No Gods or Kings. Only men.
The haunting words that greet you as you enter Rapture are just one of the many quotes that stick with you long after you have finished Bioshock. “A man chooses; a slave obeys”, “Mr Bubbles!!” and “…Is it someone new?” are just a few others, quotes which will have readers who have finished the game smiling, and avid fans grinning from ear to ear.
Bioshock is set deep beneath the ocean, in the mysterious and technologically advanced city of Rapture. Despite being set in the past, the world of Rapture has many resources that simply either do not exist in real-life, or do not exist yet. A sense of retro-futurism permeates throughout, only enhanced by the art-deco style in which the environments have been designed.
The game starts with our silent protagonist, Jack, sitting on a plane and looking at a note asking him to kindly come to the city. In a beautiful example of deus ex machina, Jack arrives at precisely the right place thanks to his plane mysteriously crashing in the opening sequence. You swim away from the fiery debris to a nearby lighthouse – oddly residing in the middle of the ocean. You advance, bemused but curious, towards a bathysphere which delivers you into the murky depths. As you descend, the wondrous and deadly city under the sea opens up around you. It’s a phenomenal opening sequence, and one that has been rarely bettered in the years since.
Rapture is the brainchild of Andrew Ryan, whose very name is a pun on Ayn Rand, whose book Atlas Shrugged, and the philosophy espoused within it, forms the basis of this world. In the world above, Ryan was a wealthy man and a brilliant engineer; his problem was that “The Man in Washington” wanted his hard-earned money, and he just wasn’t cool with that. He saw a world of greed, war and corruption and basically thought: fuck this, I’m moving to the bottom of the sea.
So that is exactly what Andrew Ryan did; he took the world’s most brilliant scientists and engineers, and convinced them to build his city under the sea. The only rules of this new frontier were that Ryan was irrefutably in charge, his society was an Objectivist one only, and anyone who disobeyed him disappeared. The society was off-limits to the outside world, and to anyone who disobeyed him or disagreed with his principles. If you came and decided that you didn’t like life under the sea, tough luck; If you tried to escape, you were executed; If you came and you wanted to worship a God, forget about it. And if you pushed your luck, you disappeared. Neither Washington nor God were going to have any influence on Ryan’s isolated paradise.
For a man who states “No Gods or Kings”, Ryan is certainly a man who elevates himself above his subjects at every available opportunity. The problem with a life like this, is that it isn’t sustainable; his elitist philosophy led to the obvious riots and civil war – first against a would-be usurper, Frank Fontaine; later, against a revolutionary figure called Atlas. This is where you come in; upon arriving in the city, Atlas contacts you by radio and informs you that Ryan is holding his family hostage; he then requests your help to free them from the tyrant’s clutches. Throughout the course of the game, he directs you where to go, and asks you to perform various tasks for him – often, this amounts to little more than activating a machine somewhere, or flicking a switch.
He also asks you to kill; so you kill. You kill, you kill and then you kill some more. There are only a very few people you don’t kill – the geneticist who discovered Adam, and who is thus responsible for the hellish lives you find in Rapture; and her charges: the Little Sisters (assuming you choose to spare them, of course).
This geneticist is Bridgid Tenenbaum, and throughout the game she’ll contact you and fill you in on some the events that occurred prior to your arrival. As a Jew raised in a Nazi concentration camp, Tenenbaum was exposed to a lot of savagery and butchery from a young age; the single thing she saw as wrong in that situation, however, was how poorly the Nazi scientists conducted their experiments. Tenenbaum helped make them more efficient in order to better them, making her a traitor to her people and complicit in the brutality of the Nazi regime. While this kind of behavior is understandable from a psychological perspective – it’s well-documented that the Nazis kept those who were useful alive until they expended their usefulness – it is still utterly abhorrent. Tenenbaum only recognized her mistake after abducting little girls from all over Rapture and experimenting upon them. She took innocent little girls, and implanted parasitic sea slugs inside them so that they could harvest a substance known Adam for the people of Rapture. While the near-magical powers of the Plasmids that are fuelled by Adam are pretty damn cool, she now seeks atonement for what she has done by saving the girls and liberating them from their duties.
Thankfully, you soon gain access to Plasmids yourself, along more powerful weaponry that allows you to take them on. While many of the Plasmids are fairly standard gaming tropes – fireballs, ice blasts, bolts of electricity – there are some that are more inventive, such as being able to summon a swarm of insects to attack your opponent. They can also be upgraded, with each additional stage of their evolution unlocking more interesting uses. In addition, plasmids can be combined in interesting ways, offering the opportunity for creative thinking in the game’s many encounters.
“That Tenenbaum ain’t what you think. Florence Nightingale, huh? That’ll all come crashing down ‘fore you can say ‘canned tomatoes’. I’ve seen good bunco, and I’ve seen great bunco. But, when you waltz through Rapture and World War Two without even a scratch? You got more than leprechauns watching over you.”
So Atlas wants you to kill the Little Sisters; Tenenbaum asks you to save them. This moral quandary, trying to decide how to proceed in your dealings with the Little Sisters, forms a large part of the game – and your choices dictate which ending you receive upon finishing the campaign. Your only choice in Bioshock is that you can either save the Little Sisters – by siphoning off a little Adam – or you can harvest them, sucking them dry to supercharge your stash of Adam and unlock more powerful upgrades. While this binary good/evil paradigm works within the game universe, it’s pretty redundant; it serves as a fairly obvious attempt by Irrational to add an incentive to replay the game. If you want to see all of the content, you have to play the game twice. A word of warming though: harvesting the Little Sisters will churn your stomach at points; I felt physical revulsion the first time I carried out the act, and it was a feeling that never subsided no matter how many more times I performed it.
Reaching the point where you need to make this decision is no easy task, however. Each Little Sister is under the protection of a hulking behemoth, known as a Big Daddy. You have your first encounter with one of these monstrosities very early on in the game, and it doesn’t end well. There is nothing to say that you have to kill the Big Daddies; but if you want the Adam the sister holds, or even if you just want to save them from what they have become, you will need to take them on. These things are no joke; they’re bullet-sponges on the lowest difficulties and a bloody nightmare on the harder settings.
However, death doesn’t carry much of a cost. If you’re killed, you magically re-spawn at a nearby chamber. The problem is that any damage you have previously inflicted on enemies is persistent; in theory, you can keep charging headlong into the fray, gradually chipping away at an enemy’s health in a drawn-out war of attrition. Thankfully, a post-release patch enables you to switch the vita chambers off; we recommend doing so, as their existence hurts the challenge of the game and undermines any sense of tension in combat.
Other enemies come in the form of Splicers and turrets, which can be hacked and turned to your advantage. The variety on offer is slight, and while each require a slightly different approach in combat, it isn’t long before you fall into similar patterns. Aspects of the environment can be used to your advantage – say, by firing bolts of electricity into pools of water, electrocuting your foes – but particularly on lower settings, there’s no real need to play tactically in this way.
For a game so obsessed with combat, it’s a little disappointing that it never feels as satisfying as it should. It’s not awful, it’s just a little clunky – particularly if playing with a mouse and keyboard. The game was clearly designed with
consoles in mind, and it shows: movement and aiming feel just on the wrong side of unresponsive. Controls handle slightly better if you use a controller, but it never feels quite as smooth as it should. Having to hit a button to swap between plasmids and guns was an unnecessary step that could be done away with, but really that’s just nit-picking. This is a violent game about a violent person in a violent world, killing violent people. Don’t play this game if you are averse to a little blood.
Additionally, you can use a research camera to learn more about your enemies. Taking various snapshots of them increases your knowledge, increasing the damage you can inflict against them and identifying their weak points. In addition, reaching certain thresholds on the research tress will unlock various tonics. The camera is useful then, but never quite feels as useful as it should be; and while the amount of photos you can take is limited to having enough film, extra film is so easily acquired that the limitation ends up feeling artificial. It’s far too easy to finish the game with every branch of research unlocked, eliminating what should have been an interesting tactical decision-making aspect.
Irrational clearly put a lot of effort into building the world of Rapture and its background. You can get enough backstory by rushing through the game to make sense of things; but if you take your time and explore, you can find audio diaries that flesh out the characters, their motives and the events that led the city into its current decrepit state. The lore in the game is detailed enough that you can really sink your teeth into it, which encourages exploration; the problem though is that you can’t explore very far – aside from the occasional side room, the game is fairly linear. The world is beautiful to look at and begs to be investigated; and yet the developer doesn’t seem willing or able to allow the player to move off the beaten track. Bioshock presents a vast city with an intriguing backstory, but then effectively railroads you through it in one direction. This railroading is made actively worse by the sheer amount of backtracking you are forced to do.
Imagine: You’re walking through the streets of Rapture and you stumble across a little sister. Your gamer tastebuds water at the opportunity to power up, and you check your ammo cache. You don’t have enough ammo to take down the behemoth you know isn’t far behind, and when that behemoth has a drill for a fucking hand, you want all the ammo you can get. So, you go back to a vending machine you recently hacked – only to realize that you don’t have enough money to buy ammo. Bollocks. So now, you are forced to backtrack again through the streets you have just walked, searching the corpses of all the splicers you’ve killed in the hope of finding any bullets that you may have missed. You stare longingly at an airlock that will never open as the isolation sets in. By the time you’ve found enough ammo to take down the Big Daddy, you have to trek all the way back and still see nothing new before taking the damn thing on.
Another complaint has to do with the vending machines. Get too close to a vending machine in the middle of a firefight, and it’s all too easy to press the wrong button by accident, initiating a hacking minigame. The splicers – considering they are all just mindless junkies hell-bent on killing you and drinking your blood to get that sweet, sweet Adam – are rather quite polite. They stand still while you hack the machine, and only continue bludgeoning you with their pipe wrench once you are done.
Furthermore, while the game states you’re hacking things, what you are technically doing is plumbing – and that has nothing to do with a vending machine. The game is set under the sea; that is all the water you will ever need in a game. Effectively, the hacking minigame is a re-hash of the classic puzzler Pipe Mania, where you take the pieces of broken pipe, rotate them and put them down on a grid that will allow the water to pass from A to B. If you’re too slow or get the puzzle wrong, you fail. That’s not hacking; that is plumbing.
The aesthetic of Rapture is utterly sublime, and could only be made better by seeing more of it. The sounds of Rapture are haunting, and build upon the beautiful atmosphere at tension you can already see. Environments are wonderfully varied, but by the end of the game, you’ll have back-tracked so much that they lose some of their appeal and familiarity sets in. It doesn’t help that the game fizzles out towards the end; after a fantastic revelation about two thirds of the way through the story, you’re sent on an extended fetch-quest, before ending up at a rather lazy climax – a boss fight. It feels as though Irrational ran out of ideas and didn’t know how to conclude the story.
Despite these complaints though, the game is redeemed by its fantastic storyline and setting. Rapture is a rich world, steeped in history and with a cast of characters that stick in the mind long after completion. It’s also a game that will make you stop and think about the conventions of the medium; it’s a rare thing – a shooter with brains – and while it doesn’t always manage to live up to its own ambitions in the gameplay department, the writing is second to none. All in all, Bioshock is a fantastic game which I recommend to anyone who enjoys first-person shooters or a good storyline.
Altogether now, to the tune of Frère Jaques:
“Mr. Bubbles, Mr. Bubbles
Are you there?, Are you there?
Come and give me lollies,
Come and bring me toffees,
Teddy bears. Teddy bears.”