Lauding the writing of a video game is akin to extolling the virtues of the “ground-breaking” nature of independent journalism: much as a small number of people paying attention to a news story from a niche outlet is not indicative of what would be considered earth-shattering in other circles, to celebrate the writing of a game is hardly the biggest endorsement. There is too much in the way of the generic and uninspired within the industry for the rewarding of achievement in narrative and world-building to mean anything without further commentary as to the nature of the congratulations: there’s a sizeable gulf between, say, the on-rails feel of the Call of Duty franchise being a stark commentary on the inability of those in combat situations to make choices for themselves (if a commentator were to generous enough to explain laziness away in this manner) and the fully-realised, almost painfully detailed world and characters of BioShock‘s Rapture. Rapture is alive, and it is an at once both terrible and wonderful reflection of human society at its most atomistic and individualistic.
Everything about BioShock‘s world smacks of purpose: nothing about the surrounds seems to be there merely as filler – there are no walls that are so lax in their rendering that they appear to be there solely for ensuring that the player does not accidentally leave the level. All ceilings, wall and floors have upon them adornments that remind the player that this is a living city, decaying. The detritus of people’s former lives lay in disrepair around the city, supplemented by artefacts of the crumbling columns, mezzanine floors and walls of the war-torn Rapture. Characterisation only increases from this macro level to the micro level of characterisation of those within the city: thanks to the audio diaries found strewn around the city, long-dead characters with whom the player has no interaction feel just as real Andrew Ryan and Atlas, the key forces with whom the player character has the most interaction throughout the game. The diaries provide the context for the destruction through which the player must wade, as well as hints and tips as to how to play the game best. This leaves the narrative style of BioShock as an irregular one in form: the player’s narrative is told in real-time, but that of his surroundings in parallel through the in media res hints exposed through the audio diaries. This method of storytelling in particularly compelling given the ties that the developers have managed to bind in the minds of players with Rapture through its rich presentation.
BioShock‘s core gameplay mechanics are borrowed from both the first-person shooter and role-playing genres, with a bevy of weapons being available to the player, as well as a variety of “plasmids”: a series of special abilities granted from the rewriting of one’s genetic code through the use of ADAM. This gene-splicing, combined with the scarcity of ADAM, is what served to precipitate the civil war being fought in Rapture and serves the basis of motivation for the enemies faced by the player: those who splice their genes in this manner have a habit of being driven mad. The shooting mechanics of the game are capable, but nothing ground-breaking: the general families of weapons to be covered within a first-person shooter are all covered (pistol, machine gun, shotgun, grenade launcher et al all make an appearance), and all handle as one would expect. Combination of the plasmid abilities with the use of weapons, however, bolsters the number of possible play styles. Unfortunately for this potential of choice, the use of the Electro Bolt plasmid (the first earned in the game) followed by a blow from the wrench (the first weapon found) will continue to be incredibly effective throughout the game. Indeed, this technique is one of the first pearls of wisdom given to the player by the early-game tutorial. Once this has been discovered, it is a struggle on the part of the player to keep the game interesting – one has to make the conscious effort to experiment with their style of play to benefit from the possibilities on offer.
The RPG elements of the game are also found in the Gene Tonics: a selection of tonics that can either be bought in exchange for earned ADAM or crafted using the U-Invent machines. This tonics can bolster the ease with which the player can hack turrets, security cameras and bots and give the player further offensive or defensive bonuses. On the surface, this allows for a fair degree of user customisation of their character, but another mechanic of the game essentially undermines the entire aim of acquiring such tonics, plasmids and hoarding of the scarce ammunition within the game: due to the Vita Chambers, the game does not punish death. Death is merely a respawn in BioShock, which while fine for multiplayer shooters, tends to ruin a single-player game. Tougher enemies will have the same, reduced level of health as you left them with if you “die” while fighting them: it is completely feasible, due to this, to play the game having picked up only the wrench and a sense of purpose and a blind-eye to the amount of time the process of revival and return to point of death takes up and eventually complete the game. Failure is not failure in BioShock, which leads to an ailing sense of challenge throughout the game.
The game makes much of the moral choice given to players in whether to harvest or rescue to the ADAM-collecting Little Sisters upon defeating their (by-now iconic) Big Daddy protectors: harvesting the Little Sisters results in the player being rewarded with more ADAM and getting the “bad” ending, rescuing with less ADAM from the act of rescuing, but with that bolstered later by bonuses being awarded to the player in terms of both ADAM and ammunition with the rescue of multiple Little Sisters. Harvesting ceases, then, to be a “bad” moral choice, and merely becomes a short-sighted idiotic one that only has a real effect on whether the player is rewarded with the “angel” or “bastard” ending on completion.
The strength of BioShock is, without question, its narrative and world-building. The gameplay is enjoyable, but ultimately suffers at the hands of its shallow nature, in spite of being dressed up in a faux-depth of player customisability. The overtones of System Shock II are unmissable in the game, and with the prior game in mind, BioShock cannot be seen in any way other than one of the several seance-esque scenes within the game: ephemeral, ethereal and just a little empty.