I don’t remember the movie I was watching when I saw it, but the trailer for BioShock was the first time I had ever seen a video-game trailer before a film. And my God, what a trailer it was. Until I saw it, I was perfectly happy pretending gaming stopped sometime shortly after the PlayStation 2 came out, replaying old Final Fantasies and pretending to be an adult. BioShock made me say, “I need to get back on the current generation right now.”
It was a bit before I worked up enough dough to get a PS3, but BioShock was the very first game I bought. I have been hooked on it, and on gaming in general, ever since. This year, ten years after the first game, my wife gifted me with the PS4-remastered BioShock Collection. I’m currently just finishing up my playthrough of the first game, and I have to tell you…
It’s not very good, and that’s perfectly okay.
BioShock is the spiritual successor of System Shock, a series birthed in the first-person-shooter boom of the '90s that gave us Doom and Quake. Though they're lacking the artistic embellishments that made BioShock the game it ultimately was, I think it’s undeniable that from a systems standpoint, System Shock and its sequel were better titles.
BioShock is more cultural event than game sometimes. Its combat mechanics are as pedestrian as Doom, but without that game's simplicity and grace. Even fighting Big Daddies in BioShock feels more like a chore than a challenge most of the time, and incongruence in level design tends to turn these supposed-to-be epic battles into mere hindrances.
That’s nothing to say of the plasmid system, which was overly complicated and prone to investment in dead ends. On my recent playthrough, I decided to see just how far the idea of hitting enemies with electro bolt and then the wrench would take me (I hate resource management). The answer? Not that far. The game desperately wants you to monkey with Jack’s genetic code, but gives precious little guidance or opportunity to account for error. This only got worse as the series progressed. Simply put, BioShock is kind of crappy at the shooter part of first-person shooter. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that some of the folks who worked on the Minerva’s Den expansion in the sequel went on to make Gone Home, which is basically the good part of BioShock’s mechanics divorced from murder-death-kill.
Because that’s what made BioShock special. Few games have ever been so amazing at world-building. Sure, the objectivism philosophical bent is much grander in theory than in practice. BioShock has never really been as deep as it lets on, and saying “total libertarianism will result in poverty and rioting” is not actually the daring statement people think it is, any more than “racism is bad” was some radical political ideal in BioShock Infinite.
All of that is beside the point, though. Lackluster battles, surface-deep ideologies and plot twists that were kind of silly are all valid criticisms of the game, but it has held up for a reason. That reason is that it is a rare 21st-century Triple A gaming expression of a vision. It’s not something that was made with marketing in mind, adherence to FPSs as the moneymakers aside. It is a true work of craft in the medium of gaming.
That is becoming more common as gaming diversifies, and thank God. As I said earlier, without BioShock there is no Gone Home. Without the idea of the game developer as the auteur, a lot of titles simply would not have been greenlit. BioShock, for all its shooter orthodoxy, is an exercise in trying to say something new and different and succeeding. It’s an act of evolution, and it’s why I’m still playing the damn thing in 2017.