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Genetics Gone Haywire and Predatory Children in an Undersea Metropolis
September, 8 2007

Video Games, 09.08.07
Seth Schiesel

It is 1960, and you are flying across the Atlantic Ocean, cigarette in hand. Suddenly the plane lurches and plunges into the icy sea. Bobbing amid the flaming wreckage, you spot something that should not be: a towering lighthouse thousands of miles from land.

You swim to the lighthouse and inside find only a bathysphere with its door ajar. You enter, the door shuts, the sphere begins to descend, and a confident, almost messianic voice speaks from the gloom:

“I am Andrew Ryan and I’m here to ask you a question: 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. I rejected those answers. Instead I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose Rapture — a city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality. Where the great would not be constrained by the small. And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.”

So begins BioShock, the intelligent, gorgeous, occasionally frightening new game from Take-Two that has already emerged as the sleeper hit of 2007. Anchored by its provocative, morality-based story line, sumptuous art direction and superb voice acting, BioShock can also hold its head high among the best games ever made.

Ever since BioShock’s release late last month, message boards across the Internet have been ablaze with kudos. Stores across the country have been selling out of BioShock discs. Perhaps the highest praise of all is that even in the online chat for other games like World of Warcraft and Eve Online, players have been raving about BioShock.

According to, which aggregates reviews of various media products, using them to rate the products on a 1-to-100 scale, BioShock is the best game yet for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console. (The game is also available for Windows PCs.) BioShock’s Metacritic score of 96 surpasses even the 94 garnered last year by Gears of War, widely considered the best game of 2006.

“Thrilling, terrifying, moving, confusing, amusing, compelling and very, very dark,” Kristan Reed of wrote in a fairly typical BioShock review. “BioShock isn’t simply the sign of gaming realizing its true cinematic potential, but one where a game straddles so many entertainment art forms so expertly that it’s the best demonstration yet how flexible this medium can be. It’s no longer just another shooter wrapped up in a pretty game engine, but a story that exists and unfolds inside the most convincing and elaborate and artistic game world ever conceived.”

Take-Two is not expected to release sales figures until Monday, but industry estimates indicate that the company has already shipped almost two million copies of the game. In any case, BioShock’s success could hardly come at a better time for the company. Earlier this summer Take-Two’s game Manhunt 2 was essentially banned by retailers because of its over-the-top violence, and last month Take-Two announced that its widely anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV would be delayed until next year.

BioShock’s back story is that in the 1940s the aforementioned Andrew Ryan constructed Rapture, a city under the Atlantic that would be a sort of libertarian haven for the world’s best and brightest. In short order, Rapture’s scientists achieved breakthroughs in genetic alteration. Want to light a cigarette? Why not just shoot a little fire from your fingertips?

Naturally, things went horribly wrong, and by the time you, the player, show up, after your plane crash in 1960, most of Rapture’s citizens have died, and the city has degenerated into a warren of gibbering, gene-spliced freaks.

Visually, BioShock is a triumph of imagination. The graphics are top-notch technically — don’t try playing on an old, underpowered PC; you’ll just be frustrated — but the real strength is the overall art direction, which can perhaps be best described as genetically altered Art Deco. Rapture simply feels like a real place.

Much of BioShock’s story is told through voice recordings left by the city’s departed citizens. Some are heartfelt confessions. Others are harrowing cries for help. None, however, are wooden, and collectively they reinforce the sense of dramatic continuity that is the game’s greatest asset.

And then there are the Little Sisters, BioShock’s most intriguing inhabitants. Little Sisters are girls who have been corrupted into what amount to blood-sucking ghouls. They wander around Rapture harvesting special genetic material from corpses.

The dramatic tension comes from the choice the player must make: either to kill the Little Sisters and take their special stuff, which makes the player much more powerful, or to redeem their souls and recover only a fraction of the elixir. More important, the overall story arc depends on the player’s decisions.

It makes sense that the game is rated M for Mature, which means those under 17 cannot buy the game on their own. But the game’s moral tenor does not seem lost on younger players.

“I can understand the Mature rating,” said Jerry Cushing, a 15-year-old in Montclair, N.J., who’s been playing the game. “They present you with this moral dilemma, and it’s really up to you what you do with these little girls. But that’s what a game should be all about: making choices.”