This post talks a lot about Bioshock, and although I don’t reveal the end, I give enough hints to ruin it and spoil the general atmosphere of the game. If you haven’t played it yet, I strongly recommend you read something else instead.
Creating sequels and spin-offs is always a risky bet in video games, more than in any medium, I believe. On one hand, there is an obvious desire to reproduce whatever made the original game successful. It might be hard to find the recipe at first, but once it is found, it will most likely work again. We made it once, we can make it twice, or more. On the other hand comes the problem of boredom and repetition. Replicating the exact same game is dangerous and counterproductive. Developers need to change the recipe a little bit, so it looks new and somewhat different. Not too much though, otherwise people will complain on how the game changed. It’s a hard balance to maintain. Personally I’m not too fond of sequels in video games. It’s not like a book or a movie, which are mainly story-driven. Sometimes in those things you need to cut the story into pieces, for the sake of the rhythm or the atmosphere. Meanwhile, a game (as I picture it) is full of mechanics and content: once you finish it, there is usually nothing more to add, unless you explicitly leave something for a planned sequel, and that’s dangerous, because to support this planned sequel, you need to borrow some elements which I find improper for games. Stories, derived plots, unnecessary addition of pointless characters, reworking of mechanics that were good before, just for the sake of reworking, so the sequel looks fresh: all those things should be taken with caution.
By definition, to discuss a sequel is to discuss what it came from and where it want to go next. Otherwise, what is the point of making one? You need to link it with the previous work(s) in the series and see how it took the legacy, how it changed it (or not), and if the changes were good and interesting enough to justify them. Something that Bioshock Infinite failed to do in many ways. Thus, this post will talk a lot about Bioshock, the first game, in order to fully appreciate (or depreciate) its successor.
Bioshock: the choice under the sea.
It doesn’t take long to understand what Bioshock is. You just need to look at the title. Bio-Shock. Before becoming a new franchise, Bioshock itself was already a sequel. The developer described it as “a spiritual successor” to their previous game, System Shock 2, which was also a sequel to System Shock. I only played the second game in the series, but as far as I am aware of, it is enough to understand what System Shock is about: you, the player, need to enter the system and shock it, almost literally, in order to retake control of your environment. It is as simple as that. To help you do this, several paths and options are available, and it is up to you to decide which ones are best.
Continuing in the same philosophy, but in another universe and with slight changes, the title Bioshock could also be separated in two words: bio and shock. In System Shock, you needed to shock the System; in Bioshock you need to shock the Bio, that is to say you, your body and your mind. The modifications are not done on the outside, but on the inside. In a post-apocalyptic underwater ravaged city, you are urged to modify yourself with everything available in order to survive and keep going.
In Bioshock, paths and options are not clearly indicated like in System Shock, because the game takes it up to eleven: here, everything, from the city to its inhabitants, can be and should be used to turn yourself into a deadly weapon. It is the philosophy of the place, after its fall. Everyone has an urge inside that keeps him/her moving. The enemies encountered have the same mindset than you, struggling for survival and fighting for a little bit of ADAM. The Little Sisters are physically programmed to collect the precious substance, and their protectors, the Big Daddies, genetically forced to protect them from any threat. But the best/worst part (it depends on how you see it) it that you, in the middle of this universe, can use them all to reach your goal. In the end, it is all about choices you make for yourself and your body.
Choice is present everywhere, at every moment, and with dozens of possibilities. It’s the backbone of the game. Choice, choice, choice. So many choices: offensive plasmids, defensive plasmids, traditional modern weapons, unconventional weapons, self-made ammunition, hacking, sneaking, external help through mind manipulation, traps, decoys, technological support with bots and turrets, vending machine, resources scattered among the ruins… The list goes on and on. You can manipulate everything and everyone, and use the world to transform yourself and shock your organism, to the point where it is hard to see you as a human being anymore. This slow metamorphosis helps building one of the main topics of the game, which is liberty and self-awareness. Who are you? What are you? Are you still a man or a slave of your desires/mind/body? Did you choose by yourself to become like this or were you forced by some external forces? Why so? If all those questions are raised and answers with the help of a decent story, I prefer to think that it is the game itself and its mechanics, more than the scenario, that truly support and carry the interrogations throughout the city of Rapture.
Order through chaos, chaos through order.
The world of Bioshock is fascinating, unsettling, mysterious but most of all, it is a living world, meaning that you live in it, and it lives (and has lived) through you. As you make your way into the game, you understand how Rapture became Rapture, with its history, its inner system, its philosophy. Everything has its place in the underwater city. Every element plays its part. The Little Sisters, the ADAM drug, the Sea Slug, the whole utopia created by Andrew Ryan. Even side-stories such as Cohen’s are coherent. One could not imagine an idealistic city without someone around having an artistic -slightly tainted with madness- point of view, or the demagogy of its creator, and its fatalistic doom.
Hence, through chaos, you witness the glorious order of the past. Bioshock is brilliant because it lets you play after the destruction of Rapture. In this ravaged world, all the game mechanics make sense, and you instinctively understand what is going on. You need to survive, and in order to do so, you need to become stronger, at any cost. In a way, even though Splicers are enemies and you have no regret killing them -it’s the way of things after all, to kill or to be killed- you could sympathize with them and grasp the nature of chaos that surrounds you. Weaponizing yourself in the post-glorious Rapture feels natural, and except for a few dissonant situations, the flow of the game goes along with the flow of your experience which goes with the flow of the story. Searching for resources among the ruins is automatic, it’s like a reflex, I mean, that’s what you would have done if you ever find yourself in Jack’s situation, right? The decisions made for the universe enhances the player to act accordingly to the situation: Rapture, being an underwater city is by definition what we French would call a huis-clos. There is no escape once you enter the city, so you might as well prepare yourself and get ready for the horrific journey ahead. Atlas and several other characters accompany you in the process, witnessing your transformation, and sometimes they even help you. Choices are proposed, choices are made, willingly or not. Some are minor, others are merely illusions, but in the end, everything is a choice, made by you or someone else.
This said, one would think that I consider Bioshock to be perfect, which is not the case. I won’t hide my disappointment towards Bioshock‘s ending which felt rushed and irrelevant. It is really regrettable that after a whole game emphasizing on the notion of choice, we end up with a binary conclusion (let’s face it, once you save or kill the first Sister, there is no chance you change this habit until the end, so the third bittersweet ending is dismissible) which ruins the whole “bioshock-ing” you endured. But hey, perhaps it reinforces the idea that emerged in the last part of the scenario, which is to say that choice is illusion. Personally I’m not too fond of this explanation. Even though I understand why it could have ended like this (and it did), I’m sure the game was enough material to carry this idea without adding another layer with the conclusion. But Bioshock introduced a story that needed to be finished, so it happened. Alright, fine.
Some other elements were less appreciated, and most of the times it was related to the structure of the game itself, but this post is already long enough, plus it is not relevant, so let me finish quickly with a recap.
One of the strongest quality of the first Bioshock was its ability to carry its main themes and mechanics throughout the entire game, allowing itself to be downright coherent and impressive on several levels. From its title to the way it can be played, Bioshock never compromised its base philosophy, and stays true to it (well, except the end): choice is everything and nothing at the same time. Choice is everywhere. This is what Bioshock is at its core.
Now let’s compare with Bioshock Infinite, shall we?
In the next post in this Bioshock review I will talk about this game in details and how, as a Bioshock game, it betrayed its ancestor and how, as a game, it does not offer something satisfactory enough, at least for me. Although this post introduced the first game, I will still talk about it in the next posts, for comparison.