The greatest narrative video game of all time arrives back on sale on September 13.
If you’ve played them before, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say they’re the greatest video games ever made. If not, this is your chance to find out. These truly are some of the most amazing interactive stories ever told; and not playing them is like skipping Shakespeare or Hemingway in your reading list.
Let’s cover all three games, and what makes them so remarkable (warning: minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t played the games):
You might think I’m being hyperbolic when I say it’s ‘the greatest narrative video game of all time’ but I’m not. The Bioshock series were the video games that introduced to me the concept of video-games-as-art; a story and experience as moving as any movie or book.
And, of the three, the original Bioshock remains the greatest.
What makes the game remarkable is that the player character is almost incidental to the game. You don’t ‘play’ the game, so much as experience it. You’re a witness to a story; not a narrative part of it.
The premise of Bioshock, written by legendary game developer Ken Levine, is epic in its complexity and richness. The game takes place in an underwater city in 1960 – a place called ‘Rapture’, designed by an obsessive genius who wanted to give the theory of ‘objectivism’ a try in a way it had never been possible to in the corrupt cities and nations above the waves.
That man, Andrew Ryan, is a fictionalized combination of industrialist Howard Hughes, visionary Walt Disney, and philosopher Ayn Rand. In fact, Ryan’s biography shares many similarities with Rand; even down to the similarity in their names.
Andrew Ryan was born Andrei Rayanovsky, in Minski, Russia – just as Ayn Rand was born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum. Both fled to America in the 1920s, after the Marxist revolution threatened their Jewish families.
In America, they ‘Americanized’ themselves with new names, and a radical embrace of the American values of freedom, entrepreneurship, and independence.
Their belief was that society as a whole gets better when men pursue their own rational self interest.
But while Ayn Rand merely wrote about this radical philosophy of ‘objectivism’, the fictional Andrew Ryan made a real-life version of it. Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, saw a mirror in Andrew Ryan’s underwater Utopia, Rapture. It was a city he built under the waves, to escape what he saw as tyrannical governments stealing from the wealth of the men who drive progress in the world.
The true story of Bioshock isn’t the adventures of the first-player character, Jack Ryan. It’s more the story of Rapture itself, as you discover the rise of this libertarian utopia, and then learn of it’s self-destruction; fueled by the discovery of ‘Adam’, a substance than can re-write human DNA and give people incredible powers.
And that’s why it’s the most incredible game of all time – because it’s an exercise in philosophy as much as running and shooting. After the game ends, you’re not left wondering which weapon you should have used to kill the final boss. You’re pondering if a society like Rapture could ever have truly worked; and, if so, why it collapsed like it did in Bioshock.
I’m a libertarian myself, so I will admit I related greatly to the character of Andrew Ryan. But writer Ken Levine did such a fantastic job in storytelling that you came to realize the philosophy of objectivism is just as flawed as that of communism or socialism; and its the human failings of men like Ryan that lead to the bloody destruction of this underwater marvel.
And that’s why it’s the most incredible game of all time – because it’s an exercise in philosophy as much as running and shooting.
Like many young men, I went through my stage of obsessing with Atlas Shrugged (I still keep a copy on my desk) but it was Bioshock that cured me of it; making me realize that ‘rational self interest’ isn’t a sustainable philosophy, because if there’s one thing humanity can never remain, it’s rational.
The massive success of the original Bioshock saw 2K clamoring for a sequel – but Ken Levine wasn’t available this time around. That’s what led to a second game that was a commercial disappointment compared to the original; but in many ways remains as good, or even better.
Many argue that the original Bioshock was an argument against libertarianism. If that’s true, Bioshock 2 is an argument against the opposite. Set in 1970, ten years after the ‘fall of Rapture’, you get to play as one of the iconic ‘Big Daddies’ of the original game – a lumbering bruiser rendered mute and vulnerable by genetic and surgical modifications to your own body, and a mental connection to a little girl who’s now all grown up (and just as dangerous as you are.)
Plot wise, Bioshock 2 is less compelling than the original, but the gameplay and graphics are significantly enhanced and it’s a lot more entertaining to plough through.
This time around, the ‘bad guy’ is a she, and one just as nuanced and fascinating as Andrew Ryan is. Her name is Sofia Lamb; a doctor and psychologist originally brought to Rapture by Andrew Ryan to help people adjust to living beneath the seas.
Andrew Ryan believed in rational self-interest, and objectivism. In contrast, Sofia Lamb spoke of altruism, and ‘the greater good.’ And following Andrew Ryan’s death, she used her charisma and charm to fill the leadership void, and turn a city of selfish libertarians into a community united in a single purpose.
But, just as in the original game, there is a flaw to this utopian philosophy; and in the case of living for ‘the greater good’ its the realization that altruism is a form of tyranny.
Plot wise, Bioshock 2 is less compelling than the original, but the gameplay and graphics are significantly enhanced and it’s a lot more entertaining to plough through. More than that, though, it fleshes out the story of Rapture and makes Andrew Ryan a much more sympathetic monster.
The third and final game in the series was released in 2013. With Ken Levine back at the helm, it takes place in a different city – one floating above the earth, instead of sunk beneath the waves. Colombia is a city designed by steampunk scientists The Luteces, and run by a religious fundamentalist called Zachary Comstock.
In many ways, the concept of Colombia is as troubling and fascinating as that of Rapture. Ken Levin’s narrative genius is evident from every angle. The city was created to house a society that had placed almost religious reverence to the story of American Exceptionalism; and embraced the founding fathers as saints. The worst of turn-of-the-century American excess is normal here; like the subjugation of blacks and Irish, the bloody philosophy of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and evangelical extremism rooted in the real-life cults of Baptists, Mormons, and the like.
Throw in incredible concepts like quantum physics and time travel, and you’ve got a game that’s as powerful and complex as any Hugo Award-winning sci-fi novel…
But unlike the original Bioshock, the story here isn’t the city – but the hero and heroine of the game. You play as Booker DeWitt, a troubled loner, and pair up with the mysterious young Elizabeth, who becomes your companion throughout the game. And at the end of the epic adventure, you discover a truth so mind-blowing that it will leave you sitting at your computer, stunned, as the credits begin to play.
Throw in incredible concepts like quantum physics and time travel, and you’ve got a game that’s as powerful and complex as any Hugo Award-winning sci-fi novel; and that very few narrative video games have come close to matching. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play, too.
So if you haven’t had a chance to truly immerse yourself in the world of Bioshock, now is the time. The Collection offers everything; and that’s probably three or four months of your life you won’t get back.
Once you start to explore the worlds of Rapture and Colombia, you’ll consider that time well spent.