and with superhuman genetic mutations. Ungoverned by law, their experiments with genetic splicing have transfigured them. They throw fire from their hands, teleport across space. If I wait in hiding, I can observe them quarrelling like scorned lovers, or hunting together like pack-animals. A waitress, if left uninterrupted, will continue to serve the frozen corpses in a diner booth. These citizens are crazed, but still human, possessing a surprising depth, given that they are mostly here as gun fodder.
There are also recorded memories from the city’s inhabitants, old Dictaphones that tell stories like a series of spoken diary entries, that can be found strewn amongst the rubble; another environmental storytelling device that BioShock helped establish. These recordings weave together a dense collection of narratives from characters that would otherwise be left in the far background, their voices floating up from the past while you scavenge through the ruins of their present.
Significant characters act as chapter-points, each one a new roadblock on the way to Ryan’s lair. The most iconic would have to be Sander Cohen, a face-painted Dali-esque artiste who enlists your help in completing his macabre masterpiece, with one inventive murder after another. But lesser characters are just as memorable. The creaking medical wing is menaced by the demented Dr. Steinman — more of a cosmetic surgeon than health professional — who denounces the body’s limited symmetry, and goes about making ghastly Picassos of his patients. “With genetic modifications, beauty is no longer a goal, or even a virtue; it is a moral obligation,” muses Steinman. “Do we force the healthy to live with the contagious? Do we mix the criminal with the law-abiding? Then why are the plain allowed to mingle with the fair?” If that posturing speech sounds over-puffed, look to Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and you’ll find it not far off the mark. BioShock works better as a nightmarish satire of Objectivism, rather than an earnest critique.
“A man chooses, a slave obeys.”
Questions of agency are now central to much game criticism, and BioShock is partly to thank. Two experiences run parallel in the player’s explorations: the goal-oriented, A-to-B linearity of jumping the game’s successive hurdles and therefore advancing the plot, and the aimless meandering and discovering, whereby you take in the scenery at your own pace. Both have different rewards. One of the great joys of gaming is this dual reading, absorbing parallel lines of experience at once.
The notion of choice is highlighted most overtly in the decision given to either “harvest” or “rescue” the Little Sisters, the only children in Rapture, protected by their lumbering mechanical protectors, the Big Daddies. (Games are never short of bizarre misogynies.) Killing the Little Sisters gives me more power, while saving them offers the only moment of benevolence in an otherwise hostile environment.
There has been criticism for the lack of consequence over this choice. As the game purports to challenge Randian individualism by offering this moral dilemma, it goes to no lengths to flesh out any meaningful differentiation of experience whether you choose to rescue the Little Sisters or not. The first time I played BioShock, I felt compelled to save every Little Sister. The second time around, I wanted to delve into the murk (quite literally: the screen turns a swampy green whenever you choose to harvest the children.) It turns out, aside from a momentary pang of guilt, the story played out much as it did the first time.
Hence we have one of BioShock’s most significant contributions to game criticism: “ludonarrative dissonance.” The idea refers to a conflict between the story told in the narrative and the story told through gameplay. A frequently-cited example is Uncharted’s Nathan Drake: portrayed as an Indiana Jones-type hero in the story, but one who commits mass-murder in the gameplay. The term was coined by Clint Hocking in 2007, when he confessed frustration about how BioShock seems to “openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all.” Championed by developers like Jonathan Blow, ludonarrative dissonance has since become a vital development in how we understand and critique games, as well as how game developers approach storytelling. But to dismiss BioShock entirely for this discrepancy is overkill. It is, after all, BioShock that sparked the thinking.
Violence in BioShock is the modus operandi, and while often repellent, it can also be cartoony, playful, and fun. With a spate of weapons in my right hand, my left has been charged with genetic “upgrades” that give me the power to shoot electricity, ice, or even a swarm of bees from my fingers. There is a stupid pleasure in freezing someone where they stand and then shattering their statue-body into frozen dust, or hoisting someone up with my levitation powers and flinging them at a crowd, like a bowling ball to pins. Such macabre virtuosity reaches peak ridiculousness when I am forced to face an onslaught of back-flipping baddies to the rousing strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers.” Every spin, run, smack, shoot, takes on the elegance of a ballet. I feel for a moment that this fantastical murder spree is as accomplished as a live performance.
It’s true that a game can be played well or badly, and some responsibility lies with the player to bring the game to life by playing it well. In BioShock, as I continue to die and respawn over and over again, narrative momentum grinds to a halt, and the Groundhog-Day effect wears on my patience. Where at first I executed my actions with finesse, I later resort to storming through the place haphazardly, just to keep things moving. It is a problem of pacing, something essential to any time-based art. But I have no one to blame but myself.
In one instance I encounter a crying woman, bent over a baby’s pram, her silhouette thrown monstrously onto the weeping walls. I want to pass by unnoticed, but there is no way past without her noticing, and as she flies at me in a rage, my only choice is to bludgeon her with my bloody wrench. One could argue these moments serve to draw attention to my morally bankrupt character. But it’s easy to lose interest in any such nuances; to go on smacking heads with hard metal, then looting those bodies for cash. The game’s motives pull me ever forward, no time to dwell. On one hand, this chain of unfelt violence is a tired video game trope. On the other, it actually serves the game’s greatest coup, given the now-notorious twist that lies ahead.
Nearing what seems to be the end of the game, I make my way at the instruction of Atlas — both my guide and another gesture towards Rand, who speaks to me through a two-way radio — through Rapture’s maze to Ryan’s office. This encounter should mark the climactic end, the “Boss Battle”. Ryan emerges, dressed in dapper suit, practicing his golf-putting. He laments — his cartoony gesticulations as pompous as the surroundings — that I have been programmed all along to follow these directions by Atlas — the phrase “Would you kindly…” acting as a hypnotic code — so that I might murder Ryan for Atlas’s own diabolical ends. Ryan hands me the golf-club and orders me to kill. “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” Ryan intones, a final test. Now as I watch the action unfold like a movie, control wrested away from me, Jack blindly obeys, and beats Ryan to death with his own golf club, without hesitation. All notions of agency — the freedom of exploration that games herald as their highest creed — are revealed as a grand delusion. Pulled out of the digital world and back into my living room, I sit in the din of the television glow, pressing buttons, following predestined paths, duped into believing that I have some active role to play in this story, when all I can really do is follow the rules of the game. Obey.
It’s certainly the game’s strongest legacy, this encounter with Ryan, and for some it is BioShock’s greatest weakness. The failure is that once the curtain has been drawn and the fallacy of autonomy revealed, the game then resorts back to the same limited directives for the remainder of the game, stripping Ryan’s revelation of any consequence. But while some argue that the reveal pulls the player out of immersion and exposes the flaws in video game narrative, this is why the moment is so crucial. It embeds its critique of video game storytelling within its story. The moment has spawned a whole wave of critical thought because of its complex — if clunky — execution.
Playing a game is not necessarily conducive to reflection. In the moment, the mind is narrowed, intent on progression, strung out on a slight and sustained anxiety. I wonder how many people, right in the moment of playing, took to considering the remarkable collision of story and video game theory in that fateful encounter with Ryan, delivered as it was like a blow to the head, and how many were just impatient to get back to the shooting.
When BioShock was released in 2007, not much — if anything — was expected in the way of innovation for that most stalwart of genres: the first-person shooter. The fact that this shooting-people game offers a critique of political ideology (however heavy-handed) and a meditation on the notion of agency and on gaming itself, that is almost a miracle, however we take it for granted 10 years on. BioShock displays a sophistication and style that has already aged better than its lauded sequel BioShock Infinite, from only four years ago. BioShock lingers, haunts, and what stands out most is the audacity and fecundity of character and place. Rapture feels real in an entirely unreal way, an alternative to reality, a world to discover, even as it reminds us: This is all just a game.