Note: Since one of these games was recently released, I am putting a massive SPOILER ALERT up at the top of this article. Spoilers for BOTH GAMES follow; if you haven’t played them, be advised that it does spoil things to some extent.
Yes, I am cheating a bit here: two games occupy the same spot on my list, and the numbering isn’t altered to account for that. But screw you, this is my list and I can do what I want.
Those of you who read my review of BioShock Infinite back in March will likely remember that I called it the best game I have ever played. And while I will stand by that statement, a more accurate one would be “one of the best”. It was an experience that I rarely have in gaming, and that singular experience was, at the time, the very best I had had. But, reflection on that experience has deflated it ever so slightly, bringing it more in line with some of the other games that top this list. I also realized that much of my enjoyment of Infinite was due to its status as a response, of sorts, to the original BioShock.
These two games are directly connected and thematically connected, and each is greater in the presence of the other.
Ken Levine once shared a description of the relationship between the two games (the originator of this description escapes me, but they were a wise man indeed): BioShock is about archaeology, and BioShock Infinite is about anthropology. The most praised aspects of each game involve the cities in which they take place: the underwater Randian utopia Rapture, and the floating cultist paradise Columbia. Rapture was a setting unlike anything seen in a video game before: a city that had long ago torn itself apart and been left for dead, but it was so much more alive than most other settings. The audio logs revealed so many nuances of the city’s day-to-day, with characters that were dead long before the game’s beginning given fitful emotional arcs and backgrounds. It was a place that was simply awesome to be in, a beautiful disaster of an experiment. And yet, despite the fascination and the beauty of the city’s ambition and inhabitants, the city itself was visually ugly. Falling apart, with water leaking in at so many points, it was not a pretty sight.
Columbia was the opposite. A beautiful place to behold, but one that was absolutely horrible to be in. Filled with racism and bigotry, Columbia is an experiment that worked, for its inhabitants are able to go on with their evils free from interference of the world at large. Sure, there’s a growing Vox Populi revolt at the time Booker DeWitt appears, but still: for the most part, the cruelties of the brainwashed citizens are allowed to go unpunished in the beautiful city of Columbia. Whereas Rapture is a dead, ugly city that houses beautiful ambitions and personalities, Columbia is a beautiful city housing immoral and oppressive citizens.
What earns the BioShock games a place on this list is primarily the fantastic way that they deal with player agency. Agency is the one thing that gaming has that no other artistic medium has, and each of these games uses it to fantastic effect – but, naturally, in different ways.
The original BioShock only once takes control out of the player’s hands. At every other point in the game, the player is free to do what they want. They can harvest or save Little Sisters, or ignore them entirely. They can go to a bunch of different areas of Rapture, explore as much as they want, or just skip straight ahead, moving through the plot at a brisk pace. But at a critical point in the story, they take control away from the player: they force you to kill Andrew Ryan. “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” he says, and yet the player is forced to obey. Because the entire game, the player has been manipulated by the man claiming to be Atlas (he is, in fact, Ryan’s enemy in the war for Rapture, Frank Fontaine). Everything the player has done has been at the bidding of Atlas. You had the illusion of choice, but in fact you were completely vacant of agency. It’s a stunning moment, and one that really horrifies me to this day. It’s a wonderful and outstanding hat trick.
BioShock Infinite, however, takes a different approach to player agency. In this game, Booker – the player – is genuinely free to do as he chooses in Columbia. And while there are no Little Sisters running around, the game does present a number of small choices that have no particular impact on the story. Things like whether you throw the baseball at an interracial couple being put on display for citizens to throw baseballs at, or to throw the baseball at the announcer instead. To choose a necklace for Elizabeth with a bird on it, or a cage. To shoot the ticket counter clerk in the face or to allow him to drill a hole into your hand. These choices don’t impact the game in the long run, but they are choices presented to you. But each of these choices is a variable, and variables are very important in BioShock Infinite. The spectacular ending to the game later reveals the concept of multiple, mostly identical universes (of which the original BioShock is one!), with the primary thing separating them being such small variables. It’s a system of constants, and variables, and the game deliberately places the agency of the player to make these decisions as the variable that defines multiple universes. That’s a stroke of brilliance: each player will choose differently, implying that each player who plays the game is playing in their own universe, and their agency, and the decisions they make with it, is what differentiates it from the rest.
There are some profound themes being tossed around by the narrative of the games, but ultimately where the games shine is in the way they use gaming conventions to convey these concepts, and how they elevate the status of player agency.