The Narrative Video Game Was Revolutionized By ‘BioShock’ 15 Years Ago!

Back in 2007, “BioShock” hit the Xbox 360 and PC platforms as summer was winding down, just in time for the yearly Fall influx of major releases. Incorporating shooter mechanics with immersive sim design trends, “BioShock” transports players to Rapture, an underwater complex constructed by a radical capitalist who detested both the church and the state equally. The game’s setting is a paranoid, claustrophobic landscape of metal and seawater that is constantly collapsing. The narrative video game was reinvented by it.

This assertion can be debatable. After all, 2007 was a turning point in the evolution of the blockbuster game. Releases of “Assassin’s Creed,” “Mass Effect,” and “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” in November basically marked the beginning of a series of franchises that would later come to dominate the video game industry for the following ten years. Limited open-world gaming in heavily populated areas was pioneered by “Assassin’s Creed.” “Mass Effect” advanced the BioWare-style RPG, which is known for its character-driven, immersive storytelling, whereas “Modern Warfare” turned Call of Duty into an international techno-thriller. These were all directed at the broadest markets imaginable.

In an interview with Kieron Gillen shortly after the release of “BioShock,” Ken Levine, who is listed in the official game credits as having contributed to “story, narrative, and artistic direction” but who Gillen refers to as “the key man behind “BioShock,” clarifies that “games are not the story.”

Levine added, “Gameplay is gameplay. Gameplay is interactive. Levine said that this reality was the source of “BioShock’s” actual heart. The development team for “System Shock 2,” “BioShock’s” forerunner, had discovered that requiring players to maneuver around a confined environment generated a ton of gameplay possibilities. This restriction gave rise to the narrative of Andrew Ryan, the businessman who founded Rapture in “BioShock.” A space station and an underwater city are both completely locked off from the outside world. Who would construct it, and why? That was “BioShock’s” starting point.

From our vantage point in 2022, this logic is noteworthy, if only because the type of tale that “BioShock” so blatantly ingrained in the foundation of video game culture 15 years ago is so reliant on a story as its primary motivation. When I played the game again in order to write this post, I was astounded by how heavily the first few hours of the game relied on typical narrative action.

A man’s jet crashes into the middle of the ocean in “BioShock.” He finds a bathysphere that takes him deep underwater and drops him in Rapture, a once-famous city for anyone looking to escape the post-World War II power structures and go it alone. Rogue capitalists, scientists who want the freedom to conduct research without regard for moral considerations, and individuals looking for hope in a society that was essentially beginning from scratch once called it home. In fact, the laissez-faire society created in Rapture resulted in a dystopian society where addicts desire to rip each other apart for the unique juice that each person possesses thanks to a scientific advancement called ADAM.

As soon as the player character enters the city, they become embroiled in the conflict between the rulers of Rapture’s many realms, which they must defeat by shooting their way through in order to advance in the game. The events that have brought Rapture to its present state of instability were started by Atlas, the leader of a rebel faction, and Andrew Ryan, the founder and implicit tyrant of Rapture, who extolled the virtues of freedom while openly and secretly controlling many different areas of the city since its founding.

Both of these factions are bounded toward one another by the gamer. Atlas is revealed to be Andrew Ryan’s business competitor Frank Fontaine. In a twist reminiscent of Shyamalan, the player is shown to be a mind-controlled pawn whose freedom was actually just the result of the actions of another character. There is a boss battle, Andrew Ryan is slain, and Fontaine changes into a large red muscle man. In a novel way, but also quite predictably, the game is ended.

The action movie plot beats are all over “BioShock.” The player must enter each domain of Rapture and dismantle it from the inside out, acting as a modern-day John McClane. Each area of Rapture is governed by some warped remnant of the world that came before it. These characters are revealed through in-depth audio diaries, brief voiced letters that describe the setting and explain how a person came to be the twisted person they are when the player first meets them.

What sets “BioShock” apart from previous video games like “System Shock 2” was its reluctance to incorporate these cinematic rhythms into a traditional film structure. Similar actions were taken in “Assassin’s Creed” and “Mass Effect,” but they were done in a more conventional way that divided gameplay from cutscenes. Conversations and context took place within a filmic apparatus with fixed camera angles, limiting the player to passive observation.

In contrast, “BioShock” spends most of its time inserting the same plot points, such as villain monologues or Rapture disintegrating, into the action. As you proceed down a glass sidewalk that is cracking under your feet, water starts to seep in between the small gaps. The “All Ghillied Up” mission in “Modern Warfare” would achieve this similar “in the action” gameplay to the fullest extent later in the year, but something was already in the air a few months before.

It is difficult to notice “BioShock’s” influence on the upper echelons of the economic transformations of the medium while examining a list of the best-selling video games from the last ten years. In a similar vein, neither “BioShock’s” narrative strategies nor its gameplay design dominates the world’s most vibrant extension of gaming, the mobile games market. Without “BioShock,” however, it would be difficult to envision “The Last of Us” “Wolfenstein: The New Order” or other popular, commercial games that rely on selling a narrative concept built around a conventional shooting framework.

It can also be observed in first-person storytelling techniques more generally. NPR interpreted “The Stanley Parable” in contrast to the third “BioShock” game; when the original mod was released, creator Davey Wreden cited the game as an inspiration. The subway setting of “Metro 2033” was marketed by drawing comparisons to Rapture. Before “Fallout 3” was even released, “BioShock” writer Emil Pagliarulo proclaimed it to be the pinnacle of video game storytelling. The seminal first-person games that followed “BioShock” were generally in conversation with its enormous influence, whether on intention or just by way of comparison in the media. Even though “Half-Life 2” created some of the frameworks that it followed, it is unequaled for its time period for its deft combination of deeper narrative with front-and-center action.

Beyond its impact on the ecology of game culture and how games were perceived in general, “BioShock” also gave rise to offspring of its own. Instead of the Boston-based 2K studio, another team at 2K Marin created the (in my opinion much better) “BioShock 2”. The game’s legacy is typically interpreted as an underwhelming sequel to a legacy game while being aggressively promoted and adhering to a number of industry trends, including a stapled-on multiplayer model. 2013’s “BioShock Infinite” was promoted as the legitimate heir to the “BioShock” history under Levine’s direction and under some extremely harsh production circumstances. Although this statement is still debatable today, it is evident that “Infinite’s” positive aspects are overshadowed by the game’s emphasis on and allusion to its more disturbing beginning points.

The effects of “BioShock” are still being felt today in their wake. It is difficult to have an experience that cannot be comprehended in reference to what “BioShock” did 15 years ago while examining the present state of the video game industry. Without the commercial trail that “BioShock” laid across numerous platforms, it is difficult to envision titles like “Last Stop,” “The Magnificent Trufflepigs,” or even “Firewatch” ever coming into existence.

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