Transcendent and Terrifying Collective Storytelling – A Love Letter to the Bioshock Series

Anyone who has been in my house can tell you that I have a great love of video games.  There are four consoles plugged into my TV, several handhelds floating around my apartment, and there are video game characters incorporated into decor.  This love for video games has spanned much of my life– initially on a very limited basis through playing games at the houses of friends and relatives, and expanded as I bought my first handheld, the GameBoy Pocket.  In spite of years of owning it and its more advanced brethren, it took a good deal of persuasion to get a plug-into-the-TV console in my home.  My first was the GameCube, and it kindled my already-sparked love of Nintendo’s franchises.  In years to come, I acquired more consoles as I could afford them on my own, though I tended to be about half a generation behind, buying consoles such as the PS2 just as the PS3 was about to come out.  So, I continued to enjoy the newest games at friend’s houses well into college.

At the beginning of my senior year of high school, I was hanging out at a friend’s house.  I arrived late to find gaming in progress, though it was a little abnormal: it wasn’t a multiplayer shooter being played.  Because I didn’t know what it was, I ignored the screen in favor of socializing.  After a while the controller was passed over to me, the game restarted.

I only played for ten or fifteen minutes, but it was one of the most incredible gaming experiences I had ever had.  I then didn’t have any way to continue to play it on my own, but it was regardless placed very high on my list of games to play.

The game, which should be obvious by the title of this post, was the first Bioshockbioshock1The brief brush I had with its rich world, buried under the sea in a city called Rapture, triggered a great deal of curiosity on my part.  While perusing its Wikipedia page I saw a reference to a book called Atlas Shrugged, which I had seen in libraries and homes for years.  I had long been curious to find out what it was, so learning it was connected to Bioshock was all I needed to pick up a copy.

Now, before I go any further, I want to state that I do not subscribe to Objectivism.  I find its principles and implications fascinating the same way that I find anything intellectually challenging fascinating.  I can see where Ayn Rand is coming from, but I feel that her perspective is far too radical to possibly achieve anything.  I feel that her philosophy stems from a bitterness toward communism more than from an honest worldview.

That said, I found cde8619009a083d7b5fe5110.LAtlas Shrugged to be a surprisingly compelling read, especially considering the fact that there is a monologue that exceeds a hundred pages that honestly just restated (and then restated again… and again) the points that everything prior to it in the novel had already made with abundant clarity.  Okay, I skimmed that part.  But regardless, the ideas were fascinating and the Objectivism-minded characters were fairly interesting.  The most important thing to glean from the fact that I read the novel is that I became quite familiar with Rand’s philosophy that praises selfishness as a virtue, endorsing the idea of a totally free market where individuals succeed based on their ability and nobody is carried on the back of another.  My proper interaction with Bioshock had that background, and I don’t regret that it took so long because I had built up my understanding of the groundwork of its universe.

I got to play through Bioshock properly because a friend lent myself and a mutual friend (my first college roommate) his Xbox 360 and a number of his games for about 9 months– he was going on his LDS mission.  Bioshock was fortunately among the games, and was the first to be consumed by both myself and my roommate.

Simply put, Bioshock is a masterpiece.  It brilliantly paints a city beneath the ocean’s waves that is built on the principles of Objectivism.  Rather than to praise this selfish ideal, we see that the city that its citizen hoped would be a paradise, their Rapture, has instead become a crumbling dystopia.  It has advanced rapidly in terms of science, art, medicine and has done so because there is no conventional governmental, social or religious morality placing restrictions and slowing growth.  The most notable advancement is the one from which the game draws its’ title: genetic modification.  The scientists of Rapture have created, by using a chemical found in sea slugs, ways to modify the human body to make it more powerful.  Now, by modification and subsequent injection of EVE, the slug byproduct, a person can perform amazing feats, from telekinesis to pyrokinesis, from creating electricity to growing bees from your own flesh.  Of course, these slugs are extremely valuable and rare, but a process was quickly developed to allow them to grow much more rapidly: my introducing them into the body of a human host.  Suddenly, there are little girls growing slugs inside them, guarded by biologically altered supermen in diving suits, and attacked by an increasingly dependent population of genetic splicers who will do anything to get a fix.  Throw in an all-out war in the streets between two masters of commerce, Andrew Ryan (note the Ayn Rand anagram) and Frank Fontaine, and we have the setting for the game.  The viewpoint character, simply known as Jack, explores the city as an outsider, with the confusing bits filled in over a radio by a man, begging for your help, who calls himself Atlas (also no coincidence there).  On top of it all, you are forced to make moral decisions yourself as you come in contact with the Little Sisters because you, too, quickly become a splicer to survive.  Do you save the slug-host children or do you harvest their bodies to boost your power?

There’s a lot there.  There’s even more to it than that.  That’s just the background.  Suffice it to say that Bioshock is one of the most well-written (yet refreshingly subtle), scary, action-packed, and brilliant video games ever.  It made bold strides for the medium to receive its rightful inheritance as an art form, not just mindless entertainment.  And that’s a point that I want to make here: video games are art, particularly when they are approached so masterfully as with the Bioshock series.  This actually was the subject of a college art-appreciation class project I did my first semester at Utah State.  Any video game is packed in with storytelling (in an interactive medium, which has such incredible implications!), characterization, visual design, landscape and architectural design, music composition, and much more.  The Irrational Games team (so unfortunately no longer in existence as of about a month ago) took their medium very seriously and made a masterpiece of video gaming.  I am very glad that the game received the acclaim it did– it really deserves it.

It was a few years before I had another chance to interact with Bioshock_2_boxartthe Bioshock series.  The first sequel came out while I was on my LDS mission, so I had to wait until I got home to play it.  Fortunately, shortly after I returned I purchased a laptop that was part of the “get a free 360” deal, so I quickly had the means to play it.  Also nice for me was the fact that Bioshock 2 dropped in price very quickly.

I’ve heard statements that Bioshock 2 is a crappy game.  I’d like to offer a contending opinion: though it is not as mind-blowing as the first one (primarily because it, logically, continues to explore the world the original set up) it is very good, and it’s equally stimulating on an intellectual level.  It’s no surprise that it has a smoother control and combat system, though those are the biggest boasts for the game.  I love the premise of the game, though– you are playing as one of the earliest models of Big Daddy, defender of Little Sisters, looking for a specific former-Little Sister who you are very close with, trying to free her from her socially powerful mother (who the ex-Little Sister, Eleanor, does not want to be with).   Eight years after the events of the first game’s good ending, Rapture has been reshaped, with some of the Little Sisters who escaped returning as young adults as Big Sisters working for the Rapture Family, run under the direction of a woman known as the Lamb, which is essentially the political backlash of the Objectivist ideals the city was founded on (and crumbled beneath).  Basically, the Family is communist, which really is about as far from Objectivism as any political ideal can be.  The Family has goals to totally eliminate the idea of the self, trying to become a totally united, internally selfless unit.  So, just from that brief description of the plot premise (it gets more complicated but all works quite nicely), it’s clear that Bioshock 2 is a very complicated game.

I loved revisiting Rapture in such a different context.  I loved being a Big Daddy, and thought that the powers and challenges of filling that role in the game were quite balanced and fun.  I loved the sections in which I had to defend Little Sisters as they harvested as they provided a unique challenge for the series to that point– defense and not offense.  When I finally became fully powered near the end of the game, I loved the waves of difficult enemies that I was able to face, though I had to often think outside of the box.  I think that’s what really shined Minervasden1with this game as opposed to its precursor– instead of just using a couple guns and plasmids in combat I had to come up with ways to make use of my full arsenal.  This wasn’t a chore, it was a blast, and really showed off what the game designers had in mind for the players in terms of creativity.  I love that they expected me to play with my brain, not just accuracy and a quick trigger-finger.

There is DLC for Bioshock 2 called Minerva’s Den.  It’s a unique Bioshock story that I’ve heard referred to as the best part about Bioshock 2.  I, unfortunately, am yet to play it.  I’ll make sure to update this post (and draw attention to the fact that I have) in the future when I have played it.  It’s high on my list, I just have a 360 with a small hard drive and limited gaming time in general.  I figure it’s safe to assume that it’s kick-awesome in every way, like the rest of the series.

Next up in the parade of amazingness is Bioshock Infinite.  Let me state this simply: it isOfficial_cover_art_for_Bioshock_Infinite easily one of the best video games ever made.  It’s in my top three of all time.  Depending on the day, it sometimes tops the list.  It’s up there with The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Chronotrigger for me.

It’s so, so good.

Okay, so I’ll give you a bit about this pinnacle of glory.  It is set in 1912 in a city that flies above the clouds called Columbia.  The protagonist is a man named Booker DeWitt, a private detective who is a veteran of the Boxer Rebellion and of the Battle of Wounded Knee.  He has been sent to the mysterious city to find and retrieve a woman known simply as Elizabeth, who is locked up in a tower and guarded by a creature called the Songbird.  Elizabeth, by the way, has supernatural powers that allows her to interact with alternate dimensions and other periods of time.  The game also features more widespread powers, quite similar to plasmids of the earlier games, called vigors.

Columbia is a fascinating piece of work, very unlike Rapture in many ways.  It’s based on the historical Columbian World Exposition from the 1890s.  It is built on principles of hyper-patriotism (having left the United States because the US wasn’t American enough) and religious leadership.  Essentially, Columbians worship the founding fathers of the US and are ruled by their prophet, Zachary Comstock, who receives revelations about everything from politics to industry to race relations.  Though initially seemingly quite paradisiacal, the rotten underbelly quickly is manifested with rampant racism and an angry, rebellious working class uniting as the Vox Populi.

I really don’t want to ruin the magic of this for you at all if you haven’t played it.  The world is breathtaking in terms of beauty, game mechanics, theoretical science, and philosophy.  The characters are compelling and their journey is difficult and wonderful.  The story ties to the other games in the series very well and in unexpected ways.  The tone is less horror than the others, though it’s scary moments are even more terrifying (when you get to the Boys of Silence you’ll understand).

Also, a pro tip– look for the more modern songs adapted into older styles throughout the game.  They’re wonderful.  [NON-PLOT MILD SPOILER] For example, while first walking the streets of Columbia you can hear a barbershop quartet singing for the festivities of the day…[END SPOILER]

IBSIDLC-Burial_at_Sea_Episode_One_KeyArt cannot recommend it highly enough.  But play the others first.

Then, there’s Burial at Sea.  It’s DLC for Infinite, in two episodes.  Using a rationale that works perfectly in the series (but that I won’t explain for the sake of avoiding spoilers) the story features the two protagonists of Infinite but is set in Rapture years before the first game, just before an event that started the all-out war between Fontaine and Ryan.

The episodes have a very different feel from Infinite, or from the Rapture games.  The visual and storytelling style is very film noir, which is likely apparent by the image to the left.  In episode 1 you play as Booker, who is a fedora and trench coat-wearing private detective.  A femme fatale Elizabeth knocks on your door and hires you to find a little girl– a little girl that you lost.

It’s fascinating as the first half of the episode shows Rapture at its highest point– brilliantly lit shops, parties, abstract art.  You interact with characters from previous games and see them as what they once were, before the war and splicing drove them into the darkness.

Just from the perspective of having played the other games, it was really interesting.

The second half took a turn toward the darkness that is more familiar in the series as you travel to an area of Rapture that Ryan has separated from the rest of the city as a prison for traitors to his ideals.  You fight men going mad as you seek out the child, a Little Sister, who you lost.

I’m not going to go any further into what happens, but suffice it to say that it is brilliant and made me really want the next episode when I finished it.

Episode 2 CN3gnwPis incredible and somehow managed to tie together everything in the series very neatly and very unexpectedly.  I thought that the story already worked pretty well, but Episode 2 really drove it home.  It’s a masterpiece.

This game is quite different from all of its precursors.  Rather than being action-horror the gameplay shifts to survival-horror.  You play as Elizabeth, who, due to having significantly less upper-body strength and less ammo than Booker or Jack or Subject Delta, has to sneak up on enemies to kill them or often has to flee.  It changed the way I saw plasmids and the arsenal it gave me and made for a very fun and challenging playthrough.

I don’t dare tell you anything about the story other than that it amazed me, scared me, and gave me a strong desire to give everybody at the now-defunct Irrational Games a high-five.  I didn’t expect anything that happened to happen, but everything was perfect.

Just perfect.  It made me fall in love with the series yet again.  It made me appreciate little things in all of the games that came before it.

So, the question I’m left with: what is to become of Bioshock in the future?  Irrational Games has been disbanded (I’m assuming that after finishing Burial at Sea they had to disband as a sort of “drop the mic” sort of thing), but the franchise is officially owned by 2K, who has stated that the series will be continued under different management in the future.  Is that going to be a good thing?  Can such a thing really work, with the story so perfectly completed in Burial at Sea episode 2?  Those who have completed the series, let me know in the comments what you think about the idea of future Bioshock games without Ken Levine and Irrational involved.

Finally, let me state again just how incredible a piece of storytelling this series is.  And the best part is that I was able to play a role in the telling.  I made decisions and experienced the story.

I love it so much that the guy in these pictures is me:



Now I guess I just need to get around to playing Minerva’s Den, and then move on to Bioshock‘s spiritual precursor, System Shock


Silent Hill Sillies #2: Sundays


Another alternative life of Pyramid Head.

Forgive the so-so quality.

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