Games Reviews Bioshock

Shock And Awesome
First-person shooter sets fire to both gunpowder and your imagination

Platforms: PC, Xbox 360

I played BioShock for the ?rst time late at night. Sitting in my living room with the lights turned off. Somehow I’d managed to block out the game’s interminable pre-release hype. Free of expectations I plunged in, only to have my loftiest concepts of what a game can accomplish dismantled, exploded and mercilessly frappuccino’d.

This story takes place in the spring of 1960. The commercial airliner you’re riding on a visit home loses control and smashes into the bitter-cold Atlantic. Groaning metal joints, rising bubbles, sinking handbags and jewelry, frantic strokes, and then you break through the surface amid chunks of ?aming wreckage. From a ?rst-person perspective, you crane your head around to take in the scene while bobbing shell-shocked in the night-darkened water.

While paddling away from the crash site you see the fin of your aircraft submerging out of sight and make for a tower perched atop a small island nearby. You scale the moonlit steps—panting and dripping water—and slip through an imposing door that appears to have been left cracked open for you. Floodlights ?icker to life in gradual succession, illuminating the giant bronze bust of a man protruding from the wall. Above the bust you see a looming crimson banner draped across the wall that’s embroidered in gold thread, “No Gods Or Kings. Only Man.”

A few moments later you’ve climbed into a vacant bathysphere and begun your descent to the ocean ?oor where billionaire Andrew Ryan has built a utopian city called Rapture. Ryan conceived the city as an autonomous civilization where science, art and industry could blossom unhindered by the regulatory meddling of government or religious interests. He’s quoted in the game saying, “It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea. It was impossible to build it anywhere else.” When you arrive, however, you ?nd that civil war has turned Ryan’s utopian paradise into a grim wasteland. (Perceptive gamers will notice that “Andrew Ryan” is a near anagram of “Ayn Rand,” whose novel Atlas Shrugged provided BioShock’s lead designer/writer Ken Levine the inspiration for the game’s plot.)

Even though BioShock’s story would’ve made a wonderfully satisfying novel or Hollywood blockbuster, the interactive nature of gaming gives it substantially more impact. Instead of having the story spoonfed to you as you progress through the game, you’re responsible for ?nding reel-to-reel audio diaries scattered throughout Rapture—messages that have been recorded by various characters (some living, some dead). Playing back these recordings allows you to piece together what’s happened, like a detective or historian. As the puzzle slowly snaps together, goosebumps spread fast down your arms. The story resounds so powerfully, in part because a creeping realization can be creepier than any shrieking ghouly leaping out at you from a dark corner.

A number of critics have stated that BioShock is the reason they play video games, and you can add my name in all-caps to that list. Why settle for watching the hero in a film have a thrilling adventure when you can all-but-live a narrative this masterfully woven. Rapture, indeed.

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