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A Return to Rapture: Looking at the Past and Future of Bioshock – Part 1

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageIn the first part of this two-part essay, CC2k Video Game Editor Big Ross looks at what made Bioshock such an excellent game.

Gamestop has changed the way I think about owning video games.  Used to be I kept every game I ever bought or received as a gift.  Some would occasionally find their way back into my console, and others just sat on the shelf collecting dust.  Not anymore.  Unless a game is really great, not just good, not simply enjoyable, but really, truly outstanding, I don't keep it.  I take it to the nearest Gamestop and take whatever they offer me in store credit, which I promptly put toward a new game.  And so there are very few games that I've kept in recent years.  One of them is Bioshock, and after sitting on the shelf for more than a year I recently put it back in my Xbox 360 for another go around.  It's as good, if not better than I remember, and I've been thinking about this game, as well as its upcoming sequel a lot lately.  Next week I'll talk about Bioshock 2: Sea of Dreams, but before we look forward let's see where we've been.

In my initial review I didn't divulge too many details about the game's story (I didn't want to spoil anything), but now that it's been out for so long, I no longer feel that restraint.  And that's a relief, because Bioshock's story is one of its strongest points.  And really, it's not just the story, but how that story is told, and the big twist about two-thirds of the way through that plays upon the structure of most first-person shooters (FPSs) that achieves total neuronal post-coital bliss, i.e. braingasm (thanks Stephen!).

Okay let me back up a second.  Here's how I described the game in my first review:

Just when you think every possible storyline for a FPS has been done before, a game like Bioshock comes along and gives you something completely new and original. Set in 1960, after a brief introduction on the surface, the bulk of the game takes place in a city built at the bottom of the ocean. Called “Rapture” by its designer, it was undertaken in the mid-1940’s as an escape from both governmental and religious oversight. It was intended to be a place for the brightest minds from around the world to gather and pursue their interests without the restraints of morality or society’s judgment, a utopia of sorts. Of course, it all went horribly wrong…Your objective is simple in theory but Herculean in reality: escape from Rapture.

From the very beginning Bioshock feels different.  The unique setting, the character customization through genetic modification, the innovative use of a limited arsenal, all wail like banshees that this is something new and different. And yet in one respect as you play through Bioshock it feels very familiar.  The linear "stick to the beaten path" level design, and the "go here, fetch this item, find that person" objective based gameplay feels like so many other FPS games that have come before and since.  But it's not until you hit that big twist I mentioned earlier, not until the game mindfucks you that you realize this is all by design.  The developers' intend for you to feel a bit of deja vu, they want you to get comfortable in how you think Bioshock is going to play out.  They even provide you with a friendly voice on a radio, an unseen ally named Atlas who helps to guide you through the leaking halls and decaying rooms of Rapture, ameliorating your fears and promising that if you'll only help him, he'll get you back to the surface in return. And so you help Atlas.  Why not?  He's one of the good guys.  You carry out every request, every "would you kindly go here?" "Would you kindly do that?"  You don't even notice that the phrase "would you kindly" accompanies nearly all of Atlas's errands.  So when Atlas asks you to go kill Andrew Ryan, Rapture's designer and essentially its dictator, a man presented as the game's antagonist, a man who views Atlas as a rival and your character as an interloper, when he appends this request with another "would you kindly?" you think nothing of it.  Of course you're going to go kill Andrew Ryan.  Atlas is like the GPS in your car when you're in a city you've never been to before.  He's like Obi Wan Kenobi at the end of A New Hope, offering advice and counsel to Luke. 

And really, what choice do you have?  Like so many other FPSs you're essentially trying to get from point A to point L or M or Q, but instead of going directly you get detoured by the game to all points in between.  The trick and the challenge for game developers is to make it feel like the detours AREN'T detours, but integral parts of the gameplay.  Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't.  The point where Bioshock takes this convention and turns it on its head is the point where it drops trou and proceeds to bone your cerebrum, i.e. it's the big twist, and I think it's better viewed than explained:

The brilliance of this development is in how it plays upon the expectations of gamers.  We've played these linear first-person shooters for so long, we're used to following orders.  Hell, we're practically conditioned to not ask too many questions and just go along with what the game wants us to do.  So imagine the surprise you feel when you learn the truth: Andrew Ryan, though no saint, isn't the villain he was made out to be (and you just murdered him!).  And Atlas?  Talk about a wolf in sheep's clothing!  Throughout the game you encounter audio recordings (personal journal entries, memos, taped conversations and the like) and many refer to an underworld crime boss-type by the name of Frank Fontaine.  And well, have you guessed?  No?  Watch this:

And so my psyche was left sweaty and panting and spent, while Bioshock pulled its pants back on and mumbled something about calling.  It was a call I've been both anxiously awaiting and not really expecting, at least not until this showed up on the internet a few months ago:

And then a big preview appeared recently in Game Informer magazine.  I don't want to simply repeat everything said there, but I do want to talk about some of the revelations of what to expect in Bioshock 2 and what's got me so excited about a return to Rapture.  Check back with CC2k next week for a SPOILER-FILLED preview!!!