When it comes to genre-defining games, few are as influential as the original BioShock, which celebrates its fifteenth birthday this month. Hailing from Irrational Games and 2K Marin, BioShock first came to PC and Xbox 360 on August 21, 2007, and revolutionizde first-person shooters forever.
But why is this game so important? Is it the top-notch gameplay or surprising twist ending? Or perhaps it has to do with the way it handles its fascinating philosophical themes. While all of those things contribute to BioShock’s importance, it’s the game’s atmosphere that has stuck with me the most all these years later.
Upon first arriving to the underwater city of Rapture, BioShock’s iconic setting, the game immediately grabs you. Its Atlantis-like presentation, with its retrofuturistic style, gives the game a unique identity that remains unmatched to this day.
There’s a moment at the start of the game in which you take a bathysphere ride through the city and it’s absolutely breathtaking. The lights, the awe-inspiring view of the city skyline, the music, and the speech given by antagonist Andrew Ryan all evoke a feeling of mystery and wonder — making the very next sequence all the more horrifying.
As soon as you arrive at your destination, the lights go out, and two people begin approaching the vessel you find yourself in. One of the figures approaches the other menacingly, while the other backs away, afraid for his life. The only source of light comes from the lightning outside, allowing you to just briefly catch a glimpse of the attacker murdering her victim right in front of you. She’s not human, at least, not anymore. She approaches you and then lets out a horrifying shriek before jumping out of view. And then, the bathysphere door opens ...
That’s how the game starts. Within five minutes BioShock manages to do more than most first-person shooters do in their entirety.
It’s a gutwrenching intro sequence that’s equal parts unsettling, horrifying, and mysterious, keeping you on the edge of your seat throughout. The game never lets up, and part of its allure has to do with the way every inch of the environment feels lived in, making you second-guess if you’re alone.
The way the lighting and music work in tandem with your surroundings makes the entire game so captivating, that it’s hard to put down. All around you are little bits of trash, piles of debris, and the eerily chipper, carnival-like sounds of vending machines. Even despite how unnerving everything is, you can’t help but continue exploring.
Shortly after the intro sequence, you discover that Rapture is littered with Big Daddies — large, deadly creatures who wear heavy, steampunk-inspired diving suits. These enemies roam the city and can appear anywhere, increasing the tension overall. They aren’t invincible, but you have to go into each battle prepared with as much gear as possible to ensure survival. That’s why it’s so nerve-wracking to hear their thunderous stomps in the distance. Boom. Boom. Boom.
If you stop at any random location throughout the game and just look around, you’ll no doubt have plenty to take in. Whether it’s the sound of water dripping, the faint outline of a deadly Splicer in the distance, or maybe a dimly lit area where the only thing you can see is a fire in the far corner — everything in this game is masterfully designed, begging you to explore every nook and cranny it has to offer.
It’s a testament to BioShock’s brilliance that many games have tried to replicate its sense of atmosphere to no avail. Some have come close, like 2017’s Prey, but even 15 years later, BioShock somehow feels like a once-in-a-lifetime gaming experience.
Bioshock is available for PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch as part of BioShock: The Collection.