"No Gods or Kings. Only Man."
That's the banner bidding you enter the underwater Art Deco mecca of Rapture. You get there via 2K Games' newest first-person shooter, BioShock. It's a city built by an eccentric, billionaire genius (Andrew Ryan) as a shining beacon of forward-thinking ideology. To that end, a propaganda film assures new arrivals that this is a world where the artist need not fear censor and the scientist will not be bound by petty ethics.
Introducing ADAM and EVE
In spite of these grandiose surroundings and boasts of humanistic glory, this is no aquatic paradise. The artfully designed, now crumbling, leaky dystopia is instead an unintentional illustration of what happens to a world devoid of God and that pesky thing called morality. The waterlogged society has collapsed under the weight of impossible utopian dreams and nihilistic greed.
Kind of heady stuff for your average video game, don't you think?
The result is a population that's been turned into deformed, drug-addled monsters (called splicers) who roam the city and attack anyone they encounter. They seek a powerful substance called ADAM, which originally was created to enhance physical beauty. Through inhumane experiments, physicians found that ADAM could also create special plasmids that give users the ability to shoot electric pulses, flames, ice blasts, telekinetic waves and even bees from their fingertips. If the "lucky" recipients of this wonder-substance also regularly inject themselves with a drug called EVE, their plasmid powers keep popping. There is a small problem, however. When people use too much ADAM and EVE ... they go insane.
As you step into the moldering metropolis you're recruited by one of its last human survivors, a man named Atlas. He pleads for help to save his captive family and to find a way to defeat the megalomaniacal Ryan. So in spite of those little drawbacks of becoming deformed and going mad, you jam a needle-full of the genetics-altering drug into your arm and set off to battle the many dangers of Rapture.
It Was an Eight-Eyed Purple People Eater
Of course, this is a shooter, so along with your plasmid powers you gather a variety of more mundane weapons including a revolver, a shotgun, a machine gun and a grenade launcher. All of which keep the genetically corrupted blood flowing freely. Indeed, the parade of gore-thirsty enemies to kill is endless. Splicers, for instance, come in five distasteful flavors: leadheads, who blast you with guns; thugs, who batter you with blunt objects; nitros, who throw explosives; Houdini splicers, who teleport around and shoot fireballs; and spider splicers, who can crawl on the ceiling and toss sharp hooks in your direction.
These wandering genetic junkies are small fish, however, compared to a Big Daddy—robotic monsters that look and sound like a bull elephant in a deep-sea pressure suit. Once one of these eight-eyed monstrosities starts charging, with whirling drill arm or explosive projectiles, charred corpses and impaled torsos are all but guaranteed.
Big Daddies and Little Sisters
For all of the game's fleshly destruction, however, its darkest feature comes in the form of a challenge to gamers' scruples. (And it's integral to the game's conclusion, so to deal with it here, I'm going to have to hand out a few spoilers.) To win BioShock, players need ADAM; getting your hands on it is essential to upgrading weapons and powers. But there's only one place to acquire it: a Little Sister. These are waif-like girls who look to be about 8 years old and are genetically designed to extract the sought-after material from dead bodies. To get the substance from them, you must either free them to be normal girls again (which gives you a little bit of the valuable stuff) or kill them (which gives you a lot).
As in many games, BioShock programs players to do whatever it takes to get more power-ups. So most gamers will instinctively decide to go for a lot, not a little. But this isn't quite the same as finding life-packs behind trees and under rocks. Here you're literally choosing between dealing death and granting life to these tainted children—who struggle against your grip and cry over the death of their Big Daddy protectors. It's a twisted affair, to say the least.
The consequences for your choices, interestingly, aren't at first obvious. If your ADAM supply remains skinny because you can't bear killing the Little Sisters, upgrades are few and winning is tough. That makes sense. But strangling them, ostensibly because you feel like you need to in order to win the game, invisibly turns you to the dark side, and fundamentally changes the game's outcome—for the worse.
Accolades and Anchors
Much like life, then, good and bad choices have long-lasting ramifications in this virtual war-torn world. And 2K's Kenneth Levine likes it like that. "As a piece of art, we want to deal with challenging moral issues. And if you want to do that, you have to go to some dark places." Do you? Is it just an exercise in exploring challenging moral issues to be forced to decide between a young girl's liberty and demise? Are video games in general so far gone that the idea of ruthlessly killing for power-ups has become somehow a rational dilemma?
And even if this gratuitous conundrum was profitable on some level, are layers of obscenities (including f- and s-words) and extreme depictions of mortal carnage really helping?
BioShock certainly follows through on Levine's view, though—the dark part, anyway. And absolutely nothing's gotten in the way of reviewers at USA Today calling the game "extraordinary," or editors at Electronic Gaming Monthly giving it top marks and deeming it "amazing," or reporters at MSNBC musing that BioShock may be 2007's game of the year.
Yes, in an era in which the majority of games are developed, marketed, sold, played and discarded with nary a deep thought of any kind entering anybody's head, BioShock is exceptionally stimulating. That doesn't make it exceptional, though. Far from it. To deserve such an accolade, a game must have more than artistic vision and engrossing gameplay. It even has to do more than merely make you think—or grapple with the differences between life and death.
Constant drug use, obscene language, high levels of violence and gore, warped spiritual worldviews ... and the perverse idea that one might be able to benefit from murdering children: these are the kinds of things that are often ignored when people—be they grizzled game reviewers in dim cubicles or fresh-faced teens hanging out after school—get to talking about video games. BioShock vividly reminds me that they shouldn't be.