BioShock turned 15 this month – a milestone that brings with it the opportunity to revisit the legacy of Irrational Games’ first-person shooter. After all, BioShock is widely considered one of the greatest video games of all time, so it makes sense that we should appraise how well it’s aged in the decade and a half since its release.
Happily, I can report that, on the whole, BioShock has aged incredibly well. Sure, the combat mechanics are a little dated (where are you, precision aiming?) as are the graphics, while the respawn system is poorly conceived as ever. But so much of what made BioShock so great to begin with – the complex storytelling, stellar production design, and open-ended action – continues to impress.
And, most importantly of all, BioShock’s big plot twist is still as good today as it was back in 2007 – for three key reasons.
But first, let me quickly recap the actual plot twist itself, for those of you who haven’t played the game (or its more recent remastered version) in a while.
About two-thirds of the way through BioShock, players discover that their character, Jack, is the illegitimate son of the game’s antagonist, Andrew Ryan. Ryan’s nemesis Frank Fontaine employed two medical scientists to grow Jack from a fertilised embryo to a fully grown adult at a hyper-accelerated rate, while also implanting a control phrase – “Would you kindly…?” – inside Jack’s mind to ensure his total obedience to Fontaine.
As if that weren’t enough, it also turns out that Jack’s closest ally in BioShock, working class revolutionary Atlas, is none other than Fontaine in disguise. Relying on Atlas’ benevolent persona and the previously mentioned control phrase, the shady businessman manipulates Jack into penetrating Ryan’s inner sanctum so that Jack can kill his father and hand control of underwater city Rapture to Fontaine.
There’s one final wrinkle here: the role played by Ryan himself. See, Ryan has already uncovered Fontaine’s plot and would rather die by his own hand than on the orders of his bitter rival – not to mention make one last point about the nature of free will. He uses the “Would you kindly…?” control phrase to order Jack to kill him, a command that Jack (and players) must obey.
These revelations (and the brutal murder that follows) are utterly devastating, and a big part of what makes them hit so hard is that it’s signposted throughout BioShock’s earlier levels. Writer-director Ken Levine doesn’t pull the rug out from players’ feet at random; everything they learn is seeded ahead of time, and this foreshadowing is one of the three key reasons for the plot twist’s lasting success I alluded to earlier.
Thanks to transmissions they receive from Atlas, audio recordings by Doctors Tenenbaum and Suchong they stumble upon, and a handful of brief cutscenes, players already have all the information they need to piece together Jack’s backstory and Fontaine’s scheme, they just don’t realize it. But then, they’re not supposed to, either. These details – such as Atlas’ recurring use of the “Would you kindly…?” prefix or a seemingly throwaway reference to Rapture’s transit system being locked down to Ryan’s DNA – don’t call attention to themselves.
Better still, each clue makes sense, even after repeated playthroughs. BioShock’s rock-solid narrative logic is as important as its expert use of foreshadowing, so much so that it’s the second key reason why the game’s “rug pull” moment still holds up today. Far too often, stories that revolve around a major plot twist are – regardless of the medium through which they’re told – built on newly-revealed developments that either contradict what we already know, strain general credulity to breaking point, or both. This isn’t true of BioShock, though.
Every aspect of the game’s twist adds up, no matter how many times you play it through. Even the more fanciful aspects, such as the circumstances of Jack’s birth and the false memories he has of the life he supposedly lived prior to arriving in Rapture, track because Levine establishes radical scientific experimentation (particularly around genetic engineering) as a core part of BioShock’s sci-fi setting right from the jump. Could something like the game’s plot twist happen in real life? Absolutely not. But based on the laws of the world of BioShock, it’s imminently plausible.
Yet it’s not the foreshadowing or even the in-universe logic that makes BioShock’s big plot twist one of the very best in video game history. That honour goes to its metatextual quality, which makes you think about player agency, not just in this game, but in every game.
The instant you realize that every choice you’ve made as Jack up until that point in BioShock was really just you behaving exactly how Atlas wanted you to, is, to put it bluntly, a mindfuck. It leaves you wondering whether free will is truly possible inside a virtual environment like Rapture, which game developers have designed to unfold exactly the way they want it to. (Incidentally, it also seemingly doubles as Levine’s rebuke of contemporary video game design, as well – commentary only slightly undermined by BioShock’s equally linear remaining levels.)
What’s more, the BioShock plot twist poses a pretty heady question regarding how far gamers are willing to go, and what consequences they’re willing to live with, to finish a game. After all, Andrew Ryan doesn’t have to die; players could make the moral decision to spare his life by exiting the game before Jack beats him to death. Only they won’t, because they’d rather move on to the next level, instead. Of course, Ryan isn’t a real person, however, there’s something unsettling about being party to his fictional murder at a time when we’re finally starting to appreciate the real-world fallout of video game addiction.
Now, with all three of these factors – foreshadowing, logic, and meta subtext – would you kindly agree with me that BioShock still has the best plot twist in video game history?