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Console Yourself: Bioshock

“My muse is a fickle bitch, with a chronically short attention span!” -Sander Cohen

Format: Xbox 360, PC, PS3 • Developer: 2K Boston • Released: August 2007

Bioshock’s public profile followed an interesting curve. When first introduced to the trade press, it had “sleeper hit” written all over it- it was impossible to conceive of a title with such an off-the-wall setting making it into the big time. However, word of mouth began to raise the game’s profile, and aided by the impressive use of the Unreal engine, the hype started to build during the final year of development. The title’s profile on release was second only to the likes of Halo 3, but since then, there’s been something of a backlash. Some have criticised the game’s linearity or small number of enemy types, while other dismissed the RPG elements as being underweight compared to Deus Ex. Such objections are ill-founded, however, with the title remaining one of the highlights of the present generation of hardware.

I don’t normally tend to include spoiler warnings in these articles, but given that I’m going to be dissecting the one of the two central narrative conceits of the title, a word of caution is due to PS3 owners who have yet to tackle the game- do so with confidence, and come back later. I’d hate to subtract from your enjoyment.

The player is an unwilling refugee, deposited at the door of the underwater city of Rapture by a plane crash, and with no other avenue of survival other than the portal in from of him. Descending, is becomes clear that the city has been constructed in line with the views of its ruggedly individualist founder, Andrew Ryan. The developers have gone on record as saying that they wished for Ryan to be an ideologically sympathetic character, but they may have misjudged their audience- you’d have to be of quite a right-wing bent to find the thesis in question appealing. The city is in ruins, with a craze for genetic self-modification having run out of control amidst a near civil war between Ryan and a crooked capitalist, Frank Fontain. As Jack staggers through the city, guided by the last survivor of the Anti-Ryan resistance, it becomes clear that the last act of this drama is about to be played out. The reason for Ryan’s downfall is left commendably ambiguous. Were his laissez faire policies always incapable of running a society, or did he betray himself by attempting to outlaw Fontain’s activities?

In the game’s pre-publicity material, much was made of the central moral dilemma of the title: do you kill the childlike Little Sisters that populate Rapture and maximise your chances of survival, or refrain from murder and trust in your merge abilities to escape? This dilemma is an artificial one, although not for the reason that might initially be supposed. It’s obviously going to be possible to complete the game without the biomod-fueling Adam supplied by the Sisters- this is an artificial environment, and its designers would not have set an impossible challenge. A quick glance at the Xbox’s achievements list for the title reveals “Little Sister Saviour”, allaying any suspicion. However, the dilemma survives this pitfall, with the possibility of witnessing exciting and hard-to-obtain powers acting as an analogous reward if you are willing to dirty your hands. Once this part of the game becomes available, however, it becomes clear that the actual in-game choice is considerably removed from its initial description. The player is implored by two characters, a sinister doctor and the Irish worker who has been guiding you through the nightmare. The latter claims that the child is lost now, and can only be put out of her misery, while the former claims that the parasite controlling her can be removed without killing.


It’s not a moral dilemma at all, but a practical one: who do you believe? The logical answer is to side with Tennenbaum, as there’s little to lose by testing her claim, which is proven correct. To underline the point, the “bonus” rewards the player is periodically given for saving the Sisters mean that more Adam is received from this course of action, despite Atlas’s claims that you would profit more from child murder. These are not bio weapons resembling children, but actual people, who can be freed from their parasitic slavery. In fact, this lie serves as the first sign that Atlas is not what he appears to be. The team went on record as saying that they originally intended there to be only one ending of the game, and the shepherding the player down the path of righteousness in this way makes clear which it would have been.

Despite creator Ken Levine’s claims that story and plot were secondary to the gameplay, many of the features which have been criticised to date are actually features of the plot. The “limited enemy types” reflects that Rapture has not been taken over by an enemy force, but destroyed from within. There is no military presence ranged against you, but a rag-tag group of insane mutants, thirsting for Adam. The introduction of high-power enemies would have spoilt the credibility of what is clearly intended as a balanced ecosystem. The photography element is a sign of this, with the player encouraged to think like a naturalist, researching the bizarre creatures encountered. Those who attack the lack of RPG elements may not have been paying enough attention to his part of the title, which rewards persistence with a variety of solutions to combat problems. The most controversial element of the title, the use of “Vita Chambers” as a means of allowing the player to continue, also makes sense in these terms. It has been criticised for making the game too easy, as opponents can be simply worn down, but there is little change in gameplay dynamic from the familiar quicksave system, and plays a key part in the plot. Ryan’s choice to deactivate the chamber in his quarters is strangely moving, underlining his acceptance of being out-though by his enemy.

The title isn’t quite perfect, however, failing to generate the horror atmosphere it believes itself to possess, while the emergent gameplay is limited to the boundaries of particular levels, which are tacked in a fixed sequence. That said, there aren’t many games that are even trying to be this good.

5 Stars

About this entry


Great review of an excellent game. But…

> failing to generate the horror atmosphere it believes itself to possess

…I wholly disagree with this one line. The whole thing shit me up good and proper - most of which was the great sound and design, but the other part is the way you’re left hard-up for ammo and info in the earlier stages and desperate to be careful. I’m guessing this may be less the case for experienced players, though, who quickly found all the sources and sussed the best ways to balance their cash and Adam. Certainly the second time I attacked the game I found it easier to make the right decisions…though, actually, it still freaked me out plenty.

Main flaw - when it first happens, it’s too soon to make the Little Sister judgement because at that stage you’re still figuring out plasmids, body upgrades, weapon upgrades AND Adam and Eve. It’s impossible to get a handle on the decision, the worth of one thing over another, until you know what’s available, what’s scarce, and what items get you what goodies.

But it’s still a spectacular piece of work.

Best little moment - a room full of statues. You walk in, you walk past, and when you turn around…there are more statues than there were before. Chilling.

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
October 01, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

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I found some parts of the game quite unnerving. I was nice to all the little sisters on my first play through but on my second, when I first harvested one for plasmids, I was quite shocked.

I think anyone coming to this game who isn’t used to a horror/survival game background (*points at Julian*) will find some parts of the game quite horrifying until they get to the general way the game works.

I think my personal shit-the-pants moment was in one of the surgeon’s rooms before you kill the mad plastic surgeon. On my first play through I didn’t notice anything. On my second I walked into the white clinical room, and as I walked in the room filled with smoke. Naturally I spun around to check for enemies jumping out of the smoke and found nothing. Presuming it just to be an effect I carried on my searching. Walking up to a desk in the corner I picked up a diary, I think, and then came again the smoke. Passing it off as an effect I turned around casually to find myself face to face with a surgeon splicer. Completely unexpected and yes it did scare the crap out of me.

It is a wonderful game though. I can;t wait for the RPG prequel if it ever comes along. So much seems in the air right now with games it’s hard to tell what is going to make it to release.

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By Karrakunga
October 01, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

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>The whole thing shit me up good and proper - most of which was the great sound and design, but the other part is the way you’re left hard-up for ammo and info in the earlier stages and desperate to be careful.

I’ve been out of gaming for so long, but it seems that there have been a lot of games mining the horror vein. I don’t think this is a bad idea (in fact, technology has long since reached the point that this is one of the things video games can do best) but I do kind of wonder where it “started.”

Obviously there were horror games available for the Atari systems, or the NES, but were any of them scary beyond UP POPS THE ENEMY AND THE MUSIC KICKS IN? I’m talking about a real and well-handled environment of horror.

The earliest game I can remember fucking me up was Alone in the Dark. I played it in a computer store the first time, and one of the salesman was there, talking me through the first section…he told me to move the chest over the trapdoor so a monster couldn’t come through…and in just a few minutes of play I realized how great a game it must be to play late at night, while everyone else is asleep…

Thinking back on it now the game is kind of hokey and I’m not sure how much it would scare me…but at the time it felt revolutionary.

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By Phil Reed
October 01, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

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Darkseed - a point and click adventure that used HR Giger artwork - REALLY creeped me out. Not even 3D, but the sense of isolation, and the ghastly dream animations, left a kid in his bedroom plenty unsettled.

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
October 01, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

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First game I was ever scared by was Acornsoft Maze:…

Second game down. DON’T LAUGH. In all seriousness, the game has a very unsettling atmosphere - the footsteps of the robots that killed you were really well done for the time - faint if they were far away, loud if they were near. And when they came round a corner at you they FILLED THE SCREEN. Really bloody terrifying.

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By John Hoare
October 02, 2008 @ 12:31 am

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First game I was ever scared by was Acornsoft Maze

Me too. That game was bloody scary!

You can play it online here:

Click eject disk, load disk, select Maze.ssd, OK, then type CHAIN “LOAD”

I think the sound effects on the Electron version were scarier, though.

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By monkeyson
October 02, 2008 @ 1:44 am

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ADMIN EDIT: Beware the MASSIVE SPOILERS from this comment onwards!

My problem with Bioshock was the ending. After the ‘Would you kindly’ reveal of your terrible existence happens, I was just pretty staggered. I loved that twist because it takes that strange Gordon Freeman-limitation of the silent player character with no history and then uses it to tremendous advantage. It really is a remarkable game.

The problem was after that I felt the story lost its way. I was being roped in to killing Irish Bloke who’s now become a giant thingy. Conventional for such an astounding game but more importantly, not where I saw the game heading. I’d spent the previous couple of hours killing psychos and killing Irish Bloke didn’t interest me. The most important thing to me was escaping and trying to resume a new life. Don’t get me wrong, Irish Bloke had to pay in some way but this was the first time the lack of RPG elements were truly exposed to me - I was being dragged along against my will, even as I pressed forward on the game pad. To me that was the whole point of the game - escaping with Irish Bloke and his family and now it was escaping without him.

Even when I did finally escape, the ending with the Little Sisters was tediously obscure. Screw the little sisters, I want to live in Pleasantville. I’ve pretty much no idea what was going on there. Oh a nuclear submarine - who cares! Plus, after I realised Irish Bloke was a killer I thought to myself: ‘Those evil children aren’t so bad. I’ll stop killing them’. By then it was too late, even though I saved everyone I could after that. And the Russian doctor was helping me several minutes previously, so give me a break when you prepare the ‘You were an evil bastard’ narration in the ending. I could have changed! Don’t tell me I would kill them all now. I didn’t even want to kill Irish Bloke! I want to leave - screw everybody else! Take your Little Sisters and your ADAM and show me the exit. If you like, I’ll be haunted for the rest of my life by all the little girls I killed. I’ll even kill myself if you want but if I do I’ll do it in the United States of America, thank you very much.

So as the game goes on, its flaws start to become more apparent. Still 5/5 though, it’s too extraordinary for any other score.

By Rad
October 02, 2008 @ 11:22 am

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The thing I love about ‘Would you kindly?’ is the way it plays into the linear gameplay. Felt forced to do something by the game mechanic? Hmm, maybe you were hypnotised. Clever.

I’ve no problem with the shift in villain - or in the idea that the only way out was through him - but, no question, I needed a moment of pause for my character to adjust and change his priorities. Indeed, it’s arguable that a ‘kill Fontaine or save him’ choice, creating a couple of alternate final levels, might have helped.

I may be the only person who loves the final cut-scene (the one for SAVING the girls, that is). But it’s arguable that the final third of the game needed to make more of your newly-found sense of isolation. Dramatically, becoming MORE alone by discovering who you are is really interesting, but there was never a moment of pause to deal with it. That cut-scene was the only time it was really nailed.

Still, the makers have acknowledged that they fumbled things after Ryan’s death - which bodes well for their sequel.

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
October 02, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

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Would ya koindly kill that sploicer!

Karrakunga's picture

By Karrakunga
October 02, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

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I’ve just added a spoiler warning to Rad’s comment. Hope you don’t mind, Rad, but it’s just safer for people!

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By John Hoare
October 02, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

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No, I don’t mind, that’s fair enough. :)

By Rad
October 02, 2008 @ 3:58 pm

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Scary games, eh?

You could almost write an online column on the subject…

By Julian Hazeldine
October 02, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

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*digs up article to see if using a proxy will allow him to post*

My main complaint about BioShock is that it’s so smug that it quotes its own dialogue on the loading screens. Who on earth thought that was a good idea? Especially since it often quotes something from a part of the game you haven’t reached yet!

By Jeffrey Leeee
November 12, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

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Yeah, tonal consistency is a dreadful thing to include in a game…

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By Andrew
November 13, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

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