BioShock: Video Games as Art — a review

In my most recent quadmonthly “Looking Forward” report, I listed the video game BioShock as a replay. When I began playing it again, I quickly realized that, while I had played the beginning of the game before, I must have abandoned it pretty early on. I soon found myself in sections of the underwater city of Rapture that I’d never seen before, and this time I played it all the way through to the end of the story.

I’m no longer certain that I’ve played BioShock 2, but I did play BioShock Infinite as well. I would call myself a fan of the series, even if it hasn’t provided the most enjoyable gaming experience I’ve ever had.

It’s not even my favorite among FPS (first-person shooter) games. There have been so many. But, if you asked me today, I’d say my favorite FPS games were in either the Far Cry, Star Wars: Battlefront or Call of Duty franchises.

To call BioShock merely an FPS is reductive, however. It’s more than that. In spite of its shortcomings at times, BioShock succeeds on a completely different, higher level, as a unified work of art.

Until I sat down to write this review, I never realized there was a debate going on as to whether video games qualified as “art.” I always took it as a given. I shouldn’t be surprised, though. Popular entertainment often has a difficult time being accepted as art.

My inclusion of Call of Duty among my favorite FPS games wasn’t accidental. I recently finished playing Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and it was a blast. Too short, but a blast nonetheless. In 2017, Activision—which makes Call of Duty—was sued by the company that manufactures Humvees because of the inclusion of these vehicles, without permission, in the Modern Warfare series. Judge George B. Daniels, of New York, ruled that the First Amendment protected Call of Duty‘s rights to use the Humvee brand name in a work of art.

This ruling has set a precedent allowing video games to be considered art. The case singles out Call of Duty, but, in a much broader sense, applies to all video games.

Just as some examples of art—let’s say a particular music composition, for instance—are subjectively better than others, some video games are superior examples of the video-game art form.

I’m not sure I would have chosen Call of Duty as the “video games as art” standard bearer. There are other examples out there that I consider more likely. The games Journey and Shadow of the Colossus would probably be more readily acceptable to the art snob. A couple of games I played recently—The Bridge and The Witness—are other stylized works. Screen shots of either game could probably be framed and put on a wall at MoMA.

And then there’s BioShock.

A video game is a confluence of multiple art forms. Sound design and music. Art design and animation. Story and scriptwriting. Acting. All in addition to the actual programming, which is itself an art form. As the creative lead at Irrational Games, Ken Levine gets a lot of credit for the game itself. He was the writer and director, and he developed the concept into its finished product. But, Levine himself would admit that creating a game is a collaborative effort. While he may have provided the creative impetus for the game, a large number of inviduals worked on the finished product.

I’m a sucker for story, as you know. And for a well-rendered setting. This game has both of these in abundance.

The setting is the underwater city of Rapture, a beautiful Art Deco inspired city that seems lost in time. The lead artist was Scott Sinclair. You can see his concept art online, if you want. In the game, Rapture was built by Andrew Ryan, an Objectivist hero (his name is very close to Ayn Rand) who envisioned the underwater utopia as a place where man could achieve his highest potential without government or religious oversight. Because humans are involved, this utopia eventually becomes a dystopia. We’re familiar with that story, aren’t we? It even predates the Garden of Eden tale in the Holy Bible.

The origins of Rapture are all backstory in the game. In the “now” of the game, it is 1960, and the protagonist of the game, Jack, survives a plane crash in the ocean near the lighthouse bathysphere terminal that is the entrance to Rapture. Jack is the point-of-view character that the player controls, the first-person in the FPS. Jack, the sole survivor of the crash, takes a ride on the bathysphere to the underwater city. He’s contracted by someone who calls himself Atlas, who becomes Jack’s guide through the city, which is no longer the Art Deco paradise it must have once been. Rapture has descended into chaos. Destruction is everywhere, and the city’s sprung a few leaks.

Atlas paints the founder of Rapture, Andrew Ryan, as the villain of the game. Unfettered genetic research has unlocked tremendous potential in the citizens of Rapture. The discovery of a substance known as ADAM allows for the ability to rewrite genetic material. The ADAM is used to create plasmids, which are serums that grant their users special abilities, all of this powered by something called EVE. Don’t worry if you’re having trouble following this. You’ll figure it out as you play. You’ll collect glowing blue EVE hypodermics, which are necessary for you to use your plasmid powers, which include fire, telekinesis, electrical abilities, and other cool tricks. You’ll find EVE hypodermics lying around all over the place.

Obtaining ADAM is a bit trickier. There may be other ways to get the chemical, but I got it mostly by harvesting Little Sisters, creepy glowing-eyed creatures that look like little girls, who are always accompanied by Big Daddies, biomechanical monstrosities in deep sea diving suits. It seems there is a special kind of sea slug within the Little Sisters, which is the primary source of ADAM. The player spends the ADAM, like money, at a Gatherer’s Garden vending machine to get more Plasmids or gene tonics to gain new abilities or upgrades.

The player also has access to a variety of weapons, including shotgun, revolver, machine gun, and grenade launcher. Ammunition has to be purchased or looted along the way, and the weapons can also be upgraded.

In addition to Big Daddies and Little Sisters, Jack has to face-off against security robots and Splicers, genetically modified Rapture citizens who cannot live without ADAM. There are five varieties of Splicers, each with unique appearances and abilities. And all of them want to kill you.

As with any FPS, there are missions and boss battles you have to complete during your search for Andrew Ryan. There are also a few twists and surprises along the way.

I’ve already said that this is not my all-time favorite FPS. The fighting mechanics seem clunky at times, and the action is more fantasy-based than realistic. The worldbuilding, however, is nothing short of amazing. Rapture itself can sometimes feel claustrophobic, and the progress is mostly linear. There are a lot of buildings and rooms in Rapture, but it’s not really an open world. It can feel a little lonely at times as well. Jack is not allowed to make friends or allies in this games, not really. There are just enemies and people who want to use him for their own designs.

I was pleasantly surprised by how the story ended. It turns out that there are two possible endings programmed into the game—one “good” and one “bad.” It turns out that if you harvest more than one Little Sister for ADAM, you get the bad ending. I think I harvested every Little Sister in the game. Guess which ending I got.

The video game franchise this most reminds me of is Fallout, with its retro art design, although the RPG elements of BioShock were toned down prior to its release. It also has some elements of survival horror games. The Splicers are basically superpowered zombies.

In summary, BioShock is an atypical first-person shooter with a fairly immersive world dripping (literally, in the case of water leaks) with a stylistic, creepy aesthetic. One of the items the player collects during the game are tape recorders that contain messages that give detailed backstory. While I collected a lot of these, I didn’t listen to them all. If you do, you’ll probably understand what’s really going on better than I did. But, I think I got the gist of it.

Firewater’s Ain’t-Life-in-Rapture-Grand? Report Card: A-

It’s about more than gameplay. It’s about the entire experience. I will still be thinking about Andrew Ryan’s underwater utopia long after I’ve forgotten the settings for other FPS games.

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