Warning - this review will contain spoilers for the storyline of the original Bioshock.
This is a review which I file under, "no one in the world needs because everyone has already made up their mind but I feel like talking about." Bioshock was a game which debuted in 2007 and took the console world by storm. It was less impressive to PC gamers because it was, deliberately, a adaptation of System Shock's gameplay and atmosphere to a new IP. If you don't own System Shock then do System Shock with the numbers filed off. It was praised for its intelligent game design, its enjoyable gameplay, amazing setting, and analysis of a real-life philosophy. I come to both give Bioshock its due as well as point out its serious flaws.
And there are many flaws.
The premise of the video game is built around lulling you into a sense of complacency and then pulling the rug out from under you. You, the nameless protagonist of the game, are on board a plane in what appears to be the 1960s. Your plane crash-lands into the middle of the ocean and you miraculously survive. Traveling to a lighthouse, you discover a submersible which takes you to the underwater city of Rapture.
|Rapture remains one of the most memorable locations in video games.|
To completely spoil the ending of the game, it turns out you're actually Andrew Ryan's son created from his D.N.A and artificially accelerated to adulthood. Atlas, really a gangster named Vic Fontaine, has brainwashed you to obey his orders as long as he uses the words "Would you kindly?" A point is made of video game players' tendency to do whatever questgivers tell them to do as it's explained you have no choice in murdering hundreds of people for Atlas. The fact you only find this out after you, the player, have murdered hundreds of people for no other reason than a guy told you to do is part of the humor.
Eventually, you kill Andrew Ryan, regain your free will, and then go to kill Atlas despite the fact I would have been entirely content to let him become ruler of a dead city. If you haven't murdered a bunch of children (more on that later), you get a happy ending where you build a family. If you have, you become ruler of Rapture and plan to conquer the surface with nukes.
|Andrew Ryan is a compelling character. Intelligent, charismatic, and shockingly petty.|
Anyone notice the disconnect there?
In simple terms, Bioshock is a shooter and a very good one. Rapture is an amazingly evocative location with its majestic underwater beauty, art deco building designs, and leaking tunnels. It's a good design of storytelling and gameplay integration as the various recordings you find around the city provide you with the tale of Rapture without bogging you down too much. There's also plenty of visual storytelling elements which show just how crazy things have gotten like encountered a man crucified for smuggling Bibles.
|Remember, it's only murder when they do it.|
You're totally sane despite injecting yourself with murder drugs.
Big Daddies are huge armored diving suits filled with brainwashed humans who have been conditioned to protect the Little Sisters. Little Sisters are the creepy children who have been genetically-altered to produce Adam, the stuff that powers Plasmids, that you have the option to murder them for.
This, noticeably, is the only "choice" you make in a video game which is all about the lack of choice in video games. A lot of game reviewers touted the option as being about whether you would show your humanity as an altruist or whether or not you'd give into your basic selfish urges. You know, despite this is literally one of the most binary good vs. evil choices of all time.
This turns out to have been very frustrating to designer Ken Levine because it's actually a PARODY of choices in video games. One of the fun things I found out about the game was Ken Levine wanted to do a story about the ridiculousness of choices in video games since he considered them horrible impediments to storytelling. Which, of course, is why the fact the game is about you being a mind-controlled flesh golem.
|Oh, sweet child, if you only so full of sweet delicious ADAM like a little girl pinata.|
While I understand good storytelling requires you to be deterministic in character behavior and personality, if you're doing a game about the illusion of choice then you had better well put in a choice once you regain your free-will. The fact Ken Levine is absolutely fascinated with the issue of choice in video games also is the least interesting part of the narrative to me. I'm much more intrigued by the class struggle between Rapture's upper crust and lower castes that is entirely set dressing as I understand it.
The critique of Objectivism is effective even if it's only fairly obvious and explains why, to me, the system is flawed to anyone who subjects it to the slightest bit of critical analysis. If you create a system which rewards selfishness and punishes selflessness then you're going to have a system where no one is remotely interested in supporting the system versus their own selfish gain. As the game nicely illustrates, "So who cleans the toilets in Rapture?" In a healthy economic society, someone who knows they'll be able to afford food, shelter, and clothing.
|The Big Daddies are awesome. I accept no disagreement.|
Likewise, you can't make a society based on freedom and expect it to remain firmly under your control like the good little snow-globe you envisioned it as. None of this matters when you're shooting Splicers in the face, of course. It's also a lesson reserved for jerkass CEOs and politicians who probably don't play many shooters.
In conclusion, Bioshock is a fun game. It's a game which is more style over substance in my opinion, though. There's a lot of intelligent ideas and world-building but I'm sorry to say they sort of came about by happy accident than through intent. It's critique of Objectivism is the most important part of the story but it's more interested in talking about the disconnect between publisher and player. This isn't their fault but it's like attending a play of Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead and being more interested in its presentation of Denmark economic models. Still, I'm going to be good to its score because I had an immense amount of fun playing it and happy accidents are still good.