Ten years ago today, Irrational Games’ sci-fi first-person shooter BioShock was released, and its story of a ruined undersea city and the brutal objectivist that led it to its doom was instantly canonized as one of the medium’s strongest artistic statements. The art-deco-adorned city of Rapture was realized with a depth and vision few games had ever approached and populated with some unforgettable characters, like the twisted artist Sander Cohen and the city’s power-hungry founder Andrew Ryan. Its grappling with Randian philosophy gave the dialogue a high-minded and dramatic flair, all of which culminated in its iconic twist and commentary on the futility of choice in video games.
In the years since, BioShock’s shine has waned. So many of its most foundational elements found their way into games of all genres and scopes, and its flaws practically became more talked about than its merits. The release of two divisive sequels sullied things even further, especially once BioShock Infinite came under fire for drawing an equivalence between the monstrous white supremacists of its flying American city and the minority-led rebellion that fought them. (Boy, does that sound familiar.)
But here, on the original BioShock’s 10th anniversary, four A.V. Club staffers benefiting from a decade of hindsight came together to cut through all that muck and figure out what, for better or worse, it changed about video games and the way we perceive them.
In the 10 years since its release, few games have been met with a reception as effusive as BioShock. It was hailed as a paradigm-shifting masterpiece and the injection of intellectualism into video games that, apparently, so many people had been dying for. In those same 10 years, few games have faced a backlash as viral and smug as BioShock’s. (Well, there is BioShock Infinite, of course.) Having a “BioShock hot take” that chops away at all the concepts Irrational’s objectivism-tinged shooter helped turn into clichés—audio diaries left laying around abandoned locations; moral choices that reduce down to meaningless binaries; violent video games looking clever by condemning their own violence—has become a cliché of its own. With a decade of influence and discourse to look back on, I now believe both sides are right. As a single work in a vacuum, BioShock isn’t some unassailable masterpiece, but when you pull back and inspect the impact it’s left on this medium and what we expect from it, that influence is so much larger than the game itself.
First off, I think it’s fair to argue no game had ever been the subject of analytical scrutiny this pervasive and deep. It’s as if BioShock was the last straw that ushered in a major change in how we talk about games. It was a perfect storm for an upheaval: a hugely hyped release from an auteur director that had a cohesive artistic vision, a philosophical foundation, and a postmodern twist, and it arrived as a new wave of voices were rising from the less consumer-focused world of personal blogs. Authors were scrutinizing the game’s politics and morals, weighing what, exactly, writer-director Ken Levine was trying to say about objectivism and how the player’s actions fit into Rapture’s objectivist wonderland. They were digging into the details of its aesthetic influences, marking the connections between its gold-plated art deco interiors and its Randian origins. It even inspired one of the most eye-roll-worthy, but nonetheless insightful, pieces of games criticism jargon: the dreaded “ludonarrative dissonance,” which kicks in when a game’s story runs counter to the actions it’s asking players to perform. While this kind of writing existed in small pockets before BioShock, the hunger for discussion of this particular work and its many intricacies fueled a groundswell of thoughtful criticism that has never gone away. Heck, a place like Gameological might never have existed otherwise.
I’d also pinpoint this as the moment critics started opining the omnipresence of shooting in games. Reading the closest thing BioShock had to mixed reviews, many praised its ornate settings and powerful sense of atmosphere, but they harped on the conventionality of its violence. At the end of the day, it was another shooter, something that bores enthusiasts looking for an innovative gaming experience while scaring away newcomers who might be interested in the philosophical leanings. This line of criticism became even more common when BioShock Infinite was released and its incredible city of Columbia, that shimmering metropolis built on Americana and good ole white supremacy, was so well-constructed and compelling that some critics would rather have absorbed its stories at their own pace without having to explode so many people’s heads.
Funny enough, that sounds a hell of a lot like a sub-genre of game that’s really taken off in BioShock’s wake and to which you could draw a pretty direct through-line from the series. I’m talking about games like Gone Home and Firewatch, those narrative-rich, pacifist first-person experiences that plop you in a detailed world and leave you to find the stories within them just by being there and observing. (It’s no coincidence that one of Gone Home’s principal creators worked on BioShock 2.) In my eyes, if BioShock is a masterpiece of any sort, it’s an aesthetic one. Two years removed from the launch of the Xbox 360, it was probably the first game to really take advantage of that technological leap and the new level of visual detail high-definition graphics allowed. Suddenly, we were able to recognize the little nuances that developers need to tell the story of a place and make it feel real—the material of a building’s walls, the snarling face of a timeworn bronze statue, the era-appropriate graphic design of the advertisements. The creation of these spaces and the stories behind them was an achievement on its own, and, for some people, just being transported there was enough. It might just be that BioShock’s biggest contribution to video games was finally making people realize there could be more to this medium than murdering things.
How do you guys think BioShock has affected games over the last decade, if at all? Am I making way too big of a leap here?
Matt, I think you’re undeniably right about the way BioShock transformed the most recent generation of games (as a million copycat evil narrators could attest, provided you were willing to actually believe them). But I’d make the case that its triumphs weren’t about innovation, so much as they were about polish. The things that have been so vigorously copied from BioShock’s DNA—the environmental storytelling, the multiple approaches to thinking around or through problems, the willingness to outright lie to the player—were already staples of PC games like Deus Ex and System Shock 2 (unsurprising, given that Levine and his team at Irrational originally envisioned the game as a sequel to their classic space-based horror shooter). But as great as those games are, they’re also profoundly rough beasts, full of sharp edges, dead ends, and aesthetics that now look, frankly, god-awful to modern eyes.
BioShock’s real genius is in the way it sanded off those sticking points without damaging the core architecture underneath them, creating a smooth pill for players, especially those on consoles where this sort of thing was much rarer, to swallow its big ideas. Ten years later, Rapture is still a strikingly beautiful environment, with a sense of place that more modern games struggle to match. But just as important is the way the game’s combat has been refined within an inch of its life, removing all but the most unavoidable of player deaths. Side-stepping the Vita-Chambers “controversy,” an artifact of the conflict between older attitudes toward difficulty and the more modern ones the game helped usher in, BioShock’s combat is expertly tuned to push the player, but never to the point of breaking. Where older games might deprive you of resources to make you feel hunted or weak—something that Prey, very much a throwback to pre-BioShock design, uses to great effect—Rapture is all about addicting the player to a steady drip of empowerment and success, gently leading them from point to point while making them feel like they’re just barely hanging on. (And what’s that around the corner? Another batch of ADAM to make you feel like a super powerful badass again.) It has a smoothness that I’ve come to associate almost exclusively with big-budget titles, an anti-frustration design philosophy that basically says, “What’s the point of pissing our customers off by killing them all the time?”
The irony, of course, is that this all came in the package of a game that’s ostensibly about the powerlessness of players, as exemplified by its most famous moment: The “would you kindly?” sequence that plays out when you finally meet paranoid plutocrat Andrew Ryan face to golf club to face. People have backlashed against so much of BioShock over the years, but I rarely see anyone discount the power of the first time they saw that scene, when Ryan punctuates the on-rails nature of everything you’ve done up to that moment by literally stealing control away and robbing you of your “victory” in the most petty, triumphant way possible.
What do you guys remember about that moment, and the Atlas reveal that comes immediately after it? Does that shock still linger, now that it’s been copied by roughly a billion different games?
Short version: I remember loving it, at least initially. Despite having ostensibly been a critic for a large portion of the BioShock saga’s popularity, I’ve sort of been a passenger on the ship, playing the games, generally agreeing with the immediate enthusiastic consensuses, and then slowly souring on them as time went on. I remember playing the “would you kindly” moment with my roommate and being dazed by the conceptual leap the game made, and then also making fun of it (and the rest of the game) for biting off more than it could chew as we pressed on. Similarly, I remember staring dazzled as the credits rolled on BioShock Infinite the first time, then playing it a second time to piece things together and noticing nothing but seams, dead ends, and hackneyed overreaches.
I’ve always loved the spaces Irrational designed for us to explore, from the dogged, decaying symmetry of Rapture to the colonial grandeur of Columbia. But my memories of actually playing them—dialing through my Rolodex of powers and guns for the right thing to kill each enemy or searching endless rows of garbage cans for health-boosting candy bars—are less glowing. The decision to deliver so much of its exposition and story via shouted voice-over worked poorly, and its iterations in subsequent games—the endless cellphone calls and drive-along monologues of most modern open-world games—has been even direr. The environments told enough story; why talk over it all?
But I think, if anything, time has been kind to these tensions. The faults haven’t been sanded off, but they’re part of what we associate with the games. It’s possible to read the whole series as a cyclical meditation on violence. They uncovered numerous fault lines within how we think about games—not just the (shiver) ludonarrative dissonance of shooters but also the disjuncture between environmental and theatrical storytelling, between preordained stories and player choice, even in pacing, whether it’s the second-act twist of the original game or the final-second shocks of later entries. All of this was present, fully formed, in the original descent to Rapture. I often find myself defending violent artwork as the manifestation of a violent culture; by that token, BioShock is a perfectly conflicted manifestation of a medium still grappling with major structural issues. We’ve come to love the contrivances and inadequacies of, say, early film, and so too should we look at the experience of rifling through garbage cans while someone yells about the hubris of man as a singular example of where games were in 2007.
As you guys have noted, I think the biggest and most important thing BioShock did was present a very polished version of what video games can do. It wasn’t the first game to have (pretty straightforward) moral quandaries, it wasn’t the first game to make the setting itself a supporting character, and while switching between weapons and magic powers was fun and clever, it was mechanically the same as swapping from one gun to another. I think BioShock combined all of this into an easily digestible package that helped inspire people to think about games in a different way, whether it’s “oh, games can be about something” or just “oh, games can dump exposition through cheap and easy audio logs.”
Like Clayton suggested, though, it’s not really the moment-to-moment mechanics that people like or remember about BioShock. That stuff is there to guide you and ease you into the big “would you kindly?” scene, and I’ll go to my grave reiterating my argument from an essay I wrote a few years ago about how the game’s truly terrible ending underlines the metaphorical implications of the big twist in a much more fascinating way than the actual twist itself. William asked if the shock of the twist still has power, even though other games have done similar things in the years since, and I think it does, but only because very few other games have committed to their twists as thoroughly as BioShock did.
Looking back, I feel like the whole hype machine for BioShock was based on it being this revolutionary game where the actions you took would have deep repercussions in the world—a claim that has been made about dozens of things in the years since—but in actuality, the twist and the aforementioned terrible ending reveal that not only did your choices not matter, but you didn’t really make any choices at all. Not since Konami released faked screenshots to conceal the twist in Metal Gear Solid 2 has a game’s marketing worked so well to keep something secret, and I don’t think any big-budget games will ever be able to pull something like that off again. That on its own makes BioShock a big deal, which is why it’s the sort of thing people will keep talking about—and playing—after a whole decade of advances in how games play and tell stories.