BioShock is arguably one of the most influential games ever — certainly of the last generation. It changed expectations for narrative-heavy, single-player-focused games, and for atmosphere and level design in first-person titles. It changed everything.
And the recently-released indie horror game SOMA does everything BioShock tried to do, and does it better.
WARNING: The following post contains major spoilers for both SOMA and BioShock.
What the hell are you talking about?
This may not be an entirely fair comparison. Despite a very similar setting — both take place in an underwater facility following a major event where everything goes wrong — SOMA and BioShock are very different games in some significant ways. Most notably, BioShock is, at its heart, an action game; it's a shooter, and your moment-to-moment goal is killing things.
SOMA, on the other hand, is a horror game where you don't get weapons and can't fight back against whatever horrors you encounter. Your only goal is to survive, and often that means ducking into the shadows and getting out of the way.
Both of these games have big, meaningful messages to convey, but only SOMA is willing to take its purpose to a logical conclusion with regards to how it affects gameplay.
What exactly is BioShock's weakness?
BioShock's plot has some layers, but the overall story it tells is about being put into the shoes of a character who doesn't have a choice but to commit horrific acts. This works on two levels: Jack, the game's mute main character, is literally being controlled via brainwashing. But also the players themselves are being controlled; the game provides commentary on how, even in a game with some choices, you're still moving along a limited, predetermined path.
It's a compelling message that makes for a great twist. The "Would you kindly?" reveal in BioShock is an unforgettable moment, more of a revelation than anything in SOMA. But there's a major weakness to BioShock that drags down its otherwise interesting themes: The majority of your time in the game is spent brutally murdering people.
As part of its grand trick over whether or not any players have any real control over a game, BioShock puts you into a major moral dilemma. At around 20 locations throughout the game, Jack runs into "Little Sisters," tiny girls with strange proportions and glowing yellow eyes. They're creepy, but they also exude a sense of innocence.
When you run into a Little Sister, you have two choices. You can save them, tucking them away to safety for a small reward. Or ... you can "harvest" them, taking the precious ADAM energy inside of them to use for upgrades, but killing the Little Sister in the process.
Let's set aside the total lack of subtlety in a moral choice that amounts to "Would you murder little girls or not?" Let's also ignore the fact that you actually end up with almost as many upgrade materials if you save every Little Sister as if you harvest them. Let's pretend, for just a moment, that BioShock actually presents a serious conundrum, or perhaps that the lack of impact to your choices is tied in to the aforementioned theme about a lack of real choice in the game.
Even with those allowances, there's no getting past the fact that the moment-to-moment gameplay in BioShock is about killing. Throughout the course of the game, the main character shoots or beats to death hundreds of apparently crazed citizens of Rapture
Are they out of control and trying to hurt Jack? Sure. Could it be justified as purely self-defense? Probably. Or, hey, maybe it's all another extension of the mind control element of the story.
Whatever excuse you're willing to go with to help suspend your disbelief, though, there's no denying that Jack's massacre weakens any other morality scenarios the game is attempting to play with. Whether or not you choose to harvest Little Sisters is a shitty way of determining whether Jack is a good person, seeing as he's completely unmoved by killing hundreds of others.
Wouldn't any choices you make involving Little Sisters feel more meaningful if those were some of the only deaths in the game? Wouldn't the final scene with Andrew Ryan hit harder if it was one of the only murders your character could commit?
So why is SOMA better?
SOMA may have a similar setting to BioShock, but its story follows a very different thread, dealing with even heavier subjects such as mortality and what makes us human. It's meaty stuff, and the kind that video games rarely tackle, much less with any grace.
The first step to reversing that trend is in making death matter. Throughout SOMA, protagonist Simon Jarrett has several moments where he can choose to end the life of another living being. These living beings are presented as robots, adding another layer to the moral struggle in the game. If they're robots, are they alive? Does taking away their power to serve your own purposes count as killing them? And how does that stack up in the face of a world that's been devastated by a catastrophic event, ending most human life?
It's already a more difficult and compelling moral conundrum than BioShock's, but SOMA adds to the power of these moments with a major shift in gameplay. Namely, it's not a game about killing. The dozen-or-so "enemies" you encounter throughout the game cannot be attacked. Trying to fight them will only result in your own death. Instead, you must hide or run from these foes.
It was one of the only murders I committed during the whole game. And it's been haunting me ever since
SOMA isn't afraid to spread out these encounters. There are long stretches of the game where you won't run into any bad guys, and tracts of the Pathos-2 research facility that have no life. It embraces moments of silence, times when you can simply explore, take in the environment and, of course, build up tension for the inevitable next terrifying run-in with some freakish creation.
This approach works wonders. Near the end of SOMA, Simon stumbles into a room containing a woman hooked up to a breathing machine. This is literally the first actual, living, breathing human he's met on Pathos-2 — everyone else, including him, is a robot. In conversation, they determine that she is, in all likelihood, the last human alive on Earth.
And she asks Simon to kill her.
This moment is the climax of all of the choices you've made throughout SOMA. Rather than turning moral choices into a repeatable game mechanics like Little Sisters, this game treats each dilemma as unique. They don't have an impact on gameplay. They don't determine what upgrades you're going to get. They're purely narrative, and even then, they don't actually change anything. There aren't multiple endings.
They're merely choices, meaningful and important in and of themselves. They're just difficult decisions that you have to live with.
I chose to kill the last woman alive. It was one of the only murders I committed during the whole game. And it's been haunting me ever since.
So why do you hate BioShock so much?
This a fair question after reading this, so I want to be clear: BioShock was my favorite game the year it came out, and certainly in my top five games of the last console generation. I was obsessed with it for years. I thought that it was brilliant at the time, and I still think it's an incredibly important game.
The differences between BioShock's approach eight years ago and SOMA's approach now is most obvious to me in how the games end.
In SOMA's conclusion, Jarrett gives everything he has to launch the Ark, a satellite containing a virtual reality full of computer brain scans of the remnants of Pathos-2. It is humanity's last and final hope for survival, and Jarrett also copies a scan of himself over.
But the scan he copies over is not the Jarrett we're playing as. We're the Jarrett who launched the Ark, and is now stuck on Pathos-2, alone, forever. He is frustrated, then angry, then just sad. The ending is a depressing fade to black, to endless silence.
Notably, this ending is all narrative. That's not to say it's a cutscene — you're still controlling Jarrett, still moving around, still pressing buttons and interacting with the environment. However, it's a conclusion that's not about testing your skills. It's a culmination of the game's themes to leave players with a final message, an emotion beyond "hell yes, I killed that thing."
BioShock's finale is a boss fight that was acknowledged by most critics as terrible upon its release, even as they praised the rest of the game. It's a cliche at best.
BioShock offers up different endings based on whether you harvested every Little Sister, saved every Little Sister or were somewhere in between. But all three of those endings are disappointing non-starters. They don't tie into the game's most interesting ideas. They don't engage players or leave them with something to think about.
That's not to say that BioShock didn't stick around in my mind after I finished it. It did, for months and even years. And in all honesty, I don't think a game like SOMA would exist if BioShock hadn't done what it did first. I think it's worth acknowledging where our industry has improved and grown, though, and the vast ocean between these two games is the perfect example of that.
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the main character of BioShock is brainwashed by Andrew Ryan. This is incorrect — he is actually brainwashed by another character. The article has been updated to reflect this.]