Console Yourself: Bioshock
“My muse is a fickle bitch, with a chronically short attention span!” -Sander Cohen
Format: Xbox 360, PC, PS3 • Developer: 2K Boston • Released: August 2007
Bioshock’s public profile followed an interesting curve. When first introduced to the trade press, it had “sleeper hit” written all over it- it was impossible to conceive of a title with such an off-the-wall setting making it into the big time. However, word of mouth began to raise the game’s profile, and aided by the impressive use of the Unreal engine, the hype started to build during the final year of development. The title’s profile on release was second only to the likes of Halo 3, but since then, there’s been something of a backlash. Some have criticised the game’s linearity or small number of enemy types, while other dismissed the RPG elements as being underweight compared to Deus Ex. Such objections are ill-founded, however, with the title remaining one of the highlights of the present generation of hardware.
I don’t normally tend to include spoiler warnings in these articles, but given that I’m going to be dissecting the one of the two central narrative conceits of the title, a word of caution is due to PS3 owners who have yet to tackle the game- do so with confidence, and come back later. I’d hate to subtract from your enjoyment.
The player is an unwilling refugee, deposited at the door of the underwater city of Rapture by a plane crash, and with no other avenue of survival other than the portal in from of him. Descending, is becomes clear that the city has been constructed in line with the views of its ruggedly individualist founder, Andrew Ryan. The developers have gone on record as saying that they wished for Ryan to be an ideologically sympathetic character, but they may have misjudged their audience- you’d have to be of quite a right-wing bent to find the thesis in question appealing. The city is in ruins, with a craze for genetic self-modification having run out of control amidst a near civil war between Ryan and a crooked capitalist, Frank Fontain. As Jack staggers through the city, guided by the last survivor of the Anti-Ryan resistance, it becomes clear that the last act of this drama is about to be played out. The reason for Ryan’s downfall is left commendably ambiguous. Were his laissez faire policies always incapable of running a society, or did he betray himself by attempting to outlaw Fontain’s activities?
In the game’s pre-publicity material, much was made of the central moral dilemma of the title: do you kill the childlike Little Sisters that populate Rapture and maximise your chances of survival, or refrain from murder and trust in your merge abilities to escape? This dilemma is an artificial one, although not for the reason that might initially be supposed. It’s obviously going to be possible to complete the game without the biomod-fueling Adam supplied by the Sisters- this is an artificial environment, and its designers would not have set an impossible challenge. A quick glance at the Xbox’s achievements list for the title reveals “Little Sister Saviour”, allaying any suspicion. However, the dilemma survives this pitfall, with the possibility of witnessing exciting and hard-to-obtain powers acting as an analogous reward if you are willing to dirty your hands. Once this part of the game becomes available, however, it becomes clear that the actual in-game choice is considerably removed from its initial description. The player is implored by two characters, a sinister doctor and the Irish worker who has been guiding you through the nightmare. The latter claims that the child is lost now, and can only be put out of her misery, while the former claims that the parasite controlling her can be removed without killing.
It’s not a moral dilemma at all, but a practical one: who do you believe? The logical answer is to side with Tennenbaum, as there’s little to lose by testing her claim, which is proven correct. To underline the point, the “bonus” rewards the player is periodically given for saving the Sisters mean that more Adam is received from this course of action, despite Atlas’s claims that you would profit more from child murder. These are not bio weapons resembling children, but actual people, who can be freed from their parasitic slavery. In fact, this lie serves as the first sign that Atlas is not what he appears to be. The team went on record as saying that they originally intended there to be only one ending of the game, and the shepherding the player down the path of righteousness in this way makes clear which it would have been.
Despite creator Ken Levine’s claims that story and plot were secondary to the gameplay, many of the features which have been criticised to date are actually features of the plot. The “limited enemy types” reflects that Rapture has not been taken over by an enemy force, but destroyed from within. There is no military presence ranged against you, but a rag-tag group of insane mutants, thirsting for Adam. The introduction of high-power enemies would have spoilt the credibility of what is clearly intended as a balanced ecosystem. The photography element is a sign of this, with the player encouraged to think like a naturalist, researching the bizarre creatures encountered. Those who attack the lack of RPG elements may not have been paying enough attention to his part of the title, which rewards persistence with a variety of solutions to combat problems. The most controversial element of the title, the use of “Vita Chambers” as a means of allowing the player to continue, also makes sense in these terms. It has been criticised for making the game too easy, as opponents can be simply worn down, but there is little change in gameplay dynamic from the familiar quicksave system, and plays a key part in the plot. Ryan’s choice to deactivate the chamber in his quarters is strangely moving, underlining his acceptance of being out-though by his enemy.
The title isn’t quite perfect, however, failing to generate the horror atmosphere it believes itself to possess, while the emergent gameplay is limited to the boundaries of particular levels, which are tacked in a fixed sequence. That said, there aren’t many games that are even trying to be this good.