Bioshock’s Revolutionary Storytelling: Celebrating a Masterpiece 10 Years Later
“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” ‘No!’ says the man in Washington, ‘it belongs to the poor.’ ‘No!’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘it belongs to God.’ ‘No!’ says the man in Moscow, ‘it belongs to everyone!’”
So begins the famous monologue of Andrew Ryan, whose introduction in Irrational’s Bioshock (2007) altered the course of storytelling in video games, and, to some extent, other mediums of entertainment as well. Set in the backdrop of a bauhaus-designed underwater metropolis in 1960, the first Bioshock explored political and social issues not yet broached in gaming, and redefined what is now referred to as environmental storytelling, all while juggling, unbeknownst to the player, the concept of control and choice. Suffice it to say, the following retrospective is riddled with spoilers, and I fear the latter notion mentioned above may very well be considered a spoiler by some. Proceed at your own risk.
Bioshock has an unsung hero, one who receives little attention despite the title’s setting being contingent on her ideology. No, it is not Brigid Tenenbaum. The woman in question is Ayn Rand, the real life novelist/philosopher to which Andrew Ryan owes his namesake, backstory, and the creation of Rapture. For decades Rand fervently decried economic and political systems such as Communism and Capitalism, instead believing wholeheartedly in a unique philosophy of her own design — Objectivism. Rand’s ideology received extensive exploration in her fiction, such as Atlas Shrugged (we know an Atlas…) and non-fiction works like Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. In Bioshock, Objectivism is exaggerated, as it’s presented in a “what would happen if” scenario that ultimately hit a fail state. Rapture fell in 1959 due to the city’s inability to sustain the overwhelming freedoms Ryan promised to those willing to risk living in a supposed undersea utopia.
Not everyone could be the renowned scientist, the famous artist, or the beloved musician they intended to thrive as in Rapture. The menial work fell to the unsuccessful, while a few of the more fortunate ran amok without restrictions or laws in place to uphold them to the “petty moralities” that typically keep society afloat. Such lack of regulation resulted in the creation of Plasmids, which inevitably led to Little Sisters, Big Daddies, and Splicers. A fight for power gave Andrew Ryan competition in Frank Fontaine, the latter of whom was a conman that introduced the city to altruism, much to the dismay of Ryan. Fontaine’s charitable programs were a front, an effort to boost his public image and offer Tenenbaum and Dr. Yi Suchong the opportunity to experiment on young girls (Little Sisters) and Rapture’s destitute citizens. Suddenly the threat of water pressure was the least of the city’s concerns.
The details above are not actively a part of the player’s experiences. Information regarding Rapture’s history and secrets is primarily dedicated to audio diaries, and they’re just as essential to the gameplay experience as killing Splicers, battling Big Daddies or rescuing Little Sisters (if you’re not a Adam hungry bastard). But Bioshock’s audio diaries were revolutionary for a number of other reasons too, chief among them being that they played in-game; thus, no menu listening required. Unfortunately, some titles today have yet to learn this ten-year-old lesson, but progress takes time. Games that have drawn inspiration from Bioshock’s advancement of the system additionally do so in the content their audio diary-equivalents provide. The diaries are smaller stories that offer character moments to the unseen, make clear the conflict between Ryan and Fontaine, and so much more. It’s probably fair to say Ish’s moving story arc in The Last of Us owes a debt of gratitude to audio diaries, and no doubt countless other post-2007 releases with these kind of embedded narratives do as well.
Perhaps Bioshock’s most incredible success lies in its presentation of player control and choice. The player character, Jack, is only heard in the game’s opening scene. Beyond that the player is left to craft their own opinions, actively determining for themselves what’s right and wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral. Thus, we must return our attention to Frank Fontaine, or, as players came know him, Atlas.
Following the plane crash, Jack seeks refuge at a nearby lighthouse. Upon entering, players are met with a giant bust of Andrew Ryan and a banner that reads, “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” This grandiose introduction sets the stage for what’s ahead. Not long thereafter, getting in the bathysphere is presented as the only option to press forward. There, voiceover from Ryan provides a primer for Rapture, courtesy of his aforementioned famous lines. Of course, the beauty of the city cannot be understated, and even today, remastered or not, Bioshock’s graphical fidelity remains impressive. Entering Rapture is one of the most dynamic scenes in the last generation of gaming. And its brought to a head by none other than Atlas, a man who appeases the player by offering aid in exchange for helping his family escape the city. It is at this moment, aside from gameplay preferences and options to Harvest or Rescue Little Sisters, that Jack, and by proxy the player, becomes completely devoid of control.
With one gentlemanly phrase, Atlas is able to influence Jack’s most integral decisions. “Would you kindly,” Atlas politely asks, encouraging the player to pick up a radio. Of course, the player grabs it… the radio glows a golden hue, and a button-prompt indicates there’s no other way to proceed. Every “Would you kindly” is a command, a subtly phrased order. A command to find Atlas’ family, a command to retrieve an object, a command to “head to Ryan’s office and kill the son of a bitch.” The player follows these commands, not simply because Atlas expects to be obeyed, but because the floating objective marker determines the course of the game, something players had spent years being taught to follow in a myriad of other games. Jack, “a slave,” obeys the man that chooses, but the player, because of how video games function, is also “a slave.”
This illusion of choice is the brilliance of Bioshock. Upon arrival at Andrew Ryan’s office, control of the game itself is wrenched from players for the first time. Ryan’s use of the familiar phrase prompts Jack to walk, run, to stop, to kill. For the first time, Jack is his own character, removed from player choice — we don’t murder Andrew Ryan, he does.
However, players are offered control in dealing with Little Sisters. Rescuing is the option that warrants the “good ending;” while Harvesting nets the “bad ending.” But is choosing to Harvest a choice, or is it too an illusion? The only reason to do so is that it garners more ADAM, yet the game is just as easy to get through, boss battles and all, if only the base amount of ADAM is acquired. Are players who “choose” to Harvest Little Sisters giving into the suggestions of Atlas and the promise of additional power? Ten years later, and this question is as intriguing as ever.
Bioshock’s success stretches beyond the series itself, which spawned Bioshock 2, the sequel’s acclaimed Minerva’s Den DLC, Bioshock Infinite, and the latter’s story expansions, Burial at Sea Parts 1 and 2. Nestled within the game and its subsequent titles is the DNA of Looking Glass, the studio responsible for titles such as Ultima Underworld, Thief, and System Shock. This DNA would make its way into Ion Storm’s Deus Ex by Warren Spector and his team, who had worked on the aforementioned titles at Looking Glass. Of course, games like the Deus Ex prequels from Eidos Montréal and series from Arkane Studios help keep the Looking Glass influence alive, especially since Arkane is also made up of the defunct studio’s veterans.
Bits of Bioshock’s DNA that are independent of Looking Glass continue to thrive as well. One need only play Arkane’s release of Prey this year to scratch the Bioshock itch that’s been festering since the last of Infinite’s DLC released in 2014. There’s a running joke, that I myself partake in, that Prey is essentially Bioshock in space. There are Plasmids by another name (Neuromods), excellently woven together embedded narratives, fun but wonky gameplay systems, a silent protagonist, jaw dropping twists and turns, and, yes, the illusion of choice.
In the debate of whether video games should be considered works of art, Bioshock is an example for why they most certainly are. The title opened minds, introduced gamers to ideologies they possibly were unaware of and influenced a generation (now two) of games. Executive producer Jonathan Nolan cites Bioshock as inspirational to HBO’s Westworld, calling the series of games “amongst the most literate and thoughtful pieces of entertainment I’ve seen in the last ten years” (via Polygon). Director Guillermo del Toro is another well known lover of the franchise, once discussing the craft of storytelling on a podcast with series creative director, Ken Levine. del Toro’s upcoming film, The Shape of Water, looks as though it has drawn influences from the ten-year-old series. If so, it may be the closest thing we’ll get to Bioshock on film, as Gore Verbinski recently reaffirmed his attempt was stymied by expenses and the studio’s refusal to go with an R-rating, before eventually being put to rest by Ken Levine (via IGN).
Personally, Bioshock is paramount to my growth as a writer, both creatively and critically. In addition, the series has made me a more conscious reader and a far more thorough gamer. Through it I learned the significance of exploration, the impact of minor character details, the effects of world-building, the power of finely written dialogue, etc. Bioshock introduced me to Ayn Rand, and provoked my curiosity, which resulted in a desire to learn more about her and her controversial ideology. I’m by no means an Objectivist, or a Rational Egoist, but the reading I’ve done on the subject has led me to rethink some of my own political and philosophical beliefs.
When a game can provoke thought, and inspire learning, its accomplishments grow beyond what many asked of it. Bioshock’s goal, I think, wasn’t merely to entertain, it was to arouse in gamers a sense of wonder and curiosity few narratives, whether in games, film, television, or literature, can do on a universal scale. To that end, Bioshock has more than earned itself a permanent place in the pantheon of the greatest games of all time.
“We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us.”
― Andrew Ryan