BioShock is a first-person shooter set in a nightmarish, dystopian city at the bottom of the sea that is overrun with psychotic, mask-wearing plastic-surgery addicts who capture little girls and tear them apart to harvest the power held within. I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath and allow those concepts to settle into your mind.
First things first, I’ve never played SystemShock, as I’ve never been fortunate enough to have the opportunity. It’s easier to get your hands on the Turin shroud than it is to get SystemShock. I offer this information as justification for calling BioShock original and unique. BioShock is set in Rapture, a city at the bottom of the sea. Its creator, Andrew Ryan, built the city for two reasons: to create an environment where scientists and artists could construct and experiment without restriction or censorship, and to create a symbol of human achievement in the form of something that common sense would deem impossible. You are Jack, a clueless unfortunate who is forced into Rapture when his plane crashes in the Atlantic Ocean in 1960. The only source of survival in sight is a lighthouse which contains a bathysphere which takes him to Rapture. From there, Jack is instructed by a man named Atlas who picks up his radio frequency and promises to help him escape from Rapture if Jack aids Atlas in ensuring his families safety. Before long it becomes clear that rapture is under the oppressive heel of its creator, Andrew Ryan, and Jack becomes directly involved in attempting to foil Ryan’s leadership.
Everything in Rapture, including the innovative combat, revolves around ADAM, which is a powerful, genetically enhancing substance harvested from sea slugs. For some contrived reason, it can only be stored in young girls, known as Little Sisters. However, in the process of storing ADAM within them, they are manipulated and changed into eerie creatures that have no reservations about plunging a syringe into a dead body. Each time Jack gets his hands on a Little Sister he is faced with a choice. He is informed by the repenting Dr. Tenenbaum that the Little Sisters can be redeemed, so he can either harvest the ADAM by murdering them, or he can let the Little Sisters go, which gives him less ADAM and a clean conscience. Little Sisters are guarded by the well-publicised ‘Big Daddy’s’, tragic, mindless humans who are encased in various designs of deep-sea diver suits with huge drill attachments or rivet guns who will defend their Little Sister until death. Even though I’ve played through BioShock many times, I’ve never harvested a Little Sister for two reasons: firstly because I could never bring myself to kill a little girl, which I suppose is proof that I’m not a complete monster, and secondly because you really don’t need that much ADAM. BioShock isn’t the most challenging game ever, as no matter how difficult the combat gets, Vita-Chambers which revive Jack if he is slain are scattered all over Rapture, so death holds little punishment. Healing items are also frequent, so I barely died anyway. I’d recommend not harvesting the Little Sisters so you unlock the happy-ending, which genuinely got to me.
The combat in BioShock involves combining weaponry that ranges from shotguns to chemical-throwers with plasmids, which are genetic enhancements that give Jack certain abilities, such as the power to shoot electricity out of his hands, telekinesis, hypnosis and many more. It’s all part of a unique combat system that is highly enjoyable, open-ended and manages to help the game combine adrenaline-fueled encounters with an eerie, frightening atmosphere. The art direction in this game is incredibly attractive, even if it has taken a few pointers from Fallout. As the game is set in 1960, Rapture is full of retro advertisements 50’s music that help make the game seem disturbing by the juxtaposition that arises from caving a woman’s head in with a wrench whilst ‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’ by Frank Sinatra accompanies. On occasion, the game manages to be terrifying. It sometimes takes the easy route in eliciting a response from the player by making Splicers, the afore-mentioned plastic-surgery addicts, jump out of cupboards etc., but it also contains the sort of imagery that keeps people up at night. For example, in the first mission the player has to search for Dr. Steinman, who during the closest thing this game has to a cut-scene (it never leaves the first-person perspective which makes Jack’s journey seem all the more intimate) points Jack’s attention to three, heavily mutilated woman who are in the process of dying from being crucified with surgical scissors.
BioShock manages to maintain an unnerving atmosphere which makes the submerged city seem peculiarly evil as you stumble through it, unaware of your fate. Rapture is dotted with audio-tapes which add to the atmosphere, particularly the grim recordings by the out-of-control doctors who slowly lose their grip on insanity. The audio-tapes help flesh out characters to impressive degrees considering that Jack barely ever comes in contact with any friendly characters. I feel I know a lot more about Dr. Suchong, who Jack never comes across through-out his journey in Rapture, than I do about Shia from Resident Evil 5, and I spent an entire game with her.
The only criticism I can dig up with immense effort for this game is that the hacking process is bull-shit and that the game probably won’t provide an absolutely staggering challenge to hard-core gamers, although all the points I’ve made are all just added extras to what BioShock is really about, the narrative. BioShock has the single greatest story written for a video game that I have ever had the absolute pleasure to play through. I am an English Literature student, and I honestly believe that if BioShock had been written in book form, it would be a respected work of art and would possibly be studied in depth by academics. It confronts issues of equality, freedom of expression, human reservation and censorship. The narrative is incredibly eloquent and engaging and includes one of the most deviant and intelligent plot twists I have ever been sucked in by. During the revelation of the twist, I genuinely sat with mouth agape and eyes glistening as I helplessly watched everything unravel before my eyes, revealing things to me I would never have assumed. I felt completely manipulated in a way that I haven’t felt since reading ‘A Clockwork Orange’.
So yes, I could bang on about how fluent and entertaining the combat is. Yes, I could waffle on about the successful horror-aspects and the intense atmosphere. I could blather endlessly about the stylish art direction or the sophisticated upgrade-system, but in the end none of this really matters. The story in BioShock is so incredible, so fantastically written that any other compliments or criticisms I could drag out for the game shrivel in irrelevance. As far as I’m concerned, this is the closest a game has got to being perfect, and BioShock proves that games are more than just a distraction. They can be a mature, cultured art-form that can successfully convey a complex message in an interactive format, even if it does also involve blasting masked-assailants in the face with a shotgun.