Bioshock

Tagged: Game

Videogame (2007). 2K Boston / 2K Australia. Designed by Ken Levine. Platforms: XB360, Win (2007); PS3 (2008); Mac (2009).

BioShock is a First Person Shooter, much influenced by System Shock 2 (1999) (see System Shock). The game begins with the player character, Jack, in the middle of the Atlantic in 1960, having survived an airplane crash. After swimming to a nearby island, the player can discover a bathysphere and descend to the secret underwater city of Rapture. This metropolis, an apparent response to Plato's Atlantis, was built by the charismatic ideologue Andrew Ryan in 1946 as a sanctuary for followers of Ayn Rand's anarcho-conservative Objectivist philosophy, allowing them to secede from a world that denied them absolute freedom. On entering Rapture, however, the player finds themselves immersed in the fragments of Ryan's broken dream; the city is falling apart and overrun with biologically enhanced Monsters. In the game's back story the discovery of a mutagen extracted from a previously unknown species of sea slug allowed Rapture's inhabitants to develop Psionic powers and create specialized human variants by Genetic Engineering. The resulting Objectivist Utopia, however, rapidly fell victim to civil war, as an anarchist society based on rational self interest degenerated into a Hobbesian struggle of all against all. The player soon becomes involved with the conflicts of the surviving factions, and must fight their way through the ruined city to survive.

The game's plot is strongly linear, using a variety of subtle cues and explicit instructions to guide the player through the story. BioShock is an unusually accessible First Person Shooter; considerable effort has been spent on making it easy for mass market audiences to understand and play. The design makes use of some elements taken from Computer Role Playing Games, though to a lesser extent than its predecessor System Shock 2. Notably, characters can selectively enhance their bodies with mutagens, allowing them to gain Telekinetic powers, grow an armoured carapace, shoot bees from their hands, and so on. The true strength of the game, however, lies in its intensity of experience. Players are constantly bombarded with fragments of the embedded history of Rapture (see Interactive Narrative), expressed as psychic impressions and distorted voice recordings, while fighting the iconic "Big Daddies" – altered humans in bulky diving suits – in the visually striking ruins of the retro futurist "diesel punk" city. The combat can become repetitive, however, despite the wide range of aggressive options available to the player, and the design of Rapture is more suggestive of a Post-Holocaust Objectivist theme park than a subtle critique of Rand's writings. Ultimately, BioShock is an excellently crafted FPS whose style is arguably superior to its substance.

Bioshock 2 (2010 2K Australia / 2K Marin / Digital Extremes, PS3, Win, XB360; 2012 Mac) largely reiterates the themes and gameplay of its predecessor. A decade after the events of the first game, the player adopts the role of one of the Big Daddies, a monstrous bodyguard who is artificially bonded to his mutated "daughter" – a "Little Sister" whose role is to generate new supplies of the sea slug derived mutagen and harvest it from the bodies of the dead. The protagonist's Little Sister has been imprisoned by her biological mother, a fanatical collectivist who is the new ruler of the city Under the Sea. Interestingly, the player must fight and kill other Big Daddies so that they can extract the mutagens which are a vital source of Psionic power from their victims' Little Sisters; there are choices to be made as to how brutal (and effective) this process will be, choices which affect the ending of the game. While much of Bioshock 2's claustrophobic ambience seems familiar, the presentation is impressive, and the game's reversal of its original's ideological opposition leaves it with as much claim to the status of a "serious shooter" as its predecessor.

Where the first two games take place in what appears to be a secret history of our own world, Bioshock Infinite (2013 IG, Mac, PS3, Win, XB360) designed by Ken Levine is set in a multiplicity of overlapping Alternate Histories. Both the original Bioshock and Infinite open with the player's arrival at a lighthouse, but where the former begins with their descent into the depths of the ocean, in the latter they must ascend into the air, where they arrive at the floating cloud city of Columbia. This metropolis, a collection of disparate structures held aloft by a variety of anachronistic technologies, was launched in 1893 as a mobile symbol of the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in that year. In the game's present of 1912, it has become an extreme reflection of the nationalism, racism and religious fervour common in pre World War One America. The city's society is not monolithic, however; its ruling elite is opposed by a resistance group which consciously references the Occupy movements which protested against global capitalism while the game was being made. Meanwhile, the paranatural "vigors" which enable abilities similar to those provided by its predecessors' Psionic mutagen appear to depend upon a mysterious essence extracted from an imprisoned young woman, a captive who the player's character is told to rescue (or kidnap) and transport to New York.

Structurally, Infinite is very similar to the earlier games in the series, both in its gameplay and in its linear narrative, though this work offers rather more opportunity for open movement and combat. Thematically, however, it seems quite different. Where Rapture is a hidden city resembling such Lost Worlds as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Opar or H Rider Haggard's Kôr, Columbia's universe is formed from a multiplicity of conflicting Parallel Worlds and alternate futures; the plot is ultimately revealed to depend upon a kind of Changewar. More significantly, perhaps, the first two games' relatively clear-cut villains are absent here. Both the rulers of the floating city and its rebels are dangerous fanatics, while the player's character begins the game with a questionable past, and will presumably go on to wreak the kind of havoc expected of the protagonists of First Person Shooters. Ultimately, the only true innocent in this story may be Elizabeth, the woman who the player sets out to find. The message of Infinite is, perhaps, better aligned with its medium than were those of its predecessors; here, it seems, violence and extremism are always wrong, even when they are directed against the violent and extreme.

Related works: Bioshock (2009 Studio Lakshya, Phone) designed by Purnima Iyer, Manish Saraswat, Varun Bhavnani is a simplified variant of the first game which is played in a two-dimensional plan view. A separate version for more powerful devices, Bioshock (2010 Studio Tridev, Phone), preserves the original's three-dimensional displays. Various expansion packs have been released for the second instalment in the main series. Thus Bioshock 2: Sinclair Solutions Test Pack (2010 2K Marin, PS3, Win, XB360) makes new locations available for competitive play in a temporary Online World, while Bioshock 2: Protector Trials Pack (2010 2K Marin, PS3, XB360; 2011 Win) includes several new single-player combat sequences, Bioshock 2: Rapture Metro Map Pack (2010 2K Marin, PS3, Win, XB360) concentrates on player versus player combat and Bioshock 2: Minerva's Den (2010 2K Marin, PS3, XB360; 2011 Win) positions the player as another Big Daddy who encounters a prototype AI known as "The Thinker". Similarly, Bioshock Infinite: Clash in the Clouds (2013 IG, PS3, Win, XB360) adds new single player combat options to Infinite. Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia (2013 Plaid Hat Games) designed by Isaac Vega is a Board Game in which players adopt the roles of the rulers or rebels of Columbia and battle for control of the city. Bioshock: Rapture (2011), by John Shirley, is a prequel to the first game which describes the foundation and early years of the eponymous city, while Bioshock Infinite: Mind in Revolt (2013 chap), by Ken Levine and Joe Fielder, is a short Ebook which includes additional backstory for the titular game. [NT]

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