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Say the words ‘first-person shooter’, and most people’s thoughts instantly fly to that giant of the modern video game world, the Call of Duty series, or even to the retro classic Doom. They are great fun, as you lurch from level to level looking down the barrel of an obscenely over-sized gun and pumping oncoming enemies more full of holes than the plot of Prometheus (I know, I’ll get letters…), but they’re pretty light on story. I was never particularly sold on the genre, as I always preferred my video games to have a story, a narrative – shooting ten shades of shit out of zombie Nazis wasn’t exactly my bag. And then one game blew my tiny mind.
Irrational Games’ 2007 opus BioShock changed everything. This was a 1950’s steam-punk shoot-em-up set in Rapture, an underwater city built at the bottom of the Atlantic by Andrew Ryan, a mega-rich business magnate who ran the place like his own personal Ayn Rand theme park until everything went a bit wrong. Marrying a video game with the bat-shit-crazy philosophy of everyone’s favourite Russian-American Objectivist nut-case doesn’t exactly sound like a winning formula, but it makes for arguably one of the most powerful gaming experiences ever.
Rapture is a broken city by the time you stumble upon it, the population have gone insane through use of ADAM, a DNA-altering substance which gives them superhuman powers. The first time you see a yellow-eyed Little Sister, wandering the corridors hand-in-hand with a huge, armoured, power-drill wielding Big Daddy, singing as she plunges a needle into a corpse and then drinks the fluid, you know this is no utopia. The whole setting of the game invites you to find out what the hell has gone on, and as you travel through the city, you slowly unravel the mystery of Rapture.
The storyline is addictively compelling, the game-play is fascinating and it features one of the most amazing twists in gaming history, which unites form and content in a way that genuinely blew my mind. As is common in many video games, as you venture through Rapture you have a guide, Atlas, who aids you via radio and gives you instructions on what to do and where to go. Atlas, however, is not what he seems, and neither are you, the player. You are a conditioned sleeper agent that he has been controlling through use of the phrase ‘would you kindly’. Upon your arrival in Rapture, Atlas’s voice asks ‘Would you kindly pick up that short-wave radio?’ and you are prompted to do so before you can continue. As he guides you around the city, he encourages you to visit certain areas, always with the accompanying phrase. By the time this twist is revealed, you realise that this story element is a part of the fabric of BioShock itself – every time the phrase is uttered, you are forced to follow the instruction. It’s pure genius.
2010 saw the release of a sequel, BioShock 2, also set in Rapture, but by that point the city no longer felt strange and dangerous – its secrets had been explored in the first game, and not even the addition of the truly terrifying Big Sisters were able to lessen this feeling of deja-vu. When Irrational announced that another game in the BioShock series was in development, even the most die-hard fans started to wonder if this was a good idea. And then the trailer for BioShock Infinite was unleashed on the world, and we took it all back.
BioShock Infinite, set for release in February 2013, is more of a ‘spiritual successor’ than a direct sequel, and is set not under the ocean in Rapture, but in the clouds in a huge, heavily armed flying city. Columbia is a stars-and-stripes plastered floating fortress where huge posters boldly proclaim ‘It Is Our Holy Duty To Guard Against The Foreign Hordes’, complete with horrendously racist caricatures. If the first game showcased Ayn Rand and Objectivist philosophy, Infinite puts American Exceptionalism squarely at the forefront of its story. With its origins in the 1630 sermon of the Puritan colonist John Winthrop and his vision of the new American nation as ‘a city on a hill’, American Exceptionalism holds that the USA is ‘qualitatively different’ from other countries. This idea is still very much alive and well today- the Republican Party’s website professes their adherence to ‘the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history’. It’s not going away any time soon, and unfortunately for all, neither are the GOP.
If anyone ever bemoans the lack of artistic innovation or social commentary in the medium of gaming, BioShock is always the first word on my lips. I can’t wait to see BioShock Infinite give the series a new lease of life but until then I think I might replay the original again, for probably the fifth time. Why don’t you join me? Head down to your local game shop and pick up a copy, would you kindly?