The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.
To help resurrect this column from its own untimely demise, I’ve decided to reach back a few years, and to talk about an experience that I absolutely loved. In fact, I loved it so much that the inevitable sequel didn’t terribly ruin everything for me. This week, we’re stepping into the world of video games, and talking about one that, depending upon your personal definitions, may not actually resonate as horror, even though it has plenty of the elements. Gather your Big Daddy and Little Sister, because it’s time to head beyond the sea to Rapture. After all, it all begins with a man, and a lighthouse.
A spiritual successor to the System Shock games, Bioshock follows the exploits of Jack, a character without much personality or motivation, as he navigates his way through a dystopian, underwater world. Jack is spurred on thanks to the helpful radio connection he shares with a man named Atlas. Along the way, Jack starts to see what caused the downfall of this model city under the sea, along with what became of the survivors. He also runs across numerous Little Sisters and their Big Daddies, providing the moral toggle for the game.
Admittedly, Bioshock is lighter on the horror angle than a lot of games out there. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get to carry forward the horror genre, however. The game presents a number of horror elements, and definitely leans on atmospheric creep to help underline the story. For those who desire a bit more visceral of an experience, there are a few strong jump scares that are set up to shock the player, but, for the most part, the game just feels “off”. That, coupled with the fact that the game actually brings to the table discussions regarding the free will of man, along with the nature of Objectivism, make Bioshock more than just a straight-forward shoot-em-up, and one worthy of standing at least partway in the horror genre.
For and foremost, Jack, as your eyes into the world of Rapture, is a stand-in for the player. He has a few small elements to help flesh out his personality, but, for the most part, he’s a relatively blank slate. This allows the player to develop a deeper connection to the world as seen through Jack’s eyes. True, Jack has abilities that help him to stand apart and survive in Rapture, but, while those help ramp up some of the fun of the game, they don’t provide its heart. That burden falls squarely on Jack, and what information you can glean from the audio recordings, the exchanges with Tenenbaum, and the almost incessant pestering of Atlas.
Of course, there’s a reason why Jack is needed to be a relatively blank slate. As you discover late in the game, just about the only thing that you’ve done that’s had any free will to it is how you handle the Little Sisters. For everything else, there’s a nice little catch that keeps you on the path. It’s a clever way to both explain why Jack would continue to willingly throw himself headlong at the dangers ahead of him, and why the player keeps moving towards the predetermined objectives. Even better, the code phrase is such an innocuous one that, on first blush, many players get to be surprised when the reveal is handed down. Jack not only allows the player to identify with parts of themselves as they move through Rapture, but he also shows how they might react, should they learn that their own free will has been subsumed.
Rapture is unapologetic in how disturbing it’s presented. There is a lot of beautiful scenery, but all of it is a little off-putting when it’s also filled with bloody bodies, dismembered corpses, and overgrown plants. It clearly hasn’t been long since disaster brought Rapture low, as there are still plenty of survivors, but the dead are in abundance. In fact, it’s the survivors that add some of the most off-putting elements to the atmosphere of the game, as they’ve not only been driven mad, but are often depicted with disfigurements only really noticeable when they get up close. And get up close they will, as a lot of the enemy tactics revolve around rushing at Jack, closing the distance to tilt the tables in their favor.
Then there’s the issue of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. While you don’t find out a lot about the creation of the Big Daddies in the first game, you learn enough to know that they are determined to defend their personal Little Sister to the death. The parent-child bond is made incredibly strong between these two, which is even creepier when later explanations make it clear that the two are not generally parent and child before the transition. The Big Daddies are hulking brutes, trapped forever in a diving suit, while the Little Sisters are sallow, hollow-eyed girls, toting around syringes with which to drain dead bodies of their magical life force (ADAM). That sort of interconnectedness could actually be considered as sweet in other genres, but, because the choice is taken away from both in Bioshock, it’s very clearly a disturbing relationship. It adds to the sense of wrong that permeates throughout the game, and continues to resonate long after the encounter with Sander Cohen.
Bioshock is NOT a funny game. It isn’t meant to be. But, like so much of horror, it’s clear that there is a purpose for humor to get dropped in once in a while. Within Bioshock, the humor is largely contained within the quick snippets of dialogue, and CAN serve as a tension break, provided said dialogue comes in a quieter moment. There are also plenty of times where the humor helps to underscore how disturbing the scene unfolding before you actually is; for example, everything related to Dr. Steinman has an air of humor to it, and he’s definitely not an amusing character. Finally, the humor sometimes appears in places to actually set up the player for a bigger emotional reaction. Look no further than most of what Atlas asks of you, especially before you approach Andrew Ryan’s office.
Not to take away from the Big Daddies that exist throughout the game, but they’re honestly probably even more of victims than Jack is. The true monsters are the splicers; people who got so comfortable with having everything they ever dreamed of, they decided to take one step further and start changing their very genetic code. In some ways, it could be seen as an extreme end-game to the concepts of Objectivism, but, either way, it really helps set up the world as being wrong and frightening. The bodies that lay scattered around are most likely their close friends and neighbors, but, once the switch was flipped and madness became the rule of Rapture, they were forgotten. Madness certainly is the rule, and the splicers, in all of their varied forms, serve to show how, in a world such as Bioshock‘s, sanity is not far from the razor’s edge.
In fact, the splicers are so effective as monsters (even when they AREN’T actively trying to kill Jack), they ultimately mute the power of the game’s final boss. Instead of continuing to ramp up the fear and general wrongness of the enemies, the game ends with a fairly standard boss-fight, albeit one with a satisfying finish.
Bioshock is not a perfect game, and, in many ways, it isn’t really a horror game. That said, it certainly plays with a lot of atmospheric creep, a pervading sense of always being watched, and the question of free will. Its strong visuals and steady reminders of just how close to “normal” this world could be help to keep the player unsettled. The morality aspect of the game isn’t remarkable, but it does help ground Jack in something other than simply running around, shooting people with lightning before braining them with a wrench. If you’re looking for a game that has some scares, but asks its audience to think more than jump, would you kindly consider giving Bioshock a look?