Bioshock Explained

Posted by | October 31, 2013 | Game Library | One Comment
Bioshock InfiniteSource: Hooded Utilitarian

Bioshock is a game series that contrasts exciting first-person shooting sequences with philosophical and moral questions. The series is famous for its detailed, fantastical, and depraved worlds that are similar to our own.

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Sex, Drugs & Rock n’ Roll

Violence: Bioshock is bloody. Most of the violence is perpetrated with guns, and there is some blood spatter when enemies are hit. There is also some level of body horror. In Bioshock and Bioshock 2, creatures called “Big Daddies” use giant drills to take out foes, and in Bioshock 2 you play as a Big Daddy. Bioshock Infinite achieves similar levels of gore by allowing you to kill foes with a rotating blade attached to your arm. These kills are shown close-up and are appropriately bloody.

Horror: Bioshock pays homage to horror games, pitting the player against psychotic drug addicts with mutated features in a dilapidated underwater city. The game features some jump scares, as well as generally scary imagery associated with the collapse of society. Bioshock 2 loses a lot of that ambiance, while Bioshock Infinite skirts away from horror almost entirely, with the exception of one level late in the game.

Sexual Content: There are inferences regarding sex in Bioshock, Bioshock 2, and Bioshock Infinite—but no graphic sexual content. In Bioshock and Bioshock 2 there are sequences that take place in a strip club that has long been out of use; advertisements for it are still on the walls, but like real-life advertisements for strip clubs, they are not explicit.

Strong Language: There is standard adult language in each Bioshock game. Bioshock Infinite also contains racial and ethnic slurs towards Native Americans, black people, and Chinese people.

Substance Use: Each Bioshock game takes place in a city where there can be alcohol and cigarettes lying around. The player is not encouraged to drink or smoke. In fact, in Bioshock getting drunk can be a nuisance, as you can accidentally drink alcohol while rummaging through crates. When you’re drunk, your vision becomes blurry and the camera wobbles. In later games getting accidentally drunk is less of a hazard. The mechanics of drinking and smoking are the same in each game. Drinking alcohol raises your health and lowers your EVE/Salts (resources that determine your secondary attack power). Smoking cigarettes lowers your health and raises your EVE/Salts. The games take place in time periods when smoking was considered healthy, and tongue-in-cheek advertisements depict people (sometimes children) smoking cigarettes—the player is meant to understand that this is historical ignorance, but it is not explained textually.

Nudity and Costuming: In the advertisements for Eve’s Garden in Bioshock there are suggestively dressed women.

Player Interaction: Bioshock 2 has online multiplayer mode, which comes with all the usual hazards of online play, such as uncensored language from other players.

Save Points

In Bioshock and Bioshock 2, players can save any time as long as they are not engaged in battle. Bioshock Infinite uses a checkpoint save system. Players should know that the distance between checkpoints can be as long as 45 minutes of gameplay. In Infinite, each play session is a hefty time commitment.

Story & Themes

Each Bioshock game explores the consequences of an ideology gone wrong.

In Bioshock you play a blank-slate character named Jack who crash-lands at a mysterious lighthouse in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 1960. Jack descends into the city known as Rapture, and discovers that it has succumbed to chaos after a bloody civil war over a resource known as “ADAM.” ADAM has amazing properties—it can bond with any cell and change it, effectively curing all disease. It also has terrible addictive qualities, and the citizens of Rapture have nearly all become physically deformed and insane from repetitive use of ADAM.

Jack must try to escape from the city, which means tracking down the city’s founder, Andrew Ryan, and getting answers about his own past.

Bioshock 2 is a direct sequel to Bioshock. It takes place in the same city in 1968, but the player plays a Big Daddy—one of the lumbering genetic experiments created to protect the Little Sisters. As Subject Delta, you must try to find the little girl you were assigned to protect, while contending with the usual dangers of Rapture—and some new ones.

Bioshock 2 pits the player against the philosophy of Collectivism—the notion that community efforts and community wealth must be shared out equally. In Bioshock, Andrew Ryan touts Objectivism—the idea that whatever an individual does must be done for himself, with no others in mind. Both philosophies are seen as inherently destructive when followed without restraint. In both cases, the people who live in each society become the victims of people who have power.

Bioshock Infinite is both a spiritual successor to Bioshock and Bioshock 2. It takes place in 1912 in a fictional flying city called Columbia. Booker DeWitt, a private detective, must enter Columbia to find a girl. If he finds her and brings her to New York, his “debt” will be wiped away.

The game follows his journey with the girl, Elizabeth, as he uncovers secrets in his past and hers. As they struggle to escape the city, the oppressed Vox Populi start a revolution against the wealthy Founders, and  Booker and Elizabeth must fight against both sides, using Elizabeth’s strange powers to their advantage.

Bioshock Infinite tries hard to expand on the issues explored by its predecessors. Like the first two Bioshock games, it introduces an isolated city run by a single-minded individual who hurts others for the sake of a belief system. In the case of Bioshock Infinite, Zackary Comstock is a religious zealot who touts a rigid form of Christianity and endorses slavery and racial hierarchies.

One of the locations the player explores is a museum dedicated to Comstock’s “heroism” in the Battle of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion. The museum is full of racist caricatures of Native Americans and Chinese people, and the exhibits feed false history to the spectators. The game is intended for people who know that the in-game portrayal of these historical events is purposely falsified—it’s meant to tell the player that Comstock is a crazy racist. Nevertheless, the images are disturbing.

Racial conflict in the game continues to heat up when the Vox Populi rebel, and the game implies that their act of violent revolution—after years of oppression—is just as bad as the racism perpetrated by the Founders.

The game has a lot of lofty messages to send, but they’re a little too lofty for a game where most of the action is centered on killing faceless enemies. However, Bioshock Infinite makes for great discussion fodder. It’s not as consistent as the first Bioshock game, but discussing where Infinite fails is just as interesting as discussing where it succeeds.

The Creators

Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite were both developed by Irrational Games, while Bioshock 2 was published by 2K Marin; 2K has been the publisher for all three games.

Controversies

Each Bioshock game presents an ideology and deconstructs its effects on society. This makes the games engrossing story experiences but also means they may offend some people. Bioshock and Bioshock 2 are relatively fair explorations of Objectivism and Communism, respectively. Bioshock Infinite handles its moral issues less adeptly.

  • Racist imagery is hugely prevalent in Bioshock Infinite. Columbia is a deeply racist society, and the game attempts to accurately portray racist art and behavior. The racism is presented as a bad trait, but the player is still absolutely inundated with the imagery, which is likely to make the player uncomfortable. Despite the game’s implication that racism is bad, the rebel movement, which is made up mostly of black people, becomes an antagonist later in the game.
  • One Christian player was so offended by the forced baptism Booker undergoes in the beginning of the game that he asked for a refund.
  • Many reviewers said Bioshock Infinite demonstrated a cognitive dissonance between the story and the action of the game, where the story required introspection and an understanding of social issues while the gameplay was standard first-person shooting with little strategy.

Conversation Starters

There is plenty to talk about in each Bioshock game.

  • How does Bioshock use historical time periods (the early 1900s, the 1960s) to tell a story? Why are these settings important?
  • In Bioshock, the use of plasmids has made people insane—to the point where they’re killing each other. Are they evil, or are they sick? What does Bioshock have to say about addiction?
  • Do you think it was okay for Bioshock Infinite to use racist caricatures of people of color as a set dressing for the city of Columbia?
  • What do you think of Bioshock Infinite’s message on organized religion? Is someone’s religion ever an excuse to hurt others?
  • Did you choose to kill or save the Little Sisters in Bioshock? Why? Is killing for a short-term reward worth it, considering it’s just a game? Or did you feel compelled to save them?
  • Many characters in Bioshock refer to the Big Daddies as smelly brutes, but the Little Sisters appear to adore them, and cry when they die. Do you think their feelings are valid, or are they being brainwashed? Do the Big Daddies genuinely care for the Little Sisters, or is it just in their programming?
  • Every Bioshock game is about a city that is isolated from other cultures. Do you think it is healthy for a society to be cut off from the rest of the world? Can this ever go well?

Jargon

ADAM: A stem cell harvested from sea slugs in Bioshock and Bioshock 2. It can be processed to make products that give human beings extraordinary powers. However, it is also dangerous and causes physical and mental damage.

Big Daddies: The iconic enemy of Bioshock, the Big Daddies are test subjects that have been modified to protect the Little Sisters, at the cost of their own lives if necessary. Big Daddies are lumbering giants who will not hurt you unless attacked, or unless their Little Sister is in jeopardy.

Columbia: The setting of Bioshock Infinite. Columbia is an ultra-patriotic city in the sky, under the thumb of religious zealot Zackary Comstock. In contrast to Rapture, it has a strict class system built into it, with poor people and people of color constantly mistreated by wealthy white Columbians.

EVE: EVE is the processed form of ADAM, which players need to use plasmids. EVE is administered with hypodermic needles, known in-game as EVE hypos.

The Founders: A faction in Bioshock Infinite that is aligned with the ultra-nationalist goals of Comstock.

Little Sisters: Little Sisters are small girls who have been modified by scientists to become living ADAM factories. The player must choose whether to save them, or whether to kill them and harvest the ADAM that they possess. Your choice determines the ending of the game.

Plasmids: In Bioshock and Bioshock 2, plasmids are cell modifications that give the player powers like being able to shoot fire or control bees.

Rapture: The setting of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. Rapture is a utopia under the sea, which was constructed by Andrew Ryan. He intended the city as a haven where the philosophy of Objectivism could be practiced without restraint. In Bioshock 2 it is run by Sofia Lamb, who prefers an oppositional Collectivist approach (spoilers: neither works).

Salts: Like EVE, salts are a substance that allows the player to use their powers—in Bioshock Infinite, the powers are known as Vigors.

Splicers: The generic enemies in Bioshock and Bioshock 2. They are addicts who have used plasmids to the point of being driven insane, and will kill you for whatever resources you have.

Vigors: Like Plasmids, Vigors allow the player to possess seemingly magical powers. Vigors are ingested from bottles found around the city of Columbia in Bioshock Infinite.

Vox Populi: The working-class rebels of Bioshock Infinite, led by Daisy Fitzroy.

Simone de Rochefort

About Simone de Rochefort

Simone de Rochefort is a game journalist, writer, podcast host, and video producer who does a prolific amount of Stuff. You can find her on Twitter @doomquasar, and hear her weekly on tech podcast Rocket, as well as Pixelkin's Gaming With the Moms podcast. With Pixelkin she produces video content and devotes herself to Skylanders with terrifying abandon.