Above: Concept art courtesy of 2K
By contributor Rob Wilson
It’s 1960, and the player begins the game with a cut-scene aboard a jetliner currently flying over the Mid-Atlantic, heading to an unknown location. From a first-person perspective, we hear who we assume to be our main character exclaim, “They told me, ‘Son, you’re special; you were born to do great things.’ You know what? They were right.” With the sounds of screaming women, and a plummeting aircraft, the screen fades to black.
The player is then given control of the character, Jack, who’s floating in the Atlantic under a full moon amidst flaming plane wreckage. Not far in the distance beckons an ominous, yet inviting lighthouse. With no other choice, the player swims towards the lit tower, climbs its steps, and enters through the dark door.
Upon entering, the door slams shut and the room suddenly becomes alight. As Django Reinhardt’s “La Mer” begins to play, the player is met with art deco architecture accompanying a bust of an unknown man looming above them. Under the bust hangs a banner, which reads “NO GODS OR KINGS. ONLY MAN.”
By now, any reader who has played the game should know exactly what I’m talking about: 2k’s (later Irrational Games) masterpiece, BioShock. Released in 2007 as a spiritual successor to Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studio’s System Shock 2, BioShock received critical acclaim, with The New York Times author Seth Schiesel calling it “among the best games ever made.” Eight years later, the game still holds that title strong, and is well worth a replay by those familiar with the game, and surely a play through by those not.
With beautiful, albeit dated, graphics, BioShock allows the player the chance to not only explore the underwater city of Rapture, but to also explore their own morality, and discover the ideologies of philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand and her philosophy, objectivism, play an undeniable role in the game; with the notion that self-happiness is the ultimate purpose of life, clearly echoed by the founder of Rapture, Andrew Ryan, and the city’s laissez-faire principles. Even Andrew Ryan’s name, as noted by BioShock’s Wikipedia page, is a partial anagram of Ayn Rand. Taking an even more direct name from Rand’s work is the character Atlas, after Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged. Further Rand influences range from explicitly obvious to the more subtle, but throughout, strong parallels are drawn between BioShock and Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead (1943).
As the player explores Rapture, armed with various weapons in their right hand, and genetically enhanced, superhuman-like abilities in their left (ranging from telekinesis to throwing fire), they are able to delve deep into the history of the underwater city, as well as the intricacies of the various characters, and the events that eventually led to the city’s fall from grace. Progression of the game opens many avenues for the player to make critical moral choices, which not only decide the fate of individual characters, but also the city as a whole come the finale of the game. The level of detail, and consequences of the player’s actions, allow for a level of immersion and self-reflection not usually found in a first-person shooter game.
Playing BioShock involves, among other things, exploration, puzzle-solving, and shooting, set to a killer, retro soundtrack. The action is not constant, as one would expect from a Call of Duty release, but can be very intense. Thoroughly entertaining, with a background of eerie darkness, the game keeps the player on the edge of their seat throughout.
However, the game is not without faults. Being able to save immediately before attempting to hack into a safe, or duke it out with a more difficult enemy, allows the player to retry every task without much consequence. Taking away from the challenge, this issue was resolved in BioShock’s sequels: BioShock 2 (2010) and BioShock Infinite (2013).
Overall, BioShock is a strong contender for one of the best games ever made. The extreme level of detail creates a beautiful piece of art that holds strong literary merit. The influence of Ayn Rand’s objectivism combined with ethical questions set in a creepy dystopian city fathoms below the Atlantic results in a game that has stood the test of time. For those who played the game back in 2007, it’s ltime once again to revisit Rapture. For those who’ve never played, dive into BioShock.