BioShock: The Game That Got Me Back Into Gaming

With BioShock Infinite set to land later this month, Mark Butler looks back at Ken Levine’s original masterpiece – and reveals how it drew him back into gaming, after years away from the medium he once loved.

BioShock Big Daddy

Back in 2008, I have to admit, the world of gaming had become an utter mystery to me.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I’d been an avid enthusiast of the medium: from basic platform-puzzlers on the ZX Spectrum, through to the golden age of Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII on the original PlayStation. But in my late teens and early twenties I completely fell out of touch.

University life propelled me into an eventful, cash-strapped existence that – quite wrongly, I now realise – appeared to leave little time and opportunity for games. Throughout my uni years and into my first serious forays in the world of work, I failed to keep myself invested in the medium I had once so loved, as jobs, other hobbies, and regular trips to the pub took over.

Then I discovered BioShock. And I fell in love with games all over again.

I’d recently moved into a house with my good friend Lex who, unlike me, had never been un-bitten by the gaming bug. Consequently, his contribution to our new home included a PlayStation 3, Xbox360 and a top-notch PC – though I have to admit his initial efforts to coax me back into the fold fell on rather deaf and disinterested ears.

Until, that is, he put BioShock on one rainy weekend – and it completely blew my mind.

BioShock rapture

The thing about being out of gaming for a number of years is that you miss out on the advances that allow for a genuine auteur – such as Ken Levine – to truly realise their ambitions on a grand and captivating scale.

The experience had me totally hooked from the start. The tangible panic and chaos of the plane crash and its aftermath, all burning debris and half-drowned gasps; the unexpected intrigue and mystery of that strange, other-worldly lighthouse, jutting like a gothic obelisk out of the ocean. And then, of course, that incredible descent into Rapture itself – which remains, for me, the undisputed greatest opening in gaming history.

The reveal of the underwater city struck me as nothing short of breathtaking, its creator’s stirring pre-recorded speech introducing the towering, majestic buildings just as Gary Schyman’s beautiful orchestral score crescendo-ed with a startling, spine-tingling flourish.

I think my life-long love of horror also played its part in reeling me in. Behind its exquisite architecture Rapture is rotting, and the first thing you witness upon landing in the interior of the dank, corrupted city – glimpsed in half-shadow through warped glass – is a young man pleading desperately for his life with a hook-handed fiend, who viciously guts this unfortunate before unleashing an ear-piercing, inhuman shriek.

Shortly afterwards you are invited to step out into this dark, crumbling environment with no weapon to hand, and uncover the mysteries lying in wait.

Bioshock splicer

An enticing beginning, to be sure, and one that had me fully invested from the off. Here I was playing my first ‘proper’ gaming experience in years, and I was completely and utterly enthralled.

It certainly helped that the gameplay was rooted in classic first-person shooter traditions, as the genre had previously been all-too familiar to me back to my initial obsession with the original Doom. However, it was clear to me from the get-go that this was so much more than what I had thought an FPS and – more importantly – a game could ever be.

BioShock was the kind of game I could only have dreamed about in my formative years. It felt like a fully realised and believable vision of a compelling and immersive world, drawing me unquestioning into its past, present and uncertain future, while its incredible dramatic weight and meaty themes reminded me that games – at their best – could be truly powerful and awe-inspiring.

In my folly, I had forgotten this. I had forgotten that I had once cried at the death of a fictional character in Final Fantasy VII; been scared witless by the nightmarish atmosphere of Silent Hill; and laughed like a drain at the adventures of Guybrush Threepwood. But BioShock helped me rediscover the emotional impact that the very best games can have – and it made me want to get involved once more.

There has been so much discussion of the title’s killer twist and deconstruction of Randian objectivist philosophy, of its eye-widening art style and extraordinary steam-punk aesthetic, that it almost seems redundant to go over those things again here.

BioShock themes

But what I will say is that so many moments from the great game continue to stick so-clearly in my mind.

Packs of insane, ballroom-masked ‘splicers’ attacking to the sound of juddering strings; a make-shift torture chamber spinning the sad tale of one ill-fated unfortunate; frantic confrontations with super-powered fiends (“The ice man fucking cometh!”); and the twisted theatre operated by eloquent maniac Sander Cohen – whose perversions run to murdering faltering pianists for their ineptitude, and constructing a sculptural installation showcasing photographs of slaughtered foes.

Most of all, I remember the haunting confrontation with Rapture architect Andrew Ryan – the game’s shocking revelation conveyed in brutal, disturbing, but profound fashion (“A man chooses, a slave obeys – OBEY!”) – and the overriding tragedy of his utopia-turned-dystopia, where science and ambition have run riot, free from ethical and political constraints, with inevitably corrupting results.

No game has ever had such a momentous impact on me, and I hope it doesn’t sound too cheesy to profess that it actually changed my life.

bioshock

Over the past few years I have become a bona fide gaming fanatic once again, discovering tremendous experiences from Condemned to Fallout 3; from Mass Effect to Dishonored – as well as going back to sample and enjoy all of the great creations I missed out on during my early adulthood (I’m looking at you, Shadow Of The Colossus).

I now regularly write about games for this website – which I set up for that express purpose – and I don’t think there’s a subject about which I am more passionate.

It all started with BioShock, on a rainy day five years ago. And for that, Ken Levine, you have my eternal, heartfelt thanks.

 



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