Does BioShock Still Matter 10 Years Later?

Somewhere, beyond the sea, video games are art.

Analysis by Matt Kim, .

"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.

Give us the girl, wipe away the debt.

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!

Look, Mr. Bubbles.

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.

A man chooses...

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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Comments 13

  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #1 Monkey-Tamer 10 months ago
    I still like the game play in regards to setting traps. Too many modern shooters just have you charge down a hallway instead of think of how you'll tackle what's in there.
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  • Avatar for Iliya-Moroumetz #2 Iliya-Moroumetz 10 months ago
    The racism in Infinite always bothered me for some reason and it wasn't until recently did I find out why;

    It doesn't work because it to paints Fitzroy and the Vox Populi, the downtrodden black and Irish, as no better than Fink and Comstock's racist fanatics. Sounds like the kind of refrain a racist politician would utter to try and defend racism at its core.

    Daisy and the Vox are fighting for their freedom from a group of people who see them as subhuman. And Columbia is a world that, like America, brutally and violently, crushes anyone that tries to shake the status quo.

    So, yeah, Ken Levine ain't as great as people think he is.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #3 NiceGuyNeon 10 months ago
    I think it still matters in a historical context. The thing about the BioShock games is that they're all more different than people give them credit for and they all play with really cool ideas.

    In terms of pure gameplay, the winner is BioShock 2. It's not just the best playing game of the series, it's still a damn fine shooter experience today. But it's often overlooked because 1) no Ken Levine, 2) multiplayer, and 3) reusing Rapture following the events of the original.

    But the thing is, as great as Ken Levine's vision is, his execution of that vision never paid off in full. BioShock 2 didn't have so much a vision as it was an intimate story set in an existing world. There was nothing earth shattering, no crazy reveals, no newness. But it showed Rapture in FURTHER disarray. The ocean was claiming more of it and it was in TOTAL disrepair.

    And its expansion, Minerva's Den was similar in that regard, though its story telling won some chops, it was once again, a small intimate story set in an existing world.

    But with those smaller, intimate stories 2K Marin did right by me, they focused on the gameplay and the best decision made in Bio2 was to basically turn it into a tower defense game every time you had to harvest some Adam. You'd be given your arena, set traps across multiple entry ways, have the right Plasmids powered up and your favorite weapon ready to go. Just well designed gameplay, super visceral and exciting when the Splicers all swarmed at once.

    Plus there was some cool stuff done like when you saw the world as some beautiful cartoon fantasy through the eyes of the Little Sisters who couldn't tell that they were basically in an underwater hell. BioShock 2 does not get the credit it deserves but not only is it the best BioShock game, it's easily one of the best shooters ever made.

    Going for BioShock, in 2007 I disliked it. A lot. Actually I got into a lot of arguments with people about it. For a 2007 shooter BioShock played like crap and the objectives were all fetch-quests. But it was Rapture, the characters and the underlying themes that made it stand out, not to mention the big reveal. It all fell apart AFTER the big reveal though, but it already played poorly in 2007, a year with Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Crysis, and Half-Life 2: Episode 2, four of the finest shooters ever made and all four of which are still better than most modern shooters.

    But BioShock still holds a special place for me because its vision was so powerful it has stuck with me for 10 years and never let go. That's a game that means something.

    As for Infinite, to be honest, I really like it. Its themes are crude, but the story of Booker and Elizabeth and their dynamic works well. But most importantly I think it's a fun shooter to play. It's not as strong as BioShock 2, bu I still think it's arguably the best game of 2013. That year was stacked though with Metro: Last Light, GTA V, Last of Us, Assassin's Creed IV, Wolf Among Us, Pikmin 3, Metal Gear Rising, Super Mario 3D World, so it had a lot going on. But it still stands out to me as a fun, exciting shooter.

    But much like BioShock, thematically it falls apart at the end. BioShock had its cool moment and then kept going on and you were like, wait, what, why?

    Infinite was going super strong and then stuck you in an alternate timeline where the people rising above their oppressors were shown to be just as bad when put in a position of power. It was and still is tasteless. But that seems to be a theme with Ken Levine's work on this series: start with a brilliant opening, keep the momentum rolling, reach a peak of maximum awesome, and then afterwards slowly deflate until you have nothing left.

    THOUGH TO HIS CREDIT: Levine did give us a Metal Gear Solid style finale that lasted nearly an hour with no gameplay just to finish it all off. At least his big reveal at the end was cool though this time.

    The expansion to Infinite was pretty cool too and tied things up in a satisfactory way. The first person lobotomy sequence was something genuinely brutal and shocking.

    End of the day, it's a series with flaws and a not nearly as amazing creator as people give him credit for, but he has a strong vision, the games all have various strengths, and they just feel unique and interesting, not just from other shooters but even from themselves. It's a series I look upon fairly fondly these days.
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  • Avatar for usgmattkim #4 usgmattkim 10 months ago
    @NiceGuyNeon Those are all fair points, and I addressed some of those in my article. My main point however is that BioShock's legacy is secured but after 10 years it's time to move on. The game had a huge impact not only on later games, but games writers but if we want to evolve as a medium we have to stop worshiping older games like BioShock's whose time has come to a close.
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  • Avatar for thesirkibble2 #5 thesirkibble2 10 months ago
    @usgmattkim I don't quite understand your last sentence there. How are you defining worship? I ask because we can ask the same question about any old games. Do any of them still matter?

    I mean, no one's forgotten the impact Star Wars had on movies. Same can be said for Citizen Kane among a bunch of others, right? So that's why I wonder what you mean by worship.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #6 VotesForCows 10 months ago
    Very interesting article Matt, and I think you have an interesting take on this.

    But there's another argument here. Ten years is a very short space of time. Video games have been around for much longer than that. And the influence of a game that is so recent is very clear - as you say yourself, many critics (and presumably many developers, whose demographics also skew young) had their start around that time. So its natural that some games from that period would be totemic in some way - similarly for the likes of Mega Man, Mario & Metroid for people like Jeremy Parish.

    For me, Bioshock still feels very recent - not an old game by any means. Certainly still worth keeping as part of the conversation, alongside a great many other games.

    PS I don't actually like Bioshock very much, but its definitely important.
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  • Avatar for FalcoT #7 FalcoT 10 months ago
    Seems like you drew a conclusion opposite to the evidence you set forth.
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  • Avatar for Outrider #8 Outrider 10 months ago
    @VotesForCows I mean, taking another look at something ten years on is pretty common both inside and outside of games. I think the reason that many games from 10 years ago don't seem that old is twofold:

    1.) The last console generation was effectively 10 years, which is just about twice as long as each prior generation. As a result, there was no easy distinction between "old" and "new" games (which is usually provided by platform changes) so people had to consider a larger swath of games all in the same context. I'm actually in favor of longer generations, but it was weird that the Xbox 360 was still a major platform in 2015 despite launching in 2005.

    2.) I'd also argue that AAA design hasn't changed all that drastically since Bioshock first came out. Sure, there are things you can point to - especially the recent focus on more open-world level design - but I don't think it's unfair to say that many modern games still look to 2007 as the standard templates for action games, namely CoD Modern Warfare (for pacing and gameplay) and Bioshock (for storytelling and narrative design).
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  • Avatar for Outrider #9 Outrider 10 months ago
    Man, the weird thing to me is that not unlike how the narrative of Bioshock Infinite makes you reevaluate the original Bioshock, the stark differences between the two games kinda make me both like the original Bioshock more but also less at the same time.

    I thought Bioshock's gameplay was good but not all that clever at the time, but after the super linear (and let's be frank: pretty bland) gameplay design of Infinite, I found myself longing for the flexibility that the first game allowed for when approaching combat encounters.

    Yet at the same time, viewing Bioshock's story after seeing another work by the same author - in this case, Infinite - makes me realize that some of the implied depth of the original game wasn't really intentional.

    I still think it's got some fun elements and great story twists, but I realized after Infinite that maybe Bioshock is just a dumb game that accidentally stumble upon greatness, which... isn't a bad thing. It's still a fun game and I've been meaning to play it again recently, but I'm also realizing that maybe it shouldn't be deified as much as it has been.
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  • Avatar for nimzy #10 nimzy 10 months ago
    @Iliya-Moroumetz That was the point he was trying to make, though. It's a point they made in Bioshock 2 as well, and the original Bioshock. It's a theme in the series, much like the oft-repeated "war never changes" of Fallout: ideology is lethal. You can disagree with it if you like, but that doesn't make it bad writing.Edited August 2017 by nimzy
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  • Avatar for Dorchadas #11 Dorchadas 10 months ago
    I never understood the love for Bioshock, coming from someone who first played System Shock II in 2006 and loved it. Bioshock had a less interesting villain, less interesting area design, less enemy variety, less character customization...just less. This was supposed to be a spiritual successor? The water physics and appearance were fantastic, but that was it.
    @Iliya-Moroumetz Yeah, "What if both sides...are bad?
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  • Avatar for Dorchadas #12 Dorchadas 10 months ago
    Deleted August 2017 by Dorchadas
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #13 NiceGuyNeon 10 months ago
    @usgmattkim I definitely see where you're coming from but also, gaming has not evolved at the pace it once did when it was newer. Looking at the landscape from 1990 to 2000 the difference in evolution is ridiculous, but from 2007 to 2017 that evolution has been significantly slower.

    There are more experiences than ever and lots of indie titles that help spread ideas and concepts, but I don't think of more exposure as necessarily evolution. Even from 2000 to 2010 I don't think there was nearly as much evolution, which makes a lot of these games from 2007 (even 2001, just look at Halo and GTA3) still feel fairly contemporary.

    But the turning point BioShock had on the medium was that, you can still feel new and fresh despite not doing anything new in terms of game design if you just have a cool idea and roll with it. And I think we see a lot of that impact in so many newer games, almost explicitly in Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line (two personal faves of mine), which even aim for a BioShock twist, but even in other games both AAA and indie. Braid certainly had a huge part to play in that as well, releasing around the same time.

    Those late 2000's (2007-2009) had a lot of games that STILL define the medium now between BioShock, Call of Duty 4, Demon's Souls, Mass Effect, Braid, Spelunky, Super Meat Boy, Super Mario Galaxy, the modern renditions of Persona with 3 and 4, they all made their claim around then and the medium hasn't really evolved past them yet, at least not completely.

    We're still fawning over games that have Demon's Souls like mechanics, BioShock like settings, Call of Duty like multiplayer is only now finally moving out of the way for stuff like Overwatch but even it still has a place in the modern era, Mass Effect became a turning point for RPGs and combat with its effects still being felt today, and the success of those indie games to bring out number 1, cool concepts in small packages 2, super challenging but fair gameplay 3, rogue-like elements in different genres and 4, retro look and feel to games are all still being done today at a significantly higher volume.

    The only real contemporary evolution I can think of is the impact of Breath of the Wild on open-world design, Overwatch on our expectations of class-based multiplayer and Gone Home maybe validating the walking simulator concept but even that has its roots in BioShock, specifically Minerva's Den.

    So as much as I'd like to say we should move past BioShock and that specific era, I feel like we're still looking at the current effects of that era. Evolution of game design has slowed significantly. In 2007 we used to think games from 1997 were retro. 2017 we can still pick up a game from 2007 and aside from visuals not even realize it's a decade old in terms of mechanics.

    So I don't know if it needs to be worshiped like you say, but even ten years later I think it still matters as an individual game and as a series it's fairly contemporary, I think Burial at Sea came out in 2014 which is like, yesterday (or a lifetime ago if you miss Obama.... Barack, plz come back.....)
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #14 NiceGuyNeon 10 months ago
    I am writing a lot.... I'm sorry.... I'm going to switch to sarcastic CAPS LOCK single sentence comments from this point on. I promise!
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