I must’ve been around 13 when I first played Bioshock. It wasn’t something I’d typically play; at that age I was fully engrossed in action RPG’s, spending most of my single player time on Oblivion. I was also exclusively playing the annual Call of Duty releases on the multiplayer front, so Bioshock was outside my typical realm of interest when it came to shooters.
I instantly fell in love with the world. After several attempts I even got out of the starting area, halted initially by both the difficulty of a young inexperienced mind with a joystick to aim and a pretty big fear of anything. The opening to Bioshock freaked me out every time I played it (and quit a few times out of fear). I was also not a fan of the janky combat, the loose feeling of lining up a plasmid to strike an enemy or the weak swing of my wrench, but the characters and environments which were completely alien to me kept me engaged throughout. Maybe it was just because of the lack of video games I had played, but it wasn’t a game I had ever seen before.
A few years passed, I picked up an interest in literature at school. Nothing major, but I spent a lot of my time analysing poetry and novels to the point of tedium, as is the typical routine for English students. As a result, my next Bioshock playthrough contained a newfound appreciation for what it did on a storytelling level. The instilled tendency to pick things apart, searching for themes and motifs, uncovered one of the most thrilling narratives I’d ever seen in a video game. From the overarching power struggle plot to the minor character trials, it was clear everything was purposeful. Everything was in service of the world Irrational had built and the messages they wanted to send through that were clear as day.
2017 is here and first person shooters have quickly become my favourite genre after branching out from the military games I was conditioned to when I was younger. I jumped into Bioshock already knowing I would love the atmosphere, the subtle hair raising creeps a Splicer scream elicited, the grand design of a worn down underwater city. I had already analysed what the developers were trying to say behind the game’s surface, the themes of power, choice and discovery.
What I didn’t realise was that the combat I so much disliked was, just like the rest of the game, purposeful and resulted in more than what first meets the eye. 6 years on from my first playthrough, hundreds of shooters later, from Doom to Half Life, Half Life to Titanfall, I feel like the wonky combat was never designed to be looked through the lens of “how impactful is this gun?” or “how quickly can I wipe out this room of Splicers?”, rather the combat was more of a vehicle to do bigger and better things. On a grand scale, BioShock’s combat was just one way the game proved to be at its core about exploration.
The most obvious method of exploration is in how the game plays and how it plays a pivotal role in your progression and survival. In a lot of good shooters, taking time out from the action to scour the level for ammo, health, armour and other items is extremely useful, satisfying and in several cases almost necessary. Bioshock is no exception and is one of the biggest examples I can give that follows this design path so closely.
The gameplay is heavily focussed around a few core weapons with a very limited ammo capacity. As a result, trying to play the game as a typical modern shooter, moving from room to room was nigh on impossible in my playthrough. I found that I was spending hours on a single level because the game put such an emphasis on scavenging, not to its detriment since the environments are incredibly captivating from a visual and world building standpoint. The level design supports this type of playstyle very well for several reasons:
1 – Visibility of loot – In the footsteps of a keen-eyed Doom level without succumbing to the maze-like “shove your face against a wall until a tile opens” design of a Wolfenstein, Bioshock succeeds in creating secrets that aren’t immediately obvious to the player. In a game like Blood, a lot of the secrets are centred around the game’s theme and setting. A sarcophagus filled with TNT or ammo behind the eerie painting on the wall, a lot of Blood’s secrets revolve around interacting with the unique environments games still haven’t really ventured into that much today. In the same vein, BioShock’s world is highly distinctive and quirky, so rather than hiding secrets in obvious places, they are tied in with the theme. Melt a block of ice with your plasmid to find a corpse and ammo, or squeeze into a crawlspace where victims of Andrew Ryan’s cruel dictatorship lie. Everything is built into the world itself, allowing sharp players to find them, but going unnoticed if you play too quickly.
2 – Distinct room layout – Bioshock’s levels typically consist of a map made up of several different areas or rooms. As much as I adore Quake 2, my main issue with the game was that at points I lost where I was after exploring the levels to their fullest, opening new paths to get lost in. Bioshock is far improved in this aspect, possibly because of the technological advances between the games, but regardless the point stands. Each room has its own easily identifiable structure and theme. Bars, gardens, libraries and vaults, the level design is varied enough to know where you are at all times. This makes traversing new areas easier because once you’re done, you can move to the next section quickly without the frustration of a lack of direction.
3 – Levels have a “centre” – By this I refer to how the objectives are placed in relation to the map layout and the resulting paths the player takes. Most levels in Bioshock revolve around completing various tasks to get to the next level. One of the first levels “Medical Pavilion” is a perfect demonstration of how a centre point is used. The main objective of this level is to gain access to Neptune’s Bounty, or simply getting from the entrance to the exit. The way the level is design forces you back to its centre point, the pavilion. The pavilion acts as a hub and from that hub you go to the crematorium, surgery and dental area. By forcing the player back to a central point consistently, it in turn forces the player to consider their inventory and whether they’re strong enough for the next area. The likelihood of there being no need to explore is low, and since you’re already at the centre point, doing so is both simple and easy. Most levels replicate this philosophy and is key in making exploration an important task.
Outside of the level design, another design choice that struck me as significant throughout was ammo conservation. I have already mentioned how your capacity is quite low, and if tasked with taking on several enemies at once you can chew through your supply quite quickly.
The path of least resistance, a concept that describes the path an object or entity takes when multiple options are given. In game design, the path of least resistance can highlight several areas, like what literal path a player will walk through or what weapons they will choose. Paramount in multiplayer games where balance is integral, this is also very important in single player games since it affects variety, replayability and choice. One of the issues many shooters fall into is by creating a very steep and obvious path of least resistance. Using x weapon will ensure victory most of the time, while using y weapon makes the game artificially harder.
Bioshock escapes forming a path of least resistance in many ways, one of which being ammo conservation (it’s worth noting that since writing this, I have heard from several people they found the shock-wrench combo to be overly powerful, so I could be a bit wrong in my perception of BioShock’s true balance). Early into the game is becomes apparent the machine gun might be your weapon of choice because ammo tends to reduce at a slower rate, but it quickly changes through how the game forces you to conserve ammo by means of environmental hazards, enemy types and side objectives, all of which then require you to explore and scavenge.
BioShock’s combat can be surmised as wonky and loose, but is sufficient when you consider how it works as a whole which I just discussed, but also how the game urges you to play through tone and level design again. Levels are cramped, dark spaces, very rarely is there enough room to manoeuvre around opponents. As a result I found myself creeping around corners slowly, getting attacked and “panic fighting”. The heavy sway your hand has and the big slow blasts of a pistol or shotgun perfectly fit how the game wants you to play. It’s never meant to consist of drawn out, tactical movements, but rather spurs of intense, brief action formed by the sudden drawn out screech of a Splicer.
World and the environment
Bioshock’s critical acclaim never stemmed from the gameplay however, rather emphasis was placed on Irrational Games’ quirky and demented world supported by engaging and unique writing. One of Bioshocks greatest decisions was in what they don’t tell the player outright directly from present tense dialogue via Ryan or Atlas. Instead, through process of exploration the player can piece together the full story by finding audio logs. I adore audio logs and how they were implemented near perfectly in this game, and the logic behind my admiration for them directly conflicts with why people didn’t like them.
A common criticism I’ve seen of the audio logs is that it is almost required listening to piece together the full story. While I agree this is true and also agree in most games it is a problem, given how much emphasis is put on the topic at hand, the audio logs were a fantastic incentive to have the player explore.
For a medium that uses both visuals and auditory channels, why so many games decide to rely on text or memorabilia to convey information baffles my mind, or at least chiefly for AAA developers with the budgets to choose either route. Through exploring, you’re almost always going to find audio logs. Not only are the audio logs chock full of interesting information, but by placing them where they are, Irrational Games minimised how much downtime there is in when trying to dig deeper into the lore. Notes and newspaper articles are a horribly inefficient means to relay information to the player because they restrict what you do gameplay wise whilst also ignoring a completely different method of achieving the same end goal. Choosing to hand them to the player in areas where combat isn’t prevalent and you will be mostly peacefully looting anyway means that you can focus on what is being said to you whilst still remaining active gameplay wise.
World building isn’t confined to audio logs however, as many of the secrets and history of Rapture do make use of awe-inspiring visuals. Intended to fulfil the freedom and liberty of the capitalist ideology, Ryan’s Rapture is easily translatable to modern audiences by moulding it into a microcosm of the 1940’s American Dream era States. Most areas in a level are dedicated to a store, typically accompanied by a name to instil knowledge that Rapture was once a place for the people to construct through their own intuition. Fort Frolic, the most easily identifiable remains of a once free society, is filled to the brim with lore and history behind the city, a plethora of stores to investigate with each one a vessel for developing Sander Cohen.
The stores in combination with the sea setting play in interesting role in relation to Ryan’s goals with Rapture. Once described as a place free from religion, it is ironic how a good deal of the stores are named after Greek and biblical gods, like Eve’s Garden, Pharaoh’s Fortune and Athena’s Glory. The sea setting also plays into the religious theme by striking up close comparison to the lost city of Atlantis. Outside of Ryan’s personal, objectivist reasons to remove religion from Rapture, the idea that mythology plays such a big role in the city could also play into the fact you as a player are exploring a place of fantasy. You’ve discovered a lost city in the most unexplored region of the earth, surrounded by God’s people never knew really existed. Constantly barraging the player with these references works setting up a sense of adventure.
Exploring the remnants of a broken society is fun and engaging for a reason, with games like Fallout holding this type of design close to heart. Whilst Bioshock may not have the liberty of an open world, with what space it does have, it manages to assemble an incredibly alluring city in part due to the contrasting architecture of hopeful pie in the sky wealth and the bottomless, depressing result of greed and power, all in which makes for an incredible journey.
Story, characters and themes
In other sections of this write up, I alluded to the story and some of the messages I feel Irrational were making. Despite loving the character feuds for power, the blurred morals spurred by societal changes and the overarching theme of destruction and repair, to stay on topic I’m only going to analyse aspects that are in specific reference to exploration, starting with Raptures conception.
It is explained in game through creator Andrew Ryan that Rapture was founded up the belief that the people should be free from government regulations and religious mandate. Lead writer and director Ken Levine is on record saying BioShock’s central theme and Andrew Ryan’s motives were influenced heavily by Ayn Rand’s objectivist theory, which states that one’s self is put before others, acting in self interest serving as the one true moral purpose to life. Comparisons between the two figures are obvious, but less so is how Rand’s beliefs (and consequently Ryan’s too) are seeped deeply in the foundation that human beings need to explore.
Through a free capitalist state, Ryan intends to build a society that can nurture an individual’s self interest, as he describes the city as a place “where the artist would not fear the censor.” and “the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.” Both of these examples are shown prominently throughout the game, the biggest of which being Dr Steinman and Sander Cohen. While both operate under the same guise of free and independent tycoons, they differ in message at how exploration into unknown territories can be dangerous.
The player is made aware of Dr Steinman’s presence extremely early into the game, acting as the first proper boss fight. Through audio logs and the destruction and fear caused by Steinman, it’s apparent time has passed and change has occurred. From the shining lights of a dental surgery to the masked lunatics dashing through gaping holes in the walls, juxtaposition is used effectively by using one element that is common place today with something else which is completely alien and bizarre. As described in the world and environment section, techniques like this implore the player to explore, and by doing so they can reveal information on Dr Steinman’s rise and fall.
Once an esteemed surgeon, Steinman abuse of the powerful substance “ADAM” in addition to a crazed lust for intense change led to mental deterioration, his eventual insanity and the destruction of the Medical district. Steinman’s passion for exploration and discovery chiefly lies in the gradual changes we hear about his views on his profession. This is also the first time we are explained one of the downfalls of Raptures infinite free will, since Steinman’s desire for perfection leads to the harm of the inhabitants as well as himself. Irrational may have been commenting on the importance of morals and restrictions, 2 key points in the Ryan objectivism way of life. By reducing red tape, Ryan has enabled exploration into territories previously undiscovered. To the cites dismay by pushing the boundaries of the human anatomy, Steinman inflicted great harm on the citizens of Rapture. In this regard, Steinman’s story can be viewed as morality tale in the dangers of venturing into unknown areas, a direct attack against Ryan’s philosophy and the concept of absolute exploration as a whole.
In many ways Cohen’s story mirrors the lessons of Steinman closely, however I feel the deviations in occupation leads to some significant differences and also compare well. The common theme between the two is that their exploration into the extremities of their practices results in the harm or death of people around them. I find the contrast between their practices though quite significant, since it they are divided between hard science and the arts. Interestingly, I think through exploring the brutal nature they peak at the line blurs between whether Cohen is an performer or scientist given the intricate detail he applies to his work, and likewise Dr Steinman acts less of a surgeon and more as an artist, striding for a perfect image of his patients. We could infer that again Irrational were commenting on the dangers of a lack of restraint, where the two opposite almost become one.
On a separate note, while ADAM and EVE are blatant and obvious biblical references, I think again they illustrate a relationship between freedom and restraint. In Bioshock, ADAM is essentially a drug used to enhance the human ability. The power given to people via ADAM is so intense however that EVE is required for it to function. The drug metaphor is again obvious, but when the moral of the story of Adam and Eve is considered, the message behind their inclusion into Bioshock is made apparent. To use this new incredible power a person must consume EVE, or in other words break the boundaries; explore the unexplored. When Eve consumes the forbidden fruit, she is punished by God for not obeying the laws set, so by using that imagery in the game Irrational is able to easily convey that the people of Rapture have explored too much, broken the bonds of nature and eventually pay the price for it.
Focusing intently on one aspect like exploration in Bioshock was both an easy and difficult task. While the game is chock full with material to use supporting the exercise, Bioshock is a game that encourages thorough dissection. It’s dense, interconnected and purposeful.
Like the combat, I may still think it is inexact and imprecise, but in combination with everything else the game offers, it’s made acceptable. Exploration is a standout theme in the game, metaphorically and literally, yet zeroing in on it almost feels like a fool’s errand. It’s a game with a lot to say, and as the years go by I’m sure people will find even more to say about it.