In the run-up to the release of the remastered Bioshock Collection for Playstation 4, Feldman Reviews takes a look through one of the definitive game series of the last decade
By 2016, the argument over whether videogames can ever truly be art is practically an art in itself. Positions are as thoroughly entrenched as World War One dug-outs and (to cruelly extend this tortured metaphor) internet think pieces are the Pals battalions getting torn apart in the horrifically spelt no man’s land of online message boards. So with the proviso that this sally will change no-one’s mind if it’s already made up, I will state that the Bioshock series managed some narrative wizardry and emotional hammer blows that would have been impossible for any other medium to achieve. As the newly remastered PS4 collection is just around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to plunge back into the dark waters of the series, beginning (shockingly I know) with the first in the series: 2007’s Randian nightmare, Bioshock.
The original Bioshock traced its lineage back to the 90s cyberpunk series System Shock which in keeping with the style of gaming at time was functionally impossible. Deeply atmospheric, fantastically immersive and ridiculously, psychopathically unfair, System Shock 1 and 2 were the kind of games that you could get 28 hours into before discovering you didn’t level up hand to hand combat enough to beat a specific boss and now you would have to start again. There are no records of the amount of discs snapped, nervous breakdowns and marriages destroyed during these games reign of terror, so when the gaming world was first faced with Bioshock, the new game by System Shock’s auteur/sadist in chief Ken Levine they reacted with both barely repressed glee and a slight worry that they were slipping back into an abusive relationship. However luckily for blood pressures the world over, Levine had mellowed in the intervening decade and whilst the finished product bore some aesthetic similarities to its origins, it was a different beast than anything that had come before it.
You play as the unfortunate survivor of a transatlantic plane crash circa 1960, alone in the pounding waves of the mid-Atlantic save for a lone, incongruous lighthouse. Forcing yourself inside you find it empty (if well-furnished) save for what looks like a miniature submarine complete with a rather ominous looking lever. Driven by the inexorable curiosity that is the lot of videogame characters you pull it and..well…this happens:
Trapped in the art-deco battlefield of an immense secret undersea city (Rapture) in the final spasms of an apocalyptic civil war, it’s up to you to fight your way through the insane surviving inhabitants and try to both escape and find out exactly what the hell is going on. The city itself is something between a Boschian nightmare and a 50’s New York version of Metropolis, the depths of the sea constantly pressing in around you creates an atmosphere and environment that ranks amongst gaming’s all-time best. As you progress through one of the central reason for the outbreak of screaming mutated maniacs becomes clear: the discovery of a deep sea substance that can be used to reshape the human genome into any shape that you can think of. Since the city runs on Randian principles the idea of enforcing any kind of oversight gets laughed out of the airlock and by the time that anyone realises that tearing up the genetic blueprint might have some slightly hazardous side effects on mental health events had long since waved goodbye to the point of no-return.
The gameplay is a lot closer to Survival Horror than the bombastic run-and-gun of series finale Bioshock Infinite which helps to build the tense feeling of entrapment and danger that comes from being trapped fathoms below the surface in a city crawling with the genetically deranged. Whilst the combat certainly still holds up today, it’s the atmosphere of the city and the various stories (found in dozens of optional audio logs) that are the real draw, the history of Rapture is a sad and complex one and it’s the archaeologist’s drive to uncover the truth behind the screams. It doesn’t hurt as well that the central storyline has one of the all-time great ‘wham’ moments, one that is unfortunately so good that the final hour of the game struggles to match it (a lesson that would be well learned from in later games). Rapture is a city that every gamer owes it to themselves to visit at least once, and the whale-like diving suited Big Daddies are as iconic to this generation as Lara Croft and Mario were to the previous one. Bioshock is as deep and dark as the Mariana trench, but there are lights in that darkness which signposted a path that gaming is still following today.