I thought quite a bit about this Bioshock piece. I knew I wanted to write about it but Irrational Games’ series just felt like it required more than just a post-mortem or a series of thoughts about a game that started over a decade ago. So, here we are.
Back in August of 2007, Bioshock came out to pretty much immediate critical acclaim. It was well loved before it even entered consumer scope and not a single review within the top ten sites and publications in 2007 rated it below an 80 out of 100. When I say that this game was the one people were busy fawning over, I’m not kidding. 2007 was a wild damn year. In this year specifically, we had games like Halo 3, Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, a GRIP of Super Mario titles, Rock Band, The Witcher, Mass Effect, Crackdown.. I could keep going.
Now, what made Bioshock stand out among those titans was its unabashed darkness. While most of those games I’ve listed had a hero arc that kept going and going or they had a novelty that made it a fan favorite — Bioshock snuck in from the shadows. I never expected it to go insanely far, as I knew few people who even remember its spiritual predecessor — System Shock. I figured, if anything, it had the makings of a cult favorite and while the setting was gorgeous and something new, I was quick to hold my reservations.
Hold them is exactly what I did. I kept holding them, actually. The game released and I worked at a publication that wanted me to review it despite the fact I was on vacation. I remember letting them know that I was in San Diego and rather contentedly so and didn’t have a system with me to play it on. My Editor at the time simply said “Right, but you have your PC.” and after sending them the specs of my bright green Alienware monstrosity, I was installing Bioshock. Not only was I installing it, I was doing so in front of a brightly lit pool in the evening after finally prying my child from its steadily cooling water. As she ran inside, I just stared at the screen as it chewed through the ‘desktop replacement’ that I owned and loathed deeply. Sure, it ran, but it was a constant fire hazard and would overheat in a blizzard. The thing was a monster and now, well, I had to purposely use it.
I hooked up a controller to the laptop, mostly because the damn thing got so hot that I didn’t want to burn my fingers and a controller was a welcome respite from that cruel machine. Every time I booted it up, I felt like Icarus and it was my sun. So, the fact I was actually sitting outside on a balmy night, illuminated by only it and the pool lighting, meant I was determined. As it was loading, a wandering pool goer was going to take a dip and the place I was staying in opened up to this large set of pools meaning I could crane my head and see my daughter on the couch. I was good. She was good. Bioshock was installed. This guy was going to swim. Alright, cool.
The one thing I hadn’t really thought about was that I didn’t have a headset to listen to the game and even though it was getting later and it seemed people were scarce, I knew this wasn’t optimal if I couldn’t hear it. So, I stepped away and onto the patio and returned with a small speaker that plugged into the laptop. Turning that on, I palmed my chin and stared at the opening. Now, the fella was swimming about and he was probably in his mid-twenties or so and obviously knew folks around the complex. People would wave to him as they walked out with their wet towels and dragging their little Igloo coolers.
It was just me, this floating pool guy and Bioshock.
Okay, before you think this is going in a weird direction and you cringe away from this — it’s NOT. I swear. We can get back to it now that you’re not waiting for me to post some strange poolside Twilight novel, because that’s not what this is.
After a couple of minutes, before I even pick up the controller to take part, I note the splashing has stopped. Turning my head, I see the guy has essentially folded his arms and rested his chin there to watch, from the pool, what is happening on my screen. As I stare at him for a second, I just smirk and he seems slightly embarrassed but then quickly nodded to the laptop. “Sorry about that, what are you playing?” and I explained it was a new game but then returned to the laptop.
Within seconds, I’m snatching up the controller and panicking a bit as I weave in and around the opening area while working through the tutorial. Within about twenty minutes, the guy had pulled himself up from the pool and was smacking his wet feet about in the quiet. Bella, my daughter, would peek out every so often and offer me a soda and then go back to watching her anime. It was a nice time getting to know Rapture. Admittedly, the quiet and the atmosphere had probably pulled me in a little deeper than I even realized, because as I was watching a Little Sister and Big Daddy for the first time — I was interrupted.
“Oh no! What did I miss? Who is that??” came the guy’s voice and when I jerked my head over my shoulder, he was in shorts and a tanktop and drying his hair with an absurd Spongebob towel. I explained a bit and I returned my focus to the game. Sure, this was strange but I’m a pretty friendly person, so it’s whatever. Then I heard the scraping of metal against the cement and I see this guy pulling a chair from another table but as I turned to look at him, he froze in place. “Is it cool if I watch?” he asked kinda like a kid who is doing a thing without asking but, when caught, will then take the opportunity to inquire after-the-fact. I chuckled and then he pulled up next to me and I continued to play. He’d interrupt every once in awhile to ask me about something, ask if the game was a sequel and just generally act inquisitive. That stopped pretty much immediately once we were dealing with the life-and-death concept of what the Little Sisters meant to us, Jack Ryan and Atlas proper. There was gasping. At one point, I had to pee so incredibly bad but I was worried about walking away.
“Hey, um..” I started and then squinted one eye at him, offering the controller out. “I’m Candice. What’s your name?” I asked despite us having spent two and a half hours together, locked in Bioshock. “I didn’t tell you? I’m Derek. Sorry. You want me to play?” he responded but his eyes were that of pure freaking panic. “We need to get some more stuff together before this next fight, I think. Also, I have to pee. Derek, please don’t steal my laptop.” and I stood up and just walked ten feet through the open sliding glass door. Now, I figured he would sit there and awkwardly play, well, that is — if he wasn’t going to snatch the demon machine and bail. Having checked on a sleeping daughter on the couch, I eased back outside and left it cracked to see Derek setting his phone down and returning to the game. He handed me back the controller and we continued our peculiar night-long friendship.
When I say peculiar, I mean that I had not nor haven’t since experienced anything quite like that before. Derek’s phone call? He was ordering us pizzas to be delivered to the pool. He would eventually come back with beers and fruit from his own place and we were there until, I kid you not, six in the morning. Derek told me a lot of things about his relationship to video games. See, Derek had always wanted to make games but his parents were demanding on him getting a scholarship in sports and so he had to take a huge left turn from his love of technology. He was actually fresh out of college the week before this strange night happened. Little by little, he talked about his dreams to make video games and how similar in feel they were to Bioshock. He wanted something that felt retro but fantasy, he wanted it to take place somewhere nobody had ever seen before, etc.
I saw the peeking blue coming up over the horizon and the trees were prattling away against the lamps that lined the pool area. Derek and I had eaten pizza, had some beers and discussed video games and the future of them. He was not just a person that I had never met before, but someone who stuck with me. See, I saw Bioshock as a video game — and a genius work at that — but it was still just a game to me. Derek saw it as hope that he could start the life that he wanted and not the one he was demanded to have and that was one where he played, loved and created video games. Quite literally, whenever I hear about Bioshock or I think about it — I remember him. Derek is us when we saw the first video game we knew we had to touch and experience. Derek is that kid who plays his favorite games and dreams of a world where he can create his own. Derek is the version of us that constantly battles being told video games are just toys for ‘nerds’ and children.
Obviously, I didn’t beat the game in that one sitting. Hell, it took me nearly twenty hours to beat Bioshock. However, it was that first night playing it that made me realize just how blessed we are to have games like that. Games that inspire people are truly what this whole ‘What is Art?’ question is all about when compared to this hobby of ours. I keep waiting for the day when I see some game dev on Twitter or someone blowing up the scene with their new indie title and it’s Derek’s face. I want to know that he got to push through the expectations of his family and he started living the life he had dreamed of since he was a kid.
Thanks for the memory, Bioshock. See you soon, Derek. Can’t wait to play your game.