The 15 Best Games Since 2000, Number 9: BioShock

A brilliant combination of influences that bucked the trends of era and genre to stand as something wholly unique.

Retrospective by Jeremy Parish, .

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As a shooter, Irrational Games' 2007 hit BioShock was merely OK. It did its job, sure, but the speed and mechanics felt downright atavistic next to its FPS contemporaries from that same year, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Halo 3.

The answer, of course, is not to approach BioShock as a shooter. Yes, that may have been the genre into which it's most easily categorized, but the idea of hard and fast genres for games has grown increasingly obsolete these days. BioShock wasn't quite an RPG, and it wasn't quite an adventure game, but neither did it feel entirely like an FPS. It used shooting mechanics, the look and feel of '90s "Doom Clones," to accomplish something different than simply popping headshots — something more ambitious.

The infamous Big Daddy and Little Sister, the most infamous duo in gaming.

Admittedly, it was perhaps less ambitious than some would have preferred. BioShock, as the name suggests, came about as a sort of spiritual successor to Looking Glass Studios' PC classic System Shock, which in 1994 boldly bent FPS rules in order to squeeze in a narrative, RPG elements, and an adventure game-like inventory system. System Shock, in turn, had descended from Ultima Underworld, which had been a first-person dungeon crawler RPG that broke free of the format's traditional grid to become something like a proto-FPS. BioShock had deep roots, and in many ways its debut alongside Halo 3 seemed fitting: Just as Halo played like a technically amped-up but conceptually streamlined rendition of the Marathon games, BioShock felt like System Shock with the systemic depth replaced by more immersive graphics.

Streamlined doesn't always amount to dumbed down, though, and BioShock managed to take a pleasantly middlebrow approach to the shooter genre. Its tale was hardly a work of high literature, but it was nevertheless literate: Set amidst a collapsed undersea paradise, BioShock told a tale of Randian Objectivism. Personal freedom taken to its logical, apocalyptic extreme. In a place where "every man for himself" was a way of life, and science existed free of the mundane fetters of morality to curb its advances, the libertarian paradise that was Rapture had disintegrated beneath ambition, murder, and genetic experimentation run rampant.

"BioShock wasn't quite an RPG, and it wasn't quite an adventure game, but neither did it feel entirely like an FPS. It used shooting mechanics, the look and feel of '90s "Doom Clones," to accomplish something different than simply popping headshots — something more ambitious."

So yes, BioShock looked and played much like an FPS, but that wasn't really the point; the fact that its default setting imposed no penalties for failure made that much clear. Players were meant to explore Rapture, to face off against wandering supermen at their discretion, to follow vocal guidance from purported allies as they chose. BioShock often resembled a good Metroid game in the way it would point you in the right direction but leave the task of fine navigation up to you, forcing you to pay careful attention to your path.

As you worked your way through the interconnected chambers of Rapture, you tended to notice far more incidental details of the world around you than would have been the case in a more linear adventure frog-marching you from goal to goal. General details, like the masquerade masks (Rapture descended into chaos during a New Year's Eve party). Incidental story specifics, like the endless audio logs and posters for Dr. Steinman's plastic surgery lab. And, of course, the big picture: The destructive struggle between Rapture founder Andrew Ryan and mob boss Frank Fontaine.

Rapture is one of gaming's most distinct settings and almost a character unto itself.

No, BioShock may not have felt like much of an FPS compared to its more focused contemporaries, but it offered a degree of immersion those other games lacked. 2007 was the year that the FPS became frictionless; Halo 3 was extensively focus-tested and whittled down to a slick rollercoaster leading to its finale, and Modern Warfare took Halo's encounter-by-encounter design philosophy to its ultimate evolution, a pop-up shooter on rails. By contrast, BioShock was ugly, cumbersome, and rough... but therein lay much of its appeal. Its chunky play feel perfectly befit a world where art deco excess had given way to murder and decay; its sluggish pace turned its corridors into combat puzzles, allowing you no end of options for survival based on the powers you developed through experience and the dangerous (but potentially useful) tools you encountered along the way. And the extensive use of diegetic story audio lent gravity to your conflicts with the hulking Big Daddies and the mysterious, genetically enhanced Little Sisters they protected.

In a way, BioShock benefited from accidental genius. The player choice mechanic felt oddly lopsided — you could choose to harvest Little Sisters for their mystical ADAM or let them go free, but there was no downside to taking the moral high road. On the contrary, liberating the Little Sisters not only led to the best ending, it ultimately allowed you to grow more powerful than the "evil" route did thanks to the generous thank-you gifts the Little Sisters' "mother," Dr. Tennenbaum, would deliver periodically.

As it turns out, BioShock was never intended to feature choice; it was added at the insistence of the publisher. But the freedom to choose how to treat the Little Sisters perfectly fit the game's core themes of choice versus obedience, of selfishness versus compassion. Unwanted or not, it strengthened the central narrative, a perfect complement to the ultimate message of the adventure. The story's memorable twist, where (spoiler!) the player is forced through hypnotic programming to beat his own father — Andrew Ryan — to death with a golf club, serves as cutting commentary on the artifice of "freedom" in meticulously designed, story-driven games like BioShock. You can only choose the options the game allows, after all. But at the same time, Ryan's dying proclamation ("A man chooses, a slave decides!") also rings false in the hellish ruin of Rapture, a city where everyone was allowed absolute freedom of choice and all that resulted was disaster.

In BioShock, design and accident coincided harmoniously to create one of the most engrossing adventures in memory. It was lightning that seemingly can never be bottled; its sequels were good, but they fell short of the brilliance that made itself manifest here. Part shooter, part adventure, part sociopolitical tirade, BioShock absolutely stands among the greatest games of the century.

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  • Avatar for inkybutt #1 inkybutt 3 years ago
    Bioshock is one the earlier and most commonly cited examples of "games as Art." Capital-A Art, because of course all games are art. I think you're spot-on in that it's really middlebrow entertainment, but that places it leaps and bounds above most games.

    Whether or not games should aspire to be capital-A Art is another debate altogether. I tend to be skeptical. But Bioshock is an extremely memorable, atmospheric, must-play game.

    2007 was one of those "once in a generation" years like 1998 or 2001 where everything just comes together, and Bioshock was a big part of that. Wonder when we'll see a year like that for the current gen.Edited July 2015 by inkybutt
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @inkybutt Yeah, 2007 really made me think, "Wow, this generation is going to be AMAZING." But it all fizzled out immediately after. I would kill for another year like that.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #3 Kat.Bailey 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish 2008 wasn't as good as 2007, but it was still pretty good. Valkyria Chronicles, Fallout 3, The World Ends With You, Mega Man 9, Mirror's Edge...
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #4 The-Challenger 3 years ago
    I greatly enjoy the atmosphere the game presented. Sure, the shooting parts were pretty freaking bland. Thankfully the super powers (plasmids) and customization made up for the ho-hum gunplay. The story was appreciated, but having the opportunity to explore a watery burnt out grave of a city was the main highlight for me.

    Infinite felt almost too similar to the first one, but that quality didn't actually detract from it. I still hope this series has some life left in it. I could use another preachy fps that mimics the gameplay of the first and third Bioschock games.

    Great write up.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #5 metalangel 3 years ago
    You basically saw the best of Bioshock in the demo. The thrilling descent into the city, the remnants of the party and the hotel, a few enemies and hacking games, and using a few plasmids.

    It never really expanded beyond that in any meaningful sense.

    As you say, it was a streamlined System Shock 2, in that you arrive after what would be the main plot of any other game, and you get to sift through the wreckage. It got audio logs right where Doom 3 got them wrong, by making them interesting as you pieced together the various storylines and events.

    I got bored. The one-two punch Atlas tells you about during the prologue remains extremely (if not too) useful throughout the whole game. Enemies become tedious bullet sponges later on. The levels degenerate into finding switches. The occasional flash of inspiration (like Sander Cohen's various missions, or the bit with the trees) doesn't realize disguise the fact that for all intents and purposes, you could well be crawling through yet another warehouse full of crates and air ducts, as opposed to a marvelous art deco underwater city.

    After the twist, the game became even more traditional, and by the finale I was just praying for it to end already. The pay off (the so-called moral choice being both pointless and only affecting what cutscene you got at the end) wasn't worth it in the slightest. It promised so much and what we got was a very average shooter, with a few gimmicks and nice looking levels. All that effort creating the beautiful world and writing great characters would have been better spent on a proper adventure game with NPC interaction, something I had hoped the 'return to Rapture' DLC for Bioshock Infinite would be but was ultimately disappointed by too.

    And if I never have to play that Pipe Dream hacking minigame again, it'll be too soon.
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  • Avatar for RorschachCCCLX #6 RorschachCCCLX 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Is there any evidence to suggest there is some sort of bell curve that explains years like 2007-08 in terms of the release of seminal games the in history of console generations? I'm curious if there is a predictable wax and wane to it.Edited July 2015 by RorschachCCCLX
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #7 Kat.Bailey 3 years ago
    @RorschachCCCLX Not really, no. The previous generation experienced a burst of major innovation early on, but declined rapidly as developers became more risk averse in the face of ballooning budgets and the rise of mobile. There's nothing in the past that really compares to the radical changes that gaming underwent post-2010.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #8 Monkey-Tamer 3 years ago
    I loved the hacking mini game and setting traps to take down a big daddy. Too bad the second act felt padded. I enjoyed the clunky action and how I can use a variety of tactics. The plasmids and tonics added something other shooters of the time didn't have. Despite it being considered dumbed down Bioshock has aged better for me than System Shock 2. That game could really benefit from a remake.
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  • Avatar for grappler51 #9 grappler51 3 years ago
    I enjoyed Bioshock but have never completely understood it's overwhelming critical acclaim, maybe partly because I didn't play it until 2012. The levels really aren't that non-linear compared to something like Deus Ex, and usually just give you a couple side passages to explore. The plasmids definitely add some depth the the combat but in my eyes there weren't enough options to really give you a lot of freedom with how you approached things. Personally I would've easily chosen Deus Ex over Bioshock.
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  • Avatar for RorschachCCCLX #10 RorschachCCCLX 3 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey I wonder if what's happening in Japan is what the west has to look forward to. Gun shy publishers not wanting to risk millions run to the relative safety of mobile development. I fear we might be seeing more Fallout Shelters and less actual Fallouts.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #11 Kat.Bailey 3 years ago
    @RorschachCCCLX I wouldn't worry too much. There will always be a sector that caters to hobbyists in one way or another. You're seeing it more and more with games like Elite Dangerous.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #12 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago

    The rest of the world doesn't have the the retail-domination, demographics, economy, or international double standard problems Japan faces (and still does). We're in a much better place then they still are; should big publishers crumble, hungry others will take their place.
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #13 Mikki-Saturn 3 years ago
    I honestly feel that this game is overrated. The atmosphere and world design are top notch, that's for sure. But on the other hand I personally thought the gameplay was bland, the so called "moral choices" you're presented with were a joke (as usual) and the story was weak. I mean, the story is I suppose better than most games but that's not good enough for me to praise it. If Bioshock were a movie it would basically meet the criteria for a relatively good quality genre film. Like, maybe, the Matrix or something. Lots of hand waving and buzz words but no real point or insight.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #14 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    This was another bad choice for a top 10 list. Both this and Red Dead Redemption are games that I could see an argument for top 50, but absolutely not top 10!

    There are too many other, better games to choose from. As other people have said, the weakness of Bioshock is it's gameplay... it's just not that interesting. What's interesting about Bioshock is it's enivornment and story, and that's pretty cool. But there are other games with better stories that deserve to be on a top 10 list more.

    I hope the choices get better with #8!
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #15 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    One of the best things I remember about Bioshock was that between my friends and me, at the time, we all reached the ending in different ways. The amount of variety that existed within its mechanics like hacking turrets, setting traps, electrifying puddles of water to shock bad guys, it all felt so fresh. I didn't have to just go for the best gun to net head shots with. Each one of us would surprise on another with how we approached the encounters in the game. My personal favorite story is how I killed a big Daddy by leading it into a hall way I littered with bolt traps and set it up for him to encounter another Big Daddy I had turned to fight for me. I never shot a single round at the thing and I defeated it. Badass fucking game.

    I don't care if it didn't move as fluid as Modern Warfare. I couldn't brainwash the enemy to fight for me in that game.

    Edit: Just read some of the comments and I see a best year war brewing. What about 2011? Deus Ex, Skyrim, Skyward Sword, Portal 2, Bastion, Dark Souls, Arkham City, Uncharted 3. Each one of those game could be in the top ten of this very list. That's one of the best years in recent memory. Hell 2010 was no slouch either because we got Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead.Edited July 2015 by Kuni-Nino
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #16 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @NiceGuyNeon I'm with you on Resident Evil 4, at least! Fantastic game, and I think it would absolutely deserve to be on the list. Metroid Prime is great too. Personally I prefer Super Metroid, but that's 1994. Okami is an interesting choice! An excellent and beautiful game... though if we're talking Hideki Kamiya games, the #1 choice HAS to be Bayonetta. Still the best action game ever made, it's top 3 material!

    It feels like a given that Dark Souls will be on the list, and probably in the top 3. Bayonetta and Metal Gear Solid 3 seem likely as well. I also can't imagine that Persona 4, Minecraft, or Shadow of the Colossus will be left off. If we're talking games as art, then Shadow of the Colossus is a much more important game than Bioshock. One dark horse pick that I would love to see is Ghost Trick... if Ghost Trick isn't one of your favorite games, it's almost certainly because you haven't played it yet.
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  • Avatar for sam-stephens #17 sam-stephens 3 years ago
    While I respect BioShock's position on the list, I personally am not a fan of any of the games. That being said, I feel BioShock 2 is the best of the three. It's just a bit more refined and fully realized. The Big Sister fights, and optional Little Sister segments, the improved hacking, the more versatility of plasmids; it's the only game in the series I have ever desired to replay.

    The best thing about BioShock is definitely the Big Daddies. They are a very dynamic enemy type with a lot of interplay. The fights can happen anywhere, so the player must pay attention to their surroundings and use everything they have. It's the only time in the game where all of the weapons, plasmids, and other gameplay elements really come together.
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  • Avatar for StevieWhite #18 StevieWhite 3 years ago
    I can't ever say that Bioshock is a bad game - any game that so many people enjoy almost HAS to be good on some level. For me though, I will always remember it as the first time the lack of an appreciable penalty for failure really turned me off to a game. The vita chambers killed it for me, and I could never get into the game.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #19 metalangel 3 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Funny you use that as an example, since E:D is another game that has great promise but underwhelming delivery.
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  • Avatar for Xemus80 #20 Xemus80 3 years ago
    One of my favorite games. Glad to see it on the list.
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  • Avatar for unoclay #21 unoclay 3 years ago
    Never played it...maybe someday. Sounds interesting, though I tend to prefer objective based games with defined goals and twitchy arcade challenge.
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBgood #22 JohnnyBgood 3 years ago
    For me, it's number one
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