Unlike many I’ve spoken with, I found myself unable to play Bioshock in long stretches, instead playing in hour-long spurts, and thinking I was done for a while before inevitably returning 10 minutes later. The last game I played with this quality of not being able to tear myself away no matter how disquieting the experience was Resident Evil 4.

It’s not so much that Bioshock is actually scary. Rather, the things you see and hear, the scenes you stumble upon, and the creatures you face are unsettling. These grisly encounters aren’t entirely removed from reality, and yet are somewhat preternatural. The implications of spliced human beings going insane with addictions for genetic material (not to mention the lumbering, behemoth “Big Daddys”) are enough to sit with you long after you’re done playing.

Upon Bioshock‘s release, a minor stir was made in the mainstream media regarding the option you have to kill the “Little Sisters” in an effort to gain more Adam (genetic currency), as opposed to freeing them. It seems to me, however, that such arguments are somewhat misplaced. Video games comprise an extremely young medium, and the concept of a game with moral choices and consequences is still in its infancy. While an increasing number of games are attempting to give ethical weight to player decisions, there have yet to be any that reflect the subtle shades of gray present in real life. As such, the choice to kill a “Little Sister” or not really comes down to an either/or, binary sequence of events based on your decision. I chose to save the girls, simply because I imagined that there would be some sort of positive story resolution as a result. I didn’t feel intrinsically better about myself for having done so.

Recently, I talked to a friend of mine, who’s just now working his way through the game. I asked him how far along he was, and he said “I just got to the boss that…” I said, “Is that the one where you beat him by…?” He said, “No, I did it this way.” One of the many great things about Bioshock is the number of ways in which it can be played. While it might not have quite the RPG depth of, say, Deus Ex, Bioshock still allows the player to approach a fairly linear sequence of set pieces and situations from a variety of strategic angles.

Big Daddy and Little Sister, together. Heartwarming.

While the concept of choice in approach isn’t unique, it’s implemented very well here, giving you a different kind of sandbox than the Grand Theft Auto-style one. What differentiates this from most RPGs I’ve played is that the choices I made to grow my character in a certain way or approach a situation from a particular angle didn’t really seem conscious. For example, I chose to approach Bioshock as an engineer of sorts, hacking every robotic being I came across, creating cybernetic soldiers to help me through tough segments. It didn’t really occur to me not to do this. My progression through the game felt extremely organic, only really revealing itself as based in choice in retrospect.

Though the setting of Bioshock is largely static, then, the experience becomes different for every player by virtue of the player’s ability to essentially make the game his or her own. So while Roger Ebert might claim that video games are an artistically inferior medium by virtue of the player having too much control over the artist’s vision, a game like Bioshock seems to illustrate that the narrative can remain largely untouched, while game mechanics still serve to deepen the players’ connection to the experience.

Even in Rapture, a good old-fashioned revolver will do you some good.

It’s difficult to single out one element of Bioshock as superior to either others in the game or a similar element in another game. Rather, what makes Bioshock the achievement it is lies in the cohesion of all facets, and the clear commitment to the premise on the part of the artists and designers. If the world of Rapture were nearly an empty setting as in Ico or Myst, where the game world is almost another character in the game, it would still be worth exploring.

There has been some backlash directed at Bioshock in its role as the “spiritual successor” to System Shock 2. There are those that claim it’s essentially the same game with a fresh coat of paint. Even if this is true, which is debatable as the source material and storyline of the games differ greatly (though the mechanics do not), fundamentally sound game mechanics can be repackaged in a variety of different, yet equally great ways, a truism evidenced by Nintendo’s expanding library of first-party games.

Bioshock may have suffered from over-hype, but it is still quite stunning. Although not flawless, the experience is extremely engaging from beginning to end. The game mechanics, art design, and sound elements all come together to form a believably complex world. Long after finishing it, the experience stil occupying my mind. I continue to wonder how many different ways I could have tackled various scenarios. To my mind, that is one of the marks of a stellar game experience.

RATING 9 / 10