Somewhere, Beyond The Sea

Dave Ryan has some thoughts on his return to Rapture.

It is probably fitting that, in the hours following the first US Presidential debate, I find myself sitting down to write about how much I want to spend my time in a city at the bottom of the sea, but the release of Bioshock: The Collection has granted us all some much needed escapism and a chance to relive some of the greatest experiences in modern video games. What follows are some of my thoughts on what has made the original Bioshock have such an enduring legacy. I would have been able to do this via the medium of a livestream, but 2K decided to block native streaming on PS4 and Xbox One, so they can get in the bin.

atmosphere

Something I have always said on our podcast is that atmosphere in video games is timeless. Silent Hill 2 came out 15 years ago this month, and it endures not because of the clunky controls, not because of the graphical fidelity, but because it creates a tense and oppressive atmosphere that still sends me running to hide under the covers. More so than any other aspect of Bioshock, it is the atmosphere that endures. Rapture, the underwater objectivist utopia founded by industrialist and Randian wet dream Andrew Ryan, is one of the most striking and memorable settings in the history of games. It is all at once the perfect postcard of mid-century American society, and a brutal pastiche of the crumbling of the American Dream. But whereas Fallout, another series that makes a parallel play for this aesthetic uses the bogeyman of foreign aggressors and nuclear war to frame its world, Bioshock instead opts for the nuanced approach of portraying a ruin of a city torn apart by unchecked ambition and avarice.

Speaking of ruins, one of Bioshock’s most fascinating creative directions comes from the point this game is set in this fictionalised world’s timeline. The temptation would be that in a world full of so much lore and so many characters that you begin your story at the crumbling of Rapture, giving you a glimpse of the city in its prime. Not so in this game, as protagonist Jack arrives several years after a horrific civil war tore the city apart, and the alleged Fall of Rapture. Indeed, it would not be until many years later that we would get to explore Rapture in its prime, but that’s a story for another day. Jack arrives to find a city in ruin, infested with eerie splicers, and being forced to cobble together what has happened here from a combination of Ryan’s propaganda, the guidance of your mysterious guide known only as Atlas, and various characters and audio logs you come across during your descent into the bowels of the city. The fact that the game doesn’t hold your hand (with some rare exceptions) with lengthy exposition telling you step by step what has happened combines with the eerie setting and pitch perfect sound design to create a tense and frightening world unlike any other before it.

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There is so much thought put into every moving part in Bioshock, and the Big Daddy/Little Sister combination is a prime example of that. The Big Daddy represents your toughest combat challenge in the game should you choose to engage them, and could have easily been a throwaway heavy enemy type you get in every single game. From the introduction of the Big Daddy, and even in its naming, you are shown their relationships with the Little Sister they protect, giving you that uncomfortable measure of pause and remorse if you choose to gun them down. The deeper into this game (and subsequent entries in the series) you go, the more tragic a figure the Big Daddy casts. The characterisation in the game is on point, from Ryan to Atlas, to the Big Daddy and smaller characters like the maniacal Dr. Steinman. What makes it all so exceptional is that all this atmosphere, all this nuance and characterisation is coming in what is ostensibly a first person shooter.

Bioshock is not your typical first person shooter. For a start, from a mechanical perspective the combat is kind of a mess. The controls don’t feel tight (which arguably adds to the tension of combat), and the switching between weapons and vigors (your supernatural genetic upgrades) isn’t as sharp or quick as it would be in 2013’s Bioshock Infinite. It feels as though generally speaking players are happy to overlook that, so engrossing is the rest of the world. It could also be argued (as I have done many times) that the only thing that holds this game back from near perfection is the structure of its narrative. Personally, I have always felt that if THE INCIDENT that happens in the game happens right at the end, or right beforehand, the game would be better off. It truly feels like the dramatic crescendo of the piece. Unfortunately the third act, in spite of some great moments, feels like it outstays its welcome ever so slightly, never reaching the same heights as it did at the game’s major turning point.

One thing is for sure, whether you’ve never played Bioshock before, or played through it countless times, the release of The Collection is a superb excuse to get slightly prettier versions of two all-time classics (and Bioshock 2) and lose yourself in them. They also come with all single player DLC for the series included Bioshock 2’s widely lauded Minerva’s Den, and Infinite’s excellent Buried at Sea.

There’s always a lighthouse.

There’s always a man.

There’s always a city.

-Dave Ryan

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