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A Return to Rapture – Looking Back at BioShock

posted on April 2nd, 2009 by matt

Although I voted BioShock the best game of 2007, the more I play it, the more it shows me how far video games haven’t come.

BioShock has one of the most chillingly powerful locales and universes in video game history, but sadly the game can easily be labeled a first-person shooter. It doesn’t really try to redefine what gaming is, or can be. It merely extends it, even though it redefined what a video game universe can be. Rapture is a fully-realized world; to an extent never before seen in video games. Rapture’s existence had purpose. People had lives, dreams, and aspirations. And Irrational should be commended for that. The writing/designing in this game is something most people can only dream about, or simply do not have the balls to even try.

But sadly, the only interaction a player has is still restricted to what gamers expect games to be. Simply put, all you do is pull a gun’s trigger and kill the bad guys. The enemies may be psychopathic denizens of a failed Utopian experiment with complex and sad lives, but a video game enemy by any other name is still a video game enemy. You kill them before they kill you, and a player’s experience is tailored (quite expertly, I might add) to give them multiple tiers of death tools (Electricity +1, Fire +2, etc).

The best example of this contrast between redefined context and refined gameplay is the first encounter with a female Rapture resident, the one that is talking of past regrets to a handgun in a baby carriage. I felt horribly sad for this lady. All she wants is to be back with her baby. Her mind is obviously warped, but the last thing I wanted to do was fight her. Sadly, the game gives you no choice but to kill her, in a pretty gruesome manner (with a bloody wrench). Couldn’t I simply walk away from this lady, to leave her to her regrets and fears? Unfortunately, video game standards dictate otherwise.

And that’s the basis of all interactivity in Rapture. Oh sure, you may have to solve a few puzzles here and there, but for the most part, the major scripting methodologies Irrational used when designing a level/area of Rapture were based around enemy placement. I’ve played BioShock a few times, and while I think it’s a great FPS, every time I replay the game, I want so much more than that. I want a diverse gameplay experience that combines setting and interactivity into more than what we’ve seen with BioShock and with video games in general. What that experience is, I can only subtlety hint at because it’s basically something I have never played before. But is that so much to ask for, especially when the world of Rapture is something I’ve never seen in a video game before?

Another squandered opportunity is the encounter with Peach Wilkins in Port Neptune. After I completed all his tasks, he finally opened the door. I was expecting maybe to talk to the guy, to hopefully be rewarded with an explanation of what the fuck happened in Rapture, but no. Immediately it turns into a fairly simplistic boss fight, something out of every FPS I’ve played. And why did they ignore all of the potential of this interaction by giving us a tepid boss fight? Because they never thought of why they shouldn’t just give us a boss fight.

I think Irrational just didn’t realize how potent Rapture was until development was nearing completion. Based on System Shock 2 I’d guess the first design meetings consisted of trying to figure out what kind of FPS they were going to make next, and the idea of Rapture came long after that. (As a powerful side note, it was originally planned for BioShock to star NAZI’s as your main enemy.)

Every enemy you encounter has to see the same fate, or your time in Rapture ends. And that disappoints me when I try to replay the game. I don’t want to worry about how to kill the next enemy. I simply want to experience all that Rapture has to offer. I can have some killing here and there to not make it too boring, but that should never have been the sole focus. Metroid Prime had a good mix of focuses with a 50/50 split of exploration and experiencing the world versus pure alien killing mayhem. I don’t want BioShock to model Metroid Prime perfectly of course, but I want Irrational to take notice and to use those ideas to bring something more fulfilling to the table, and not something I’ve played before.

I was hoping BioShock 2 would do that, but sadly, after hearing about the supposed coop features that the sequel will implement, I’m doubtful that will happen, as it makes me think Take-Two doesn’t understand why BioShock resonated so strongly with the educated gamer. However, I’m willing to be proven wrong.

And even though I put BioShock in a bad light with this article, it is an amazing video game, one that everyone should experience. Just know when you do, you’ll realize that video games still have a long way to go.


  1. jay said on April 3, 2009:

    I think you are completely right here. Rapture was a beautiful world you couldn’t touch filled with characters you couldn’t interact with.

    This may inspire me to write up Mass Effect since, much like BioShock, by being at the top of its class it reveals many of the problems facing games as a medium.

  2. pat said on April 3, 2009:

    i agree with this also. especially in the case of peach wilkins, who i fully expected to talk to once the door opened. i was prepared to fight the main characters you encounter later, since you quickly realize you have to kill everything you come across.

    devil’s advocate: the tension is heightened by the fact that you have no allies in rapture. if the game had safe havens with other residents, rapture would not have been so demoralizingly bleak.

  3. jay said on April 3, 2009:

    Nice counter point. In theory you are right but the game doesn’t pull it off elegantly enough to make the sense of isolation foremost in your mind. When the three of us played the game we all noticed how odd it seemed that you didn’t speak to certain people and so they should’ve set up those encounters differently to prevent that from being our first reaction.

    Still, failing to do something well is different from being unaware of what you’re doing. So if they were deliberately going for something they deserve more credit even if it doesn’t work out completely.

  4. christian said on April 3, 2009:

    This is precisely the reason why, after finishing Bioshock, I felt much less in love with it in the months after. Still a fine game, but it still ultimately feels likes a Disney ride at times. A lot of people share Matt’s sentiments, many of them applying to the case of the Little Sisters. Great idea, but as soon as you meet your first one, you get buttons displayed on the screen that scream “you get a binary choice here. nothing else”. It is the most “videogamey” moment in Bioshock, when it should be one of the most powerful scenes in the game.

    I thought of solutions to this dilemma, and at least one simple one became clear – copy Deus Ex. There, you had decisions to make, but the game never paused itself to give you one clear choice. You were told what you could do, and you could react however the standard game engine allowed you. One of my favorite examples is early in the game, when you are ordered to kill a rebel leader. Instead you can strategically place explosives and murder your old comrade who is telling you to do so. The game never tells you that you should or that you even can, but the game engine can’t stop you either. And when all is said and done, the game recognizes it as a valid option. All you have to do is sprinkle in a few more choices, and to make sure that the game never gives you limited options for any situation.

  5. chris said on April 3, 2009:

    Keep in mind this isn’t the first time no human interaction was allowed. System Shock 2 did it in exactly the same way; every time you found someone, it turned out they were dead or dying.

    I haven’t yet played Bioshock, it’s on my “eventual” list – but it sounds very much the same. It increases the insecure-terror factor, but it makes the game feel very flat, since you are almost like an archivist; picking up records of things that that have already happened and maybe acting on them, without actually interacting with any of the people involved.

  6. Stefan said on April 3, 2009:

    That’s a good point Pat, but it could be quite possible to have no allies, but still interact in myriad interesting ways. Being able to bring a little peace to a mother obsessing over a gun in her baby buggy without her noting you, because if she ever does you know she’ll try to kill you… I think it would would be a far more moving (and simultaneously isolating) experience than simply saying “She’s either an ally or a target to kill.”

  7. Spyder Mayhem said on April 6, 2009:


    System Shock 2 has never felt flat to me, mainly because the lack of interaction with others is pretty well covered by everything that the player experiences. People are turning into zombies, people are being murdered by the ship’s haywire systems, people are running around as psychic ghosts after life, people are not able to overcome the dual forces of the Hive and SHODAN. It didn’t feel flat to me because it was made abundantly clear from the get-go that normal people on the ship just weren’t capable of surviving the madness around them.

    I haven’t played Bioshock, but if there are survivors wandering around, that changes everything. It is the emptiness of System Shock that makes it work: Wandering through the empty shopping mall of the ship while the Hive warps the voice of the ship itself into a menacing messenger is very effective at making you feel as alone as you indeed are.

  8. chris said on April 6, 2009:

    I suppose “flat” might be a poor choice of words. I meant that your interaction with the beings on the ship is entirely after-the-fact; the empty feel is what they were going for, but it didn’t click with me as much as it could/should have. You’re able to find out what happened, but there is nobody to interact with. It doesn’t make the game bad by any means.

    What I’ve seen of Bioshock was a similar idea, but I’m not sure if the emptiness was the intent, particularly when the world seems to be more alive around you than SS2’s.

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