I won’t deny it, the BioShock games have been among my favorite games ever created! I’m a super fan on many levels! So many factors have lead to the appeal for me; dystopian settings, failed utopias, political/social intrigue, fascinating settings, beautiful set design, wonder art aesthetics, and of course retro-futuristic punk settings! But, there’s a lot more to the series to that! A mix of wonderful moments and pitfalls as well. So, let’s go somewhere beyond the sea and into the sky with the BioShock series!
One can’t deny that Ken Levine is the brainchild of the series, who has helped to shape the direction of the games since early days. In fact, much of its roots come from previous projects. Whether as an homage or a criticism, BioShock 1 feeling like System Shock 2 is more than a coincidence! One could go on and on about how the technology, enemies, and more mirror each other, but another website already has you covered there! That said, this is the case as many former developers of System Shock helped with the creation of the BioShock games. Even so, 2K Games’ recent work “Prey” has quite the similar approach in terms of mechanics, but this is much likely a coincidence.
But, the world of BioShock 1 and 2 wouldn’t be anything without its influences. As Levine himself mentioned that despite having a “useless” liberal arts degree, he was genuinely fascinated by human ideals and how are flaws get in the way. This lead him to look into dystopian authors like George Orwell, Ayn Rand, and beyond. Not to mention, a love of classic science fiction serials/television shows and wide variety of artistic aesthetics that defined generations. Melded together, these proved to be the basis for the shock’s start.
To me, what grabbed me about BioShock was that flawed humanity. Andrew Ryan wanted a better world, but his bitterness and paranoia kept him from accomplishing that. But even then, awful people like Fontaine would have inevitably dragged it down in one way or another. Not to mention the so-called “Monsters” of Rapture have an eerily human side to them. The Splicers used to be regular people, flawed regular people. In their drug induced madness, they sometimes lapse into a moment in the past. This causes them to lament about some mistake in their life leading to their fall. This terrified me a lot more than their psychobabble, as they used to be perfectly normal before becoming murderous freaks. Even if the Big Daddies and Little Sisters are forced together, you can sense emotion in them (even in the Daddies) when something goes wrong for their “family member”. I could argue that BioShock 2 helped to expand the mental collapse of Andrew Ryan, where he went from idealistic business magnate to ultra-paranoid crony-capitalist.
But, what about BioShock Infinite? One could say the world took a back seat to the characters, a controversial move, but the world of Columbia was still a fascinating one to explore. Throughout the floating steampunk city, you observed conflict and constant violence spurred on by zealous fanaticism, class division, racism, and other unfortunate products of American exceptionalism. And while the perpetrators of this hatred were awful people, the reaction against it was just as extreme! While many gamers wanted the Vox to be heroes, I was more than satisfied at them being the exact opposite of Columbia’s personal army, “The Founders.”
One thing Infinite did better than original Shock in my opinion was showing a fanatical duality; in which giving the oppressed a weapon and teaching them equal amounts of radicalism and hatred makes them no better (if not worse) than their oppressor. While I empathized with the Vox at first, they quickly began to terrify me. That said, I’m still a bit critical on Fitzroy threatening to kill Fink’s son. The Vox story arc was increasing in violence and terror, but that just seemed to jump out of no where! And not even Burial at Sea could patch up that sudden jarring escalation. And even then, there’s a darker undertone at play. Because of that duality, one faction needs the other! If one of them wins, we’re doomed! I won’t say anymore on why, as you’ll have to play for yourself.
And looking at that, the series has a vicious cycle of pain for its characters. And thanks to Burial at Sea, the cycle is complete… unless you consider BioShock 2 to be canon, in which that game finishes everything. In the start, we see Jack suffer upon realizing that he’s an illegitimate child manipulated by corrupt scientists for Fontaine’s sick plans. In BioShock 2, your bonded Little Sister was taken by a cult of personality hellbent on controlling all the Splicers of Rapture. In BioShock Infinite, Booker’s incompetence as a parent lead to a multidimensional realization that you created this whole mess! And then in Burial at Sea, Elizabeth’s sociopathic desire to kill the last Comstock lead to her near-suicidal attempt to redeem herself… only to set the wheels in motion for Jack to kill Fontaine.
One of the things that got me into the series was how quickly you jump into the game and how fast it grabs you. BioShock 1 throws you into chaos in the first couple minutes, then gives you an nice introduction where things aren’t as they seem. In a sense, BioShock Infinite is an inverse of that. You’re given a straight up request to head to a lighthouse, where things are creepy. From there, things get weirder only to turn out to be really nice! Of course, it’s a fancy lie kinda like BioShock 1’s opening.
Now, let’s talk mechanics! The mechanics of the first game were simple and kinda clunky (plasmids OR weapons), but there was a magic to them. That said, BioShock 2 was really a mechanical upgrade more than anything. Gone was hacking via “Mario Pipes” and gone was the separation of plasmids and weapons. Systematically, the sequel played a lot better! In a sense, Burial at Sea brought that to Infinite. The plot wasn’t any better (In fact, in the case of 2 and BaS, it was quite a bit worse of a plot hole ridden mess.)
The ability to really choose your morality feels oh so right for the setting of Rapture. You got to choose what kind of person you wanted to be. Did you want to feast upon the Little Sisters’ ADAM or did you want to save them and become their hero? This duality in ending choice was fascinating to see, as it was so rare in gaming at the time. You got to be who you wanted to be. Despite Ryan’s death, perhaps he might have been proud of your decisions.
For all of these games, I didn’t immediately find an appreciation for them until I replayed them. All of the titles present something fascinating for me to dive into. Yes, even BioShock 2. Despite its MANY hiccups and plot holes, presented a fairly emotional story of a father rescuing his child… albeit, it’s in a more BioShock style of telling the story. All around, the series was one of the things that helped change my opinion on video games as a whole. It helped to show that video games can handle mature subject matter, covering a wide variety of touchy subject matter and various philosophies. It gave you a lot of freedom to play dabble with various gameplay combinations. It helped to prove that video games can be an art form all to themselves! So, if you get the chance, give these games another play again. Sure, another series may one day replace it, but that doesn’t stop the BioShock series from being one of the strongest in gaming history.