Bioshock – “Behold… Rapture!”
“Bioshock”, like most art, is shaped from an idea, a message, a concept; in this case, it’s Rapture, an underwater dystopia molded by objectivist ideals. In this Jules Verne scenario, 20.000 leagues under the sea, Andrew Ryan (a captain Nemo like politician), after being fed up with government oppression, decides to build an entire underwater nation, where every “man is entitled to the sweat of his brow”. In his own private utopia, justice, religion, morals, ethics and any social considerations are absent, in favor of free commerce and free will as Universal Law. The result, as you can no doubt guess, is nothing but disastrous. Though at first, thanks to the lack of ethical boundaries, science, commerce and art bloom, after some time, everything goes haywire. The result is an underwater ghost city, filled with the monsters of Andrew Ryan’s objectivist dreams: a plastic surgeon that makes Picasso paintings out of women, a sculptor that makes art by molding human flesh, and a capitalist entrepreneur that is willing destroy an entire society, if only to be entitled “to the sweat of his brow”. Rapture is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most consistent, thought-provoking universes ever to grace a videogame. Written by none other than Ken Levine (“Thief, the Dark Project”, design and story, and writer of “System Shock 2”), this metaphor of modern capitalist America and nightmare of Ideological proportions, rightfully belongs in the same pantheon of dystopian masterpieces such as “1984”, “Farenheit 451” “Brave New World”, “Metropolis”, “Gattaca”, “V for Vendetta”, etc.
The plot itself revolves around the discovery of Rapture by an unknown man, after his plane crashed in the middle of the Ocean. Controlled by the player, he will uncover Rapture’s dark past, by listening to the audio-logs of its inhabitants and by facing Andrew Ryan’s objectivist monstrosities. In the end, his quest will decide the fate of Rapture, according to the moral choices the player picks during the game. And though they might seem simple at first, if they’re taken seriously, they can add a whole level of dramatic impact to the unveiling of the plot, making it much more meaningful. The narrative tends to move slowly and usually tries to establish certain moods, allowing the player to immerse in the chaotic nature of Rapture, while at the same time, learning about its convoluted history. Curiously, few cutscenes are used, which ends up being both a blessing and a curse. On one side, you aren’t obliged to sit through important plot details (which I admit, might be boring to some), but on the other side, much of the dramatic potential of the plot feels wasted (it’s not by accident that people are most often moved by cutscene driven / cinematic games).
What manages to counterweight the absence of cutscenes, is the sheer amount of detail and information that lies hidden in the art and music of the game. Posters, sculptures, flyers, songs, all have something to say about the world of Rapture, and whether you want to or not, you’ll apprehend a lot of sensorial information that might be otherwise hard (or annoying) to convey. Of course, this wouldn’t be that interesting if the Art Design or Music weren’t as good as they are. The fact is that “Bioshock”, besides featuring one of the best narratives to grace a game, also features one of the best art designs ever to appear in one; and this is, by no means, a shallow compliment. The virtuous art deco transforms every corridor, wall and painting into a beautiful work of art. The contrast between the cold, stark colors of the ocean and the flashy neon of Rapture’s buildings is the perfect testament to the designers’ capability of creating interactive paintings; every light, shadow and texture blends perfectly in the background, feasting your eyes and mind. Even small details, like the camera’s POV, were tweaked to get a particular sense of immersion and dread, contributing, in no small part, to the way the game should “feel”. Accompanying the visuals, a classical and jazz soundtrack by Garry Schyman fills in the immersion gap; whether it’s the 1920’s euphoric swings, or the moody piano ballads, every bit of music adds another dimension the player’s experience, making it a powerful means of inducing fear, claustrophobia, or just delivering some piece of information about Rapture’s spirit.
Now, usually, in my reviews of more artistic games, every compliment has been said by the time I get to the gameplay section, which is where I commonly start “bashing”. Guess what? “Bioshock” is also grandiose on that regard. It takes the first person shooter / rpg hybrid mechanics of “System Shock 2”, removes the unneeded complications, and empowers certain abilities, creating the perfect blend of open-ended first person shooter. The player has at his disposal a great number of weapons and abilities (which he can level up), each with a particular context of use, allowing the player to choose his particular fighting style. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, but in “Bioshock”, everything feels tweaked and balanced, to the point of making complex mechanics inherently fun to use, while most games, either simplify them too much, thus discarding the tactical nature of choices (“Crysis”), or complicate them to the point of being too obtuse to be fun (“Deus Ex”). Furthermore, special abilities, which range from fireballs to electric shocks, have special uses when the environment’s context is right, thanks to a physics engine that defines water as electric-conducting and oil as inflammable, making special abilities all the more amusing. Perhaps the only (minor) flaw I can find in this game (that can’t be regarded as nitpicking) is the sometimes overly hectic nature of the action; for the most part of the game, there is someone (or something) trying to kill you. The reason this comes out as a flaw is simple: “Bioshock” is beautiful, immersive, and mysterious, warranting exploration and attention to detail in order to sink in all the wonders of the game, but it is hard to do so, when you’re constantly fighting for your life. A more paced gameplay would definitely emphasize the more interesting aspects of the game, even if it would end up losing some appeal for the more trigger-happy players.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, what about all the rant the game got? From the players who thought it was too easy or the naysayers that labeled “Bioshock” as “System Shock 2” “lite”? To the first group I’d answer this, if the game’s too easy, then play it in a harder difficulty and don’t use some of the helps the game gives, I mean, nobody forces the player to use the (absurdly famous) vita chamber (I sure didn’t). To the second group, I’d say this, if you think “Bioshock” is a dumbed down version of “System Shock 2”, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this in the first place. “Bioshock” is so much more than “System Shock 2”, especially in its story and art dimensions, that I have be blunt: anyone who can’t see the difference, either is completely blind and deaf, or just plain dumb (pardon my English).
It’s not hard to understand why someone like me, who looks upon games as an art form, would love “Bioshock” in every possible way. It’s one of the few games that actually wants, from the get go, to be regarded as much more than just a toy, or just a “game”. Its aesthetics are beautiful, its message is strong, intelligent and emotionally provocative, and it is an entertaining game on many levels. It is, by my definition, the perfect example of a perfect game, and one of the best works of art I’ve seen in the past year.