The original BioShock is a year shy of turning 10. At the time of its release, it seemed unlikely that the game, which stuck out among its peers for being a scathing indictment of an “eff you, got mine” society, would have any more relevance beyond its most famous moment: the twist which saw many players questioning their role in the brutality they’re asked to “kindly” enact in video games. Ten years later, to walk the streets of its setting, the underwater city of Rapture, is to behold a world certainly more stylish and stylized than our own, now even prettier with Blind Squirrel’s visual enhancements, but one that seems closer to our own than ever before, given the insidious philosophies that rule dystopias like Rapture (also the setting of BioShock 2) and BioShock Infinite’s Columbia. There’s no enemy, no mutant aberration in any of the games in BioShock: The Collection that’s more frightening than that fact.
The various -isms being explored in often sharp detail during our present-day media cycle flourish throughout this series’s twin utopias of Rapture and Columbia. In the original BioShock, it’s staunch Ayn Rand-style Objectivism, nutshelled in a mere paragraph by industrialist Andrew Ryan in the game’s prologue—in essence, that an individual man is capable of god-like accomplishment, and that no one is entitled to it except that man. In Ryan’s case, he builds the majestic utopia of Rapture, one of gaming’s most distinct and ingenious locales, and except in BioShock Infinite’s misguided story DLC, we never see it at its apex. What we see is the end result: Give man enough power and he will turn himself into a monster. What those men will accomplish is murder. What that accomplishment brings them is misery.
What defines Rapture is the sense of overwhelming sadness once there are no barriers to achieve avarice. Leave the hideously mutated and mutilated citizens alone in-game, and follow them around, and you’re surrounded by a cacophony of regrets. Men will moan about having no one left to comfort them. Debutantes will mutter nonsensical ramblings about undercooked steaks and the best chefs in New York because it’s all they remember from their former opulence. Those who continue to pursue perfection find themselves driven insane by the chase, evinced by what counts as bosses in the first game: the madness of a cosmetic surgeon who tries to “do with a knife what [Picasso] could do with a brush,” or the artist who’ll wrap explosives around a piano until a musician’s playing meets the artist’s insane standards. One gets the sense that the enemies who attack you do so because it’s the path of least resistance to allowing no one else to succeed. Everyone in Rapture is Daniel Plainview, and all of them skip right to the bowling pin.
Naturally, this is all success built on the backs of the less fortunate and able. Two specific NPCs in BioShock are prime examples of this: the Big Daddies, criminals and simple men working off debt and saddled with heavy diving suits and drills, tortured by their vicious duty, and the Little Sisters, young orphaned girls who’re snatched from their beds to do the nasty deed of harvesting ADAM—the substance which, when injected, grants characters more supernatural powers—from the dead. Meanwhile, audio recordings strewn about the city tell the larger tale of an entire class of workers whose backs were broken so Rapture’s elite could walk across to utopia.
A huge part of why the underrated BioShock 2 works is by acting as a living autopsy to the victims of Rapture, going far more into detail about those who had to be destroyed so that Rapture could attain greatness. The game shifts focus to a critique of the idea that everyone can and should get a fair share and how, despite somewhat better intentions, this too can go horribly wrong. However, the main plot, involving a scientist who steps in to introduce a form of communism into Rapture, doesn’t land as powerfully as the sights of, say, mutilated singers, body-horror representations of men who dare stand for anything other than “this is the way the world works now.”
BioShock Infinite, then, is possibly the most frightening of the three games, if only because the rampant, unchecked racism and classism that permeates the gleaming city of Columbia in-game is similar to that which oppresses so many lives in our present-day reality. (America 2016 is Columbia with iPhones.) The game falters, however, because that horror is the background noise and window dressing to a far less meaningful sci-fi tale about alternate realities and the misdeeds of its protagonist, Booker DeWitt. It’s a powerful tale, and the game’s third is a masterful bit of storytelling where the full meaning of the title becomes crystal clear, but there are so many threads of allegory left underexplored as Booker single-mindedly tries to make his way out of Columbia with his innocent charge, Elizabeth Comstock.
In particular, a full-on revolution of the lower classes and minorities takes place in the game’s midsection, containing some of the most powerful and politically charged imagery and story elements gaming has ever seen. There’s a haunting moment in the middle of it all featuring a black girl singing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” in front of a gallows as class warfare plays out around her. But as far as the main story goes, it’s little more than a minefield for Booker to run through so as to get out of Columbia. This is par for the course for BioShock Infinite: It doesn’t so much have something to say about issues of race and class as use them as political wallpaper for a plotline that doesn’t gain depth until the latter moments. In hands far more assured of what kind of statement they’re making, the moment could have been as incisive as Mookie throwing the trashcan in Do the Right Thing.
And that brings us to the real elephant in the room: BioShock, as a series, is hamstrung by being a first-person shooter. It has never been a particularly great shooter except in short, clever bursts—mostly involving Plasmids in BioShock, the final, spectacular shootout in BioShock 2, and the Skyhook in BioShock Infinite. But for all the intelligence that went into the world-building and ancillary storytelling of these games, the series is often remarkably lunkheaded and forgettable when it comes to the business of making gunplay matter in any significant way to that story. It’s not an accident that so much of what makes BioShock 2’s Minerva’s Den DLC so brilliant translated so well—without a single weapon to be had—to its developers’ next game, Gone Home.
The worth of the tales being told throughout these three games, on this scale, in the current video-game landscape, is immeasurable. Even when the stories drop the ball, the allegorical elements make them invaluable parables for this year in particular. These are stories everyone should listen to. It’s just sometimes very hard to hear over the gunfire.