This claim may be controversial. After all, 2007 was a turning point for the transformation of the hit game. Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare were released in November, essentially opening the series that will dominate video game culture for the next decade. Assassin’s Creed defines limited open-world gameplay in densely populated places. “Mass Effect” took the BioWare-style RPG – defined by engaging, character-driven narratives – even further, and “Modern Warfare” transformed Call of Duty into a worldwide techno thriller. All of this was aimed at the largest possible markets.
In an interview with Kieron Gillen shortly after the release of BioShock, Ken Levine, who is officially credited with “history, writing and creativity” in the official end credits, but whom Gillen describes as “the main man behind BioShock,” he explains. that “games are not history.”
“Games are gameplay,” continued Levine. “Games are interactive.” From this reality, Levine explained, comes the true heart of “BioShock”. During the development of “System Shock 2”, the spiritual predecessor of “BioShock”, the team realized that creating a limited space and asking players to navigate through it created tremendous gameplay opportunities. The story of Andrew Ryan of BioShock, the industrialist who created Rapture, came out of this limitation. The city at the bottom of the ocean is as cut off from the world as a space station. Who would build it and for what purpose? This was the beginning of BioShock.
This logic is noteworthy from our point of view in 2022, if only because the style of story that “BioShock” so clearly embedded in gaming culture 15 years ago is so heavily dependent on the story as its main engine. Back in the game as I prepared to write this article, I was stunned at how much the traditional narrative action fueled everything I experienced in the first few hours.
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BioShock tells the story of a man whose plane crashes in the middle of the ocean. He discovers a bathysphere that carries him deep under the water and places him in Rapture, once a great city for all those who wanted to leave post-war power relations in the world and go on their own. It used to be inhabited by dishonest capitalists, scientists who wanted the freedom to experiment without ethical constraints, and people who looked for hope in a world that actually started from scratch. In fact, the laissez-faire social system created in Rapture has ended in dystopia; A scientific discovery called ADAM has allowed humans to skew their genes and created a world of pseudo-zombified addicts who want to rip off each other for a special juice inside themselves.
The player character is sucked into it all as soon as he enters the city and is immediately carried away by the ongoing war between the masters of different domains in Rapture, through whom they must fight their way through the game. All of this turns out to be a kind of proxy war between two factions: Atlas, the leader of the rebel faction who started the events that destabilized Rapture to the state it is in today; and Andrew Ryan, the founder and hidden tyrant of Rapture, who extolled the virtues of freedom while privately and openly controlling many different parts of the city since its inception.
The player brings both of these factions together. Atlas turns out to be Frank Fontaine, the rival of businessman Andrew Ryan. The player turns out to be a mind-controlled pawn, delivering a Shyamalan-style twist that every moment of the player’s freedom was actually just another character’s will. Andrew Ryan is killed, Fontaine becomes a giant red muscle and a boss fight ensues. The game is over, in a novel way, but also somehow predictable.
“BioShock” is full of action movies. Each Rapture domain is controlled by some warped remnant of the world, and just like modern-day John McClane, the player must invade this little world and take it apart. These characters are developed with extensive sound diaries, diaries with small voices that fill the world, and how the character has turned into the twisted character that they are when the player encounters them.
Following the trajectory of games like “System Shock 2”, what’s new to “BioShock” is that he didn’t want to take those cinematic beats and put them within the cinema. Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect performed similar maneuvers, but they did so in a very traditional way between gameplay and cutscenes. The conversations and the context took place in a film camera, in which the camera’s viewing angles and the player’s abilities were limited to mere viewing.
BioShock, on the other hand, spends most of the time giving you the same plots, such as the villains’ monologue or the crumbling Rapture, and puts it into action. As you follow the crumbling glass path, it starts to crack under your feet and water pours through the tiny gaps. Later that year, “Modern Warfare” became legendary by maximizing the same gameplay “in action” with the “All Ghillied Up” mission, but something was in the water, so to speak, a few months earlier.
Looking at the list of the best-selling games from the last decade, it is difficult to see the impact of “BioShock” on the highest levels of economic transformation of the medium. Likewise, the most powerful game expansion in the world, the mobile gaming market, is dominated neither by storytelling techniques nor by “BioShock” gameplay patterns. But it’s hard to imagine “The Last of Us” or “Wolfenstein: The New Order” without the arrival of “BioShock”, paving the way for wide-ranging commercial games that rely on selling narrative conceit based on traditional shooter games.
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This is also seen more broadly in the narrative mechanisms of the first-person genre. NPR understood “Stanley’s Parable” as opposed to the third game, “BioShock”; Developer Davey Wreden checked the name of the game as inspiration when the original mod came out. The subway world “Metro 2033” was promoted by comparison with Rapture. Fallout 3 writer Emil Pagliarulo exclaimed “BioShock” as the hallmark of the game’s narrative before Fallout 3 evened out. The groundbreaking first-person games that followed BioShock talked a lot about its titanic influence, either deliberately or simply through a critical comparison. Its clever blend of deeper narrative and front-and-center action is unmatched in its time, even though Half-Life 2 did lay some groundwork it followed.
In addition to the ecology of gaming culture and the expanding impact on what games were in the commercial realm, BioShock also created its own offspring. (Much better in my opinion) “BioShock 2” was developed by another team at 2K Marin and not by 2K studio in Boston. Strongly promoted and following multiple industry trends including a stitched multiplayer format, the game’s legacy is mostly misunderstood as a poor sequel to an older game. Under Levine’s direction and under brutal development conditions, 2013’s “BioShock Infinite” was sold as the rightful successor to the “BioShock” legacy. It’s a claim that is still under discussion, but it seems undeniable that any high points existing in Infinite are overshadowed by their reliance on and reference to the more shocking starting points in the first game.
The waves that radiate from the “BioShock” impact are still felt. Looking at the current videogame landscape it is difficult to have an experience that cannot be understood in relation to what BioShock did 15 years ago. It is hard to imagine games like “Last Stop”, “The Magnificent Trufflepigs” or even “Firewatch” without the commercial path that “BioShock” has traced across multiple platforms.
Cameron Kunzelman is a critic who writes about games. His byline appeared in Waypoint, Polygon, Kotaku and Paste. He has a podcast in which he and his co-host are read all of Stephen King in the order of publication. He’s on Twitter @ckunzelman.