It might stun a lot of people that I haven’t played much BioShock. I actually just started playing it. You might ask, how can it be that I write about game design week after week without having played one of the best-designed games of our time? Good question. At least I’m talking about it now.
I was turned onto it by a friend who’s a huge fan of BioShock, ever since it first released. He enjoys partly because of the smart gameplay, but mostly because of the way it executes its story and character development. I knew going in that BioShock is a great example for this aspect of design, but I didn’t realize how great.
Every moment of BioShock is rife with references to literature, history, and science fiction. The twisted doctor Steinman is an echo of the narcissistic perfectionism of Frankenstein, Frank Fontaine represents the conniving mob bosses of the mid-1900s…and we can’t forget Andrew Ryan, the human embodiment of corporate ambition and libertarian idealism, balanced by a thirst for control over the society he created.
Without further spoiling any of the plot, BioShock is an excellent story-driven game in part because of its great story. But what makes it legendary is how it ties its great story to its gameplay to involve the player directly.
From the beginning, the game’s HUD is pretty minimal. As you explore the failed, ruined underwater utopia of Rapture, it feels alive and dead at the same time. Most enemies are half-zombies, coherent enough to talk incoherently about their suffering. In a way, every enemy has a story, because they were all human once. It’s sometimes hard to tell if they’re angry or afraid.
It’s not long, however, before you realize that you will meet no friends in BioShock. You’re alone in a sea of twisted bodies with lonely souls, a shadow of humanity that fills Rapture. Its dark environments and creeping, ambient sound makes it feel more ghostly. In my opinion, turning off the quest arrow is the true way to experience the game, because BioShock’s greatest weapon is sheer uncertainty.
This doesn’t mean that you’re powerless. You can interact with the different environments of Rapture with your plasmids (artificial superhuman abilities) by shocking enemies with water, melting ice with fire, and so on. The weapon types are varied, providing different types of ammo to suit various needs, like piercing armor or stunning opponents. Tonics also provide special passive abilities like armoring or more health from food. Some even help with hacking, one of my favorite mechanics in the game. Hacking lets you access more items in Rapture’s vending machines for less money, or turn security bots against your enemies. The research system is an offbeat but incredibly smart way of taking risks to unlock more abilities.
Despite these great options, resources often feel very limited at the same time, in a Resident Evil sort of way. You have to pick up and use whatever’s lying around, or use up money to stay armed and alive. Survival is always a question mark. Here’s where BioShock inserts its strongest tie between gameplay and story.
Rapture is full of “Little Sisters,” genetically-altered immortal little girls tasked with extracting ADAM from corpses. ADAM is the former miracle cure of Rapture, promising beauty and superhuman abilities. However, it’s exactly what drove the citizens of Rapture to turn on each other. The Little Sisters are protected by Big Daddies, extremely powerful robotic guards who must be destroyed to gain ADAM from Little Sisters and enhance your own power.
Once you destroy a Big Daddy, you have the option of restoring the girls to their senses for less ADAM in the short term, or letting them die in exchange for more ADAM. By choosing whether to save the Little Sisters or harvest them for ADAM, you determine for yourself whether to abide by Ryan’s self-serving ideals, or choose to do the humane thing even if it doesn’t benefit you practically. Bioshock is therefore a test to the player of the very question it poses: is altruism the way to prosperity or ruin? By your own action, you determine whether you’re really the good guy in your own story.
It also explores themes like lost innocence, insanity, and how morality changes after essentially the end of the world. In the world of Rapture, everyone fends for themselves and they all end up alone. As you explore each environment looking for resources, you also find audio tapes. These tapes are puzzle pieces to the greater picture of Rapture’s fall. They tell tales of betrayal, loss, and broken minds. Pulling on the threads of these stories is so interesting that exploring every corner of Rapture is all too enticing.
I didn’t expect BioShock, a story based on human decay, to be one of the richest games I’ve ever played. I must say, though, I enjoyed the surprise. This game made me confront a lot of ethical questions, and even question my own morality at times. It was an unsettling jumble of scoundrels and monsters, but there was a beauty to it in the end. And not just any beauty — a beauty that really matters.