BioShock is ten years old today

BioShock is ten years old! The first-person shooter set in the underwater city of Rapture was released on August 21, 2007 in North America (and on the 24th elsewhere), and I’ve been digging through RPS’s archives for the things we wrote about the game upon its release.

Relevant: BioShock came out the day after RPS officially launched on August 20th, as John wrote about earlier today. That means the site was just a baby when BioShock came out, and Kieron interviewing Ken Levine on the making of the game was one of the site’s launch day features.

One of the advantages of having an aesthetic which is consistent and a great art team is that, once they know what they’re doing, they can create very beautiful things very quickly. All those questions you ask when you build an object into a world become a lot easier. When you’re struggling with your aesthetic, it slows everything down. A talented art team with a clear aesthetic will go really far, really fast. That’s not to underestimate the amount of work and talent. They’re incredibly productive and – for the industry – small. Bioshock was made by a team of between fifty and eighty people, compared to ones you see at other publishers of 150-200.

Meanwhile, a week later John had thoroughly enjoyed the game but argued that it wasn’t the 10/10 other sites were giving it. Among his reasons was:

The final boss fight, which Kieron mentioned a while back, was just awful. It’s not just out of place for the rest of the game. It’s a bloody terrible boss fight. It’s far easier to left-mouse your way through than any of the early Big Daddy fights, which is appalling. I loathe boss fights, and I’m only interested in them when they demand cunning over luck and reflexes. This asked for neither, letting me kill Fontaine with only a few crossbow bolts, no plasmids at all, and at its most ridiculous, allowing me to hack a security bot, presumably while Mr All Powerful stood still tapping his toes, politely waiting.

The archives also reminded me what a cloud BioShock released under, as Steam struggled to serve the game to the masses trying to download it and restrictive DRM stopped people installing it on more than two computers. Eesh. Also it reminded me that RPS used to post cosplay pictures pretty regularly, which I’m taking as license to start doing again.

For my part, I loved BioShock when I first played it and then, in the months that followed, my enthusiasm dimmed. Over time, it was the flaws mentioned in John’s feature that stuck out in my memory – including, primarily, the boss fight and the overall let-down of the final third. But I’ve gone back since and been swept away all over again. I can’t think of another game with a world so immediately intriguing and unusual. Fort Frolic is superb; the writing is frequently wonderful; Andrew Ryan’s voice acting is still maybe my favourite performance in any game; it is visually striking at almost every turn… And that twist! My heart was pounding in the build-up to it, as sound and level design and writing all combined to create a perfect dramatic moment.

And without BioShock? It seems unlikely we’d have Dishonored or Prey or any of the other immersive sims released in the past ten years.

44 Comments

  1. OpT1mUs says:

    Found if underwhelming then. Still do.

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      Aerothorn says:

      I’m usually not That Guy in comments – I love most of the games RPS covers and loved – but yeah, Bioshock was underwhelming in every regard except art direction and water graphics (for me). I actually became convinced that the System Shock formula was basically dead, that nothing further could be wrung from it; I am so happy Prey proved me wrong in that (though I’m not sure where we can go post-Prey).

      • haldolium says:

        I think for the fact that BioShock was entirely underwater, their water presentation was as underwhelming as the rest of the game.

        No water in BioShock was anything special. Refraction shaders put on various models, particles. I found that Half-Life², 3 years earlier, rendered often much better water surfaces.

        That said BS had a great art direction, but the technical fidelity was clearly much behind what would’ve been possible at the time.

        Also didn’t they released a “work in progress” or something way back in 2005 or so, where they showed off actual water physics that never made it into the finale games? I’m very certain of that, but I can’t find the damn video anywhere.

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        subdog says:

        You’re coming at it from the wrong angle, IMO. Yeah, it was supposed to be carrying the System Shock torch, but instead it carried on the legacy of Half-Life 2.

        When the rest of the industry decided the story-driven single player FPS was dead outside of Halo/CoD, the Bioshock series was there to keep it going, and it did a fine job at that. It didn’t hit the right notes to be “immersive sim”, but it sure scratched an itch that the rest of the industry wasn’t keen to mess with.

      • fish99 says:

        Why would Bioshock make you think the System Shock formula was dead when the game was such a departure from (especially) System Shock 2? SS2 was an FPS-RPG with tons of choice about how you played the game, non-linear maps and back-tracking. Bioshock was just an FPS with magic powers.

        The weakest point about Bioshock was that when you left each level, you basically had enough Adam to buy every upgrade and plasmid available at that point, and whether you harvested or saved the little sisters, you got the same Adam because of the gifts. You didn’t have a build and you weren’t forced to specialize, which killed replay value.

  2. Abacus says:

    It definitely wasn’t worth the 10/10s it was getting. It was good, but very overblown in both its narrative and its critical reception.

  3. mabeo says:

    Same here. Had been looking forward to it, stopped playing after the second third. Gunplay, story, art style, everything was a bit of a letdown compared to System Shock 2 and Deus Ex. The new Prey is everything I had hoped Bioshock would be. So if Bioshock led to that and Dishonored, thanks.

  4. Lacero says:

    Is this really ten years old? Really?

    I refuse to belive I am.. I mean I refuse to belive it is ten years old.

    • April March says:

      Also it reminded me that RPS used to post cosplay pictures pretty regularly, which I’m taking as license to start doing again.

      I am simultaneously elated and terrifed of the prospect of Alice hearing about this.
      Anyway, anyone has a spare wig?

  5. Darth Gangrel says:

    RPS has also become 10 years just now and so RPS and Bioshock are just as old?!

    Perhaps they have more common, but that would mean unearthing the horrors that lurk in the RPS treehouse, far worse than anything in a videogame.

  6. Halk says:

    Oh god. This means that Half-Life 2: Episode Two is almost ten years old too.
    Thanks for that cliffhanger, Valve.

  7. Kollega says:

    Fun fact: Andrew Ryan is voiced by Armin Shimerman. He also voiced a certain character largely unknown at RPS. For you see, this character is from the Ratchet & Clank series, which sadly has been exclusive to PlayStation. And he’s literally named “Doctor Nefarious”. And he sounds like this. Pretty rad complimentary contrast to Ryan in terms of charismatic insanity, if I may say so.

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    steves says:

    Would you kindly stop reminding us all how old we are. Thank you.

  9. Artea says:

    I really wanted to like Bioshock, but it’s just so boring. Once you get past the cool art design and aesthetics, the core gameplay loop is incredibly shallow and repeated ad nauseum. Go into a room, shoot every Splicer in sight and then run around mindlessly spamming the pick up button to eat every soda bottle and can of baked beans in sight, over and over again. Some of the powers are cool, but the gunplay and enemy behaviour and A.I. which make up the bulk of the gameplay are lousy.

    I’m also baffled by it being called an immersive sim, when Bioshock removed almost every single immersive sim trapping to appeal to a wider audience. Level design is utterly linear. Enemies don’t patrol around, they spawn in (often conveniently behind you as you turn your back to pick an up an item placed at a deadend). So far went the dumbing down that they even removed the inventory, something that’s present in plenty of mindless action games.

    And while the aesthetic is cool, it’s also mindless style over substance. Whose brilliant idea was it exactly to leave the task of harvesting dangerous chemicals to little schoolgirls? I honestly felt like my intelligence was being insulted with the absurdly juvenile choice between SAVE OR HARVEST LITTLE SISTER (with the former choice rewarding you with a literal gift basket for being such a good boy). And the much-touted ‘Would you kindly?’ plot twist also falls flat because it has the same issue as almost every plot twist: once you examine all the events and actions leading up to the reveal, you see they don’t make a lick of sense, because everything has been very contrivedly set up for that single reveal, without any real thought put into logical plotting or coherent character motivations.

  10. Drib says:

    I really enjoyed Bioshock. Yeah yeah there was really only like one or two enemy types, blah blah boss battles.

    But the game was fun in its way. The environments looked great for the time, it was a weird setting with magic superpowers from sea slugs. No, it wasn’t logically consistent or even half reasonable, but the voice logs told interesting stories and the game was well put together for what it was.

    So neat, a moment of nostalgia again. Thanks, RPS!

  11. cpt_freakout says:

    I quite enjoyed Bioshock, even though I never actually finished it. Sure, it wasn’t exactly what we wanted after SS2 but to me it was pretty great precisely because it was all about style. Just like Infinite – it’s just so detailed, the environments so well-crafted, so enjoyable to look at, the whole theme realized so well that it’s forgivable that the writers and the programmers couldn’t live up to it.

    Even if they don’t hold up that well after Dishonored and Prey (especially after Prey), Bioshock did the setup work and the series is valuable because of it, I think.

  12. Samudaya says:

    As far as shooters go, I’ll take Bioshock’s story over your generic elite soldier fantasy any day.

    Doesn’t this site love Morrowind? Did you forget to celebrate 15 years of Morrowind? But Bioshock warrants remembering?

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    basilisk says:

    I still happen to think it’s brilliant. The aesthetic remains fantastic, the opening sequence is absolutely perfect and I will fight anyone who dares to disagree, and most importantly the whole thing is also extremely smartly structured.

    It’s one of very few games that have understood the power of anchoring everything in one core theme (parenthood, in this case) that informs the entire plot and all the characters; each level has its own clearly defined subtheme within the overall theme and the level progression gradually paints a picture of the entirety of Rapture, documenting its rise and fall in a way that feels almost natural despite being very cleverly contrived.

    Yes, the shooting could use some tightening up (provided in the sequel) and yes, the level immediately after the big reveal is pants and coincides with the point where the game silently boosts the HP of all common enemies for no reason in particular, so it starts to drag badly. Though the Little Sister school just afterwards is another great level, so it’s not like it’s all downhill from there. Final boss aside.

    There are other nits to be picked, certainly, but the fact that this madly ambitious and honestly pretty weird thing got made in the triple-A industry is something of a small miracle and I will always cherish it for that.

    • Hillbert says:

      Due to the inability to upvote I’ve been forced to draw an arrow on my screen and mash it with my paw…

      But yes, a brilliant game which succeeded in so many ways I’m more than willing to overlook those places where it doesn’t quite work.

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      phuzz says:

      I always thought that “the big reveal” should have been right at the end of the game, rather than halfway through. Pretty much everything after that was a bit of a let down.
      I still occasionally use the phrase “would you kindly” when I really want someone to do something.

    • Troubletcat says:

      Yeah, basically this, in terms of my feelings on the first game… Actually surprised to see so much distaste for the game in the comments section here. It had problems, but I think it’s still one of the greats on account of how much it got right.

      As for the sequels, BioShock 2 had the better gameplay but it lacked a certain something and just never grabbed me the same way as the first game.

      BioShock Infinite was, in my opinion, abjectly terrible in every respect aside from art design. THAT is the game that I’d be saying didn’t deserve the reviews it got, especially considering how many of them could be paraphrased as “Gameplay was terrible but I feel smart because I understood the convoluted plot, 10/10.”

  14. baozi says:

    Is Bioshock an Immersive Sim?

    • Muzman says:

      No, I don’t think so. It’s a shooter with a dash of open endedness and character creation through item/loadout choice.
      It’s a lot more bearable if you think of it this way at least (even if the shooting itself doesn’t manage to be much fun. That didn’t happen until Minerva’s Den)

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      subdog says:

      Nah, but that’s okay.

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    smackywolf says:

    Bioshock remains one of my favourite holistic experiences to this day. Yes, the Fontaine battle is awful, yes the gunplay isn’t amazing. But the story, the experience, the wonder of Rapture and the many little audio logs to paint the colour of the city are all incredible.

    Bioshock 2 was mechanically much better, but the first one lives on in my memory as a distinct favourite. I’ll still fire it up once in a while and play through the whole thing of a weekend.

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    subdog says:

    If you haven’t already, go check out Steve Gaynor’s interviews on Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes podcast from earlier this month. It’s more about Bioshock 2 than the original, but it still has a lot of interesting insight into the series and its design.

  17. racccoon says:

    ok, thx… well, we were all ten years younger when we played that great game, & we never stopped playing it till completed.
    That was old school game development, completed as a business with no early access of today’s gaming culture which never get finished & causes the game players to pay to test & work for them!
    Jeez we are turning into right intelligent humans aren’t we..not!

  18. Beefpants says:

    The remaster for pc still has issues. Seems like they abandoned it after one patch.

  19. Dodgy says:

    I still have the Big Daddy figurine I got with the limited edition of the game. I should sell that sometime.

  20. RimeOfTheMentalTraveller says:

    I recently replayed BioShock and Bioshock 2’s remasters and did all the achievements for both (Bioshock 2 Remastered was a fucking nightmare with the crashes and broken achievement counter, good thing the console works.)

    I found BioShock a bit underwhelming when I played it first in Septmeber 2013 and liked Infinite a lot more, not the least because of the faster swashbuckling combat.

    But with some more games under my belt and a slightly more mature understanding, I do see now how great an achievement it was, especially at the time. The BioShock directors’ commentary included in the remaster I also found fascinating and it helped realise how much of a tight rope the studio was walking making it. Changing the voice actor and writing for Atlas months before release wasn’t something I had imagined would be part of the development. Still, I love the environmental storytelling and artstyle and I appreciate making the city more of a character than anyone else

  21. fish99 says:

    *spoilers*

    I had the twist spoiled for me before I played this, which took some of the shine away, but up to the point that twist happens it’s a pretty compelling experience. After that point though the game loses all direction, with one mediocre level, one bad level and a mind-blowingly awful boss fight. Also Fontaine was a dull cliche.

    Also the ‘would you kindly’ thing never worked for me since as a player I had no choice but to follow the instructions of Atlus.

    Definitely didn’t help that they never fixed the mouse acceleration either.

    • Kushiel says:

      “Also the ‘would you kindly’ thing never worked for me since as a player I had no choice but to follow the instructions of Atlus.”

      That’s the point…?

      I get the sense that I don’t understand what you’re saying here.

      • fish99 says:

        If that’s the point, that it was a comment on how the player has no choice in games then … that’s a pretty weak point, since plenty of other games do give the player choices.

        • Kushiel says:

          I’m unaware of other games in the same genre as Bioshock, contemporaneous with it, that give the player influence over their plots.

          I’m not sure why you’d assume that it was attempting commentary on all of videogame-dom rather than the specific corner of same which it could potentially have anything to say about – like, I’m not sure that it’d be possible to make an FPS title that says much about the conventions of RTS games, for example.

  22. punkass says:

    Whilst there may be flaws with this in gaming terms (and as this is a game, they’re pretty important!), as a complete experience, as a piece of art, I think the game still stands out.

    Admittedly this was one of the first games I’d played after a super-extended break of just playing various Civs, so the graphics took my breath away, but I really appreciated how tied together the art direction was.

    It helped me really immerse myself in the games world – wandering around unarmed in the dark whilst Splicers gibbered near the beginning was terrifying, and I really hesitated before shoving that first needle in my arm.

    And I still think it holds up as philosophically interesting. Sure, it’s pretty easy for anyone to pick holes in Rand, and the twist was a little heavy, but even before that, I was really interested in what made Rapture go bad, and made the Splicers act like they did. Then I realised that if someone looked at how my character was acting, I wouldn’t look that different from them. I thought it was an interesting twist on nature vs. nature, so was almost disappointed to find out the twist.

    Bioshock made me consider the nature of playing games, and their relation to free will and storytelling. That’s pretty cool, and to do it within a beautiful world populated with pulpy yet interesting characters was a real achievement I shan’t forget.

  23. Pidesco says:

    Bioshock was not a bad game, but it was one of the most disappointing games I have ever played. At the time it motivated some posting by me here at RPS, and I even exchanged a couple of e-mails withe Kieron Gillen, on the subject.

    To begin with the fundamental disconnect between its gameplay design and its story and theme was a huge black mark on the game. The lack of options you have and the way it discarded what made System Shock 2 a fantastic, unique game was just depressing and sad.

    That this happened due to focus grouping the life out of the gameplay didn’t help either. Chris Kline explained in depth how Bioshock was gutted, often against the wishes of the developers, in this lecture. link to youtube.com

    The main feeling I had when intially playing Bioshock was that I had already played a much better version of the same game. Later, when the game fails to fulfill the promise of the great moment that was meeting Andrew Ryan, everything just ends up unravelling.

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    Remarkable world-building, but I personally liked Bioshock 2 better as a game, both mechanically and narratively. Still, the first deserves the credit for creating the world and it had some truly great stand out moments.

  25. Qeyleb says:

    Am I too late to bring up Tom Francis’ incredible article on how he would have changed the ending? link to pentadact.com

    The whole thing is great, but in particular I like his point about how when Fontaine is revealed he should have had a very plain, intelligent, serious voice. And his inversion of the use of the VitaChambers is genius; so much better than the bland “you can’t respawn any more” popup message. Not to mention the whole Chekov’s gun of THE SEA.

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