Impossible dream

BioShock  plumbs uncharted depths
By MITCH KRPATA  |  August 28, 2007
4.0 4.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for BioShock

It wasn’t impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the ocean, Andrew Ryan would say of his creation. It was impossible to build it anywhere else. According to BioShock’s foundation myth, Ryan envisioned his sub-aquatic metropolis (inspired by Ayn Rand, and especially Atlas Shrugged) as the place where man could realize his potential, unfettered by the restrictions placed upon him by government and religion. He populated the city with the greatest minds the world had to offer: industrialists, doctors, artists. Rapture had room only for the productive; there was no place for the weak, the infirm, or even the mediocre commoners that Ryan considered a drain on society. And, for a little while, his dream seemed to come true.

At the beginning of BioShock, you arrive in Rapture to find a city far removed from Ryan’s glittering underwater utopia. Most of the citizens are dead; the rest have been mutated beyond recognition and regressed to a feral state. The infrastructure seems about to buckle under the weight of the sea. The Art Deco architecture is still discernible through the gloom, but its grandeur now seems a cruel joke. Your task is to piece together, from found audio recordings and limited radio contacts, the tragedy of Rapture, and to survive its horrors.

What you learn pretty quickly is that the first fissure in Ryan’s master plan opened with the discovery of an element called ADAM, which allowed for genetic modification far beyond the bounds of medical science. Freed from any ethical constraints, the people of Rapture set about developing strange and perverse abilities for themselves. But ADAM was a limited resource, difficult to come by and more valuable than any currency. Trade faltered when supply couldn’t keep up with demand. Smugglers and black-marketeers — the very parasites Ryan had intended to hide from at the bottom of the sea — rushed to take advantage of the imbalance.

All this is merely the prelude to BioShock, a first-person shooter that expands the boundaries of what seemed possible in interactive storytelling. Clues to Rapture’s downfall aren’t just hidden in snippets of audio, they’re tucked away in dark corners. The story is told in the relationships between the few desperate remaining inhabitants. Crazed freaks called Splicers hunt the genetically modified Little Sisters, who harbor the only remaining source of ADAM within them. And as you realize that procuring ADAM — which grants you superhuman powers called plasmids — is the only way you’re going to survive, you have to decide whether to kill the Little Sisters and transcend your physical limitations or show mercy and perhaps achieve something greater still.

Games don’t often give you choices of this magnitude, and indeed what’s so special about BioShock is the number of options it affords. Earning new plasmids and status upgrades called gene tonics allows you to customize your character. You can power up your physical abilities and batter your enemies, or you can become adept at hacking in order to bend Rapture’s security systems to your will. It’s fair to say that no two players will experience BioShock exactly the same way.

And yet, the freedom given the player is also subverted to give the game its greatest resonance: if the free will of one diminishes that of another, are they not both slaves? Andrew Ryan dreamed of a city where the great would not be constrained by the small; Rapture failed because he didn’t understand that the great rely on the small. As one character says, Ryan brought people to Rapture to be captains of industry, but they still needed someone to clean the toilets.

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