Bioshock could have easily been just another 1st person shooter, one destined to fade out of memory soon after its release. But nearly 15 years after appearing on store shelves, it’s still a highly regarded and discussed game to this day. It sets itself apart from other shooters of its time, and still those of today, in many ways: the setting and atmosphere of the underwater city of Rapture, its commentary on freewill and the politics of Objectivism, its strong writing and memorable twist. However, I think the major thing that made Bioshock stand out are the Plasmids, how they affect gameplay and the story, and most importantly how it ties the two together.
In the context of gameplay, Plasmids are upgrades. They range from offensive abilities like starting fires, freezing enemies, and summoning swarms of bees, to passive buffs like increased defense, attack, and improved hacking skills. They are found throughout Rapture, encouraging exploration, and bought using ADAM, the material taken from the Little Sisters. ADAM is also used to purchase more slots that additional Plasmids can be equipped too. This system gives the game RPG elements without relying on skill trees or upgrade points that would infest similar games in the 2010s. This allows players to create their own playstyle and RPG-like builds that best emphasizes that style.
As with most 1st person shooters, firing weapons is mapped to the right trigger. However, instead of the left trigger being used to look down sights, it is mapped to using Plasmids in Bioshock as that is the hand the character uses them from. This is very intuitive and oddly immersive as you watch the character mimic the same movements you make. It draws you into the game and helps you step into the shoes of the protagonist. Having the left trigger control Plasmids does mean that typical down-sight aiming controls had to be moved and are instead mapped to pressing in the right trigger. While this is clumsy to use, it’s not a big issue since the tight halls and enclosed spaces of Rapture ensure that precise aiming is not really needed. I found myself perfectly capable of fighting off enemies with just the regular aiming icon and found the iron sights to be more difficult to use in a heated fight. While it at first feels like a weird omission, the game is built around not needing iron sights and is worth the exclusion for the fun of easily using Plasmids with the left hand.
In combat, Plasmids have many uses. There are the typical damage causing skills like Incinerate and Insect Swarm, but there are also ones with more indirect uses like Enrage, which makes enemies attack each other, and Security Bullseye, which causes enemies to trigger security cameras and turrets. Some even have secondary effects. Winter Blast freezes enemies making them easier to kill at the cost of loot, Incinerate can melt ice to open doors or reveal items, and Electro Bolt can electrify water to hit multiple enemies at once. It’s a little disappointing that not all Plasmids have these secondary uses, especially with Winter Blast as there are tons of puddles on the ground or streams of water falling from the ceiling. It seems like a missed opportunity to be able to freeze the puddles to trip enemies or the streams to create a shield.
While there are not many drastically different ways to build a character, there are many options and combinations of Plasmids for the players to choose. Some players may see the value of Plasmids I did not. Maybe they want to equip all the modifiers for the wrench and try a more melee focus build. The Plasmids instill a sense of creativity in the player not offered by many other 1st person shooters. And with health and EVE, the material needed to use Plasmids, needing to be kept track of, there is an additional layer of complexity. You can choose to go for an easy freeze kill if you are low on health and medkits, or you may rely solely on your weapons if EVE is precious and Plasmids not available. A have and have-not system that would be all too familiar to the city of Rapture.
Bioshock critiques Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism by showing the inherent greed, selfishness, and unsustainability present in it and the Plasmids not only represent the downfall of Rapture, but a direct cause of it too. Since Plasmids were such an addictive substance, it was highly sought after in the city. The citizens started taking more and more of it until they mutated in the Splicers you fight throughout the game. Through audio logs, you learn that the founder, Andrew Ryan, refused to regulate the creation and use of Plasmids, instead trusting the free market to sort itself out. He even encourages other businesses to offer a better product if they wish to compete with them.
These revelations add a lot of context to the things the player sees throughout the game. Obviously Rapture is nearly completely dismantled when you arrive, but figuring out how it got that way is up to you to discover. It makes the Splicers sympathetic but past the point of reasoning with, it makes the leaders standing by their zealot beliefs almost cartoonish when they are faced with the tragic outcomes they’ve created. The whole game paints Ryan and the other notably people of Rapture as highly intelligent, creatively ambitious, and extremely driven, but also incapable to accept the consequences of their choices, responsibility for the seeds they have sowed.
This is the type of storytelling that games thrive in over other forms of media like books or movies. With the interactivity games offer, there is more engagement that comes from the strong context and connection the player can feel when gameplay and story are woven together. Players feel more involved in the story, even in linear games like Bioshock, when the story informs the gameplay, it feels like you are part of the world of the game, it helps with immersion while playing and satisfaction when they succeed.
The Plasmids help with all this. They are simply fun to use, but also help players feel more freedom in their playstyles in a genre that typically doesn’t offer much differences between playthroughs. They are a great example of story informing gameplay, making the entire game feel more cohesive as a whole, not like gameplay or story was the main focus with the other being an afterthought. They are the main reason why Bioshock is still so much fun today while other 1st person shooters of the era have aged poorly or drifted out of memory completely. It’s a great example of how much a little creative, intuitive gameplay design well tied into a story expands the experience of a game