CrossSection | Why Is BioShock’s Opening so Brilliant?

Like Morpheus’s first phone call with Neo in The Matrix, the voice promises to keep you safe if you follow their instructions. “Take a deep breath, and step out of the bathysphere. I won’t leave you twisting in the wind.” 

Switch users have recently been treated to The BioShock Collection; an excellent port of the three classic games in the series. It goes without saying that if you’ve never had the chance to play these games, this is an essential pick-up. The games run beautifully and feel right at home on the system (though it does break my heart that they didn’t add motion aiming – my hours spent playing Splatoon 2 has ruined all other shooters for me). If you have played these games before then I’m sure playing them portably will, as with all Switch ports, breathe a new lease of life into them. 

This was my first time playing BioShock and suffice to say I loved it. But what the world doesn’t need is another review of BioShock; that’s not why we’re here. I wanted to discuss the game’s opening and why it’s so damn brilliant. It may be 13 years old but it still remains a classic moment in video games that everyone should play.

A quick point; if you’ve not played the game then I guess this can be considered spoilers, but only for the game’s opening moments – don’t worry, I won’t spoil any of the story proper.

We begin in 1960, over the mid-Atlantic. A smoking passenger thumbs an old photo to instantly establish us firmly in the past. As with TV’s Mad Men is there anything more jarring to modern audiences than seeing people smoking in places we’d never dream of nowadays? It’s a great trick to tell the player ‘this is set in a different era’.

Within seconds the screen fades to black, passengers scream, and the plane goes down. We come-to underwater and swim for our lives, emerging in a flaming wreckage. As the plane sinks around you, surely the situation is impossible. But what’s that? A lighthouse appears and promises safety. You swim to it, for what choice do you have?

Upon entering, the door slams shut behind you. A trap?

The lights come on and you’re greeted by a stern looking chap and the words “No Gods Or Kings. Only Man.” With the lights and stairs as your guide you are led not up, as you’d normally expect, but down, into the murky depths. You step into a bathysphere submersible and plunge deep underwater, the fathoms counted off.

BioShock generally does a great job of ‘show not tell’ storytelling, imparting a sense of events through its visual scenarios and the ubiquitous audio diaries scattered about (a legal requirement for games of this era). These diaries help build a tapestry of individual lives to reveal the backstory. However as you descend into the deep the game indulges in making you watch a brief Fallout-style public information film to quickly introduce you to the world of Rapture; a society free of authority and built on individuals’ rights over any shared obligation to a community.

In the context this exposition dump works effectively by focusing your attention it means you can’t miss it like you can potentially with the other environmental storytelling that’s there. The idea of Rapture is so crucial to understanding the game that it’s important that you stop and listen for a few seconds. The film is presented by Andrew Ryan, the city’s founder, and so even now the developers are packing in more world-building. The tone of Ryan’s voice tells you everything you need to know about his character.

As Ryan reaches his climax, the music swells and with a directorial flourish worthy of Spielberg, the world of Rapture is revealed; an underwater city of art deco skyscrapers towering from the depths. Giant squid and shoals of fish swim between towers connected by walkways and lit by neon signs. As Andrew Ryan himself describes it; an impossible city.

The hand of the game’s director is heavy here. An underwater Gotham City, Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, A.I: Artificial Intelligence’s Rouge City. All feel like strong influences on the art deco, underwater sci-fi setting. Not since Half Life have I so enjoyed a game taking me on rails through its environment to firmly establish the game’s world. The submerged Manhattan we see in A.I: Artificial Intelligence in particular feels like a key influence visually.

We see hulking engineers in diving suits carrying out repairs (only later do we learn of the Big Daddies’ role). Signs for art galleries, fashion retailers, casinos and cocktail lounges all promise a bustling and thriving city. As our pod begins its final approach it passes through a series of rings that read; “All Good Things – Of This Earth – Flow – Into The City”. Ominously, the word ‘City’ sparks and flickers – nothing to worry about though I’m sure. Throughout all of this we hear snatches of indistinct radio chatter, a plane crash is mentioned but it’s hard to hear more over the haunting string music that accompanies the scene.

The game gives one final pause, slowly raising you up before letting you see the city inside. After seeing the wonders under the sea, you can’t help but be excited to see what lies within.

If all this so far sounds like a lot to get through before you can get into the action, then it’s worth pointing out that despite the journey we’ve already been on we are still barely five minutes into BioShock. It’s testament to the developers’ skill that so much has already been established. We’ve been in a plane crash, swam for safety and been introduced to an underwater utopia with some accompanying deep philosophical ideas thrown in for good measure. This is a game that treats its audience with respect and trusts them to keep up.

As your pod slows into the station, what will be there to greet you? A welcoming committee perhaps, eager to meet a new visitor? Not quite.

It quickly becomes apparent that all is not well in Rapture. The game shifts gears to horror as through flickering light we see a man beg for his life before being brutally eviscerated by a shadowed figure who then does its best to break into your pod. You’re completely defenceless still and what you thought represented salvation from the plane crash turns out to be just as dangerous. Somehow, your attacker is scared away before they break in. A kindly Irish voice broadcasts over the radio: “Would you kindly pick up that short-wave radio?”

Like Morpheus’s first phone call with Neo in The Matrix, the voice promises to keep you safe if you follow their instructions. “Take a deep breath and step out of the bathysphere. I won’t leave you twisting in the wind.” At once you are being guided into danger, but also reassured that someone has your back. You don’t have any other choice, this is a video game after all, but the comfort that knowing someone is watching over you helps you take those first tentative steps into the dark, mysterious and dangerous city of Rapture.

I’ll end things here; at the point you are given full control and freedom to move about. But I hope this piece has helped you to either remember this great opening sequence or encouraged you to pick the game up for the first time to see what the rest of it has to offer. If you are a newcomer then you can look forward to some wonderful twists along the way.

BioShock’s opening succeeds so well by doing an amazing job of conveying so much in such an efficient way. You’re not asked to sit through a long cut scene or read through pages of writing to have the setting explained to you. Nor does it do the common fantasy trick of leaving everything a mystery for you to slowly piece together over several hours. In under 10 minutes it’s all laid out for you. It’s like an interactive ride (a thought that’s just occurred to me – how awesome would it be to play this opening sequence in VR?) 

It’s intelligent, it’s intriguing, but most importantly, playing the game’s introduction is simply fun.