A Blast from the Past
FBT is back in Rapture. Did he choose or does he obey?
I’m a slave when it comes to Bioshock. A total Adam-addicted, Spliced up Ryan slave. Bioshock is my favourite game. But it wasn’t always that way. I remember idly reading PCZone's profile back in 2007 and thinking it seemed daft. Bees flying from your hands?!
I didn’t bother with it for years. In fact, I picked it up for a fiver in a second hand store because I had no other games to play - well, no other games I wanted to play right then. But when Ryan said “I chose the impossible. I chose... Rapture” and we saw it emerge from the depths, I was sold. It was a perfect game – it was a good shooter but the setting, backstory, characters and moral choices meant I never wanted to leave. It was original, surprising, moving - amazing for a shooter. It changed how I viewed games, what my expectations were. Bioshock became the one I compare every other game to.
How do I review my all-time fave game? Bang on about why I love it? Boring. The web is teaming with retrospective reviews going on about it's brilliance. But, reflecting on how I got into Rapture, what if my original assumption was correct? Surely it can’t be all that? Again, bees?! What if I replayed to find out what’s wrong with it? Can I find anything wrong with it?
Still a Blast?
Before I get into it; the remastered version is an abomination. Pretty much the only change is starfish stuck to the windows and it crashing every ten minutes. Not a reason to hate Bioshock, just a reason to hate 2K. And the Game+ mode doesn’t up-scale the enemies, so you’re so ridiculously overpowered they might as well have called it Walking Sim mode. If you’re looking to keep your brand alive, don’t do a remaster. Least not like this. So anyway,
For those who don't know (tut), Andrew Ryan, industrialist, billionaire and poster-child for Objectivism decides he’s had enough of Governments and the hanger-ons – or as he calls them, Parasites. He builds Rapture beneath the waves where ‘the great are not constrained by the small’.
The city thrives on its own industry and innovations, until a sea slug is discovered that allows the ‘splicing’ of DNA. It creates a gold-rush in ‘Plasmids’ which genetically alter and improve people, eventually to the point of having superpowers. Alongside this, a class-struggle emerges, and the ‘small’ - menial workers, those who failed - start to rebel. Society breaks down, to the point they all just accept men stuck in deep sea diving suits are brainwashed to protect little girls with slugs implanted in them, who go around with huge needles harvesting dead bodies for their precious Adam, while people become addicted and degenerate into ghoulish monsters. The place has problems. Rapture falls into war, with Ryan versus Atlas, man of the people. And into this stalemate, via a plane crash, our lead Jack is dunked.
One thing that did always bug me – it’s revealed that our silent hero is in fact Ryan’s son. A young dancer Ryan was dancing with fell pregnant, and she sold the child to Fontaine, who, alongside the doctors behind the Big Daddy conditioning, accelerated his growth and gave Jack a trigger phrase, ‘Would You Kindly’ – which unconsciously forces him to do their bidding. It’s one of gaming’s greatest twists, realising we had been doing Atlas’ bidding, that he was Fontaine all along and he wants Rapture for himself, that we’ve not been in control. But here’s the thing – well, things wrong with that;
One, Jack is priceless. His DNA is the only way Atlas can get past Ryan’s security. So what does he do with his ace in the hole? Sends him topside then orders him to get on a plane and crash it into the sea over Rapture. Bit of a risk? Surely if they could implant memories, they could have just implanted the plane crash and shoved him out the lighthouse door?
Second, why go through any of that conditioning? If Jack can be controlled by ‘WYK’ just wake the kid up and say “go kill Ryan would you kindly”. None of the Atlas nonsense, the family, the rigmarole and façade Atlas puts us through matters. Why care what Jack thinks or even if he’s aware? He’s as powerless as a Big Daddy?
Third, Would You Kindly is a fantastic reveal, it’s shocking when you realise you’ve been had. But it happens at the same time as we face Ryan, recognise Atlas’ betrayal, escape Fontaine, hear Tenenbaum's backstory and new plan as well as realise we just murdered our dad - Bioshock, you’re throwing a lot at me emotionally. It’s like the game shoots all it’s shots in one go, and then says ‘Oh, we’re only half way through’ and you’re sent off to go kill Fontaine - the whole second half is like a DLC add-on and it's like any other shooter, tramping toward the big bad. Just forget I’m a brainwashed bastard-child lab-experiment who clubbed his dad to death? The game never recovers from that reveal.
Other moments are ruined because exposition is delivered via recordings while you’re busy shooting or half-listening to Ryan’s threats or Fontaine’s goading. We actually find our mom’s body earlier on before realising who she was. I searched and nicked money off her! The explanation about how you came into being is delivered by Tenenbaum from behind a frosted glass window. Bioshock is one of those games that only comes together on a replay and not because you replay to join the dots; there's no clues to tip you off about what's coming, just stuff that has no relevance.
And why does Ryan allow us to beat him to death? Because he refuses to submit? It's not over for him, he’s just gotten control of his son – Fontaine just delivered a super-powered, obedient son to his door, his own personal Darth Vader, and he says “here, take this golf club and hit me with it, would you kindly son” instead of "would you kindly go kill Atlas”.
Fontaine is a terrible villain, with his awful Bugsy Malone accent. I like his one-dimensional style in comparison to Ryan’s more complex approach, but he reveals himself like a pantomime character, then like all bad villains, leaves us to die in an overly elaborate trap and doesn’t stick around to watch. Fontaine is the Dr Evil of the waves. And it is hugely disappointing that we’re actually up against a street thug. There was a building sense of threat and wonder to Rapture, with Ryan’s contemplative threats. You could admire him, but Fontaine is boo-hiss and a terrible cliché boss fight.
Fontaine’s plan is wildly complicated actually. You couldn’t re-work a Big Daddy to walk outside and drill through his office window? In fact, why not just have Jack converted to a Big Daddy from the outset. That way he’d actually have a chance wading through all the Splicers. Of course, that does happen in the final quarter, in a desperate attempt to change things up as it all runs out of steam. And becoming a Big Daddy means nothing; we don’t get more threatening or stronger. All we get is slower, our vision impeded by the helmet and clumping feet fx.
We’re told it's irreversible becoming a Big Daddy, but in the final shot we’re back to normal. And, during the process we get our throat cut out? Why, just stay quiet, not like the Little Sisters can see you still have a tongue. Mind you, assuming you play Jack as a saviour, he adopted five daughters; doubt he had much of a chance to talk anyway.
And then there’s the plasmids? I get the splicing concept, that Tonics improve health or strength, and I’ll even buy traits like Camouflage, but firebolts and electricity? Telekinesis?! They’re just magic spells, they make zero sense. And often they're little more than melee-stunners not killers. And the bees. I just fired live insects from my hands? And Splicers can transport themselves? They’ve not unlocked the genome, they’ve unlocked the God Particle.
And while Bioshock 2 added dual-weld, here you have to switch and isn’t that a faff. You’re constantly switching then rolling through options. Too many options, so many weapons; how many times did I get assaulted, swap and take a picture instead of shoot? Why is camera on my weapon wheel!? And the weapons are far too Doom era, it’s the one time I’d argue for a 2-weapon max option. And less magic spells.
Rapture may be fantastical, but it feels like a studio set. The outside looks like one of those obviously fake backdrops in a sitcom. It’s a flat painting of buildings with a water-ripple effect which doesn’t even make sense. It looks like those terrible photoshop fails IG Models post. It ruins the feel, the depth, conflicts with how Rapture seems functional and believable.
According to Metacritic, no critics gave Bioshock a negative review. None! They all witter on about how thought-provoking, compelling, twisting, shocking, intelligent it is. How did they fall for this? Scripted window-dressing, samey shooting, magic, manipulative moral choices (a little girl? Come on) and a mid-game rug pull; Atlas for the people, Ryan for the self becomes generic go kill bad guy? It’s just a regular shoot’em up pretending to be an Intellectual. And it nicked all it’s originality from System Shock 2.
So, what's right with Bioshock? Who the hell am I kidding, this was just an excuse to play Bioshock again. Ryan said “we all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us”. And my choice is I’m a Bioshock fan. None of those niggles matter because it all makes sense when you're beneath the waves. It's perfect. Come at me, you'll get the old one-two punch.
Bioshock is one of those rare games that pushed its genre forward while still having everything needed to keep a gamer happy. It encouraged games to sneak in some intelligence, to be more than just FPS. Arguably, it’s the first shooter with a soul.