For those who play video games, 2007 is often considered one of the best years of the medium. It was a year of bangers: Microsoft had Crackdown and Halo 3, Nintendo took Super Mario to the Galaxy, Call of Duty blew the world open by going modern, and so on. It cannot be understated how much that year just kicked arse for games, and in the upper echelon at the time was 2K Games’ Bioshock, which is now 15 years old as of today.
Developed by 2K Boston (later Irrational Games) and the now defunct 2K Australia, and directed and written by Boston’s Ken Levine, BioShock is a first-person shooter set in the 1960s. After surviving a plane crash, the protagonist Jack discovers the underwater city of Rapture, built as a haven for the elites of society by its creator, business magnate Andrew Ryan. The city was the perfect utopia, but everything eventually went to hell once a gene-altering substance called ADAM was discovered.
Through the use of serums known as “Plasmids,” everyone in the city got superpowers. Thus, a class war ensued: on one side, Ryan commanded his superhuman, diving suit-wearing Big Daddies to protect young girls called Little Sisters as they harvested ADAM from dead bodies. And on the opposing side was Atlas, a man who convinced the now poor citizens of Rapture to rise up against Ryan, with both sides using Plasmid-wielding citizens dubbed Splicers to wage skirmishes across the city.
Originally an Xbox 360 and Windows exclusive, BioShock released to critical acclaim, with particular praise for its atmosphere and narrative, which incorporated ideas from author George Orwell and most notably philosopher Ayn Rand. By the end of its debut month, it sold 490,000 copies, and by March 2010, it’d had sold 4 million across all systems. (In 2008 and 2009, it was ported respectively to the PlayStation 3 and Mac.)
For a time, BioShock fever swept across the industry. It was inducted into the Smithsonian’s exhibit devoted to the art of video games, and has been hailed as one of the best games of all time. Along with the original Mass Effect and 2008’s Braid, the game’s been used as examples when arguing the merit of video games as an art form. And it spawned two sequels: 2010’s BioShock 2 from 2K Marin was a direct sequel wherein players controlled a Big Daddy named Sigma a decade after the original game, granted the ability to use Plasmids and search for his missing Little Sister. Conversely, Infinite by the returning Irrational starred private eye Booker DeWitt endeavoured to ferry the reality-warping Elizabeth Comstock out of the sky city of Columbia in 1912. Both games would receive narrative DLC, but it was the “Burial at Sea” expansion for Infinite that definitively linked it with the story of the original game.
In the years since BioShock went quiet, there’ve been efforts outside of 2K and Levine to try and go for the same narrative highs of that first game. You can see its bones in other games like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, Machine Games’ Wolfenstein reboot, and Arkane’s Prey or Dishonored without much effort. (Infinite is technically the first Dad Game, as it released only a handful of months before the original Last of Us.) Cyberpunk 2077, which arguably features better combat and immersive sim elements than BioShock, has a slice of the period piece shooter inside of it. You could probably even argue that something like Disco Elysium or Citizen Sleeper has also been influenced by it.
But for the franchise itself, it currently just…exists. Part of the issue is a lack of a follow up: a fourth entry is said to be in the works, but due to development issues that just plague the entire franchise, it feels more of an idea than reality. And though he left the series behind after 2013, Ken Levine hasn’t been able to release a game within the past nine years. All fans have been left to do is replay the old games, maybe discuss how time has treated the sequels in particular. Netflix has plans on making the first game into a film, something originally in the cards back in 2008, but it remains to be seen if the streamer will actually be able to make that a reality. But the real question about BioShock’s future, if it even has one, is what can it still bring to the table that the original trilogy didn’t already cover?
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