You emerge from the wreckage of a plane crash in the ocean, debris floating around you as flames dance upon the waves. In front of you, a lighthouse stands alone in the middle of the water. Nothing else in any direction. You swim forward and enter the building – what else is there to do? Once inside, you are met with the giant bust of a man sticking out of the wall, brandishing a giant red cloth, and on it, the words ‘No Gods or Kings, Only Man’. You note the irony – the man certainly looks like some kind of god as he hangs over the entrance hall, dominating the space. You press forward and enter the ‘bathysphere’ a submarine-like method of transport that seems like your only way out of here. As you dive into the sea, you are played a welcome message from a man named Andrew Ryan who lectures you with his philosophy behind his city (heavily based on the ideas of Ayn Rand) – a world free from the moral lecturing of the church, the taxes of the government and the demands of the populace. Then, out of the gloom, it emerges. A city at the bottom of the ocean. This, is Rapture.
The opening sequence of Bioshock, originally released for the Xbox 360 in 2007 is striking. As with many of the best works of art, there is an immense level of ambition at play here, as creator Ken Levine intertwines Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy with more classic video game elements in an attempt to study what it is that makes a society move forward, what exactly are the moral bonds that tie us to each other, and what place money should hold in our world. There are fascinating contradictions strewn throughout Bioshock’s world of Rapture – Ryan claims to have created a world free of gods, but, as mentioned above, it is clear that he attempts to take up that space as an idol for the people himself. He claims to have removed the reigns holding back progress in the outside world, allowing free enterprise and rapid technological advancement, but then tries to crush any competitors when they begin to threaten his iron grip on power. Above Ryan though, lies the true god of Rapture – money. In this unfettered capitalist world, people are freed from any moral obligation to each other – there is no welfare, there is no sense of duty to anybody beyond one’s own family unit (if that) – but are instead obliged to serve in order to earn money to scrape by a living. Rapture is a world of massive inequality, where workers live in slums while their wealthy overlords party and look down on them from up high. In a world of no gods or kings, not much has changed for the everyman.
This dichotomy of servitude and freedom is one of the most obvious themes in the game – the most quotable line from Bioshock is undoubtedly ‘a man chooses, a slave obeys’. Ryan would have it that the ability to choose is what puts humans above nature. In his eyes, we are able to write our own destiny, to forge our own path. Those that are unable to do that, are something other than man – they are slaves. This is where Bioshock makes fantastic use of its medium. While television, film, art and literature may have explored what it means to be human for years, these are predominantly passive mediums. Gaming, on the other hand, requires the audience to be active. You are a participant in this story. You make the decisions. At least you think you do. We as players choose what to do at any moment – I want to open that chest, I want to look around that corner – but in the end, we are at the whims of the developers. For the most part, we can only do what they intended for us to do with the tools they provided. Bioshock takes this one step further with its twist. Throughout the game, you are guided by the voice of Atlas (there’s that Randian reference coming back around), who will inform you of your next goals; who you need to kill, what you need to collect, where you need to go. He’s so polite about it too, always asking, never ordering – ‘Would you kindly do ____’, ‘would you kindly go to _____’. It’s only as the story heads towards its conclusion that the player character is revealed to have been brainwashed so that he has no choice but to obey upon hearing the words ‘would you kindly’. It’s an automatic response that he cannot override. Were it a book or a movie, this would be an interesting twist, but via a video game, it takes on a whole new aspect. Yes, the brainwashing happened in-universe, to a fictional character, but the non-fictional, very real you also followed all of these instructions. You, just as much as the character, were bound by those words. So now, you are confronted with this reality that you had very little control over how this game would play out. You had no choice. What does that make you, the player? A man? Or a slave to the game?
Some might say I’m giving Levine a bit too much credit, but I feel that in bringing this kind of philosophic musing more openly into mainstream gaming, the Bioshock team changed the landscape for games that followed. It proved that it was possible for gaming as a medium to aim higher, to analyse difficult topics in a way that only playing a game can allow, while still providing an enjoyable experience. Beyond the story, Bioshock is a mechanically great game. The gunplay is a little shallow, but mixing in a few supernatural powers (although they do have in-game explanations) helps keeps things interesting and gives you a few ways to tackle enemies. Resources are limited but not incredibly scarce, meaning you’ll normally have the ability to fight back against the horrors of Rapture without having to just run away. The graphics were pretty good for the time as well, which helps the game still stand up today, especially if you’re playing the remastered collection on PS4, Xbox One or Switch. While Bioshock might not have been the first game to deal with heavier topics, the level of polish the game has as a game definitely helped it find a broader audience and share its messages with a wider public. It’s one of those games that stays with you long after you see the final credits roll, one that seeps into your mind and pops up every now and again, giving you that itch to play it just one more time.