Some will tell you that BioShock is one of the greatest games of all time. Others, that its second sequel, BioShock Infinite, is worthy of such an accolade. A handful of maybe-not-quite-right people—people like VICE contributor Ed Smith—they'll argue the case for the middle entry in 2K's dark, dystopian first-person shooter series.
But the fact is this: BioShock, as a series, is far from infallible. How it plays isn't unlike a hundred other titles in its genre. The original game's revival system made it too easy, while the morality at play—do you save or "harvest" its Little Sisters—was too basically black and white for it to be an effective mechanic after a third encounter. The sequel begins incredibly slowly, taking too long to connect the player with the cause of Subject Delta's mission; while Infinite trods dangerously close to aligning, basically, all religion with nefarious intentions.
BioShock is, however, a collection of games featuring a number of stunning moments, memorable enough to have players forget the weaker aspects of their adventures both underwater and in the clouds. Moments like these.
The Rapture reveal ('BioShock')
Where else to begin but at the beginning? BioShock's opening finds the player character, Jack, in great peril, seemingly the sole survivor of a mid-Atlantic plane crash. Fiery debris is all around him—and in a gap in the flames, a lighthouse. Or, at least, that's what it looks like. Inside is a bathysphere. Jack gets inside, and it automatically takes him down to the seafloor setting for games one and two: Rapture.
It's hardly uncommon to read about certain game worlds being as much a character as any playable avatars, or individuals they meet on their journey from titles to credits. But with Rapture, BioShock writer Ken Levine realized a truly intoxicating environment, a utopia built in the 1940s, by the Objectivist Andrew Ryan, far away from the reach of government control. By the time Jack reaches it, and us with him, it's 1960 and something terrible has happened in Rapture—but all the same, it remains a place where player daydreams can dance through ruined corridors. As the game proceeds, so the story of this once-fantastical city beneath the sea unfolds. But it's how it's revealed to us, physically, that lasts longest in the memory.
And later, the return to Rapture ('BioShock Infinite')
BioShock Infinite takes place in the floating, militant city-state of Columbia, decades prior to the events of the first game. Columbia drifts through the skies above America—and beyond—carried by blimps and balloons and driven by reactors and propellers, and something called quantum levitation. None of that really matters, though, because save for being a bit closer to the clouds, little about Columbia made it feel different to any settlement built on terra firma.
It was natural to be missing Rapture as you played through Infinite's save-the-girl, stop-the-despot plot. While you're never fearful of the pressure of so much salt water coming down on top of you, navigating Columbia nevertheless carries other stresses—it's a terrifically racist place, where people of color are forced to work menial jobs, and, in some locations, kept as nothing more than slaves. So when the game reached its ending, a sudden "return" to Ryan's underwater refuge was both a surprise and incredibly refreshing.
That aforementioned girl is Elizabeth, and she has a unique power—she can open "tears" between dimensions. She's also not all she seems, and she is closer to the player character, Booker DeWitt, than initial appearances could ever have you believe. But that's another highlight of the games; this one is the snap back to Rapture, which serves both to destroy a boss enemy, trapped outside the city and crushed by the pressure, and move the plot onwards to its wonderful ocean of lighthouses. "What do you mean, 'This is a doorway'?"
Article continues after the video below
An ocean of lighthouses ('BioShock Infinite')
"See? They're not stars. They're doors. To everywhere. All that's left is the choosing. There are a million, million worlds. All different, all similar. Constants and variables. There's always a lighthouse, there's always a man, there's always a city."
And just like that, we're back to Jack. We're back to the lighthouse, the bathysphere. We're back to Rapture. Constants, and variables. More on that, in just a moment.
The first Little Sister ('BioShock')
BioShock came out early in the life cycle of the previous generation of consoles, back in the distant haze of summer 2007. Gamers were quickly getting used to a new level of realism in visuals, but there was something so very unsettling, so queasy and discomforting, about how the Little Sisters were depicted.
These are children, all girls, who've been genetically altered by Dr. Tenenbaum using a substance called ADAM, obtained from sea slugs—and they each have one of these slugs within their stomachs. Long story short: They're not sweet, innocent things. Their eyes alone give that much away.
The Little Sisters' ADAM is of great value to Jack, so upon doing away with the Sister in question's guardian—the cover-featured Big Daddy is just one of many, and almost every Little Sister is trailed by one of these bullet-sponge brutes—he's given a choice. Murder the girl to extract all the ADAM she has; or remove her slug safely, for less of a reward but the satisfaction of knowing you did a good deed. It's a decision you have to make several times in BioShock, but the first time carries with it real cause for pause. Can you kill this terrified creature before you? Perhaps it'd be better that way. She's not a real girl after all—but perhaps she could be, in time? And do you want to make an enemy of Tenenbaum? It's up to you.
And then there's the Big Sisters ('BioShock 2')
The Little Sisters have no way of protecting themselves should their Big Daddy fall. The second BioShock featured new female characters, though, that could very much take care of themselves. The Big Sisters are the result of their smaller relatives growing up, reaching puberty, and going a tiny bit off the rails. Which is one way of saying they're incredibly aggressive, and you, as the Big Daddy Subject Delta, have to be prepared to face one. Thankfully, BioShock 2 notifies you when there's one on the way, giving you just a little time, seconds really, to lay traps and secure entry and exit points. That screeching: that's her, coming for you. Get ready, or get dying.
Elizabeth dancing, without a care in the world ('BioShock Infinite')
If you watched the video above, you'll see the violence that's so prevalent across the BioShock games. Infinite is perhaps the most visually distressing of the three main entries, causing some critics around the time of its 2013 release to consider it a detracting factor in the game's overall appeal. It's easy to argue that the game's graphic imagery, be it thematically justified or otherwise, adversely affects the effectiveness of its compelling storyline, because it does.
But amid the carnage—well, before it kicks off, really—there are wonderful asides of calm, like this one. Down by the "beach," Elizabeth kicking up the dust, her eyes filled with wonder. As well they should be, given she'd previously been locked away in a tower her whole life, like a Rapunzel without the whole hair problem.
"God Only Knows" ('BioShock Infinite')
And here's another of those calm-before-the-storm moments that's just a bit, melt. You're just minding your business, having recently arrived in Columbia, and a barbershop quartet, the Bee Sharps, shows up on a floating barge, as church bells ring out in the distance. The game doesn't make you stick around for the entire song. But you will.
Every second in the company of Sander Cohen ('BioShock')
BioShock is mostly go here, get this, kill them, open that. But for a small section, you, Jack, get to spend time in the company of the Rapture's most uniquely twisted resident, artist Sander Cohen.
Also a musician, playwright, and poet, Cohen interrupts Jack's communication with Frank Fontaine to begin some puppet-master fetch-questing around Fort Frolic, Rapture's decayed social space once full of bars and boutiques. But where there was once life, now death has become art, as Cohen trapped the area's inhabitants before coating them in plaster to create sick, squishy-on-the-inside statues. He makes Jack roam around taking photos of the recently deceased for an art installation, his masterpiece. "It seems you've got the eye of the shutterbug, little moth."
Cohen's a rarity in video gaming: He's a major character in a massive title, and a homosexual. He refers to Rapture founder Ryan as "the man I once loved," while his makeup is directly inspired by Joan Crawford in 1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. He's also absolutely mad, and fairly hilarious. But, mostly, he's terrifically, terrifyingly insane, and a complete original. Do not test the attention span of his muse, little moth, or he'll put Tchaikovsky on, and then you're fucked. (Skip ahead to the two-minute mark in the video below.)
Elizabeth's little finger ('BioShock Infinite')
Right, so, in case I wasn't clear earlier, there's a much more intimate connection between Booker and Elizabeth than Infinite lets on, until its final phases. The "AD" tattooed on his hand? That stands for Anna DeWitt, his daughter. Elizabeth is Anna DeWitt. Look, "spoilers" was written in bold up there, so you can't say you weren't warned.
Booker, at the lowest of low points in a life of downers, hands his daughter, his one child, over to Infinite's primary antagonist, Zachary Comstock—who's also Booker but, well, this article's long enough already—in exchange for having all of his debts paid off. But his better self takes over, and he struggles to grab Anna back, just as a tear—a portal between dimensions—is closing around the clashing parties. Anna reaches out for her father, but she disappears on the other side of the tear—save for her little finger, the end of which is sliced off. As a result, she's able to move between dimensions, between realities—as a part of her exists in more than one of them.
This revelation comes right at the end of the game. Before then, Elizabeth will talk about her smaller-than-usual pinkie. "It's as much a mystery to me as anyone else," she says. "I get to wear this stylish thimble to cover up my hideous deformity. I hear they're all the rage in Paris." And when we learn the truth, this, this on my cheek? It's just... I just came inside, and it's raining out. What?
When it all links back to Jack ('BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, Episode II')
Burial at Sea is the two-part DLC for Infinite, casting you first as a version of Booker, operating as a PD in Rapture, and later as Elizabeth, who's been killed in an alternative reality but continues to live as all her "other" selves have collapsed into one. Yeah, the story gets pretty timey-wimey, to lift an expression from the scripts of Doctor Who.
At the end of episode two, Elizabeth comes face to face with Atlas, a.k.a. our old "pal" Frank Fontaine, who wishes to bring Andrew Ryan's son to Rapture to do away with the dad he doesn't yet know he has. See, Jack's had a phrase implanted, an activation code, and on seeing or hearing it, he will begin a rampage that can only end in cracking pop's skull open with a golf putter. Atlas makes sure Jack gets the message, right when his plane's above an access point to Rapture—and so the final passage of play in the BioShock series (to date) loops back to its starting point.
"Would you kindly?" ('BioShock')
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