The most important thing I have to say about BioShock is this: I’m going to play it again. Not “someday” or “when I don’t have anything else to play.” Tonight. As soon as I get home from work, and less than 48 hours after I finished it the first time.
Granted, one of my motives for doing so is to get a second chance at scoring some of the achievements I missed the first time through, but it was also such a powerful experience, I want to go through it again. Playing BioShock is like eating a whole bag of Doritos or drinking before noon; sometimes you just have to do it because you’re an adult and it feels good, and you can.
We don’t give scores here at The Escapist, so it’s not possible for me to either endorse or dispute the seemingly unanimous perception of BioShock as being a rare 10-out-of-10 game. Not in numbers, anyway. I don’t agree with that assessment, for the record. I think the game is brilliant, well-designed, moody, dark, intense, multi-faceted, engaging, mysterious, shocking, disturbing, fascinating, smart, funny and fun. But it’s not the perfect game. Not for anyone. Not really.
In my first impression piece I said the game, four hours in, still smelled like a new Buick and still felt like it had the potential to be one of the greatest games ever. I don’t regret saying that, because four hours in, it’s true. That’s still true eight hours in, 12 hours in and even 20 hours in. Even now, after I’ve finished the game, I still believe it could be one of the greatest games ever made, but that new Buick smell has faded, and the cracks in the leather upholstery are starting to show.
But first let’s talk about why the game is worthy of the adjectives with which I’ve cloaked it. First off, the beginning of BioShock is the best 20 minutes of any videogame ever. It easily displaces the beginning of Half-Life as the most innovative and engaging way to introduce a game world. Yet unlike in Half-Life, in BioShock you’re not a helpless audience member being shown intriguing bits and pieces of scenery as they roll beneath your tram car. You’re an active participant, discovering mere flashes of insight into the world you’ve discovered and are slowly convinced to take part in events that will move mountains.
Is there choice in this game? No. Not really. You’re offered the opportunity to exercise your existential angst over whether or not to damage the Little Sisters in order to harvest their Adam, the life-giving substance responsible for genetic mutation and long life, but from the beginning forward you’re essentially on a path to do whatever the designers of the game – and the puppet masters of Rapture – want you to do. It’s an object lesson in the terrifying nature of fate and is all the more engaging for its lack of pretension. A carnival house of horrors in which you hold the gun, but feel nevertheless completely at the mercy of the man behind the curtain.
The things that make BioShock outstanding aren’t revolutionary or even rare, but finding them all in one game is unheard of. Sound design, lighting, art, atmosphere, character design, level design, collection, upgradable weaponry, loot drops, enemy AI, strategic variables, tactical stealth, combat, weapon models, “magic,” character advancement, music, seamless level integration, subtly evil and wonderful boss characters, voice acting, story (oh, God the story) and truly memorable instances of emotion-stirring dramatic scripting are all first-rate, well beyond what I have come to expect from the world of blockbuster game design, where so long as the images are pretty and the booms are loud, the rest of the myriad elements that go into making a fantastic game are given short shrift.
To catalogue the ways BioShock has done it right would take more than the 20-plus hours it will take you to simply play the game. So I can’t say this enough: Play the game. If there was ever a game worth $50-60, BioShock is it. It may well even be worth the price of an Xbox 360, it’s that good.
BioShock is a game you’ll want to talk to all of your friends about, and yet won’t, out of respect for the sanctity of their experience. A friend of mine remarked that all of her friends were currently playing the game – and were well ahead of her – but she didn’t know a single thing about it, because it had inspired them so well, moved them so deeply, each and every one of them felt invested in respecting her right to experience the game unspoiled. I have the same problem here.
We can talk about Objectivism, but I can’t tell you what motivated Andrew Ryan, the games nominal antagonist, to build a city on the ocean floor. I can’t tell you why the best and brightest of the worlds scientists, artists and deep thinkers followed him to Rapture, and I can’t tell you why, when you first discover their aquatic utopia, not a one of them steps forward to shake your hand in welcome.
I can tell you that Ryan is a believer in The Great Chain, which he believes holds us all together, and which we must all heave at to reap the rewards of a well-lived life. But I can’t tell you who all else was pulling with him, and who in Rapture was pulling the other way.
I can tell you that BioShock features a system of genetic modification – plasmids, which allow you to inject a solution called Eve into your veins in order to use great powers like the ability to shoot lightning from your fingertips, incinerate enemies from afar and pick up and hurl objects great distances merely by thinking about it. I can’t, however, tell you about the secret plasmids hidden away in various locations in Rapture, or about the special tonics that enhance your abilities and allow you to do things you wouldn’t imagine.
Weaponry? Check. I can tell you all about those. Sort of. BioShock is ostensibly set in the year 1960, and the weapons you discover in Rapture look period appropriate, if slightly fantastical. You can enhance them, load them with special ammunition and only certain weapon/ammo combinations will be effective against certain enemies. Like I said, nothing new here, just an old idea beautifully and perfectly implemented.
I can also tell you that the enemies you’ll encounter in Rapture are called splicers, and that they are hideous, malformed and insane. But I can’t tell you where they came from, how they came to be what they are, and what you can do about it. I can’t even tell you about the creepiest of them, who you’ll encounter only if you venture off the beaten path. I want to. Oh, God, do I want to. Because it’s awesome. But I can’t. You’ll have to see it for yourself.
You’ve no doubt seen or heard of Big Daddies and Little Sisters by now, and what you’ve heard is only the tip of the iceberg, I assure you. You may even learn more about these two iconic and terribly creepy characters if you play long enough. And believe me, I wish I could talk to you about what exactly that is, too. But I can’t.
Several hours into BioShock, you’ll be guessing wildly about what picture will be assembled from the pieces you’ve been given. Halfway through, you’ll think you know what’s going on. Another quarter way through, you’ll realize you were wrong, and by the time you finish you’ll wish you could go back to not knowing.
But then something odd happens – and this is at the core of my intense ambivalence over the game’s finale – the ending leaves you wanting. As brilliantly and intricately woven as BioShock’s story may be, there are holes you can walk a Big Daddy through (and I can’t tell you what they are, either), and the ending doesn’t even begin to tie up the most critical loose ends. You learn who you are, what happened to Rapture, why it was more than likely destined to fall into ruin and why it should matter to you. But apart from a hasty-looking cut scene, no attempt is made to resolve it all in any satisfactory way. It’s like the ending of The Sopranos.
I will spoil this: At the end of the game, after peeking into corners, under staircases and under dead bodies, you’ll have assembled all of the pieces and revealed a fantastic story. Then it’s time for an escort mission followed by a boss battle. It’s as if, having designed the perfect shooter, one that employed genre conventions only when appropriate and even then in ways no one had yet imagined, the designers felt compelled to ground the experience in the worst of them.
I won’t tell you who you’re escorting and who the boss is you’re battling, but both levels are fairly tedious. The escort in particular is the only level in BioShock I was forced to repeat. Partly because of my own obsessive nature, but partly because its design pummeled me worse than any of the Big Daddies.
Perhaps there will be a sequel to BioShock that will pick up where the first left off. Perhaps there simply wasn’t any way at all to end such a magnificently mysterious game that didn’t involve some amount of bubble bursting, but when I finished BioShock I felt as if I’d come out the other side of a giant and wonderful haunted house and had the lights turned on in my face before I was fully out the door. I can’t exactly call this a negative mark. Perhaps it’s simply a sign of how deeply the game had ensnared me that I felt abandoned and lost after leaving Rapture.
Before I played BioShock I filled my days reading preview stories, designer notes and as much information as I could find about it. After playing it, I’m still reading everything I can find about it. I want to know what inspired it, how it was created and what my friends think about it.
BioShock is a game that will change the way you think about games. It will make you feel something, and you’ll want to tell everyone you know about it. It’s not for everyone, like Wii Sports, but if you played games before playing games was cool, you should play BioShock. Maybe you’ll find the problems I found to be irrelevant, and maybe they’ll bug you more, but you will definitely find something in BioShock that will make you glad you played it.
The first most important thing I have to say about it is that I will be playing it again. The second: It’s not a perfect game, but it’s the best I’ve ever seen.