BioShock is about to be relevant again! As of tomorrow, and throughout February 2020, the beloved trilogy will be free on PlayStation Plus. That means you’ll be privy to a bevy of takes all over again — on whether the 2007 game (plus its excellent 2010 sequel and… problematic/hella racist 2013 follow up BioShock Infinite) holds up to the test of time.
In preparation (oh, let’s be honest, I’d be doing this anyway), I’ve been watching a lot of BioShock speedruns. I’ll probably play the first two games again, too. One major thing that springs to mind as I watch, say, Bloodthunder beat the game without using plasmids, or run through it just using the wrench, is that the architecture, level design, and even systems design of the original game holds up beautifully.
Yes. This is a 2007 game made in the Unreal Engine. Not only that, but BioShock is so unsubtle it features only psychopaths and wildly over the top characters emoting like Shakespearean wannabes in an off-off-off broadway black box. But the environments — the way they’re constructed, lit, and put together — are gorgeous. I mean the ruined party of Kashmir restaurant, the sick tile of the medical wing, even, yes, the mall meets theater district of Fort Frolic. I even enjoy the less-celebrated areas, like the industrial nightmare of Hephaestus, and the genuinely upsetting sectors of Point Prometheus. Every place feels unique, lived in, and weirdly believable in the context of this wild world.
Except Fontaine’s hilarious villain’s lair…
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Even at the time, the final boss fight of the game seemed misplaced. I’m not one of the folks who thinks the game should’ve ended at the Andrew Ryan scene (which, at the time was shocking! Revelatory! Deep!). The weird, scary, deeply fucked up labyrinth of the Little Sister indoctrination center is central to the emotional core of the game, and the horde-mode-meets-protection-mission of Proving Grounds points towards the future of the series. They have as much narrative value as any other stage on the game, and the latter provides a blueprint for some of the most interesting gameplay in the sequel. The Little Sister gathering sequences in BioShock 2, which allowed you to set elaborate traps, brought the concept home.
But Fontaine is a huge misstep. He brings a big, comical cartoon boss sequence that feels slapped together. The room itself is as much a culprit as the more remarked upon fight itself. While every other environment in the game feels like a heightened-but-real space — a place that fits in with the world being presented here — Fontaine’s… fortress(?) just looks like a big room made for a boss fight. It feels like a naked Colosseum where every other “arena” is cleverly disguised as a room with an original function and purpose: a laboratory with sharp edges, an apartment block overthrown with debris, etc.
Looking back, I think if the Fontaine fight was put into a more appropriate context, it would have been less jarring. The much earlier fight with the “boss” of the medical wing, Dr. Steinman, at least takes place in an operating theater, with the good doctor beating up a body he can’t Silence of the Lambs enough for his taste. The Andrew Ryan sequence is a cutscene (which yes, is thematically appropriate), but actually looks like an office (albeit the sort a megalomaniac would hang out in). As big as these presentations are, they make sense for the character and context.
It’s hilarious to picture that this dude, who played a sob story character for three fourths of the game with a corny Irish accent, emoted over the radio with you, then ran to the other side of his massive, empty arena of a room to like… order some splicers to kill people or whatever else he’s doing for the rest of the game. One minute he’s sitting in his chair, cornballing to you about Moira and Patrick and how killing Little Sisters is a good thing, really, boyo. The next, he’s doing Psycho Crushers across the length of two football fields to scavenge desk drawers for pep bars to snack on.
I suspect, though I am fully pulling this out of the ether and don’t actually know, that this whole sequence was either rushed or a vestige of an early draft of the game, grafted on to give a Satisfying Video Game Ending. Either way, it’s wildly out of place, even in a game this over-the-top.
Ultimately, it’s less an indictment of one goofy boss sequence (which isn’t bad, exactly, just… dopey), and more a highlight of just how good the rest of the BioShock environments are. I play BioShock again every couple of years and enjoy the experience every time. I take care to play in all the nooks and crannies built into Rapture. While the top-line narrative has worn thin over the years (Objectivism is, in fact, bad), playing in this grungy sci-fi playground never has.