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Great moments in PC gaming: BioShock's twist

(Image credit: 2K)

Great moments in PC gaming are bite-sized celebrations of some of our favorite gaming memories.

BioShock

(Image credit: 2K)

Year: 2007
Developer: 2K Boston

I was sitting on the couch in my college apartment, and I was shivering.

I remember being excited for BioShock in 2007. I knew it was a Big Deal, even though at the time I'd never played the System Shock games and didn't know much about them. But BioShock had buzz, and then it got rave reviews, and I was enraptured (heh) by the dozen or so hours I'd already spent playing it. But I wasn't ready for the impact of coming face-to-face with Andrew Ryan and the twist of that scene. It's the first time I remember feeling absolutely stunned by a videogame.

More than a decade later, I don't know if BioShock's big twist would work. Throughout the early hours of the game, your helpful radio contact Atlas throws in a casual "would you kindly" with each suggestion he makes about where you should go and what you should do. Atlas helps you explore Rapture, BioShock's failed undersea utopia, but the twist is Atlas is really commanding you, controlling your actions with a coded phrase that triggers your character's obedience. 

(Image credit: 2K Games)

It was rare at the time for games to question or comment on the relationship between game and player. Games about shooting were not usually—or ever—also about free will. In another game it may have been a hacky moment of meta commentary, but it fit perfectly into BioShock's exploration of objectivism. You're literally bashing the game's theme home with a golf club to the head.

Commenting on the player's agency in a game feels trite today, because it's been done so many times, in so many ways, since BioShock came out. But at the time it made me think about videogames in a way I hadn't before. My brain struggled to process what had just happened; what I'd done, had been forced to do, and how unprepared I was for the story to take that surprising turn. 

"Would you kindly" was especially potent because BioShock so thoroughly earned its twist. In the moments leading up to confronting Ryan you see a classic conspiracy pinboard, threads linking connected figures among a sea of scattered notes. If the phrase registers, you'll understand in this moment you've been hearing it all along; BioShock gives you the opportunity to piece it all together before the big reveal.

(Image credit: 2K)

When you finally talk to Ryan, in just a few minutes the game not only delivers its narrative climax, it justifies every detail of your experience that would normally be handwaved with "it's a videogame". Why are you so strong, able to kill Rapture's Big Daddy warriors and insane Splicers? Because you were genetically engineered on Rapture. Why did your plane crash land so conveniently near Rapture at the beginning of your adventure? Because you caused the crash. 

A good twist is about the collision of surprise and satisfaction in your mind—of understanding how two puzzle pieces fit together, and marveling at the new shape those two things create together. A great twist, like BioShock's, feels like every puzzle piece slamming together at once, while reframing the very concept of the puzzle itself. 

Maybe I'm exaggerating a little. If the words ludonarrative dissonance make you roll your eyes, this moment in BioShock may not impress you much. In that case, would you kindly forget the philosophy talk and simply enjoy a few minutes of actor Armin Shimerman—best known as Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—deliver a perfect performance with Andrew Ryan's monologue.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.