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Bioshock

Review by Steerpike
October 2007

Steerpike’s Favorite Sentence

My favorite sentence comes from Strunk & White’s Elements of Style: “Omit unnecessary words.”

Ironic, I know.

I like its elegance. You can’t communicate the thought more efficiently.

Bioshock is like that. In the weeks leading up to its release, an overzealous press tried to inflate it beyond all reason, calling it an RPG, an adventure game, an open world, a virtual playground. And whenever they did, creator Ken Levine would stop them and say, “it’s a shooter.”

Bioshock omits unnecessary words.

I don’t really have to review this game from a should-you-buy-it perspective. Of course you should buy it. Bioshock has deservedly received universal acclaim. It’s outstanding, maybe the best pure shooter ever made, certainly in the top three along with Gears of War and Half Life 2. If that’s all you needed to know, stop here or skip to the end, because I’m going to spend the rest of the time using a bunch of unnecessary words to discuss the thematic revelation of Bioshock and the things it does wrong.

I believe history will remember Bioshock more for what it failed to do than what it did—specifically, it failed to fully meld that revelatory theme with its pure shooter roots. This is often the case with groundbreaking work, and I don’t mean it as a negative. Something this important is bound to have its flaws, and we need to learn from them for next time.

Statistically Speaking, It’s the Safest Way to Travel

For those unfamiliar with the writings of Ayn Rand, her philosophy of objectivism is a panegyric to free-market enterprise and the power of the individual. It essentially deifies the industrialist as the pinnacle of human aspiration. In her novel Atlas Shrugged, America’s captains of industry get sick of government nose-stickery and the complaining proletariat. They collectively pack it in and move to a mountain retreat, essentially taking their toys and going home, bringing the United States to its knees.

Bioshock tells the story of Andrew Ryan, a self-made 1940s American industrialist who’s tired of the world trying to mooch the fruits of his success. With limitless resources and plenty of friends, shortly after WWII he takes the mountain retreat idea a step farther: he builds a mighty city thousands of feet beneath the Atlantic and moves there with corporate pals, unethical scientists, censored artists ... everyone who dislikes being told what to do.

He calls his city Rapture. It is a place where, as Ryan puts it, there are “No Gods or Kings ... only Man.”

It’s a big, beautiful symbol of hubris, secret and out of sight at five hundred fathoms. Those who know of its existence flock there, with dreams of becoming masters of their own corporate empires. But, as in any city, someone has to sweep the streets. Many émigrés find themselves no better off in Rapture than they were on the surface.

Another predictable thing occurs: when you’ve got all of the world’s top scientists in one place with no moral constraints, some impressive, evil stuff is bound to happen. Genetic mysteries are unraveled by the early fifties, when a new species of sea cucumber is discovered to essentially ooze stem cells. Rapture scientists quickly merge these genetic Legos with human hosts to create bite-sized personal improvements called Plasmids. A new nose here, a better figure there, all a syringe away.

But Plasmids don’t just mean a new nose or better figure. They can also awaken latent ultra-brainiac powers: telekinesis, pyrokinesis, epic strength. Soon Rapture is a hotbed of genetic upgrades, to the point of chromosomal self-improvement sold in vending machines, alongside soda and cigarettes. Those wonderful sea cucumber–produced stem cells—called Adam—become the gold standard of Rapture wealth. Rapturites take to “splicing” as a pastime. And the people of Rapture, particularly the disgruntled poor, have been splicing the bejeezus out of themselves.

Ryan is cautious, but some of his competitors, particularly his most sinister rival, grifter-turned-businessman Frank Fontaine, leap on the free-market bandwagon, selling Plasmids so quickly that Ryan Industries is no longer the big business on the block. It so transpires that Mr. Ryan’s philosophy of "No Gods or Kings, Only Man" extends just as far as a threat to his total control of Rapture. He attempts to tighten the chains by nationalizing Fontaine Futuristics. And so the civil war begins.

What does all of this mean to you? Not a damned thing, until your plane crashes one early 1960s night over the Atlantic. The sole survivor, you paddle among the burning wreckage toward the only salvation to be seen: a lighthouse perched incongruously in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles from land. Congratulations, frequent flyer, you’ve found the entrance to the great undersea metropolis of Rapture ...

A Man Chooses, a Slave Obeys

... A city in ruins, populated by gene-crazed Splicers and a handful of desperate survivors, a deathtrap with no evident means of escape, still controlled by an increasingly delusional Andrew Ryan. A city gorged on genetic manipulation, now lacking the means to collect additional Adam. As you arrive, nearly everyone in Rapture is dead; most survivors are so spliced up they’re scarcely human; those who aren’t live behind barricades in constant fear; and the ocean has begun to reclaim the city. Rapture is half-flooded, Splicer-haunted, and difficult to navigate. Your portable radio blares requests and instructions from a number of survivors, most notably a gentleman calling himself Atlas, who promises escape if you help rescue his family. Disembodied voices are hard to judge, though, and the issue of whom to trust grows increasingly problematic.

Bioshock, like its spiritual predecessor System Shock 2, relates the tragic fall of Rapture through the discarded audio logs of citizens, through graffiti on the walls, through discovered objects and trinkets. There is a melancholy to the game, as you realize that more often than not you are following the stories of people long dead. Listening to them debate this or that decision, or reflect on the strange turn life in Rapture has taken since the invention of Plasmids, is rather depressing. The stories are over; the decisions are made. You’re just picking up the pieces.

Part Randian commentary, part urban dystopia, Bioshock is about relationships—particularly the deadly rivalry between two very powerful, very arrogant men: Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine. Even as the city collapses around them, neither can let go of his hubristic obsession with power, his driving need to impose authority through any means necessary. Your character is the ideal pawn in their endless, apocalyptic game. “Even the air you’re breathing comes from my bank account,” snarls Ryan at one point. Lives of men, women, and even children matter not to them. They crush all on their inexorable path to self-destruction.

“I used to care about politics,” sighs another character. “Now I just want to see the sunlight again.”

The civil war left plenty of weapons about, but if you hope to overcome the terrifying Splicers and traverse the creaking byways of Rapture, you’re going to need stronger medicine. It’s not long before you come upon your first Plasmid, and like a junkie to his heroin, from there on ... well, let's call a spade a spade. From that moment forth, you’re a Splicer yourself, as Adam-crazed and desperate as the rest of them.

A Girl’s Best Friend Is Her Daddy

One source of Adam remains, in the form of Splicer corpses. The dead are plentiful, but competition is fierce and reprocessing takes a special kind of operative. Enter the Little Sisters, once innocent young girls, genetically altered into ghoulish monsters and implanted with one of the Adam-producing cucumbers. They drink the blood of the fallen and purify precious stem cell cargo. Who are they, and where do they come from? All in good time. For now, the simple fact of being children isn’t enough to protect Little Sisters as they prowl the dripping corridors, seeking their macabre beverage. They’re stuffed with Adam, and alone they’d be easy targets for any Splicer who wandered by.

Protecting them are the Big Daddies, vicious, hulking dive-suited monstrosities who kill brutally and without hesitation. There’s nothing quite like your first encounter with a Daddy/Sister pairing. You’re lying there semiconscious, having fallen off a balcony, and the ground starts to shake. Strange, sad whale sounds reverberate through the gallery. The source of the tremors marches into view: a pair of boots so immense that a misstep would crack your skull like an eggshell. Following along, two tiny bare feet and the hem of a bluebell dress. “Look, Mr. Bubbles! An angel!

It’s chilling.

That’s the great incongruity of the Daddies and Sisters, another key relationship in Bioshock. Throughout the game, you will observe these pairs together, and you’ll see moments of tenderness sufficient to bring a tear to even the most hardened eye. The Big Daddy is the ultimate protector, the father, brother, best friend, dog, and teddy bear rolled into one. Early on, you watch a Daddy grab a Splicer by the scruff of his neck and smash his face into a glass-brick wall again and again until nothing’s left but spattered hamburger, then he gently takes his Sister’s tiny hand in his massive, brain-covered one and walks her out of the room. You’ll see them holding Sisters in their arms, kneeling down to give them a boost, quietly listening while they ramble endlessly. Big Daddies are deeply affectionate creatures, but the instant they smell trouble, that girl is shoved into the nearest crawlspace or pipe, and the helmet lights go red, and those awful whale calls change pitch, and out comes the rivet gun or the prox grenades or the giant spinning auger and a little girl’s voice shrieking “kill him, Mr. B! Kill him!” and then the blood and the screaming and it’s one less Splicer in the world.

That said, the presence and role of Big Daddies and Little Sisters in Bioshock is by far the most overhyped aspect of the game, and frankly it’s a bit of a letdown. You need Adam to survive in this world, and there’s only one place to get it. Obviously, you can’t get near a Little Sister without first going through her Big Daddy. Wise players will choose the setting of their encounters carefully, constructing elaborate Rube Goldberg traps and luring the Daddies into crossfire with the Rapture security system’s gun turrets and police bots. But contrary to prerelease claims, the battle is usually over in seconds, not hours. Bringing a Big Daddy down is hard if you mishandle the situation, but it’d have been far more powerful if each were an epic, Shadow of the Colossus–level extravaganza.

When the Daddy finally falls, you’re treated to the reaction of a little girl who’s just watched the most important thing in her life murdered, complete with tears and “wake up wake up wake up,” followed in some cases by a frantic, scrambling flight attempt that is nothing short of agonizing to watch. This is where the moral choice comes in: killing Little Sisters nets you the most Adam but marks you as a big ol' meanie-head; you can “free” them for less Adam and the warm fuzzy of recognizing that you’re not the sort to kill little girls.

Unfortunately, the people at Irrational took this in what I consider the wrong direction. I wanted to see more personal relationship stuff between each pair, and each pair should have been unique, with its own unique behaviors. But instead, every Little Sister calls her Big Daddy “Mr. Bubbles,” and every Big Daddy displays exactly the same limited Sister-caring-for behaviors. This sucks because, again, Bioshock is about relationships—about Ryan’s relationship with Fontaine, your relationship with Atlas, and on and on. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about the moral dilemma of pushing X versus Y to determine the fate of a digital girl; after the first time, it’s really rather repetitive. I was much more interested in the interaction between each Sister and her Daddy, and there’s not much there.

Also, Big Daddies respawn, which is stupid. The mechanism exists for the benefit of a Plasmid you can find—one that fools a Daddy into thinking you’re a Little Sister and thus protecting you. But the respawning ruins the uniqueness of the encounters and dilutes the shrill of terror you should feel whenever you hear those lonely whale calls that pass for speech among the Big Daddies.

Who Walks in My Garden?

Bioshock’s lavish Unreal 3–powered graphics are a wonder, whether you’re playing the 360 (as I did) or the Windows version. Every inch of Rapture’s extravagant Art Deco style is handcrafted and gorgeous—and so stuffed with corpses you feel like a visitor to the museum of the damned, not an interloper in the ultimate testament to man’s limitless capability. The play of light and shadow, the green darkness of deep water, juxtaposed with cheery posters advertising Plasmids and garish neon signs, creates a world very unlike any we’ve seen before. Bioshock makes sure that you never, ever, feel safe, not for one second of its 20-plus hours. And though not a horror game in the classic sense, it nonetheless forces you to endure some of the most terrifying moments you can imagine.

The pervasive atmosphere obviates need for suspension of disbelief in this game set in an undersea city. Rapture feels real. It sounds real, from the trickle of water to the thirty-odd licensed 1930s and 1940s tunes (there’s no experience quite like watching a Big Daddy trash a Splicer to the tune of “You’re the Top” from Anything Goes). It looks real, from the eerie gloom of flooded department stores to the horrifying Medical Pavilion to the it-will-haunt-you-for-days Little Sister Training Facility. It even acts real, with scripted dashes through collapsing tunnels, pipes screaming as they burst, torrents of water raging into once-luxurious apartment complexes. From the opening moment when you see Rapture and your heart stops to the moment you shut the game off, there’s not a second of doubt. You are there. Rapture is real.

People look and move in a stylized, marionette-ish way. Unreal 3.0 is perfectly capable of modeling more realistic humans, but, by making them puppetlike, the designers added to a sense of inhumanity. To me, the humans in the game looked almost like candy, stiff and shiny like whipped frosting glaze. It seems weird, but it works in the context of a game that’s all about reminding you how easy it is for humans to stop being human.

As an action shooter, Bioshock impresses—somewhat—with the combination of Plasmids and standard firearms in combat. I say somewhat because, despite the variety of offensive Plasmids available, the mechanics are always identical. It’s what Atlas describes as a “one-two punch”: when you see a Splicer, you hit it with a Plasmid to immobilize or distract it, then blow its head off with your preference of heavy artillery. And while it rewards clever use of Plasmids and weapons to lay traps or bring down multiple Splicers at once, the watchword here is action shooter. Except against Big Daddies, there usually isn’t time to set up some sophisticated O.K. Corral offensive, particularly against later Splicers that have Plasmids of their own.

There are different ways to play, though, and Bioshock’s graceful controls and generally solid level design mean that the complaints above are pretty negligible. Some players will hack the vending machines and security system at every turn, getting discounts on powerups and encouraging machines to fight for them; others will go in with both barrels hot; some might splice themselves into invisibility and just creep around, unnoticed.

There are a disappointing handful of missions that deal with collecting random objects like rubber tubes and distilled water, and nearly everyone has harsh words for the climax of the game, which features an annoying and contradictory escort mission followed by a forgettable boss confrontation and a pair of tries-way-too-hard endings. Bioshock must have been a difficult game to “end,” because the true joy is throughout. While most games are about finishing, Bioshock really isn’t. The fact is, you’ve completed something you didn’t really want to end, and there’s just no way around that. No ending would have been satisfying, but they could have done better than they did.

Most of the Words Above Were Unnecessary

With Bioshock, Irrational Games sat down, considered its work in System Shock 2, and essentially reproduced that game, removing the few flaws and adding about a cup and a half of awesome. As outstanding as System Shock 2 was, it occasionally failed to omit unnecessary words, while Bioshock is a study in elegance. Because of this, I’m being much harder on it; the better a game gets, the more harshly it must be judged. And since Bioshock is a really, really good game, it ought to go through the wringer.

It’s about so many things—greed, arrogance, rivalries between males, relationships between loved ones, memories, evil, stem cells, the Randian paradox of morality versus power, the relentless quest for self-improvement—that it sometimes overwhelms our ability to quantify. The most amazing thing about Bioshock is that it never comes off as preachy or self-indulgent. For all its many themes, it is, and can be enjoyed as, exactly what Ken Levine has always said it is: a shooter. One of the very cleanest, best-executed shooters ever made.

As I indicated at the beginning, my intention with this review is mostly to complain about stuff, not due to any shortcoming on the part of the game but because Bioshock is such a revelation. It needs severe treatment because it will be a foundation for future games. The more developers and gamers learn from it, the further we can take it in the future. I’ve avoided giving spoilers, and if you’ve finished the game, you’ll understand my final, most serious, complaint. If you haven’t, I promise I don’t give anything away:

In the end, Bioshock’s great failure is cowardice.

I believe Bioshock played it safe in ways it shouldn’t have. As dark as the game is, more darkness would have made it even stronger. This is a game that poses the vilest challenges to human nature and forces you to examine, in cold, objective terms, whether “right” and “wrong” should ever enter into a discussion of power. As such, it is not cruel enough to the player. Bioshock should have been an emotional disembowelment.

It settles instead for just being a masterpiece. The End

 

The Verdict

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The Lowdown

Developer: Irrational
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: August 2007

Available for: Windows Xbox 360

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System Requirements

Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista
Pentium 4 2.4GHz (Intel Core 2 Duo recommended)
1GB RAM (2 GM recommended)
Direct X 9.0c compliant video card with 128MB RAM (NVIDIA 6600 or better/ATI X1300 or better, excluding ATI X1550) (Direct X 9.0c compliant video card with 512MB RAM (NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GT or better) recommended)
100% DirectX 9.0c compatible sound card (Direct X 9.0c compliant video card with 512MB RAM (NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GT or better) or DX10 NVIDIA GeForce 8600 or better recommended)
8 GB free hard disk space
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