It’s the 1960s. You are the lone survivor of a plane crash, stranded in a mysterious tower in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Inside you find a bathysphere that takes you several fathoms into the deep, and the voice of eccentric tycoon Andrew Ryan intones that you are approaching the city of Rapture, “where the artist would not fear the censor…where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality…where the great would not be constrained by the small.”
He promises you a utopia in Rapture, yet you enter to find a city gone to hell, besieged by maddened mutants called Splicers and watched at every corner by security cameras and machine gun-wielding robots. Welcome to the world of Bioshock.
Bioshock has been dubbed the spiritual successor of System Shock, a series of games that incorporate the first-person shooter and role-playing game genres. The System Shock games are classics in themselves and are certainly a tough act to follow, but Bioshock more than matches up by doing what video games are supposed to do and doing it well: by immersing you in its environment and making you feel a whole spectrum of emotions—horror, relief, anger, fear, and yes, even pity.
It does all this by creating a world so amazing you can’t help but stop and stare. Even in tatters, the underwater city of Rapture is a joy to behold. The city is designed in art deco style to evoke the 60s, and music from the Ink Spots and other classic singers filled the air with the sense of nostalgia for more innocent times. The city leaks and groans and flashes and screams. You could roam freely for hours, living off vendo machines and scavenging weapons and first aid kits while fighting off wave after wave of Splicers and other monstrosities.
Fans of Ayn Rand and her classic novel Atlas Shrugged will find a treasure trove of references. Though director Kevin Levine didn’t say so, the game is at least partially inspired and very much informed by Atlas Shrugged, to the point that it critiques it.
In Rand’s novel, all the inventors and geniuses and creators of the world go on strike and leave the world to its own devices. Her philosophy, Objectivism, stipulates that progress will only occur when man is allowed to pursue his own self-interest and profit from his own work without interference from the rest. Rand points out that society is full of parasites that thrive on the work of a few great minds, and that these precious few go unheeded, underpaid, unsung, bearing the weight of an ungrateful world on their shoulders. By secluding themselves and creating their own laissez-faire society, they uphold the greatness of the individual and reject the tyranny of the many.
Bioshock not only takes that premise and runs with it at breakneck speeds, it follows it to its inevitable crash. Andrew Ryan (the name itself’s a dead give-away) creates an underwater city free from the shackles of any government or religion and where only science and industry reign supreme. Rapture’s citizens live with every comfort imaginable. The city is powered by geothermal energy from underwater volcanoes. The discovery of a new species of sea slug allows them to create a substance called ADAM, which alters their DNA and allows them to perform fantastic feats.
But Rapture also proves that wherever there’s an ounce of power to be had, there will always be people fighting to claim it. The city soons stratifies into the haves and have-nots. War breaks out between the elitist Ryan and the working-class figurehead known as Atlas. When ADAM runs in short supply, severe withdrawal turns the citizens into murderous lunatics. Amoral scientists start turning orphan girls into “Little Sisters,” genetically-altered beings that collect and recycle used ADAM from the recently dead. They also create “Big Daddies,” hulking beasts in armored diving suits that accompany the Little Sisters in their grisly task. Soon Ryan’s utopia becomes a city of ghouls and corpses.
Somewhere in all this chaos, you must fight your way to Andrew Ryan and stop him. To survive, you must enhance your abilities by injecting ADAM into your system, giving you incredible abilities like telekinesis, cryokinesis, pyrokineses, and much more. But the game’s philosophy extends to you as well: at some point you may either harvest Little Sisters for their rich store of precious ADAM, or rescue them by turning them back into humans, which while compassionate provides you significantly less ADAM. Which will it be? Will you pursue your own self-interest without regard for anyone else, or give way to sentiment and help the weak at long-term cost to yourself?
Bioshock is a clever, engaging, fascinating game, and is already being claimed as proof that the medium can be an art form. As a visceral example of biopunk and steampunk, it’s also a fantastic experience for any science fiction fan. Most of all, it’s a parable for the modern age and a response to Objectivism. Greed and madness are endemic to Man’s nature, and even a society composed of and controled by the “Great” will hardly fare better than any other.