My first playthrough of Bioshock left something ot be desired. I wanted to play it so much that I went through the game on the Xbox 360, watching the whole thing on a tiny 14 inch TV with mono sound. The game forced widescreen resulting in a minute image. Even so I gained a sense of the game. That screen became a narrow letterbox beyond which lay an odd and broken world, a smokey damp creaking old wreck of a place in which odd and broken things would attack me. Even in dead mono the cracked tones of Billy Holliday, intermingled with the mad jabbering of Rapture’s inhabitants sent shivers down my spine.
I finished Bioshock astonished by one of the best game stories I’ve experienced in years, and for days after my head was full of the characters I had encountered, many of which I had never even seen, having grown to know only their distorted voices from the many audio logs scattered throughout the world. The thing is, despite it all, I felt slightly disappointed. I had reached the end too quickly. I had only fleeting impressions of the locations I had visited. Driven by the ever-present golden arrow at the top of my screen, I had never properly wandered off the prescribed path. The experience was flat, as though I had tasted the methodone and come to know there was something more powerful afoot. Rapture deserved better.
So I slotted Bioshock into my PC and put all of the detail sliders up to maximum, plugged in some good headphones, made some tea and braced myself for a return to Rapture.
Bioshock’s sumptuous aesthetic simply begs to be savoured. The strength of Bioshock’s core concept, carried to every level of the audio and visual design is the key to Rapture’s success as a cohesive world. Every chair and glass seems to have been designed with the core brief in mind. Though long gone, a lingering taste remains of the hedonism of Rapture’s previous inhabitants. Wine bottles and glasses sit on half broken tables, draped in forgotten party streamers. Audio logs grant you the ambient party noise of the long dead revellers. There is a sense of the arrogance and bravado of a society of socialites rebranding themselves as pioneers, riddled with ever-growing delusions of power and godhood. The proud red banners strung up all over Rapture proclaim the heady and radical social sentiments of a new golden age, but as you wander Rapture after the catastrophe the gold embroidered messages ring with dramatic irony.
The absence of human contact gives rise to speculation about the inhabitants of Rapture. Much of their culture and politics is implied. The player can choose to what extent they consider the plight of Rapture’s citizens, but the more you think about it, the more horrific the world becomes, and the more you explore, the more horrors you discover. While fleeing some enemies I ducked into an area I had never found before, it led to a low crawlspace beneath the floor. Following the narrow tunnels at a crawl, I found myself below the enemies I had been fleeing. As I observed them unnoticed through the floor grating, they talked in hushed tones about gutting fish before one lost his temper and began shouting at his dead father. I crept away. Around the corner I found the end of the corridor. Neck deep in the grimy slop of the fisheries, a dessicated corpse was tied to a pipe by the neck. After a moment I realised that someone must have tied him there to die in the rising waters.
The splicers – the plastic, stich-faced living remains of Rapture’s inhabitants pass well enough as a constant threat. Some have been disappointed with the lack of variety in Bioshock’s enemies, but this isn’t Painkiller. The makeup of enemies is in line with the game’s premise, and the splicers strike just the right balance of being not quite human, but not quite animal. They’re just people gone very, very wrong. Despite their individual differences -you won’t notice repeated models often-they maintain a kind of pale uniformity, they all suffer from the same madness, with the sought after genetic material Adam at its heart.
They contrast perfectly with the majestic presence of the Big Daddies. Much popularised prior to the game’s release, the Big Daddies are the poster boys of Rapture, and with good reason. Their hulking and monstrous forms are everywhere, but every time you turner a corner to find one you’ll stop in wonder. These strange behemoths’ paternal nature makes them easier to emphasize with than any other character or enemy in Rapture, the interplay you’ll witness between them and their tiny satanic charges, the Little Sisters, are beautifully realised. But there comes a time when you’ll need the Adam the Little Sister carries, and that’s when you’ll be forced to confront the beasts head-on. Big Daddies are terrifying, titanic forces when enraged. Battles with them are both feverishly exciting and traumatic. These epic contests often take unpredictable routes through Rapture’s environments, making for fluid and memorable encounters. It’s a model for what a boss fight should be.
Even aside from these battles combat is satisfying. The plasmids give plenty of opportunity for experimentation, and there are hilarious and devastating combinations to be discovered. The weapons feel powerful and their ornate design changes in interesting ways with every modular improvement you add. Alternative ammunition adds to the variety. The specialisation choices you make (which are refreshingly reversible at any point, it’s just a matter of switching your Tonics in and out) enable you to play the game in many different ways. Hack every machine in Rapture to obey your will or charge everythign with your wrench. Both approaches are equally valid, though you might be surprised to know that using turrets is actually more challenging than going Rambo with your melee weapon.
But as with every game, small points mar the experience. In many ways as a game, Bioshock, like Rapture, is at war with itself. Familiar gaming tropes often clash with a fresh and imaginative environment. In a world where you can fire bees from your arm you still pick up medkits for healling. The hacking minigame is necessary as a mechanic, but seems painfully separate from the rest of the game. A large HUD and aiming reticule, painfully unsubtle loot glint and the golden objective arrow are all hangovers from the game’s console development. My reccomendation would be to turn all of these elements off in the options menu. Bioshock patch 1.1 can be found here, this adds new tonics and cleans up a few bugs, but also gives you the option to turn the vita-chambers off. If you want an even better view of Rapture then open the User.ini, and under file under default bindings set F11=ToggleHUD, and tap F11 to get rid of the extraneous stuff between firefights.
It’s a pleasure to immerse yourself in an experience of such assured quality, and even if you’ve never been interested in Bioshock, or think that FPS/RPG/adventures aren’t your thing, then take a chance and get involved anyway. Bioshock is one of those gaming experience that demonstrate that it is possible to have a deep experience with a game, and to be inspired by it. Bioshock a game of the highest quality which has inspired me with a beautifully realised world and a unique aesthetic. More games are likely to follow, and the film licence has already been snapped up. It seems certain that we will return to Rapture again in the future.