Imagine a city beneath the seas. Imagine it to be populated by those who can do whatever they want to do, without concern of laws, regulation, or interference. A utopian society. Imagine a revolution in genetic engineering. Behold the ability to weave lightning across your fingertips, command machines with a gesture, and control the very air you breathe in whatever way you choose. Now imagine that you are going to this city. This city is Rapture. And this is the premise of Bioshock.
No Gods or Kings
Rapture is a society established deep within the ocean with the aim of being completely free from government control in all of its forms. Ignoring the feasibility of this engineering feat, we can see that a state independent from the wars and conflicts of Earth sounds like a pleasant concept, geographically isolated and having no desire to even talk with those above the waves. This is the city that you wander through during the game, and it is eye-poppingly beautiful.
Theoretically, Rapture is what an objectivist society would look like as derived from the philosophies of Ayn Rand. Having little experience with these philosophies, I don't know if this is true or not. But, from my understanding, Bioshock shows us an ultra-capitalist society with absolutely free markets, government's only purpose being to prevent and stop murders and theft. A libertarian's dream. Set in the 1950s, Rapture has an eclectic mix of that era's art/cultural styles as well as a touch of its own decor. It seems odd to mention these thing but, needless, to say, Rapture is a complete city that is both intricate and visually appealing, and this encourages exploration into every nook and cranny.
However, at the time of the game, Rapture has fallen. In essence, this is the game's creators' impression of what would happen if an objectivist/ultra-capitalist utopia actually existed and, specifically, how it would fail. I won't detail that process here for the sake of spoilers, but I will point out that this assessment makes the game quite the political piece. Step-by-step we see how the system crumbled and why the society was unable to function for long on a foundational level. This learning experience is another factor of intrigue that keeps you playing; as you explore every part of Rapture, you learn what caused it to fail, and you see what happened to those few who survived.
Assessed simply, Rapture has divided into sections controlled by warlords of a sort, similar to the way countries fall apart in real life. And each sphere of influence is home to the strangest, most disturbing, yet oddly compelling men and women I've ever seen. Most, if not all, have gone through severe mental trauma, and this is both understandable and saddening as you realize how awful it must have been to have seen an entire society collapse around you. This also helps make the exploration of Rapture ever more interesting; each separate zone is starkly different, ranging from biologically created gardens beneath the sea to the district of theater and the arts.
Traipsing Through an Underwater Nightmare
From a gameplay standpoint, the environment of Rapture also is very important with regard to how you defend yourself. Not many games allow you to manipulate positioning and traps so well and, if you are so inclined, you have dozens of different ways to set up defenses wherever you go with which to protect yourself from the maddened denizens of the failed dystopia. For example, turrets and cameras are spread throughout the game. Their story purpose is that they were placed by the government in order to try and stop the riots that occurred during Rapture's fall. From a gameplay standpoint, you can approach them from different angles in order to hack into them and make it so they shoot only at the enemy or, with the camera, only summon security droids if they see the enemy. Your weapons offer more options: you can set proximity mines, electrified tripwires, isolate and freeze enemies with liquid nitrogen. The tactical possibilities are staggering and are extremely rewarding to play with, particularly if you know when and where you will be attacked.
The genetic engineering mentioned earlier also is a huge part of the game, as these 'plasmids' (the in-game term for genetic powers) allow even further manipulation of the environment. Commanding the power of wind can allow you to set cyclone traps. If an enemy steps on one, they are promptly shot into the air without warning. You can also use telekinesis to grab pieces of rubble, trash cans, anything; and you can use these to set up barricades, protect yourself from incoming fire, or throw things at enemies with your mind. You can also set enemies against each other, for a time, and hypnotize 'Big Daddies' to guard you from attack.
The Big Daddies deserve extra notice. I won't say why they are in Rapture specifically, as this would be a spoiler, but I'll give a little background. Big Daddies are, presumably, men in gigantic armored deep-sea diver's suits who defend Little Sisters. Little Sisters are young girls mentally conditioned and manipulated to harvest genetic energy from the dead in order to keep the genetic economy of Rapture going. Throughout the game, you encounter these duos often and, if you engage and defeat the Big Daddies, then you can choose to harvest or rescue the Little Sisters. If you harvest them, you kill them, absorbing all their accumulated genetic power. If you free them, then they are freed from their disturbing mental conditioning, and become regular little children once again. Interacting with these Big Daddies and Little Sisters is an integral part of the game, and is often epic, as facing a Big Daddy in combat is absolutely terrifying. Armed with massive power drills and rivet guns, they will mess you up unless you prepare carefully, and even then they can be more than you bargained for.
Bioshock is an incredibly deep game with a complex narrative, backstory, and environment. It is very rare for a game to assess the ramifications of hypothetical political societies, and exploring such a fictional nation was very interesting, from my perspective. From a gameplay perspective, the amount of options at your fingertips with regard to manipulation of the environment, your multi-faceted weaponry, and endless genetic power possibilities, made it so that the game never got old.
On the flip side, this game is very disturbing if you don't know what you are getting into. I did, but I would point out that this game features a number of horrifying images, characters, and activities, so you must steel yourself for it. However, I was not really disturbed to the point of walking away from the game at any point, so I do not think this is a huge issue, just something to be aware of. Other than that, I can't really think of anything else being a problem. The game is a masterpiece and I look forward to playing the sequel.
For my review of the sequel, click here.