There’s Always A City: Experiencing Bioshock for the First Time

Ever since the original Bioshock came out in 2007, the whole series has occupied a fascinating spot in the gaming hobby. Like Doom and Half-Life, the original Bioshock was the right game at the right time, a first-person experience primarily designed for consoles that came out just as gaming was truly become mainstream. As such the original game developed a reputation as a poster child for the “games as art” narrative, arrying atmosphere, political and philosophical weight, strong story, and solid gameplay. That’s pretty unfair to a lot of games that came before that did all of those things, and it creates a set of expectations that the series struggled to live up to, through two sequels that were each controversial in their own way. That’s why it’s been so much fun for me to go through the entire series for the first time. The legacy of Bioshock is such that it can be hard to approach them with fresh eyes, but I think I came about as close as is possible.

The biggest single mind behind the Bioshock series is Ken Levine, working with Irrational Games. Levine’s previous claim to fame was System Shock 2, a highly immersive first person RPG from 1999. In that game the player uses stealth, hacking, psionic powers, and good old-fashioned gunplay to unravel the mysteries of an abandoned spaceship. System Shock 2 is part of the “immersive sim” genre, a rather specific label reserved for first-person games like Thief, Deus Ex, Ultima Underworld, and the original System Shock. These games all emphasized a heightened level of player agency, a highly reactive environment revolving around designed systems, and a non-linear level design meant to emulate real environments. As its title implies, Bioshock was billed as a “spiritual successor” to the System Shock games, a sort of console-friendly interpretation of a genre that embraced the complexity of PC gaming.

The first two Bioshocks are set in the underwater city of Rapture.

The extent to which Bioshock and its sequels can really be considered “immersive sims” is hotly debated. Though I’ve not played either of the System Shock games, Bioshock is certainly a simpler game, both in terms of design and difficulty. That said, the setup for Bioshock is pretty similar. In the first game the player arrives in a huge underwater city, a 1940s art-deco metropolis called Rapture. Rapture is a remarkable piece of video game design, a majestic piece of human achievement that has gone completely rotten. As the player travels through the ruined city, they learn about Rapture’s history and its leader, Andrew Ryan. This is done through audiologs, recordings the player finds from Rapture’s denizens. (This mechanic was used in both System Shock games) Most of these people are now gone, and by all indications Rapture did not meet a gentle end. As the game goes on, the player meets the only people still living in Rapture: unhinged megalomaniacs, genetically-altered citizens called Splicers, and hulking creatures in diving suits called Big Daddies.

Eventually the player learns that Andrew Ryan started Rapture as a Randian utopia, where every citizen is a bastion of personal freedom and capitalist innovation. Rapture was therefore founded to get away from “parasites” who would steal the hard-earned money of entrepreneurs like him. Much was made in 2007 of the philosophical overtones of Bioshock. Andrew Ryan may have set out to make a utopia, but Rapture is at this point a nightmare city. As the game goes on it becomes obvious that his ideals engendered a sort of moral rot in all of its citizens.

If this series has any overarching theme, it is how ideologues and tyrants consume people for their own purposes. Not that we’d know anything about that in 2020.

The sequels would differ from the original in both subtle and overt ways, but if there is one common thread in the series it is an obsession with self-made messiahs who promise utopia. In Bioshock 2 we meet Sofia Lamb, a Rapture citizen who we learn rebelled against Ryan, promising freedom not through individuality, but through collectivism. The second sequel, Bioshock Infinite, moves the action to a completely different city, Columbia. Unlike Rapture, Columbia floats in the sky and has an early 1900s aesthetic. Led by Zachery Comstock, Columbia is a hyper-nationalist American dream, thick with the religiosity and racist imagery that we associate with the uglier side of American culture. As the characters in that game mention, there’s “always a man, always a city.”

Much was made of the criticism of Andrew Ryan’s objectivist viewpoint in 2007, but as the series went on it displayed a deep cynicism for anyone who promised utopia. The antagonists of the Bioshock games are almost always ideological revolutionaries who believe that human life is expendable in the service of their beliefs. The logical extreme for such ideological rigidity is not peace, but violence, of which there is plenty through the whole series. This gets interpreted as a sort of both-sides fallacy by some people, but I think the more accurate representation would be suspicion of anyone who subscribes to a single view of how the world must be. The Bioshock series is deeply skeptical of people who are certain of their perspective, a lesson that I found poignant and relevant in 2020.

I knew about a lot of this philosophical content before I ever played these games. But as I went on I was surprised to notice that all of the ideas were actually played with a pretty light touch. While the philosophical and political statements are always overt, they tend to be used as a way to provide background to the rest of the game. In the first two games, the real focus is on the place itself. Rapture is one of the most remarkable settings I’ve ever seen in a video game. It is deeply atmospheric, filled with art-deco architecture that has become crusted over with sea life as the ocean slowly reclaims it. It’s a truly frightening place for a game, and the most powerful parts of Bioshock 1 and 2 revolve around lights flickering at the worst times, disembodied sounds that signal unseen danger, and the sad and horrible things shared in the audiologs. As if that weren’t enough, Rapture is also impressive from the standpoint of level design. All of the areas in the game feel like real places. The city is filled with abandoned shopping centers, theaters filled with corpses, and science labs where horrible things happened. The player objectives will push you to explore every nook and cranny, solving problems and discovering secrets in a non-linear fashion. The first two Bioshock games are master-classes of level design, among the best I’ve ever seen in any game.

The first weapon you get in Bioshock is a wrench, a little homage both to System Shock 2’s wrench, and to Half-Life’s crowbar.

Bioshock Infinite is a different beast altogether. While I enjoyed all three games immensely, it must be said that compared to Rapture, Columbia is less impressive. Infinite is a more linear experience, and while it does wonders for the game in some ways (more on that in a minute) it means that the levels sometimes feel like you’re on a conveyor belt. There are still secrets and audiologs to track down, but those mechanics really work better in a more open level design, and Infinite is too invested in its narrative to really work that way. It also makes some series staples feel downright goofy. Columbia is not yet in ruins like Rapture, and people go about their business all over the place. In such a setting it seems weird to open every locker and eat food out of the trash for health, something that is common in every Bioshock game. But Columbia does have its own strengths as a setting. There’s an openness and brightness to it that is a great change of pace, and much of the gameplay revolves around skyrails, railings suspended in the clouds that the player leaps on to like a steampunk Indiana Jones. You get to leap through the air, fly around on the rails, and then leap back down, then turn around and blow someone off of into the wild blue yonder. Columbia is less conducive to exploration, but it is much more conducive to fast-paced action.

There are some gameplay threads that connect all three games. The whole series focuses on a combination of shooter mechanics, and what amounts to a kind of “magic” system. (In the first two games, these powers are called “plasmids,” while they are called “vigors” in Infinite.) Between the different weapons and vigors, the player has a huge range of choices in how they want to approach combat. All three games reward specialization as well, allowing you to upgrade your powers and weapons to make them more effective. Indeed, Infinite forces you in this direction by only allowing you to carry two weapons at a time, something that disappointed a lot of fans. The level of polish on these mechanics varies a little between each entry, though gamers have a tendency to overstate the badness of any of them. All three games are perfectly approachable and mostly quite intuitive. That said, in terms of raw mechanics, Bioshock 2 feels the most well-executed, since it takes advantage of the range of player options most fully, and has some of the best level design in the series.

Whether in the underwater nightmare of Rapture or the above-the-clouds nightmare of Columbia, Bioshock has a lot of fascinating rhymes in every installment.

But the Bioshock series is not just about mechanics. If that were the case I wouldn’t have burned through three whole games in a couple of months (though quarantine helped with that too). The story is what drives all three games, whether the story of Rapture that we learn in the first two games, or the story of the main characters in Infinite. All three games manage this part very well. There are huge twists throughout the series, but there are also tons of small easter eggs for people who are playing the games again, small visual clues that pay off when you are already familiar with the scope of the story. These games are great at environmental storytelling and the big overt moments as well, and that’s what pushed me to keep playing.

They are also super easy to play these days. The Bioshock Collection is available on all three major consoles, and the often go on sale through Steam. The Collection also includes the DLC campaigns for Bioshock 2 and Infinite, which are not to be missed. Minerva’s Den is a small add-on to Bioshock 2, a mostly unrelated experience that manages to pack a powerful emotional punch. Infinite includes the two-part Burial At Sea, itself a sort of coda to the entire arc and with some of my favorite gameplay in the series. As to which game is best, I’m not sure I could choose. The first Bioshock is a triumph of atmosphere and was the one I found most genuinely frightening. Bioshock 2 cannot match that power, but makes up for it in highly polished design, probably the best in the series. Infinite is the most flawed game in the series, but its focus on character and narrative overcame a lot of my complaints. It’s certainly the most ambitious game in a series filled with ambition, though whether it succeeds is up to you. For my part, I could barely tear myself away from Infinite. It’s a glorious mess, one that I found compulsively playable even when it didn’t really work.

As a medium video games are unkind to innovators. When a game is really impactful, imitators will often refine those innovations while putting them in less exciting settings. I get the impression that the Bioshock series has fallen into this realm. The legacy has also been complicated by the sequels. Bioshock 2 is sometimes considered too similar to the first, and Bioshock Infinite is, as I stated already, kind of a mess. I am not generally a huge fan of shooters, so I don’t have a very strong point of reference. That said, the Bioshock series joins the likes of Half-Life and Portal for me as an unparalleled single-player experience. These are the sorts of games that make me happy to be a gamer, immersive stories set in remarkable locations with unforgettable characters. In trying to make sense of their messier tendencies, they’ve actually given me something to think about as well. That is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay to art of any kind.