As a spiritual successor to Ken Levine’s cyber-punk classics System Shock (1994) and System Shock 2 (1999), the BioShock franchise is a AAA trilogy of bio-/steampunk first-person shooters that demonstrates how a video game series can handle incredibly complex sociological and philosophical themes in immersive, creative, and challenging ways.
BioShock and BioShock 2 are set in the art deco–infused underwater city of Rapture, while BioShock Infinite is situated fifty years earlier in the American Beaux Arts–influenced, floating air city of Columbia, 1912. Both of these deeply flawed, utopian-turned-dystopian worlds are replete with astonishing production values, giving the impression of a fully developed, preexisting reality that the player has encountered at a critical point in its history. Within the atmosphere of either a faded society irreparably ravaged by civil war (BioShock and BioShock 2) or one that has amassed enough hubris to find itself on the brink of collapse (BioShock Infinite), the citizens consistently reinforce each other’s firmly entrenched ideologies. By accessing the audio diaries of these inhabitants, the player learns how these figures intersect with the critical themes of the franchise: individual agency versus external manipulation; and individual effort versus the collective enterprises of society. The separate, discursive fields of religion, science, industry, art, war, and childhood can all be refracted and understood through the symbolic figureheads that populate the narrative arcs, but it is through the tensions between the playable protagonists and the central antagonists that all of these swirling and competing ideologies forcefully collide.
Although the two cities are separate in time and location, through the drives of their respective figureheads, each world presents the consequences of isolationist attitudes…
The full 1,000 word version of this article is published in 100 Greatest Video Game Franchises, edited by Robert Mejia, Jaime Banks, and Aubrie Adams, published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.