Dean’s Game of the Decade – Bioshock

Although I’m cheating somewhat for picking Bioshock as my game of the decade, since it falls just outside the range, I hope I can be forgiven – after all, with how fast the games industry sometimes moves, few games are significant enough to have their presence felt over a decade after their release.

Bioshock was the first game I played that convinced me not only that games could tell profound stories with big themes that might rival other media, but they could tell stories in their own uniquely procedural way. As a former morose teen, my upbringing and world-view had of course been informed by Existentialism – the philosophy that declares god dead, believes we are thrown into the world, places moral responsibility with the individual, and revels in the absurdity of the universe and the paradoxical and horrific true nature of ‘freedom’. It was like a flashback to my beret-wearing, coffee-sipping literature student days. But it also looked forward to my academic future, being the game that made me feel passionate enough about the medium to write a whole PhD on them.

Its OK to spoil the ending 12 years after its release… right?

Aside from having a dramatic effect on my own life, it also massively informed the conversation around videogames. For instance Clint Hocking famously critiqued the game on his blog, where he coined the influential term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, a phrase that became vital for presenting a way to discuss the tension between a game’s mechanics and story (an issue other media doesn’t have to deal with) in an era when games were reaching further narratively than ever before. The term became so embedded in the lexicon of games journalists and cultural critics that it became somewhat cliché – it would resurface again years later in discussions of the body-counts of Lara Croft and Nathan Drake.

I don’t agree with Hocking’s reading of Bioshock. It is based on an understanding that the game’s critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism (which has come to underpin much Republican thought and the dominant system of neoliberal free-market economy we all struggle under), is undermined by its mechanical encouragement to act out of self-interest (the most efficient player would maximise their power by harvesting the little sisters).

“A gamer chooses, a man obeys” Or is it the other way around?

Sure, the harvest/rescue little sister binary decision seems hackneyed now, when games attempt to present a more nuanced morality (see Kitty’s Undertale review for perhaps the best example of this), but for me, the high point was always the confrontation with Rapture’s industrialist-dreamer Andrew Ryan.

Hocking kind of missed that the whole point Ken Levine and his team were making was that by placing the player’s desires (the traditional need to become empowered) against the image of this ideal in its most fallen form (the utopia of Rapture turned nightmare), opened an interesting space for self-reflection. “Look,” the game was saying, “this is where things lead if you continue to act out of self-interest”. The game not only offers a profound critique of modern capitalism and consumerism (the image of a splicer hooked on Adam is as potent as ever) but that of the act of play itself. When Ryan demands you kill him using the trigger word ‘would you kindly’, your much-vaunted freedom comes to nothing. As your avatar is forced to violently bludgeon Ryan to death – significantly the only moment in the game you have control taken away from you – his mocking last words “a man chooses, a slave obeys!” can’t help but ring in your ears, forcing you to question the true extent of your freedom as a player in the same way that The Stanley Parable would so masterfully a decade later.

“look,” the game was saying, “this is where things lead if you continue to act out of self-interest”.

Finally, then, Bioshock is my game of the decade because of its legacy. Ken Levine may be off somewhere chasing the mythically holy grail of natural language processing and ‘narrative lego’, but other members of the studio had already peeled off to form Arkane, where the Bioshock formula of Immersive-Sim-meets-moral-quandary was modernised and refined with the amazing Prey (not to mention the superb Dishonored series).

But even more important than that, Steve Gaynor, designer of the acclaimed Bioshock 2 DLC Minerva’s Den, would form his own indie studio in Portland named Fullbright and make one of the most significant and disruptive indie games I can think of: Gone Home (and I’m aware this might be seen as my attempt to have two games of the decade: guilty as charged). The whole purpose of Gone Home was to explore the possibility of presenting the kind of environmental story-telling Bioshock perfected in the AAA sphere, whilst subversively and controversially evacuating its combat and RPG elements.

My second favourite game of the decade, Gone Home, arguably would not exist without Bioshock…

As Ready Up comes to an end, and the talented people who called it home go their own way, I can only hope that some of them will follow that same trajectory – take what was great about this little corner of the internet and craft it into something new.