The second entry in my Examining the Classics series is Bioshock, a title that over a decade after its release in 2007, I maintain is one of the greatest video games ever developed. From its opening, to the character development, Rapture, and the brilliantly shocking ending, Bioshock is the purest definition of a modern classic. It also happens to be one of my favorite games of all-time; one that I’ve played through several times and have completed 100%. Let’s take a deeper look into this masterpiece.
“No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” It’s 1960. You’ve just survived a plane crash into the mid-Atlantic after which you swim to a lone, ominous structure protruding out of the water. Upon entering, the door shuts behind you, ambient lights emit above you, 1940s era music begins to play, and you are greeted with a large banner reading the above quoted phrase. Who are you? Why did the plane crash? Why is there a building in the middle of the ocean? What does the phrase mean and who said it? While these are all pertinent questions, rather than be confused you are intrigued. You know nothing about the current situation. There is nothing telling you where to go or what to do. Alone you walk on to find an empty bathysphere station. Having nowhere else to go, you enter, pull the lever, and descend into the darkening ocean to find a massive city hiding beneath. Welcome to Rapture.
Andrew Ryan created Rapture for the best and brightest of humanity. Rapture would be a civilization where no king would rule and no god would be worshiped. Rather, the brightest experts from each industry were invited to collaboratively mold an underwater utopia. What wasn’t expected, naturally, was the horrifying end result. A city that was once seemingly brimming with the best life and entertainment in the two decades following the depression, had turned into something that for all intents and purposes was now post-apocalyptic. Rapture had devolved into a city where Adam, a liquid that can modify a human’s genes to give them super human powers titled Plasmids, rules all. Deformed beings that were once human named splicers now populate the city, endlessly looking for their next fix of Adam. Order and government have been lost and the only sense of power seems to be locked in a tug of war between two men. Unknowingly, you have history in Rapture. What that history is, or what it entails, is for you to uncover.
The Brilliance of Rapture
I continue to believe, over a decade later, that Bioshock contains the most impressive digital world ever created in a video game. I realize of course, that is an incredibly bold statement. Let me state my case.
Upon first descending into Rapture, what’s immediately apparent is the fact that you are underwater which, given that you find yourself in a massive city, seems rather shocking. It makes for a truly unique setting and is so fully realized, you begin to question if it could actually be accomplished in real-life. Whether or not it could be is naturally beside the point. The fact that the narrative is enough of a realistic foundation to support the story is just one of the many impressive feats Bioshock accomplishes.
Once you begin to explore Rapture, the extent to which it has been imagined becomes clear. The level of detail found within the design of the structures and surroundings is remarkable and throughout your journey you’ll visit a wide variety of settings that encompass a fully fleshed out community. Posters and billboards containing advertisements for the latest products fill the walls and neon signs, advanced technology for the time period, illuminate the hallways that lead to a plethora of storefronts, restaurants, bars, factories, and residential areas. Of course, as Bioshock occurs after the downfall of society within Rapture, the environments reflect the chaos and anarchy that has ensued. What presumably was once a utopia for the brightest human minds, has degraded into a broken shell of what once was and this too, is demonstrated to the player in exquisite detail.
I’ll touch more on specific, notable residents within Rapture later, but one of the truly magnificent details of the city is the way in which their influence is reflected. From artwork to advertisements, as a player you begin to associate specific names as Rapture royalty despite not knowing the personalities behind those names at the beginning. With regard to realizing the setting, it’s a notable and exceptional feat that becomes more apparent later in the game.
Tying all of this together is the visual presentation and while Bioshock may not have contained the best we saw in its generation, it was certainly exceptional in a number of ways. As stated, the locations within Rapture are what really make the game stand-out and the graphical details within each that truly shine. When you’re in the garden area known as Arcadia, trees and flowers fill the walls, water flows through canals beneath you, and insects illuminate the air. It truly feels alive and that characteristic is shared throughout every facet of the game. While traversing a meat-packing plant, light reflects off of the icy walls while you watch your breath crystallize in front of you and while exploring one of Rapture’s many lounges, varying colors of fluorescent lights scatter across the walls, casting real-time shadows throughout the room.
Lighting and shadowing is critical to the environments in Rapture and gives the game its atmospheric presence as well as the feeling that you are always in danger. Splicers will come out of the shadows suddenly, aggressively, and are often hidden well from plain sight. The most notable inhabitants of Rapture, the big daddies and little sisters, stand out just as well. You can see the little sisters’ glowing yellow eyes piercing the dark hallways while in close proximity will be their protectors, the imposing big daddies in their shimmering diving suits. There are even specific events in the game that use lighting to set the tone for the event itself thus creating both terror and awe simultaneously. The effects are quite remarkable for a title that is now over a decade old and released early in the 7th generation of consoles.
The UI facing the player is no less impressive. Loading screens are populated with memorable quotes from the various characters you will meet while on your journey and even work to reinforce your knowledge, or lack thereof, of the city and its history. Overlays are designed with the same care put into the surroundings, and menu screens all look as though they are molded out of the city themselves. It’s rare to for a game to immerse you as fully as Bioshock. While this aspect of development in AAA titles has advanced in the current generation, it was exceptional at the time.
The Residents of Rapture
Almost as impressive as the environments are the residents themselves. With the downfall of Rapture came the splicers. Splicers in their varying forms are the enemies you encounter most and give you a good scare or two along the way. They are modeled in such a way to emphasizes the horrors that have occurred within Rapture by being disfigured to the point of being nearly inhuman. Masks cover their faces while bandages and tattered clothes hang from their gnarly appendages. Their animations, from the awkward way they drag their weapons across the ground to the way in which they run towards you, further reinforces their plight.
Though you encounter splicers throughout your journey, you eventually notice that outside of a few of the main antagonists, there are no “normal” residents left in Rapture. While I find nearly all of the title to be brilliant, this is one of the areas I felt was a missed opportunity. While context is given as to Rapture’s magnificence prior to the downfall, outside of the history that is filled in along the way, you never meet anyone who can further illuminate that past. In fact, I always felt as though it would have been great for a prequel to have been developed where you play through the downfall of Rapture up until the beginning of Bioshock (though the book Rapture by John Shirley is excellent and I will touch more on that later). Bioshock 2 gave us a small glimpse of Rapture’s splendor in its flashback chapter but while I felt it was one of the best parts of the sequel, it was sadly nothing more than a small taste.
Regardless, when players reminisce about Bioshock, it is the little sisters and big daddies that are top of mind. little sisters, young girls now consumed by Adam, are both haunting and charming. They represent a significant choice in how you approach the game as choosing to harvest them increased your power but at the expense of your own morality. Meanwhile, saving them, clearly the moral choice, resulted in a more difficult time in Rapture but a more touching ending. This decision placed upon the player was a fantastic in-game metaphor for Rapture itself. Would you succumb to Adam and the thirst for power as the residents in Rapture did themselves? Or would you remain vigilant in opposing the corruption? I have completed the game through both paths and while they don’t vary drastically, I’m glad they allow the player to make the choice especially given that 2K Games had originally challenged the concept by saying they would not ship a game “where the player gets punished for doing the right thing”.
Big Daddies meanwhile, immediately became synonymous with Bioshock. One graces the cover and there have been figures, statues, and artwork of them produced since the title released. All of this is for good reason; they are one of the most memorable core enemies ever created in a video game. Your first introduction to a big daddy (a Bouncer to be specific) is watching as a Splicer, attempting to harm a little sister, is brutally slaughtered and drilled open in front of you. This clever introduction was all you needed to see as a player to know two things; little sisters are not to be threatened but should you choose to, you will face a truly imposing foe. My first true combat against a big daddy, seeing its lights turn red as it charged towards me, ground shaking beneath my feet, was one of the most intense moments I’ve ever had in a single player experience. I can still vividly remember my first full battle with a Bouncer and that was nearly 11 years ago now.
Composing a Classic
I tend to be an audiophile and thus, I feel that sound design is integral to the gaming experience; particularly one as fully realized as Bioshock. Throughout Rapture, attention to detail has been paid to the voice-overs, sound effects, and most importantly, the accompaniment. Splicers will scream and yell as they attack you, little sisters talk to their big daddies oh so innocently, and the main characters you encounter are all brought to life by voice actors who seem to be fully invested in their roles. Given the importance of the central characters to the story of Rapture, the latter is incredibly important. Even the vending machines are notable due to their audible statements (Feel free to admit you heard “Fill your cravings at the Circus of Values!” in your head as you read that).
But in my opinion, one of the most memorable aspects of the sound direction title is the groan of a big daddy. It’s a haunting, bellowing sound that echoes around you as they approach closer. When you hear it, combined with the thumping footsteps they take which shake your screen, you always feel a sense of danger and unease. As they are accompanied by little sisters who themselves speak in an eerie, almost metallic tone, it creates a combination that is not easily forgotten.
Almost as intoxicating as a big daddy’s groan is the soundtrack itself. Composed by Garry Schyman, who took inspiration from some of the best 20th century composers, the OST is so catchy it will cause you to receive awkward looks at work while you hum it the following day. It fits the era perfectly and thus assists in associating the time period.
An interview with Garry Schyman including his inspirations for the Bioshock OST
Putting the back story of Rapture together is the inclusion of tape recorders found throughout the city. There are one hundred and twenty in total, each recorded by one of the main characters in the game. Each tape tells a small piece of the many sub-stories that you will lead you to uncover not only Rapture’s past, but your own. As with the other areas of Bioshock, the voice acting is superb and further lends credibility to the story that unfolds while also helping to lead the player down the defined path to the shocking conclusion that awaits. It is one of the many aspects of Bioshock that seems minor on the surface initially, but helps to further cement it as a classic once viewed holistically.
Creating a Memorable Cast
For the uninitiated or in the case of simply forgetting as Bioshock is over a decade old, Adam was the creation of Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum. She discovered that the sea slugs surrounding Rapture contained a matter that could re-create cells and manipulate genes. With the assistance of Frank Fontaine, Adam was created and Tenenbaum became the most celebrated scientist in Rapture. Taking it one step further, Tenenbaum then discovered that should the slugs be placed into a host, she could extract substantially more Adam. However, the only suitable hosts were young girls and thus, in her untethered aspirations for fame and recognition, the little sisters were born. Their protectors however, big daddies, were the creation of a doctor named Yi Suchong.
Yi Suchong came to Rapture merely to exploit the city for his own personal gain. As you uncover, Suchong also became disillusioned with Ryan and began coordinating with Fontaine in secret. Beyond the creation of big daddies, he also created Plasmids and much of the advanced technology found throughout Rapture. However, he’s most importantly the mastermind behind your memory loss and Jack’s now famous trigger “would you kindly”.
Andrew Ryan, though originally setup as the main antagonist, is not the man you are led to believe. Rather, in the end you discover it is Frank Fontaine who is at the center of not only Rapture’s downfall, but your own history. The ultimate con-man who used his power, connections, and eventual influence on everyone and everything around him, Fontaine orchestrated the rebellion against Ryan and thus, the collapse of the ideals on which Rapture was founded.
As you reach the stunning conclusion, you discover your history in Rapture and are able put together all of the pieces of the puzzle. You, as Jack, are the son of Ryan but as you were illegitimate, your embryo was sold in secret to Tenenbaum. Fontaine, using Tenenbaum and Suchong, had you genetically manipulated and conditioned from an early age so you could be used against Ryan when he felt the time was right. This included accelerated growth and aging along with the now famous trigger that he would use as his Atlas persona to control your actions after you were summoned back to the city. And of course, he used it to accomplish his ultimate goal; the elimination of Andrew Ryan.
Ancillary to the core story behind your past and Rapture itself, is the supporting cast of characters you meet along the way that further illuminate the downfall of the city and touch on individual aspects within the philosophies defining the title. As Rapture began to spiral out of control, and Adam took hold of the populace, the true horror that humans are capable of began to surface. This results in several memorable side plots with other influential Rapture citizens which further expand the player’s insight into the devolving landscape. Sander Cohen and J.S. Steinman are the perfect examples of a secondary characters so well weaved into a game’s narrative, that once your interaction with them has concluded, you begin to recognize their impact on Rapture all around you. They represent the disturbing result of human nature given unlimited freedom, lack of regulation, and in this case, Adam. I also believe they, to some degree, represent a distorted view of individual sensory perception and how that can be translated to an art form no matter how horrific it may seem to others. Thus, while splicers are the horrifying, final result, across Rapture you bear witness to the path that led there. It’s simply another aspect of Rapture as a setting that makes it unforgettable.
Re-writing the Script
We often hear that originality in Hollywood is dead. Whether or not you believe that is inconsequential as seasoned gamers know that is anything but the case with our favorite form of entertainment. Bioshock contains a story so mysterious yet well written, it is still referenced today when discussing narrative in gaming. There are very few titles that warrant narrative discussion long after their launch but Bioshock is certainly near the top of the list. What separates it in this regard, is not only how the story is presented to the player, but in how it presents a unique view on real-world belief systems.
What makes the former special, is the way in which you as the player are led on a leash throughout the entire experience. From the mysterious entry to Rapture, to Fontaine’s persona as Atlas, the confrontation with Ryan, and the mind-blowing revelation at the end, it is all perfectly paced to keep the player guessing. Like any good mystery novel or movie, you are held in suspense throughout the entire journey, only to realize at the end that you never truly had any inkling as to the truth that was hiding in plain sight. Of course, playing through Bioshock a second time is almost as enlightening as the first as you are playing it with your eyes open for the first time.
In my opinion though, despite all of the aspects I’ve championed to this point, what puts Bioshock on a pedestal is the way in which the “utopian turned dystopian” nature of the story and setting are delivered. While we’ve seen many post-apocalyptic games, and I spoke about another in The Last of Us in our first Examining the Classics, none have resonated as soundly with historical writings nor dove as deeply into their philosophy. Rapture, Ryan, Fontaine, and the interwoven themes presented to the player represent, to varying degrees, the writings of Rand, Orwell, and Huxley throughout the title. Ryan’s core principles behind the creation of Rapture, that individuals should serve their best interests and be uninhibited by government or controlling forces, champion some of the aforementioned writers well ; in particular Rand. The focus on Ryan as the vessel for Objectivism, the philosophical system championed by Rand, is a core tenet of Bioshock and the foundation for Rapture’s creation in the post-depression time period. The ensuing degradation of society within Rapture can be viewed from different lights depending on the player, but each is intriguing to consider. Those knowledgeable in the beliefs and writings of these authors would certainly recognize the parallels.
As you have arrived in Rapture over a decade after its creation, and are now experiencing the downfall first hand, you find that it is Ryan himself who brought the thriving civilization to its knees. As Rapture grew, so did Ryan’s paranoia and the need for control. As that control contrasted sharply with the principles behind why Rapture was created in the first place, citizens began to rebel. Enter Frank Fontaine who used back channels to amass power and wealth so great, he led the revolt against Ryan which begun just before your arrival in 1959. His persona, Atlas, which is used throughout the majority of the game as a counter to “Ryan’s” Rapture, is yet another direct (and quite fitting) reference to the aforementioned writings.
While 2007 brought us Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare, two shooters that have had some of the largest impact on the genre in gaming history, it was Bioshock that presented original gameplay concepts. Plasmids created a refreshing angle on the standard FPS, allowing you to dispatch with enemies in whatever way you saw fit. The ability to use both weapons and plasmids in coordinated attacks was tremendous fun and continued to expand the further you progressed through the game. Additionally, while Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 left a lasting impression on the industry and changed multiplayer gaming forever, Bioshock’s story will be remembered for ages.
Bioshock is an anomaly. It is a title that was almost universally recognized as a masterpiece upon release. It was a leader in-game of the year discussions in 2007 despite historically strong competition. And it has been celebrated ever since by critics and players alike. However, the inherent themes presented to the player, their covert meaning, and the references to real-life philosophers and authors are likely lost on many. And so, as excellent as Bioshock is to play and to experience, it is equally remarkable in the way it calls upon these themes without negatively impacting the core gameplay. It reinvigorated the FPS genre with brilliant storytelling and deep seeded themes that can be explored at the players will. As a testament to gaming as an art form, Bioshock stands tall.
As I reflect on Bioshock and thus the completion of this entry of Revisiting the Classics, I feel as though my appreciation for the title has increased further; something I would have said previously was impossible. The care with which each element in Rapture was created, each plot string crafted, and each character realized, is staggering. And even beyond the various themes I’ve highlighted, it is also quite apt in simply portraying human imperfection at its core. As Rapture was so brilliantly created by Ryan, it was just as easily destroyed by Fontaine.
Bioshock will always remain one of my favorite games ever developed and I feel it’s an important title for the industry – beyond what most gamers likely realize. But then, I think I’ve made that clear by now. So rather than me continuing to type, whether or not you’ve played Bioshock before, would you kindly go play it?
If you enjoyed this article and have a love for Bioshock, you should absolutely check out Rapture by John Shirley. It is the prequel to Bioshock and offers riveting insight into the background of the main characters and the building of Rapture.
And finally, I also highly recommend “Imagining Bioshock” which is the documentary that came with the Bioshock Collection. You can find the series of trailers for it below!
Finally, if you somehow skipped the expansions for Bioshock Infinite, or Infinite entirely, I suggest playing Burial at Sea. While part of Infinite, it is a prequel to Bioshock and ties the two worlds together in captivating fashion.