Spoilers ahead for the first 20-30 minutes of Bioshock (which you really should have played by now) and Bioshock Infinite. Seriously though, pretty much a blow-by-blow.
Additionally, it should be noted that this isn’t a review. I’m maybe 3 hours through Bioshock Infinite. After I beat it I’m sure I’ll blab about it more.
I got into games a little late, so Bioshock was the first game I ever bought on release day. I waited outside of GameStop with a friend, a few kids way too young to be playing Bioshock and their dead beat idiot dad. Twenty four hours later I’d beaten the game and I would kindly recount a slew of highlights from that experience, including developing a healthy sense of paranoia out of game, but they all are dwarfed in comparison to that first twenty minutes of gameplay.
Before I even played the game I was sucked in by the main menu. As the cursor moved between options flourishes of notes from a detuned piano proved the perfect setup for my oncoming journey into rapture.
I could almost hear the prose in my head as the game commenced. I enjoyed a smoke in the warm cabin of an airplane, staring at a picture of home, only for the plane to rupture and rumble and plummet into the cold sea not a mile away from the most inviting and sinister lighthouse in the ocean. I swam for dear life, clambering ashore to peer back at the fire and wreckage left of the plane.
And then I entered the lighthouse.
A massive statue of some totalitarian industrialist greeted me, bursting forth from a banner emblazoned with the words “No gods or kings. Only man.”
Somehow having convinced myself that going back was not an option I proceeded downstairs to discover a small submersible and, caution to the wind, I stepped inside. The prerecorded rant that accompanied my descent into the depths would bring a tear to Ayn Rand’s eye: “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No, says the man in Washington, it belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican, it belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow, it belongs to everyone.”
As the blinds came up from the window of my submersible a world of whales and squids and art deco seascapes unfurled in front of me: Rapture. And within minutes of docking my wonder would turn to horror while I beat the shit out of a deformed psycho with a wrench.
It’s a story of political extremism, a story of the far left coming around to the far right before devolving entirely into a jungle, and a story with a near lethal lack of sharks. I mean, c’mon. It’s in a godamn ocean. There should at least be fifty different sharks.
Now, some six years later and a little over two hours through my first play through of the second sequel, Bioshock Infinite, I’ve seen the flip side of that coin.
When I started my new game (through a menu accompanied by a 20’s Americana score) I nearly got chills when the narrative started on a dark night in the ocean, on a small rowboat cautiously close to a lighthouse. This time, however, I wasn’t so much stranded at the mysterious landmark as I was dropped off at it. I watched my companions desert me, rowing off into the night fog until they disappeared from sight entirely, then I stepped into the lighthouse because this time around I knew the drill.
But I wasn’t greeted by a titan of industry spewing bastardized objectivist slogans this time. A framed cross stitched doily that read “Of thy sins shall I wash thee” greeted me upon my entrance, followed by further religious pleasantries and propositions as I made my way up into the lighthouse and found myself arriving not at a submarine but at something of a steampunk drone.
Needless to say I was rocketed into the heavens, through the stormy clouds of the coast of Maine to the clear blue skies of Colombia.
But I didn’t find myself beating away ugly folk with old tools upon my exit into the new world. Instead I found myself in a church adorned with décor both religious and patriotic. I didn’t find myself baptized in the blood and brains of some gross guy in some damp and dark hallway. Instead I found myself baptized in water before a congregation of white-robed weirdoes in a damp and candle-lit chapel and spit out into a lavish garden, where citizens prayed to statues of the founding fathers.
I wasn’t in Rapture anymore.
Except I totally was. Bioshock Infinite’s immediate brilliance lies in the fact that it is a perfectly executed about face from the original Bioshock. Gone is the rabid individualism and self-industry that drown Rapture in psychosis, replaced instead with a dogmatic adherence to external authorities, to God and country and to “The Prophet.” And yet it feels so eerily similar because as I walk through the sunlit streets of Columbia listening to the rants against creativity and black people I understood that the city was stretched and tense and one step away from needing a good whack on the brain with a wrench, because Rapture and Columbia are the opposite sides of the same $60 coin.
Down to the main menu.
Every time you moved the cursor through the Bioshock menu the flutter of detuned piano followed, as if even the instrument itself couldn’t withstand the chaos of Rapture’s individuality gone wrong. You made your own music as you flicked through options. It was spontaneous and unpredictable and free of constraint.
As you file through menu options in Bioshock Infinite, however, a fixed soundtrack plays a more traditional, straightforward melody in which you have no participation. It’s a city on the brink putting on airs. It’s nice and neat, but you can’t shake the feeling that the pianist is being held at gunpoint. It’s precise but you can’t shake the feeling that the melody adheres so stringently to notes on a page that any deviation from the authority of the music would result in a collapse of quarter notes and half rests.
Two sides of the same melodic coin.
The Bioshock franchise is the franchise of the moderate. In a world of objectivism it wants you to understand the importance of structure and authority and in a world of patriotic zealotry it wants you to be an individual.
The Bioshock franchise is one with things to say. It wants to tell you that politics don’t exist on a line, they exist in a circle that finds extremists on either side pushing further and further away from each other until they end up in the same spot.
Most importantly, however, the Irrational Game’s Bioshock franchise is one that laughs its ass of at putting as much analytical fodder between me the three B’s (boobs, blunts and bullets) as possible.
Here’s an idea Irrational – cut it the hell out.
I don’t play video games or read comics or listen to music or watch movies because I want to be exposed to new ideas and different viewpoints. Who am I, James Franco? I absorb entertainment for the three B’s jackass!
Get it through your head!
I don’t want your fresh takes on a stale genre. I don’t want your medium-exceeding, literary masterpiece of a game, and I especially don’t want a masterfully thought out, masterfully executed, well rounded experience with the potential to change the way I think about my fundamental personal beliefs.
I do want you to turn down the ambition knob a dial or twenty.
So cut it the hell out!
On an unrelated side note: never stop, Irrational. You’re doing God’s work. Or Ayn Rand’s work. Your call.