"Would you kindly?" blew a lot of fucking minds that's for sure.
BioShock is a decade old today, and the fact that we're even talking about the game today—even debating it—proves just how much impact BioShock had when it first came out. Not just for video games either. As we joked in the office, many video game writers cut their teeth on writing criticisms about BioShock and how it changed gaming forever—or didn't. The question now is after 10 years, how has the conversation around BioShock changed and does it even matter?
When BioShock first came out in 2007 it was hailed as an achievement. Hyped for months before release, BioShock was met with rapturous applause for its pointed philosophical storytelling, aesthetically assured visual design, and a post-modern twist that turned the tables on what people expected from a first-person-shooter in 2007. However, BioShock's stock dropped in recent critical reevaluations, something that happens (or should happen) to a lot of video games canonized by critics. But the critical turnaround for BioShock isn't so cut-and-dry, something that can't be said for its sequels.
BioShock Infinite, the game's sequel by way of original writer-director Ken Levine, ignited a huge debate about violence in video games, but has also come under fire for issues that stem well beyond its moral equivalency problem. BioShock 2, an overlooked entry in the trilogy on account Levine's absence and 2K's shoehorning of multiplayer, has gained some defenders (eh). Even then, it's mostly praised for its DLC, Minerva's Den.
The criticisms levied against BioShock today have come about thanks to the generous gift of time. The gameplay doesn't hold-up for a shooter, or for some feels completely unnecessary (could BioShock have worked better as a walking simulator?). The big twist about man's ability (or inability) to choose has long been a favorite topic in speculative-fiction, making BioShock hardly the first to tackle the topic, even in video games. The game's scale is even cleverly disguised with neat little tricks that makes BioShock's largely linear design seem more open-ended.
Yet as I've argued elsewhere, BioShock survives in part because of the strength of Rapture itself. The city, and its guiding Randian philosophy, feel so complete and focused that each subsequent outing in the BioShock entry just feels like a hand waved spinoff. Rapture, but communism! Rapture, but American Exceptionalism! Rapture, but popular revolution!
The original BioShock and its monumental proclamation, "No Kings, No Gods, Only Man" contrasted with the corrupted, rusted version of it that remained buried under the ocean feels novel even today. But more than that, and whether you like it or not, BioShock had a lasting impact for video games.
Today's games have borrowed more than a few things from the original BioShock, and Irrational's closing flooded the market with indie games "from the makers of BioShock." More than that, a generation of game critics have risen from the depths of BioShock's influence, forcing writers, traditional media, and video essayists to consider whether or not video games are art (the new discussion seems to be whether or not that matters).
The reaction to BioShock at the time of its release feels particularly interesting since despite sharing a release year with games like Portal, Halo 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Assassin's Creed, and Super Mario Galaxy, BioShock feels singled out. Any one of those games could be cited for contributing to video game history in some way, whether it's the economic significance of games like Modern Warfare and Halo, Portal's place in the history of Valve or women game designers, or Uncharted's cinematic approach to gaming. But BioShock asked the big one—about whether video games could be a legitimate artform, a question that seems so shallow now a decade later.
So to answer the question of whether or not BioShock discourse matters today, it's safe to say it doesn't. Not with so many games that can trace their storytelling lineage to BioShock, or to critics who first wrote a "BioShock Proves Video Games are Art" essay in games media (like yours truly). BioShock pushed the industry towards its current era, though definitely not single-handedly, with a legacy secured. Because of that, BioShock's merits as a video game feel largely inconsequential. Is BioShock still a good game? I'd say so, and we can talk about it in 60 years when we discuss this particular time in video game history. But video games are rapidly moving forward towards a new era, a new critical age. And frankly, I hope we'll have the scope to not pin our entire discourse on a single video game.
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