Warning: Contains Spoilers
The marriage of gameplay and narrative marks the pinnacle of video game design. Interactivity is after all the defining feature of the genre. By creating a seamless union, a game truly merits the title “Art”. Hence, the brilliance of Shadow of the Colossus in which the player must tightly grip the controls while the character grasps for dear life. Bioshock also strives to transcend the genre, but in the end falls short of that promise, mired by uninspired repetitive gameplay.
Bioshock immerses the player via worldbuilding, the game’s selling point. After an absolutely sublime introduction involving a plane crash, your character, Jack, enters Rapture, an underwater society founded upon the principles of Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged”. The first glimpse of the art deco city doesn’t fail to astonish, but needless to say, it’s not exactly a utopia down there. Jack has stumbled upon a city divided by civil war and overrun by monsters. His only hope: the guidance of Atlas, the rebel leader…
Unfortunately, the early levels are nothing to write home about. They consist of fetch quests and battles against mutants and cyborgs while audio logs unveil the back story. There’s some element of moral choice regarding the little sisters, but the choice doesn’t really impact gameplay. Whether you save them or kill them, the result is the same. It also doesn’t help that a single weapon works for all enemies, removing all need for strategy. In the end, the routine gets tedious.
Even the worldbuilding loses its sheen. Take the vending machines. Am I supposed to believe that a dictator trying to throttle a rebellion would allow ammo to be sold on every street corner? Come on! Such things, though minor, ruin the illusion and force the player out of the immersion. For a game like Bioshock with dull and repetitive combat, this is fatal. Instead of exploring an underwater city, I was navigating labyrinthine video game levels.
At some point, I started wondering “Why?” Why the hell was the game forcing Jack (and myself) to photograph dead bodies for a psychopathic artist, for instance? Why was I still playing Bioshock when I longed for the open world quests of Fallout 3. Then, Andrew Ryan reveals Jack has not been acting on his free will at all. Lecturing him on his status as a slave, Ryan growls “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” All this time, I via the character, Jack, had been acting the part of a slave, mindlessly obeying every command the game supplied, fetching like a dog. Now, I thought, it’s time to choose.
Nope. The fetch quests resume, and the game concludes with a laughable boss battle and a ridiculous good and evil cinematic concerning the little sisters. Had Bioshock concluded with Ryan’s scene or introduced actual choice, it would have transcended its genre. It would have been the ultimate satire on video games and linearity. Alas, Bioshock misses its own point.