Bioshock’s Amazing Journey Into Art Deco Horror
Every once in a while, a game surprises us all. We’re not talking about whether a game is surprisingly good or bad, but if a game comes so far out of left field that it turns its audience on their head and makes them reflect upon the entirety of the experience. In 2007 today, we were introduced to the first Bioshock: spiritual successor to the System Shock series and break out hit of the Irrational Games studio. It had a hard road paved with difficulty and tension, but when the whole thing came together, it produced not only a viscerally fun experience, but a powerful story containing a moment of revelation unlike any other.
The initial planning of Bioshock began in 2002. Ken Levine had wanted to return to the System Shock series, but System Shock 2, while critically praised, didn’t do well commercially. This ultimately resulted in Electronic Arts, who held the license for the series, rejecting Levine’s pitch for System Shock 3. Nonetheless, Levine continued to develop ideas for an eventual return to the series. Through the years, the basis for Levine’s new game would change drastically. An early concept involved a space station overtaken with monsters in the vein of familiar System Shock territory. Another concept involved an abandoned post-World War II Nazi laboratory where genetic research took place. Eventually, after a visit to Rockefeller Center, Levine gained inspiration for the art deco style of Bioshock and the larger than life character of Andrew Ryan and his city of Rapture was based upon John D. Rockefeller himself.
Bioshock begins with the player taking the role of at first nameless man on a plane ride. The plane crashes in the Atlantic Ocean and the man is the sole survivor. After finding a bathysphere inside a remote lighthouse, the man is transported down into the underwater city of Rapture: a place designed by industrial tycoon Andrew Ryan to be a place of freedom from the tyranny and rules of governmental hands. Unfortunately, the player comes upon the city in a state of breakdown, with mutated human beings known as splicers fighting a civil war between the likes of the now ironically tyrannical Andrew Ryan and a mysterious leader of freedom fighters known as Atlas. The player is tasked with finding their way through and surviving Rapture as they discover the heart of its downfall.
This new game was always intended with three core concepts: drones that carried a valuable material, protectors that guard the drones and harvesters that sought to take that precious material away. Though it went through many stylistic changes, the Nazi laboratory’s focus on genetic research would supply the idea for the use of Plasmids, EVE and ADAM. Though the Big Daddy concept was in place since nearly the beginning, the idea of Little Sisters was a late and controversial consideration for the drones, mostly because of the ideas of harvesting a little girl for power. It was this controversy that would eventually inform the immortality of Little Sisters and the option to harvest or rescue them.
As such, throughout the game the player finds conventional weapons besides conventional weapons, but also Plasmids that inject them with powers such as control over electricity or fire. They gain power for these Plasmids by way of ADAM, which is housed in strange little girls known as Little Sisters who are protected by giant, dive-suit wearing monsters known as Big Daddies. Fighting a Big Daddy to get to a Little Sister was akin to a boss fight at every step of the journey, in addition to the deranged citizens the player meets on their way through Rapture.
Bioshock represented a rather remarkable journey for Ken Levine and the Irrational Games studio. It was a tough and tense development cycle that lead to many leaving the studio. Despite this, it stole the hearts of a generation, gaining critical and commercial success, as well as garnering a great deal of awards for its artistic style, gameplay and story. Few games can be claimed to be perfect in their time, but Bioshock was one of those rare instances where despite all difficulty, all elements of the product end of coming together in a way that thoroughly satisfies on almost all fronts.