Bioshock: Video Games As Art
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
I was late to jump on the BioShock bandwagon. I found a used copy in GameStop (remember those days?) about a year after its release and figured, if nothing else, it’d get me through what was shaping up to be a pretty boring weekend. Little did I know it was a weekend that would change my life forever.
From the absolute second I booted it up, I fell in love. As I descended in the bathysphere to Rapture, a city hidden beneath the ocean waves, I knew there was something different about it, something special. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but with each replay the idea solidified in my head. This wasn’t a video game, this was art.
This isn’t a new concept for modern games. Releases like The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption II, and even God of War (the 2018 release) have popularized the idea of video games as art. But back in 2007, the idea was just taking off (I haven’t forgotten about indie titles like Hollow Knight, but bear with me, I’m trying to keep the list short).
The most obvious way this concept took form in BioShock was the atmosphere. Walking through the Art Deco drenched halls of Rapture, you are constantly reminded that you are miles below the surface by the barnacle-encrusted windows placed strategically around you. Schools of fish and pods of whales drift lazily by, completely unconcerned that you are there, fighting for your life. This quasi-claustrophobic aura moves with you as you progress, always in the background, just out of reach of your conscious mind.
The music reinforces a feeling of isolation during the calm between storms, often reducing itself to a single, wailing, violin note that almost echoes through the empty and ruined city. During combat, it will swell to chaotic heights as you fight against masked splicers or the hulking Big Daddies.
Moving beyond those intangibles, the worldbuilding adds another layer to the masterpiece that was being painted. Every room, every hallway, every shop and apartment builds on the idea that Rapture, once a Mecca of innovation, the Shangri-La of the free market concept, has fallen. Small cracks have appeared in the windows, threatening to break under hundreds of fathoms of pressure. Blood coats the walls above a fallen corpse, picked clean of what little valuables it may have possessed. A hanging tree sits in the courtyard of an apartment complex, strange fruit swinging in the recycled breeze.
Everything in BioShock tells a story, should the player choose to look a little deeper. This is exemplified by the audio diaries (now an industry trope, I know) found in the dark corners and piles of rubble. Each one reveals a little more of what happened before the player arrived, the reasons why it all went wrong. They are all pitch-perfectly acted and flawlessly executed, pulling the player further and further into the story.
The story… Ah the story. If you don’t know it by now, it is one of the most expertly crafted pieces of writing I’ve ever seen. Those who know it, know it, and I won’t spoil it for those who don’t, but even its perfection is only the cherry on top of the monolithic achievement that is the rest of BioShock.
I won’t pretend it’s a perfect game; the combat is subpar, the graphics haven’t really held up (even with the 2016 “remaster”), and the less said about the ending the better (although I give the devs a pass on this one since evidently it wasn’t their choice). However, even bearing all that in mind, the reason I keep coming back to Rapture a decade-and-a-half later is the ride.
I realize that, thus far, I’ve simply been explaining big picture stuff, telling you almost nothing about the game itself, and that’s for a reason; I want you to play it. I want you to experience it, if not for the first time, then at least with fresh eyes. BioShock deserves it, the developers deserve it, hell, you deserve it.
In an industry that is rapidly turning into an assembly line, dumping out subpar sequels and shitty IPs designed to make the player reach for their wallets instead of their controllers, BioShock stands as a testament to what could have been.
I’m not saying that every game needs to be thought-provoking or paradigm-shifting (Candy Crush and Kwazy Cupcakes have their place too). What I am saying is that games like BioShock are what should be striven for. The rule rather than the exception.
Intelligently conceived, expertly crafted, and brilliantly executed, it is a work of art in an age of the artless.
If you haven’t played it yet, would you kindly go out and give it a try?