BioShock is an award-winning, first-person shooter video game developed by Irrational and released by 2K Games in 2007. The game is set in the underwater city of Rapture in the 1960s. The player identifies with the protagonist, misunderstood perverted mass murderer ‘Jack’, a character based on the game's main developer, Ken Levine. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made due to its shocking content, adult themes and political satire, rivaling those sorts of shows that are only screened on HBO after the kids are meant to be in bed.
The game opens with the main protagonist Jack on the transatlantic red-eye flight to an unknown destination. A short clip shows Jack using an empty bag of Quavers in an odd way, followed by his plane crashing into the Atlantic Ocean, killing almost everyone.
Jack manages to survive the crash, and whilst swimming away from the flaming wreckage and bobbing decapitations, spots a darkened lighthouse standing inconspicuously in the middle of the ocean. Balls beginning to freeze, he quickly swims over to it and enters the front door to realise he’s inadvertently discovered the entrance to the hidden underwater city of Rapture. With no other plans in his diary for the day, he descends into Rapture and is immediately confronted with blabbering duo Andrew Ryan and Atlas The Sneaky Paddy.
Plot and setting
The beautiful Art-deco city of Rapture where the game takes place was single-handedly designed and built by Andrew Ryan and his legion of ADAM-powered Big Daddies while his Big Mummies made their lunch to take to work each day. The city eventually fell into ruin as its inhabitants commenced experiments with drugs and genetic engineering and started neglecting their chores such as taking the garbage out and cleaning the windows.
Although primarily focused on the ‘biological aspect of human behaviour’, the plot of Bioshock carries a political undercurrent, fleshed out by the constant bickering of the main two drama queens - Andrew Ryan and Atlas.
According to various game magazines, which awarded BioShock the "Game of the Year", the game developers rediscovered maxims of philosophy, such as the fact that power corrupts. The critics were not certain which ruling politician Andrew Ryan (or even Atlas) represented, mainly because the only underwater city in our culture is Atlantis, where if there is any political power at all, re-floating the place would be the very first order of business. The critics concluded that the designers were making a prediction of a future.
Ken Levine, when asked about the possible relation of BioShock to the 20th century dystopian fiction, such as Orwell's 1984, told the press:
|“||What is "1984" anyway? It's an out-of-date, short adventure feuilleton with a very ambiguous language, which definitely lacks in flashy graphics. In this way, our game is certainly a better substitute to the not-so-deep literature of the 20th century.||”|
To complicate matters, the naturally occurring sandwich-filler ADAM is made free to all citizens in Rapture. Already famed for properties which allow humans to shoot fire from their finger tips, ADAM is the main source of food throughout the game and as a result gives Jack some unnecessary side effects such as stomach cramps, projectile vomiting, the shits and so forth. Fortunately, the ability to ignite, freeze or electrically zap the crazed bastards who inhabit Rapture comes in handy during the game, as does the ability to produce an instant erection when entering one of Rapture's many brothels.
There are lots and lots of different flavors of ADAM called plasmids and tonics, with the scarcer ones a little tastier than the others. Each flavor is named after the observed effect that it has on the body, for example Hacker's Delight gives its user the ability to stay up all night programming, while Nut Surprise allows the individual to force-choke their opponent's testicles. Players are encouraged to mix and match their main meal with its accompanying beverage to maximize their effects.
The psychoactive drug of choice within the confines of Rapture is called EVE, a gooey blue serum dispensed in large syringes. Without EVE, all the ADAM that has previously been eaten passes directly through the digestive tract without the benefit of its gene-mutating powers. All the inhabitants of Rapture have developed a dependency on EVE which has resulted in excessive maintenance bills for the EVE-vending machines. Fortunately the player has the ability to hack machines and ignore the many 'OUT OF SERVICE' signs, or instead invent their own drug with a chemistry set.
Based on British political favourite Oswald Mosley, Andrew Ryan is the arrogant right-wing hard nut of Rapture who speaks a good deal of common sense, especially when referring to the holy scripture of Mein Kampf. His verbal outbursts throughout the game become more and more frantic as he tries to convince you, Jack, that his enemy Atlas is a misguided buffoon who has his money-grubbing hands in the pockets of the poor.
|“||Brother Jack, my comrade in struggle:
I am Andrew Ryan, and I'm here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to sweat of his brow? 'No!' says the man in the Vatican, 'it belongs to God's representative on Earth.' 'No!' says the man in Moscow, 'it belongs to the President.' 'No!' says the man in Washington, 'it disappears, according to the Second Law of Capital Circulation.' I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose... Rapture. A city where the revolutionary would not fear the government; where the criminal would not be bound by petty morality; where the great would not be constrained by the socialist! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.
Atlas The Sneaky Paddy
Atlas is Ryan's bi-polar opposite. With his lefty wishy-washy ideals and long-winded tributes to The Communist Manifesto, he is the stuff of nightmares. His Irish tinker’s accent gives him an untrustworthy edge, which grates with Ryan’s bombast, leaving the player unsure of whom to trust and he, like Ryan, becomes more and more obsessed with convincing you that Ryan is an uppity plebe with his feet firmly planted in Hitler’s kitchen.
|“||It's time to end this little puppet show, my little marionette. There ain't no Communist Party down here, kid. Never was. Working for Marx's principles takes on a variety of capitalist tricks. But you've been a sport, so I guess I owe you a little honesty. I gotta say, I had a lot of partners in my life. But you... Of course, the fact that you were genetically conditioned to bark like a cocker spaniel when I said, "Would you kindly", and showed you Lenin's portrait might've had something to do with it, but still... You've been a comrade, but you know what they say: Never mix feelings for the Father with love for... Ahem. Anyway, thanks for everything, kid. Don't forget to say hi to that Nazi worm Ryan for me.||”|
Would You Kindly…
Throughout the game, whilst being torn from left to right and back again, Atlas, the sneaky Paddy, frequently uses the phrase "Would you kindly…” to ask Jack for favours. Usually, Atlas asks Jack to perform many tasks over and over again leading the gamer to believe that he may actually be a robot. So Jack repeatedly beats women to death, burns men to the ground and rapes Little Sisters and Big Daddies, to prove to his guide that he is worthy of his attention.
Other notable characters in the game are the so-called Big Daddies and Little Sisters. It is not clear how a Big Daddy is related to a Little Sister, nor whether a Little Sister is a little sister or a little daughter. The game developers said that she was both. Critics immediately claimed that the game "presented an original insight into an incestuous relationship".
The player's fellow genetic mutants running around Rapture are called Splicers, so named for their habit of editing together the various film reels that are scattered around the city. A Splicer will attack anyone possessing a film reel on sight to try and steal it for themselves. The player therefore has the choice of either using their camera to record their surroundings and attracting unwanted hostile attention, or playing it safe and avoiding picking up film reels but missing out on valuable research points.
Background and release
On the 25th of January 2007, only a few months before the game was officially released, the Irrational Games team kidnapped a dozen twenty-somethings, transported them to the company headquarters while blindfolded, and handcuffed them to chairs arranged in front of game consoles, a couple of joysticks and the BioShock video game. An hour later, faced with the muzzles of the developers' revolvers, the captives gave their impressions of the game. The most repeated comment was that the gamers found it difficult to pass all of the BioShock's levels whilst wearing blindfolds. Some also found the handcuffs disturbing.
After many threats and kicks, the guests uttered some constructive criticism, but the developers did not find it constructive. According to them, the gamers had criticised everything they could - Atlas' accent, Jack's appearance and the insufficient amount of light in the city of Rapture, which was never meant to be as sparkling as Paris at night. In her autobiographical novel, Five Years A Slave, Levine's co-director Alyssa Finley:
|“||On January 25th 2007, after our 'guests' gave their initial impressions of the game, my colleagues and myself remained, as usually, in the room next to Ken's office. To our greatest surprise, he didn't leave it till the morrow, as we knew that he usually enjoyed watching us move while chained to the walls. However, we heard him exclaiming: "How do they even think it possible to create a proper lighting system in Rapture, while my own office is not properly lighted!" It is true that Irrational never had enough budget for office lamps.||”|
However, a day before the release, Ken Levine adopted several suggestions to 'humanise' the game. Rapture turned from an abandoned space station inhabited by jellymen (a kind of creature invented by Levine himself) into an underwater city, and Atlas acquired an Irish accent. Irrational Games, which employed almost twenty people by that time, saw the end of the long, painstaking work. They were finally liberated from Levine's slavery and the game was published. The 'reviewers' remain handcuffed to their chairs.
The reviews from the press were mostly positive, with only a small number of critiques that the game still lacked proper lighting, due to its underwater nature, and that Atlas' instructions are often misguiding because of his pronunciation.
With an abundance of references to culture, history, literature, contemporary video gaming and BioShock’s creators, the game is practically impossible for outsiders to understand.
For instance, each of the references to the Bible alone allows at least seven possible interpretations of the game’s real meaning, and one can be found at every corner of every location. Number 7, widely used in Genesis, is omnipresent in BioShock. For example, if the player spares the lives of seven Little Sisters and then opens the door of the “Eve’s Apple” brothel seven times in a row, seven days later he will have a revelation. Or if he plays as long as to hear Seventy Times Seven of Atlas' "Would you kindly"s, seven seconds later he can acquire a violent migraine.
To achieve this biblical ambiguity, Ken Levine has learnt the Old and the New Testaments by heart. Levine started memorizing the books at Irrational's headquarters in Boston, but soon claimed that he "couldn't focus" and finished the project while vacationing in Tenerife.
Another source for inspiration for the developers was Ayn Rand, a 20th century American philosopher, whose capitalist theories have influenced Irrational Games' marketing strategies. Explicit references to herself and her philosophy - Objectivism - include her posters hanging on the majority of Rapture’s walls. Implicit references are mostly the same posters, only hung upside down. Furthermore, BioShock’s main creator’s supposedly fake name, Ken Levine, is a partial anagram of Alisa Rosenbaum (Ayn Rand’s real name), as well as of John Galt—the protagonist in Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged.
The game's title is an in-joke created by the design team at Irrational. Soon after finishing the development of the game, Levine concluded that it contained so many shocking adult themes such as prostitution, mass murder, mutilation, frequent accounts of perverse pseudo-sexual acts, acts of unregistered Mormonism, fire tubing, one man one egg, WonTon Bilgetanking, elbow mode and the now banned beef drip, that it needed a suitable title. He chose one derived from his wife’s initial impression to the concept:
|“||I think it’s biologically shocking on every level, dear.||”|
- Five Years A Slave, Alyssa Finley, 2007, Rapture Press
- The Biography of Ken Levine, Ken Levine, 2007, Big Daddy Editions