10 Years Ago Today, BioShock Proved That Video Games Could Be Art

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Would you kindly take a moment to appreciate the artistry of this (relatively) new medium? Photo: 2K

Warning: This article is chock-full of BioShock spoilers. If you haven’t played the game before, would you kindly think critically about what the hell you’ve been doing with your life for the past ten years, play the game, and then come back and read this. 

Ten years ago today, BioShock was released to a world of video-game fans practically begging to crucify it. The hype surrounding the so-called “revolutionary” first-person shooter had grown to seemingly unrealistic levels during its five-year production period. Early reviews heralded it as the video game to end all video games; a cinematic, life-changing experience that would alter the very nature of the industry; and a goddamned masterful work of capital-A Art — it seemed practically destined to disappoint.

“This game is a beacon. It’s one of those monumental experiences you’ll never forget, and the benchmark against which games for years to come will, and indeed must, be measured.” IGN, August 12, 2007

Yet, the funny thing is, it somehow didn’t.

BioShock not only lived up to these sky-high expectations, it surpassed them. Critics and players alike were blown away by the first-person shooter. Everything about it seemed to not only be better than the games that had come before, but jaw-droppingly different.

“The hours spent playing this masterpiece were the perfect encapsulation of why videogaming is such a favourite waste of time for so many of us. Thrilling, terrifying, moving, confusing, amusing, compelling, and very, very dark. BioShock isn’t simply the sign of gaming realising its true cinematic potential, but one where a game straddles so many entertainment art forms so expertly that it’s the best demonstration yet how flexible this medium can be. It’s no longer just another shooter wrapped up in a pretty game engine, but a story that exists and unfolds inside the most convincing and elaborate and artistic game world ever conceived.” — Eurogamer, August 16, 2007

“If BioShock ends up being yet another critically acclaimed game that the general public ignores then we’re all wasting our time writing reviews in the first place. Folks, this is just about as good as it gets.” — GameShark, 2007

It’s been ten years since the release, and BioShock is still just as beloved as the day it came out. The impact the game has had on the genre as a whole cannot be overstated; its influence is even apparent in recent games like The Last of Us and Prey. I spoke with some of the people who created it about the things that made it great — from its story, to its musical cues, to that one unforgettable twist.

“We all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us.”

A Gatherer’s Garden, one of the few places where you can exchange ADAM for Plasmids. Photo: 2K

“What sets BioShock apart was that it was one of the first in the first-person-shooter genre where the story was as important as the visuals,” said Chris Melissinos, curator of the Smithsonian’s 2012 exhibition, “The Art of Video Games,” which explored the short history of video games as an accepted artistic medium.

Narrative alone, BioShock is a force to be reckoned with. The plot is rich and novelesque in a way that was pretty much unheard of for a first-person shooter in the late 2000s. The game takes place in a mysterious underwater utopia called Rapture, which turns out to be an Ayn Rand–esque experiment for the rich and powerful that has, by the time that you arrive, deteriorated into a hellish madhouse ruled by chaos and violence.

At its most basic level, the game is about your quest to get out of the crumbling Art Deco–inspired city, while the voice of a mysterious Irishman named Atlas guides you; but, in practice, the journey that you embark on during these roughly 15 hours of gameplay is much more complicated than that.

Plasmids! Photo: 2K

Take ADAM, an in-game resource necessary to participate in and complete BioShock. ADAM, which you use to obtain skill-enhancing serums called Plasmids, can only be found in one place throughout the game: within the bodies of very young, doll-like girls called Little Sisters, protected by large monsters called Big Daddies.

In any other game, the natural progression of events would be simple: You fight off the Big Daddy, harvest the ADAM from the Little Sisters — perhaps feel a little squeamish about killing them in the process, but do it anyway because you have no choice — and then continue about the game, life force replenished. But this is where BioShock begins to undeniably stand apart from its predecessors. After you have vanquished the Big Daddy, you’re faced with a seemingly strange choice as you gaze upon the quivering face of the Little Sister: HARVEST or RESCUE?

The game explains that if you harvest the Little Sister, you’ll have to gruesomely murder her (onscreen), but you get the maximum amount of ADAM possible; while if you choose to rescue her, you only get half as much ADAM in exchange for the vague promise that your kindness will somehow be worth your while.

It seems like such a simple choice: It’s a character in a video game — why wouldn’t you harvest her and reap the rewards? Cute as she may be, the Little Sister doesn’t exist; your choice doesn’t have any actual consequence in the real world. Yet, there’s something undeniably visceral that takes over when you’re sitting there, controller in hand, staring up at the face of a whimpering, scared little girl. By requiring you to make the decision — harvest or rescue — the game has made you think about her as something more than just another NPC. She all of a sudden becomes unmistakably real. And — if you’re like me — you can’t bring yourself to click harvest without triggering an existential crisis of epic proportions.

The emotional impact of moments like these within BioShock are reminiscent of the sort of feelings that arise when watching a good film, or reading a book. It stands out against the sea of other casual, rational choices that exist in the majority of other games.

BioShock’s lead designer, Paul Hellquist, told me that this was not only a common reaction, but what he had actually hoped to incite when making the game:

I’ve had plenty of people come up to me and say, “As a parent, when I get to that point in the game — usually, if I’m playing a Star Wars game or whatever, I’m just going to play on the dark side or whatever; I don’t really consider it. But BioShock made me stop and think about the choice I was making, and in the end, I saved every single one of them.”

Those are the stories that I hear from fans that affect me the most, because I like to believe that [having to make that choice] helped those people understand who they really are deep down, and [gave] them another window into themselves. Because isn’t that what art is all about?

“At that time, triple-A was kind of at the height of its success,” Emily Ridgway, the game’s lead sound designer, explained to me. “There weren’t many indie games that were making such bold artistic statements up until that.”

Ridgway attributes the game’s success to the artistic direction and leadership of creator Ken Levine, who had originally intended for BioShock to be a spiritual successor to an early work of his, System Shock 2.

“Ken just did a really good job with getting the artists working on the team and the programmers inspired to really strive to create a world that had meaning, Ridgway recalled. “Emotional meaning, philosophical meaning, and political meaning. And I think as artists and as video-game developers at that particular point in time, we were just so hungry for that. We desperately wanted to make a game that was meaningful — one that was actually saying something, like our favorite films did.”

“A man chooses, a slave obeys.”

Up until BioShock’s release in 2007, the sound design for big-budget triple-A games was pretty formulaic: Take a series of instrumental pieces, sort them by the character’s actions or gameplay state (e.g., fast-paced music for combat scenes, anxiety-driving strings right before a big boss fight, etc.), and set up an algorithm to switch them around as needed.

However, when working on the sound design for BioShock, Ridgway decided to do something different:

At that particular point and time in my career, I hated music and sound design that was tied to gameplay because it ends up being so predictable. And it also isn’t the most emotionally meaningful. I just really didn’t feel like that was right for BioShock, because the game was meant to be so emotional. Our goal was to make people feel burdened with the moral choices that they were having to make, and you can’t do that if you have a Boolean logic turning on and off the music based on how many enemies you’re fighting. So it became more about how can we play music and have sound design in a very handcrafted way that would say, “No, this is being deliberately placed here by hand.”

By removing the algorithmic component of audio design, Ridgway and her team were forced to think carefully about where and when the player would likely be experiencing certain key moments of the game, and sync the audio with these intended emotional events. One of the ways she decided to do this — to convey this deep emotional meaning without having any knowledge of exactly what the player would be doing or looking at — was by using licensed, preexisting music in addition to the standard instrumental scores of video games past.

Atmosphere! Atmosphere! Photo: 2K

By incorporating actual songs, with lyrics, from the ’50s and ’60s, the experience of moving through Rapture is transformed. Suddenly, the sound is able to do more than merely support the narrative arc of the story, it can comment on it. Ridgway revealed that one of the very first songs she chose when working on the game’s sound design was Bing Crosby’s “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.” (If you don’t remember this iconic tune from gameplay, here’s a quick refresher: “What price happiness? / What price happiness? / Who can truthfully say? / For every cheer — with tears we pay …”)

“When I heard those first few words, I remember being like, ‘Man, that is exactly the message of BioShock,’” she recalled.

Would you kindly think abstractly about video games as a whole?

When people who’ve played BioShock think of the game, they think of its monumental twist: Where Andrew Ryan — the businessman who built the Ayn Rand paradise turned hell you’ve been exploring — reveals that you’ve never been in control of yourself, or your actions at all. That you were genetically engineered to respond to a key phrase — “Would you kindly” — and that every time the phrase is spoken, you must obey. The game then flashes back to a myriad of key moments: Atlas inviting you to try your first Plasmid, the note on the box you were carrying before the plane crashed, the writing on the wall inviting you to murder Ryan himself — all of which were prefaced by the (now) starkly obvious phrase, “Would you kindly?”

After playing BioShock, most people immediately want to play it again, just to pick out all of the “Would you kindlys” that they didn’t notice the first time around — and there’s a lot. The whole experience is actually pretty jarring; it makes you wonder — what else didn’t you pick up on because you just accepted it as “part of the game?”

For a narrative-rich, first-person shooter in the late 2000s, BioShock has a startling lack of cut scenes: There are only four, with the rest of the narrative action taking place during gameplay. And, like most of BioShock, the decision to have only these four specific moments be cut scenes was 100 percent on purpose, according to Hellquist:

We talked about it a lot. Cut scenes are — in my opinion, and Ken always preached this to us as well — a crutch. They’re a way for us to, as game designers, impose our will on the gamer by taking away all of their control. And we wanted to create a game where you would feel like you were always in control. Even though, when we had our big plot moments, there’s nothing better for you to do than watch what we want you to watch, we never took the controls out of the player’s hands — until the big twist, that is. When the big twist is “you are not in control,” that moment stands out so much more because you were in control 100 percent of the time, except for that moment, when Ryan is making a point that you’re not in control and never have been.

To me, the twist is memorable not just just because it’s one of so few cut scenes, but because of how it made me feel. There’s a term that’s used primarily in the world of art criticism called “defamiliarization.” It was coined in 1917 by Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “Art As Device,” and is basically used to describe the artistic technique of forcing the viewer to reexamine the way they think about and perceive common objects and experiences, in order to gain a better understanding of the true nature of the object itself. Some popular “high art”–esque examples of this can be seen in Pablo Picasso’s Cubist works, or in the infamous readymades of Marcel Duchamp, but this seemingly stodgy and abstract artistic technique is also epitomized by that moment of shocking revelation in BioShock.

As Andrew Ryan pulls back the curtain on the true nature of the narrative events that have transpired, he also pulls back the curtain on the mechanics of the game itself. You, the player, experience the same shock and betrayal as you, the character. And this is because in this moment, you suddenly realize that you are guilty of the very same sin as your character: You allowed yourself to be passively ordered around without a second thought for the entirety of the game. But, not because of the insertion of some malicious string of genetic code — but because you had never thought to question the system of unspoken rules and regulations that are inherent in the gaming experience itself.

This moment of revelation within BioShock defamiliarizes the concept of video games. It renders it into this foreign and unfamiliar-looking object. It makes you realize that it’s one of those things that you’ve looked at a million times before but have never truly seen. All of a sudden, you become acutely aware of the strange contract of suspended beliefs that you enter into each and every time you sit down to play a game. You start to take note of the general absurdity of games billing themselves as anything other than linear, and of the meaninglessness of things like dialogue and choice. It’s the sort of thing that can easily ruin the whole experience of gaming.

Face the facts. Photo: 2K

But, at the same time, it also forces you to revel in the incredible artistry of each and every video game. When you start viewing things like quest lines and missions not as mere means to an end, but as the meticulously designed, artfully crafted labors of love that they are — it changes things. The whole experience suddenly seems more akin to watching a great film, or losing yourself in a fantastic novel.

“We didn’t sit down before we’d written a line of code and go like, ‘We’re gonna make this game where it makes you question your role as a gamer in all video games forever!’ and all that stuff that we ended up getting to,” Hellquist insists. “But I think that when we were implementing some of these [basic elements], we started to realize the connections and wanted to emphasize them.”

Planned or not, it worked, and it’s what made BioShock unique — and so culturally important. BioShock is still beloved and still critically acclaimed not just because it was beautiful and smart and fun to play, but because it did something people had been trying to do for years — it demonstrated, over the objections of cultural gatekeepers like Roger Ebert, that video games could provoke the same intellectual, emotional, and philosophical responses as movies or plays or novels. Put another way: People love BioShock because it was a great work of art — but also because it proved that a video game could be a great work of art.

10 Years Ago Today, BioShock Proved That Video Games Are Art