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RPS Verdict: The BioShock Trilogy

Rapturous applause or Big Daddy issues?

Almost ten years after our first trip to Rapture, the BioShock trilogy has been re-released and (in some cases) remastered. The Collection [official site] looks lovely but it's far from perfect.

Today, we're looking back though - a lot has happened since the first game’s arrival, including the departure of director Ken Levine from the studio that made two of the three games, and a resurgence of the first-person immersive sim as a genre. Here, we consider all things Bioshock and decide, among other things, which of the games is actually the best.

Adam: Right. Let’s get the important question out of the way first, and that question is of course, “Is Bioshock 2 secretly or not-so-secretly the best Bioshock game?” It’s something I hear people saying, more and more often, and they are serious, but I’m not sure if that’s just a symptom of hanging around with too many game critics.

As one of those critics, I do have very strong opinions about Bioshock 2 though and I do think it’s the best of the three. It has a lot to do with it having the least heavy-lifting to do in terms of establishing both a sci-fi setting AND that sci-fi setting’s Important Lessons about our own world, but it’s mostly because it’s the only Bioshock game with good combat. And these are first-person shooters, after all. The combat matters.

Am I wrong?

Brendan: You are not wrong. About the combat, that is. Making Rapture into an underwater Tower Defence with children was the best move the designers could have made. But when I think back on the story behind it all, I can’t help but frown and squint. BioShock the First was memorable for obvious reasons, and even Infinite had its clever bits (I suspect we’ll get into just how clever in a moment) but BioShock 2? What was that about again? A lady who snatched your baby? I like the bit that everyone likes though.

Adam: We will get onto Infinite and where it is or isn’t clever in a moment, but straight off I can’t help but notice ‘even Infinite’. Is that what Bioshock Infinite is? ‘Even Infinite’? I mean, it definitely is to me but that seemed to come very naturally.

But, yeah, I agree that 2 is a bit lacking in areas, mainly that the story even when it works is not always particularly memorable. But I think it goes back to the heavy lifting thing I mentioned - the more the stories in the other two games try to do, and this goes for Infinite particularly, the more they struggled to carry the load for me. The lightness of 2 feels even more welcome after Infinite.

Graham: You're all a bunch of noodlers. Noodling with your critiques and your thoughts. I will be the big excitable dog of the group, then: the BioShocks are all brilliant, and BioShock 2 is the best in most of the ways which count. It's got the better ensemble, in terms of its cast of characters; it's got the best level design (relating the story of BioShock 1 to players via a museum full of animatronics? Delightful). It's got the best combat - both structurally, in those tower-defense-style areas, and in individual weapons like being able to skewer Splicers to the wall with the stake gun. It's got a more interesting lead character, rather than "a man."

The only thing it doesn't have is the shock and novelty of the original getting to introduce the world, and Andrew Ryan, who is the best character. (Ryan built the place, everyone else just lives there, which makes the antagonist in 2 weaker - though still interesting).

Alec That sounds suspiciously like noodling to me, but anyway. I’ve been saying Bioshock 2 is bestest for years, but I’ve changed my mind. Having revisited it a couple of times lately, BioShock 1 is bestest. I can see it so much more clearly now, no longer outraged by big blue men or why doesn’t that character do that thing then and whatever. It’s that much more of a horror game, with a fabulous environment for it, and as soon I I as approached it in that spirit rather than why isn’t it a better shooter or why does the man put the mystery needle in his vein for no reason, it just hangs together so much better. It’s about being anxious about what’s in the next room, but regularly it decides that “next room” isn’t enough, so instead it’s some fucking nightmarish warren of human depravity as well as scary people standing in corners. BioShock 2: totally a better shooter. But I’m just not as motivated by shooters as I was.

Brendan: Yes. Is there anything like the slow-dancing splicers in 2? The lady splicer crying over a pram? Exceptionally creepy stuff.

Adam: I don’t remember any great creepy vignettes like that, no, and nothing to compare to Fort Frolic for sure.

Alec, you’ve made me want to go and replay it instantly - and admittedly, I haven’t for a long time. But my memory is of splicers running toward me and having to shoot them repeatedly. I always wanted it to be a horror game and felt like it was more of an FPS. In case it sounds like I hate BioShock the first, by the way, I like it a LOT. It disappointed me, but in the way that something worth actually being disappointed by does.

Alec Oh yeah, there’s a ton of padding, in terms of routine manslaying. I’d probably be saying something different if I was ten hours in. I guess, for me, replaying a game these days involves seeing what it’s like for just a couple of hours ten years later, with a hype or backlash-free mind. I don’t even want to play the whole thing. I certainly don’t want to do the whole shootybang ratrun of 2 again, as much as I dug it. But I’m so impressed by how BS sets out its stall; the fidelity of the horrible world it builds. We all hailed it for philosopisorisation at the time, but I approach it now much more as it just found some fun concepts to build a world around, then have a grisly ball with. Like Infinite, it’s an artists’ game first and foremost, but the plodding movement and constant paranoia seems more relevant to that than the hey-ho let’s go rollercoaster of Infinite.

Adam: It’s one of the best openings in a game ever, isn’t it? Not just the actual Rapture reveal but the actual bleakness of the open water and the plane sinking - the scale of it seemed incredible to me when I first played it. And then descending into the belly of the beast, there’s such a good sense of going into a VERY BAD PLACE. And I’d agree that for all of my Bioshock 2 bluster, I’m much more likely to go back to the opening hour of the first once a year for the next decade than actually play through 2 again.

Alec I was playing today and for once went some distance past the opening, which I’ve seen a dozen times then usually quit right after, and actually it’s remarkable how much longer it sustains its air of mystery-horror, its shower of ‘orrible detail and deco design. I know more routine stuff lays in wait, but getting into the medical centre and being ambushed by evil dentists, finding mad nurses hiding in cupboards, bodies pinned to the floor with surgical scissors: it’s incredibly well-sustained as an “oh jesus christ what is happening here” affair.

Brendan: That’s a point. Graham, you said that 2 is better in almost every way except the villain. But how can we forget that it is villains, plural. The side-bosses of BS1 were these odd, crazed fanatics, all joined by one central philosophy but maddened in their own way - and they all stand out to me (admittedly, this might be because I have played the first one more). I have strong images of the plastic surgeon, the trolling artist and his eerie sculptures. These were all much more disconcerting than anything I remember from 2 or Infinite.

Except the last boss, obviously. Oh my god. The last boss.

Adam: As much as I hate that boss, final bosses are allowed to be rubbish. They shouldn’t be but if a good game has a shitty final boss, it’s like a lovable dog that does really stinky farts. I just shrug and get on with it - I don’t hang out with the dog to smell its farts, so it’s fine.

Brendan: Adam, you are what’s wrong with videogames. Botched endings need to be expunged from this industry. They are a plague.

Adam: Believe me, I’d love nothing more than to be the man who expunges them but if I have to get a bit of plague to hang out with that farting dog, I’ll do it. It’s a really cute dog. And a hell of a confusing metaphor at this point.

Alec Boggins!

Adam: But look, whether you intended to or not, I think you’ve convinced me that I was wrong in my initial statement. Bioshock 1 probably is the best. And I do love Rapture and all its horrors.

Graham: You're right, BioShock 1 had better villains - but that's because BioShock 2 had people, not merely antagonists. It didn't have that neat repetition of every person going mad in a locked house and spending a lot of time decorating it - though there was that, with Gil Alexander, who is a million times more interesting than Suchong. It painted a more interesting picture of Rapture.

It had great vignettes too, though a different kind of horror. Playing a section of the game as a Little Sister, and seeing the world as beautiful and pristine as they do? I remember that just as fondly as I do Fort Frolic. And BioShock 2 is at times like the guy who made Fort Frolic was put in charge because that's what it was.

(But yes, BioShock 1 was probably better just because of that newness and Andrew Ryan.)

Alec Yeah, BioShock 2 a lovely game, and I forgot about that Little Sister section - glorious. If I had a time machine, one of the things I’d do, other than buying 48 crates of Mini Cheddars before they took all the unhealthiest stuff out, is find a way to make my younger self play BioShock 2 without having played BioShock 1. I would love to know how/if it works as a standalone game. It’s helplessly in the shadow of what BS1 established, and particularly that corking intro. Would I feel that more of the mystique and weirdness was there if I didn’t know about the major thematic beats already? How effectively does it convey that stuff without the crutch of BS1 having done it first?

Adam: Fuck me. Now I’m starting to think 2 is better again. Alright, go on. Someone try and convince me that Infinite is the best. Take your best shot.

Alec Shan’t. Ack, I should replay some of it to try and get my thoughts straight. I probably hate it too much now because I’ve lazily let the discomfort fester. I just found it so damn smug, especially in the wake of the self-celebratory, self-justifying DLC, and that got in the way of appreciating it for what it was, which is an extremely OTT shooter with nice set dressing. And, unfortunately, problematic attempts to Mean Something despite how silly it all is, which is where it really falls apart.

I think I’m going to shut up.

Adam: It’s a compelling argument but I’m still leaning toward Bioshock 1 at this point. I’m guessing Brendan ‘Even Infinite’ Caldwell isn’t going to offer a good defense of it either.

Brendan: I’m sorry I said ‘even Infinite’. I only said it because I know everyone else despises it. I saw Leigh Alexander saying it was one of the most “most despicable, irredeemable” games ever made and I couldn’t even tell if she was joking. The thing is, I enjoyed it when it came out. I liked the theme park feeling and the parallel dimension silliness and I especially liked that Irrational were smart enough this time to leave the twist punch to the very end, unlike BioShock 1, which, after its twist, continues on screwing as if it hasn’t blown its load. Is that sentence a bit Too Much? I think it is.

My point is: I liked the gameiness and spectacle of Infinite enough to play it twice. I thought that maybe - just maybe - Irrational were smart enough to make small differences in playthroughs relating to its choices. Then I realised that, for all its quantum state quackery, it really was on-rails. And it was about this time that all the narrative flaws started being pointed out by other writers and I had this “oh” moment when I realised everything those critics were saying was actually quite smart.

Adam: I found it really unpleasant. It felt like a caricature and by the time it started hammering home an ‘oppressed become oppressors’ message, I just wanted out.

Alec Do not forget that the DLC tried to retroactively justify that, claiming wossername wasn’t as psycho as she seemed and had been made to do it for the greater good or something. I think that’s what made me dislike the whole shebang as much as I do. Having cake and eating it rather than holding hands up to an insensitive approach.

Brendan: One of the things a friend pointed out to me was that, in the game, the Irish team up with the resistance. But historically, the Irish in America were assimilated into US culture that much more quickly because of their willingness to overlook or even engage in racism. And I’m allowed to say those hugely general things about an entire group because I am Irish. That’s how it works, right? My point is that I agree, it handles the complex issues of immigration, race, and equal rights with a big daft paintbrush. I think its commentary on labour - one villain’s use of a separate currency to pay workers - was smart because it reflects the old industrial mentality of the early 20th century and that was a practice which actually occurred (and is lesser-known than segregated toilets). But when it comes to the other stuff. Er, yeah.

Adam: As much as I disliked almost everything about the story within the setting - ie the actual flying city stuff and the racism and riots and the rest - I like the actual Infinite concept a lot. I like it when it goes Full Sci-Fi Multiverse silliness. It’s like a huge, bright colourful cartoon of ideas at that point, and absolutely ridiculous and seemingly happy to be so. But the rest of it left such a bad taste in my mouth and my brain and the rest of me. I still remember seeing an early video - maybe even a screenshot - of Elizabeth opening up a portal to what looked like our world, and I love that game. It’s not the game I played when Infinite eventually came out, but I can just about catch glimpses of it in there.

Graham: Noodlers! Noodlers noodling! It's a sky theme park in which you whizz around in rollercoasters with a shotgun! It again has absolutely stunning architecture - that flooded church near the start? And great vignettes, like tumbling through the sky with Elizabeth in tow! I dug the ending's ridiculousness, with its crashing together of realities and zeppelins, but it's grandiose and soaking in ambition and silliness long before that, too. I agree with the criticisms but think, like BioShock 1's farting dog, they come to dominate conversations far more than they dominated my feelings when flipping around among the clouds.

Adam: The game is serving up noodles! It’s the farting dog that follows through!

Infinite was the one where the things I didn’t like did dominate my feelings while I was playing. If it was a theme park, it felt like the owner of the theme park kept sidling up to me while I was queuing for the rides and telling me that he’d heard about this thing called Racism and really wanted to share his pamphlets and six part lesson about American history with me. I couldn’t see past it to the fun stuff. Or I could, but only for a few minutes at a time.

That’s not to say that I think a theme park shouldn’t try to tackle those issues….err, well maybe not a theme park but this does remind me of an interview I read today about the new Magnificent Seven movie, where Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt seem horrified that the interviewer might try to get them to talk about ‘ideas’ when they’re just there to promote a film. I absolutely think a big ol’ blockbuster action adventure can tackle Big Ideas, Infinite just didn’t work for me in that respect. And I think that’s partly because it uses the ideas as window dressing rather than actually engaging with them.

Graham: This is one of my favourite videos and seems relevant.

Alec I agree with Graham somewhat in that over time this stuff has obfuscated “but is it, y’know, a fun action rollercoaster with all the graphics?” which is certainly what the publishers probably wanted even if the creatives wanted us to read their pamphlets. But thing is, I also got pretty bored sometimes. I could see its working a lot of the time: enter area, notice sky rails and platforms and whatever, something happens, everyone leaves, hello baddies. It would be so routine if it wasn’t for its ALT-REALITY and also SLAVERY noodling. Shoot and bin dive, shoot and bin dive. I’ll take the dog’s unexpected bottom-burps over that any day.

Adam: That leads into a question that I wanted to ask all three of you, actually. I think Infinite might have worked better for me if the action had grabbed me, but I thought it was the most boring just in terms of the actual movement and shooting - which seems impossible given how kinetic it all looks.

But the question is this - do you think the BioShock games have actually influenced either blockbuster FPS design or been at all responsible for some of the immersive sim resurgence we’re seeing? They’re hugely successful, well-respected games, and I think there’s a tendency among People of a Certain Age to think of them as one link in a chain that began with Looking Glass or even earlier. But I think they also exposed a lot of people to certain kinds of design for the first time, and maybe made them more interested in what a first-person game can do. Any thoughts on that?

Alec Dishonored is absolutely influenced by it, both in terms of “oh thank god, we get to be weird and twisted and go beyond Man With Gun Does What Mans With Guns Do”, and in being a reaction to where BioShock fell short. Open city, customisable powers, opportunity to dig into people’s stories and make a choice about how to treat them rather than have them thrown at you in this often rather screeching way. But more generally, BS1 feels landmark in terms of being - ugh - “cinematic”, like a blockbuster sci-fi movie rather than selling itself on the fact of violence and guns. I think it’s been in the mix for even CODs and Battlefields trying to be more than Level 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. In some respects, it’s recent-ish action games’ Sixth Sense - made the idea that there has to be a twist, a big reveal, almost essential for any game which wants to go galactic.

Brendan: I agree. I think if anyone thinks the BioShocks fit into the genre of ‘immersive sim’ they are telling themselves a BIG FIB. They’re self-fibbers. I think Dishonored and the Deus Ex reboots are more loyal to that formula and while their focus - world design uber alles - is definitely a result of BioShock’s success at world-building, the things that you do and can do in those games is much more true to the spirit of immersive sim. Sure, in BioShock you can set oil on fire or put electricity through water. But that’s different from the multiple pathways of Deus Ex or the chaining powers of Dishon -- oh wait I see. Dishonored is exactly the same.

Adam: The actual definition of ‘immersive sim’ is ‘first-person game where you have an inventory so you don’t have to eat directly out of the fucking bins’.

Graham: I think BioShock was riding a wave that was already happening, towards more open and expansive experiences across all games. Crysis was the same year, and was a game where you could stealth, or shoot, or tank, and go up and above and under and through as well as directly forward. Assassin's Creed was the same year. Far Cry 2 was the next year. I think Grand Theft Auto probably deserves more credit for introducing people to the idea that their action games could include more than shooting.

What BioShock introduced was probably a formula (can one of the enemies be ICONIC? Can the character's hat be ICONIC?) for the design of a game's aesthetic, and the idea that a mainstream action game could tackle POLITICS and ISSUES. Eg. BioShock gets us Watch_Dogs' hat and Spec Ops: The Line's don't-you-feel-bad-about-that? setpieces.

Brendan: Spec Ops: The Line, aka The Mediocre Shooter With One Great Bit.

Alec Well, Duke Nukem maybe did Iconic Look first, it’s just that it stopped being funny 15 years ago and hasn’t realised that yet. I can’t remember - does BS1 have ammo crafting and weapon upgrades in it, or is that just BS2? I feel like it might have set some mainstream precedents for DIY weapon tweaking and player preference as opposed to “and here are the new toys in the exact order we decided” too. Oh, it definitely did, didn’t it, because everyone got cross that the magic electric spanner was overpowered. I *loved* the magic electric spanner myself. Clubbing scary people in the dark (especially while they were slow dancing) seemed so much more appropriate than Tommy Gun wildfire in a glass house under the sea.

Adam: So BioShock introduced us to electric spanners and led to iconic baseball caps and everyone feeling terrible about shooting people? That sounds about right.

OK. Final round. Pop quiz. Will we ever see another BioShock game now that Irrational have become a tiny studio and Ken Levine has left for pastures anew? Is there any juice to be squeezed out of the name?

Alec Without a doubt - unless the remasters bomb. It’s one of 2K’s biggest brands. They’re not gonna care about exhaustion or tales being told. I just hope they’re willing to explore new places rather than go back to Rapture yet again. Time was I craved a pre-fall Rapture RPG, but nah, it’s done. Gimme brand new cray-cray instead. That’s what ‘Shock is for. And for the love of the sweet baby Jesus in each and every dimension, please don’t make everything connected. Random self-contained madness only, please. I’ve had enough lighthouses for a lifetime.

Graham: 100% yes. From a purely boring business perspective, Infinite might not have done as well as hoped, but the series as a whole has still sold like Venetian masks at an underwater New Year's Eve party and it still has one of the most recognisable names in all of games. (And some of the most recognisable characters, world design, etc.) Whether there's actual creative juice left inside, I don't know, but I'd bet someone else's money on a new BioShock being announced next year.

Brendan: I would be fine even if there was “a man and a lighthouse”. But I’d want that to be included in the most tangential manner it could. Possibly as a painting at the end of a long corridor in an otherwise completely new world. “Oh look,” says a character as they stop to look at the painting. “A man and a lighthouse.” Then they continue on and nothing more is said.

Alec Actually I demand that we get to fight a giant blue lighthouse at the end of BioShock 4.

Adam: In BioShock 5, you are the lighthouse. OK. Two more questions. First up - will Michael Fassbender play Andrew Ryan or Hero Man in the eventual BioShock movie?

Alec No, no, this will be a Kit Harrington joint. You just wait. That man’s sad-puppy face will haunt licensed adaptations for a decade, I’m sure.

Graham: Armin Shimerman will play Andrew Ryan, of course. In full Quark make-up.

Brendan: Dakota Fanning from the past as the Little Sister.

Adam: Bees?

Graham: Fassbender plays the bees.


Adam:: Just to be clear, ‘BEES?’ was the final question rather than an extension of the Fassbender question. But there we are.


Alice Bees!

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