Perspective | Fifteen years ago, ‘BioShock’ redefined the narrative video game

Perspective | Fifteen years ago, ‘BioShock’ redefined the narrative video game

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“BioShock” released as summer waned back in 2007, hitting the Xbox 360 and PC platforms right before the annual Fall deluge of big titles. Taking players to an undersea complex — Rapture — built by a radical capitalist who abhorred church and state equally, “BioShock” captured running design trends in the immersive sim genre and paired them with shooter mechanics, all happening within a claustrophobic, paranoid landscape of metal and seawater that was constantly collapsing. It redefined the narrative video game.

This claim might be controversial. After all, 2007 was a landmark year for the transformation of the blockbuster game. November saw the release of “Assassin’s Creed,” “Mass Effect” and “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare,” essentially inaugurating a slate of franchises that would go on to dominate video game culture for the next decade. “Assassin’s Creed” defined limited open-world gameplay in highly populated places. “Mass Effect” took the BioWare-style RPG — defined by immersive, character-driven narratives — even further and “Modern Warfare” transformed Call of Duty into a globe-trotting techno-thriller. All of these were aimed at the most massive markets possible.

In an interview with Kieron Gillen shortly after “BioShock’s” release, Ken Levine, who is credited with “story, writing and creative direction” in the official game credits but who Gillen refers to as “the main man behind ‘BioShock,’” explains that “games are not story.”

“Games are gameplay,” Levine continued. “Games are interactive.” This reality, Levine explained, is where the true heart of “BioShock” came from. During the creation of “System Shock 2,” “BioShock’s” spiritual predecessor, the team had realized that creating a delimited space and asking players to navigate through it created a huge amount of gameplay opportunity. The story of “BioShock’s” Andrew Ryan, the industrialist who created Rapture, emerged from that constraint. A city at the bottom of the ocean is as cut off from the world as a space station. Who would build it, and to what end? That was the origin point of “BioShock.”

This logic is notable from our vantage in 2022, if only because the style of story that “BioShock” so clearly embedded in the bedrock of games culture 15 years ago is so heavily dependent on story as its primary driver. Replaying the game in preparation to write this article, I was stunned by how much traditional narrative action drove everything that I experienced in the first couple hours.

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“BioShock” is about a man whose plane crashes into the middle of the ocean. He discovers a bathysphere that transports him deep under the water and which places him in Rapture, a once-glorious city for everyone who wanted to leave the postwar power relations of the world and strike out on their own. It was once populated by rogue capitalists, scientists who wanted to be free to experiment without ethical constraint and people who sought hope in a world that was, effectively, starting from zero. In reality, the laissez faire social system produced in Rapture ended in dystopia; a scientific discovery called ADAM allowed people to warp their genes and produced a world of pseudo-zombified addicts who want to rip each other apart for the special juice inside of each other.

The player character is caught up in all of this as soon as they make their way into the city, and are immediately entrained by an ongoing war between the masters of various domains in Rapture, who they have to shoot their way through to progress through the game. All of this is revealed to be a kind of proxy war between two factions: Atlas, the leader of a rebel faction who began the events that have destabilized Rapture to the state it is currently in; and Andrew Ryan, the founder and implicit tyrant of Rapture, who extolled the virtues of freedom while both privately and openly controlling many different parts of the city since its founding.

The player brings both of these factions bounding toward one another. Atlas is revealed to be Frank Fontaine, a rival businessman to Andrew Ryan. The player is revealed to be a mind-controlled pawn, delivering a Shyamalan-esque twist that every moment of player freedom was, in fact, simply the will of another character. Andrew Ryan is killed, Fontaine becomes a big red muscle guy and there’s a boss fight. The game is over, in a novel way, but also somehow predictably.

The plot beats of action cinema are all over “BioShock.” Each domain of Rapture is controlled by some warped remainder of the world before, and like a modern-day John McClane, the player has to invade that small world and take it apart from the inside out. These characters get developed through extensive audio logs, little voiced diaries that fill out the world and how a character became the twisted figure they are at the moment the player encounters them.

Following in the trajectory of games like “System Shock 2,” what was novel about “BioShock” is that it was unwilling to take these cinematic beats and put them into the framework of cinema. “Assassin’s Creed” and “Mass Effect” performed similar maneuvers, but did so in a very traditional split between gameplay and cutscenes. Conversations and context happened within a filmic apparatus, with camera angles and the player’s capabilities limited to simply watching.

By contrast, “BioShock” spends most of its time giving you those same threads, like villains monologuing or Rapture falling apart, and places it in the action. Walking down a crumbling glass pathway, it begins to crack beneath your feet, water pouring in through tiny fissures. Later in the year, “Modern Warfare” would become legendary for maximally achieving this same “in the action” gameplay with the “All Ghillied Up” mission, but something was in the water, so to speak, a few months before.

Looking at a list of the best-selling games from the past decade, it is tough to see the influence of “BioShock” in the highest echelons of the economic transformations of the medium. Similarly, the most robust expansion of games in the world, the mobile games market, is not dominated by either the storytelling techniques or the gameplay patterns of “BioShock.” However, it is hard to imagine a “The Last of Us” or a “Wolfenstein: The New Order” without “BioShock” appearing and clearing a path for broad, commercial games that hinge on selling a narrative conceit structured around a traditional shooting framework.

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We can also see it in the first-person genre storytelling mechanisms more broadly. NPR understood “The Stanley Parable” in contrast to the third “BioShock” game; developer Davey Wreden namechecked the game as an inspiration when the original mod came out. “Metro 2033’s” subway world was promoted by way of a comparison with Rapture. “Fallout 3” writer Emil Pagliarulo shouted out “BioShock” as a high-water mark of game narrative before “Fallout 3” was even out. The landmark first-person games that came after “BioShock” have largely been in conversation with its titanic influence, whether purposefully or simply through critical comparison. Its clever blend of deeper narrative and front-and-center action is unmatched for its time period, even if “Half-Life 2” laid some of the groundwork that it followed.

Beyond the ecology of games culture and the widening effect on what games were in the commercial realm, “BioShock” also produced its own progeny. The (much better, in my opinion) “BioShock 2” was developed under another team at 2K Marin rather than the Boston-based 2K studio. Promoted heavily and following a number of industry trends, including a stapled-on multiplayer format, the game’s legacy is mostly misunderstood as a lackluster follow-up to a legacy game. Under Levine’s guidance and some brutal development conditions, 2013’s “BioShock Infinite” was sold as the rightful successor to the “BioShock” legacy. It is a claim that is still debated today, but it seems undeniable that whatever high points exist within “Infinite” are overshadowed by their reliance on and reference to the more shocking originating points in the first game.

The ripples that radiate from the impact of “BioShock” are still being felt today. Looking around at the current video game landscape, it is hard to have an experience that can’t be understood in relation to what “BioShock” did 15 years ago. It’s difficult to imagine games like “Last Stop,” “The Magnificent Trufflepigs” or even “Firewatch” existing without the commercial path that “BioShock” blazed across many platforms.

Cameron Kunzelman is a critic who writes about games. His byline has appeared at Waypoint, Polygon, Kotaku and Paste. He has a podcast where he and his co-host are reading all of Stephen King in publication order. He’s on Twitter @ckunzelman.


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