Featured Game: BioShock
2007 will be remembered for many things as far as video games are concerned. It was a year that saw the release of Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, two of the most influential first-person shooters ever made. Both of these games emphasized online multiplayer and though they may have defined the first-person shooter in the years to come, a little game studio called Irrational Game (known then as 2K Boston) perfected the first-person shooter with BioShock.
BioShock began development in 2001 and was conceived as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, another title developed by Irrational Games, according to an article by GameSpot. Much of the design is derived from System Shock 2 including the emphasis on horror and the open-ended gameplay. Both games encourage the player to interact with the environment to progress through the story.
The same article reports that BioShock was originally going to take place in an entirely different setting than that of the finished game. From the beginning, BioShock would emphasize genetic experimentation, but instead of an underwater city the game was set in an abandoned World War 2 laboratory. There would be three enemy types, Drones, Predators and Soldiers; each of these types behaved differently from one another. All of these enemy types made into the final game albeit in different forms. For example, the Drone enemy was originally a bug, this later became the Little Sister as it was less likely for the player to emphasize with an insect.
The player would explore the complex and attempt to harvest DNA from the Drones while avoiding the Predators and Soldiers. This is similar to the final version of BioShock where the players are able to extract ADAM from the Little Sisters who are protected by Big Daddies. Like in the final game, extracted DNA would give the player access to Plasmids, genetic implants that grant the player environmental abilities, such as shooting lightning or fire. Other features such as the research camera and the weapon upgrades were planned from the beginning and made into the final game.
According to an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, Creative Director Ken Levine wanted a setting that was cut off from the rest of the world and pictured a city at the bottom of the ocean. He then worked backwards, finding a justification for building an underwater utopia and answering why a man would build such a city. Levine created Andrew Ryan, a blend of various historical figures such as Howard Hughes and Ayn Rand.
The reason BioShock saw many changes to its plot and setting is because of Levine’s philosophy for game design. “I don’t start with story, because games are not story,” Levine says. “Games are gameplay. Games are interactive.” Levine didn’t legitimately begin writing the story for BioShock until Dec. 2006, less than a year before BioShock was released.
BioShock‘s narrative and setting were inspired by 1984 and Logan’s Run according to an interview with Eurogamer. Ken Levine was interested in the idea of a utopia that’s brought down by the flaws in human nature. The moral choices throughout the story created consequences for the player’s actions for both the narrative and the gameplay and determined which of the endings the player received. According to an interview with GameSpot, Levine hadn’t planned for BioShock to have multiple endings. “It was never my intention to do two endings for the game,” Levine said. “It sort of came very late and it was something that was requested by somebody up the food chain from me.”
BioShock was developed using the Unreal Engine 2.5 with the water physics being developed in-house, according to an article by Joystiq. This was a necessary effort given the game’s underwater setting. BioShock was released on Aug. 21, 2007 in North America for the Xbox 360 and Windows PC. It was ported to the Playstation 3 one year later.
BioShock takes place in 1960 and begins with player experiencing a plane crash. The player swims to nearby lighthouse and enters a submersible pod that takes him to the underwater utopia of Rapture. Rapture was founded by Andrew Ryan, who sought to escape the boundaries of Capitalism, Communism and Religion. Ryan created a city that wouldn’t place constraints on scientific and societal progress. Unfortunately, Rapture has seen better days; less than one year prior to the player arriving, the city was devastated by a civil war.
Upon arriving, the player is briefly attacked by splicers, psychopaths who are addicted to a substance called ADAM, a material which alters the genetic makeup of an individual. The player is then contacted via radio by a man named Atlas, who directs the player to safety. Atlas asks the player’s help in getting his family out of Rapture, who are apparently being held captive by Ryan. Things don’t go as planned, leading Atlas and the player to plot their revenge against Ryan and escape the city.
BioShock doesn’t have much of a plot until the last act of the game. The player enters most areas with the immediate goal of finding a way to leave, only to be blocked in a way that conveniently has the player explore the area. The last act is preceded by a very well-executed plot twist however there’s not a lot of story to keep the player invested until then.
Another flaw is that the interactions with the major characters are done through the radio, which results in the player feeling detached from the narrative. While this contributes to the feeling of isolation in the gameplay, it doesn’t make for an interesting tale.
The last act itself isn’t that interesting. The plot twist that kick-starts the climax is by far the most memorable moment in BioShock unfortunately the final hours of the game don’t have that much that offer in comparison. BioShock‘s biggest flaw however, is the ending.
While BioShock features two possible endings, neither of them are satisfying. If I’m being completely honest, BioShock has one of the most abrupt, poorly executed endings in recent memory. The only thing that would’ve been more abrupt would be if the game cut to a black screen displaying “The End” the moment the final boss is killed.
The themes of objectivism in BioShock are quite prominent though it’s more of a discovery in comparison to the use of postmodernism in Metal Gear Solid 2. BioShock takes inspiration from Ayn Rand’s writings on objectivism and completely flips it on its head. Rapture depicts a society that has prioritized the fulfillment of an individual’s goals over the strength of the group.
Try to imagine a city where every citizen worked a job that they enjoyed, this would result in several gaps in society as the essential, lower class jobs were ignored. This flaw gives way to exploitation, leading to the civil war that brings down the city. It’s this form of tragic irony that permeates the narrative in BioShock.
The story and characters may be lacking, but BioShock more than makes up for it with the setting. Rapture is the true star of the game. Every aspect of this underwater utopia from the art direction to the level design has been fine tuned to perfection. Every area tells a story, from the forests of Arcadia to the damp wooden planks of Neptune’s Bounty.
The deformed corpses of the Medical Pavilion show the result of the pursuit of scientific progress matched with unreasonable standards of beauty. The aspirations of Rapture’s obsessive artists are shown through the plastered corpses on display in Fort Frolic. Rapture is a living city, or rather it’s the corpse of one. BioShock is an extended tour guide of a Capitalist utopia, a warning of what happens to society when science is allowed to progress without any moral constraint.
Rapture is fully integrated into the story and gameplay of BioShock. The world is fleshed out via audio diaries and around every corner there’s cabinet to be searched, a safe to be cracked or an upgrade to be found. BioShock completely revolves around the player interacting with the environment. The game is cohesively constructed from every angle.
BioShock is a first-person shooter that emphasizes environmental manipulation. The player finds a variety of weapons such as a wrench, a shotgun, a crossbow and a flamethrower just to name a few. Every weapon can be fitted with up to two upgrades and has three ammo types with different effects. For example, the flamethrower can be equipped with liquid nitrogen to freeze enemies.
The player also receives a research camera, which can take pictures of enemies to allow for a damage boost against that particular enemy type. The player can buy resources from vending machines and can craft materials with components. Finally, the player can hack enemy turrets and cameras to fight enemies for them though the mini game required to do so is quite tedious.
The Plasmids are the bread and butter of BioShock‘s gameplay. These are special abilities that allow the player to shoot lightning from their hands or distract enemies with a decoy. Using Plasmids correctly is vital to the player’s success. Shooting at an enemy standing in a puddle will do extra damage, as will igniting oil slick. This requires the player to think before they act, giving the combat strategic depth.
Using a Plasmid consumes the player’s EVE, which can be refilled with hypos. The player doesn’t have regenerating health; if their health falls to zero the player will be revived in a nearby vita-chamber. Enemies don’t regain health when the player is revived and this flaw can be fully exploited, which circumvents to the desire to explore the possibilities within the gameplay.
There are multiple ways to clear any area and they are equally enjoyable to pull off. In addition to the Plasmids, the player’s abilities are supplemented through tonics, which grant the player passive abilities such as increasing the health gained from first aid kits. The open-ended areas and gameplay sensibilities encourage the player to experiment with their abilities and explore the environment. It’s a testament to game design when the humble wrench, with the right tonics can be just as effective as a rocket launcher in the later stages of the game.
Throughout the game, the player will encounter Little Sisters. These are children who are essentially ADAM-factories. Every Little Sister is protected by a Big Daddy, a heavily armoured guardian who follows the Little Sister wherever she goes. If the player is able to defeat a Big Daddy they can retrieve ADAM from the Little Sister, which can be used to buy new Plasmids, Tonics or health and EVE upgrades.
BioShock presents the player with a moral choice. They can either harvest the ADAM directly from the Little Sister killing her in the process, or they can save the Little Sister, receiving a smaller amount of ADAM but sparing her life. This moral choice isn’t interesting as it doesn’t have much impact on the gameplay. Any moral argument is completely pointless as the player gets more ADAM for saving every Little Sister; after every third sister saved, a side character rewards the player with extra ADAM.
In the early the parts of the game, there’s a focus on preserving resources however this completely goes out the window at about the halfway point in the game. At a certain point, on the hardest difficulty with vita-chambers turned off, I was able to take out a Big Daddy in less than ten seconds. While this is an excellent example of ingenuity in game design, there were several moments where I cleared an area not because I performed particularly well, but because I had a tremendous amount of resources to rely on.
This wouldn’t be a problem except that BioShock‘s narrative is structured similarly to a survival horror game, but this completely contradicted the gameplay as the player is often empowered through upgrades and has an abundance of ammunition. It’s difficult for the player to have a fear of the unknown with the knowledge that they can defeat anything the game throws at them. There are plenty of brilliant moments throughout however, such as boss fight that can only be completed using Plasmids.
BioShock isn’t without its flaws, but in the grand scheme of things these flaws are minuscule. The gameplay is immaculately designed in so many ways. I would be hard pressed to find a better example of creative game design in a first-person shooter. It’s the absolute antithesis to the whack-a-mole shooting galleries that are so prevalent in modern military first-person shooters. BioShock is a game that makes the player think about what they will do next and that’s enough to make game a wonderfully satisfying experience.
BioShock is an absolute gem of a video game. From beginning to end it’s a marvel of top-notch game design. It’s an evolution in what video games are capable of, following the first steps taken by Half-Life and Deus Ex. It’s a remarkable achievement in game design and a blueprint on how a first-person shooter should be made. It features one of the greatest fictional worlds ever created and is still one of the most polished video games ever made. There are few games that you’ll an experience that are more complete and more rewarding than BioShock. If you at all consider yourself a gamer, you owe it to yourself to play this game.Version Played: Xbox 360.