For a long time, the original BioShock was one of my favorite games. I have a pretty loose criteria for judging these things, but above all, a game needs to be memorable, and it needs to make me feel things. BioShock did both, to the point where I still, occasionally, have BioShock or Rapture-themed dreams.
They were never dreams about objectivism, or BioShock's far larger-than-life characters, or its central, theatrical "twist." They were always about the world itself—crumbling, damp, disgusting, moldering. It's a world where big ideas and big dreams (and, a little bit hilariously, hardcore libertarian ideology) have come to an extreme end, where gorgeous art deco architecture and neon signage are literally falling apart at the seams. Best of all, it's a world where you gain supernatural powers in order to master your environment.
The game holds up reasonably well today, played especially with an eye for its immersive sim DNA and less as a straight shooter. It's especially fun to hack machines and make them do the work, or let your wacky environmental powers wreak havoc on the ecosystem—bait splicers out to a shallow pool and electrocute them, or enrage a big daddy and lure them into a circle of death. It's nowhere near as deep an immersive sim as its cousins in the Dishonored or Deus Ex series, but those elements are still fun to play with, and add needed variety to subsequent playthroughs.
I still enjoy its grand, theatrical style—Sander Cohen descending the staircase at Fort Frolic, the pivotal "A Man Obeys" scene, and the statues and banners and signage about the world that are the opposite of subtle, but they sure make their mark. This is a grand, jazz-hands flailing vision, and where it can be accused of being corny, it was never ashamed to go all the way.
Shout outs especially to the first "boss," the unhinged, Hannibal Lector-wannabe Dr. Steinman, to Dr. Langford, the scientist who dies writing a code to you in the fog of Arcadia, and Tenenbuam, who encourages you to save the little sisters, or else risk becoming a monstrous child-murderer.
Subtle, this game is not. But will I ever forget any of those scenes? Hell no.
The audio logs and little details about citizens' lives still get me, depicting a pseudo-utopian society gone horribly wrong, with so many folks' lives ruined in the process. It's a sad game, if you let it be, and linger in the ruins of living spaces, or listen to any story bits that involve the creation of big daddies and little sisters.
Its immediate sequel was somewhat divisive at the time, but BioShock 2 offered a fantastic evolution to the formula, especially with its hunting and trapping system, and with the more subtle gradients involved in moral decision-making. Infinite, though… was not my favorite experience, thanks to much of its "both sides" rhetoric that has aged poorly, especially given recent events. I think that stain has wafted over to its predecessors, perhaps unfairly.
BioShock 1, for its faults and over-the-top theatrics, isn't so cynical. While Fontaine uses idealism and social welfare to conduct a coup over Andrew Ryan, it isn't presented as "the same thing." BioShock says that unchecked idealism and power corrupt individuals, not that the oppressed are just as bad as their oppressors. It never wavers from indicting assholes who misuse their power, even if their burning city is beautiful—it's still falling apart.
There's a point then, to those theatrics, to its violence, and to its crumbling facades. There's a reason to come back to this world, as I have, over five times in the last ten years, for another playthrough, another tour through this terrible, beautiful city.