Bioshock: The Twist

Bioshock's Twist moment is, unlike the stuff I've previously covered, more in the vein of my usual 'why did this game do this how could anyone think this was a good idea' facepalming. If you're not wanting to be spoiled anyway because you've heard all about how Bioshock is an amazing game with good storytelling, you can of course leave anytime you want, but I personally feel no one is missing out on anything by being spoiled on the twist. Partly because it's such a badly-handled, fundamentally stupid idea, but mostly because when it gets down to it Bioshock's core story is fundamentally uninteresting and poorly-told. It has two interesting worlds, both of which could have supported very good stories, but it has nothing resembling a real character arc or... much of anything.

That's something I'll be getting into more in a later post, though.

For now, let's get into spoilers.


Well, actually, let's start with talking about what a twist is.

A good twist is the moment when your understanding of things up to that point changes radically, slotting together into a new, more coherent understanding of events. Ideally you did not view events prior to The Twist as not making sense, but your post-Twist understanding of the world should make more sense than your pre-Twist understanding of the world.

I provide this definition to give context on why I will be laying out the problems with Bioshock's Twist moment. These problems are not trivial: they cannot be dismissed as unimportant simply because eg you, specifically, found the Twist shocking and so viewed it as effective at its job. It remains the case that Bioshock's Twist is a bad Twist, regardless of how much emotional impact it might have had on however many players it affected.

So. Getting to the game itself.

The central twist of Bioshock is fairly straightforward: you start the game thinking you're a Joe Random who survived a plane crash that happened to be near the lighthouse that acts as the entrance to the city of Rapture, and then descended into Rapture for lack of any better alternatives.

Then partway through the game it turns out you're a vat-baby half-clone of Andrew Ryan who Frank Fontaine had grown super-fast and conditioned to be controllable with key phrases, and you hijacked a plane and deliberately crashed it near Rapture's entrance so you could come in and assassinate Andrew Ryan or something of the sort. (It's honestly not entirely clear what Frank Fontaine's plan was supposed to be here, which normally I'd rate as a Fairly Big Problem but with how ill-advised the Twist is at all this is only worth mentioning as Yet Another Problem)

A sub-component to this twist is that your radio buddy, Atlas, starts the game seeming to be an unlucky Rapture citizen who you work with for lack of any sane alternatives, and ultimately turns out to be an identity Frank Fontaine took on after faking his own death so he could get under Andrew Ryan's radar.

Now, the good news about this twist is that there is one genuinely well-handled bit in the whole mess, which is that it's revealed the player character is compelled to do anything that was accompanied by the phrase "would you kindly". A phrase your radio buddy has been using pretty regularly throughout the game, and which seemed innocuous, just a part of the funny retro-style speech mannerisms everybody in the game employs. There was only one time it was invoked where I found it even a little strange, and even that moment is to the game's credit -it genuinely makes it feel like they were trying to foreshadow this twist, that there was an off moment at all.

Unfortunately, that's the only part of The Twist that I can say anything nice about.

First of all, let's back up to the plane crash aspect: this is a blatant cheat. The only reason the player is unaware that the player character hijacked the plane is because the game skips past the crash, only showing you a brief bit from before it and then next thing you know you're waking up in the water near the crashed plane. The player character, however, would know they hijacked the plane and deliberately crashed it, which makes it rather difficult to take seriously that they're unaware of the strange state of their life. This would be... iffy, but not completely ridiculous, if the game restricted the twist to being a surprise sprung on the player, but everything about how the game comports itself makes it clear the player character is supposed to be surprised by this information too, in spite of the impossibility of such.

Backing up still further: why was the player character sent out of Rapture in the first place? This is never explained or established, and it's a rather significant hurdle to be adding to a plan. The story just sort of takes it as a given that Frank Fontaine having the player character bundled off to the surface is... somehow... a legitimate component of advancing his convoluted plan to do... something. This is particularly problematic since the story goes to great pains to make it clear Andrew Ryan mistrusts everyone from the surface by default -in the early stages of the game, he's convinced you must be either a KGB agent or an American 'spook', and either way he wants you dead. And this is a widely-known fact about Andrew Ryan. So it's not like Frank Fontaine's plan is based around the idea that the player character will be able to slip inside Andrew Ryan's trust to kill him. So seriously, what's the benefit of sending you to the surface and then having you crash a plane to get back?

Another layer to the problem, incidentally, is that Frank Fontaine's entire plan is to steal the secrets of Plasmids so he can have an exclusive monopoly on them on the surface, literally burying Rapture to ensure said monopoly. Yet crashing a plane nearby Rapture is exactly the sort of thing that could get deep-sea diving operations looking in the area of Rapture, potentially finding it and ruining his whole plan!

Then there's specific moments. At one point Andrew Ryan seems to blow up Atlas' family, and everything about the scene only makes sense if one of three things is happening;

1: The scene is genuine, with Andrew Ryan having murdered Atlas' family out of spite or similar.

2: Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine are colluding to convince the player that Andrew Ryan just killed Atlas' family.

3: Frank Fontaine is somehow able to fake Andrew Ryan's voice such that Andrew Ryan talking in that particular sequence is a part of Frank Fontaine's trick.

The first two possibilities are completely irreconcilable with the rest of the story (Among other points, Atlas makes it explicit that nobody was present to die, and that in fact he's never had a family at all), and the third possibility is unsupported by the game, not to mention it's a paranoid rabbit hole down which anything becomes possible and there's no point to discussing anything.

This is the most egregious moment, but far from the only moment that stops making sense once you reach The Twist.

Thus: Bioshock 1's Twist is a bad Twist because it does the opposite of what a good Twist should do. Instead of being the moment the story comes together into something more coherent and sensical than your prior understanding of events, it's the moment a tolerably-sensible story descends into completely incoherent nonsense -a state it never recovers from, unfortunately.

A further layer is that the Twist comes across like an attempt to justify the fact that you're a lone man cutting through legions of Splicers and probably more than a dozen Big Daddies. This was an acceptable break from reality so long as the game didn't call the player's attention to it: It's A Video Game, That's How They Work is fine when the gameplay isn't too strongly tied to the plot. You could rationalize it in a more narratively-focused framework (eg a movie adaptation, a book adaptation) by simply assuming that the vast majority of combat encounters aren't 'real' from a narrative perspective.

But with the game trying to justify it... okay, sure, let's accept that you're a fast-grown test-tube baby that's tougher and stronger than a normal person, enough so that you can cut down regular folk by the dozen easily enough-

-wait, Splicers have been splicing themselves up for months or years before you ever showed up, and it's only a gameplay/game design limitation that the mechanical representation of their splicing is so limited. Realistically speaking, everything the player can do to splice Jack into being tougher, faster, etc, really ought to be found on Splicers, and in fact Jack would realistically expect to run into a super-spliced foe before he had the chance to get his own splicing up off the ground. Exactly how much of an improvement is Jack supposed to have, baseline? How was he not aware of his superhuman status until the Twist is explicitly unveiled, if he's that superhuman, and exactly why am I supposed to believe he is that much more superhuman than Splicers?

It's like the Twist is deliberately designed to undermine the game.


Another issue that's a bit less central is that part of The Twist is the revelation that you're basically genetically Andrew Ryan's son, a factoid the game does absolutely nothing with. It's just a random father/son conflict metaphor thing shoved in with no purpose, no rhyme or reason to it. The game tries to justify this particular aspect by Frank Fontaine claiming that you sharing genetics with Andrew Ryan would serve to confuse the automated systems of Rapture, the drones and turrets and cameras, giving you a moment's delay before they come after you, but this explanation is brought down quite badly by the fact that aside when you hack these systems you are the only person in the entirety of Rapture that these devices are hostile to. The only sane way to connect the behavior of the automatons to this half-clone tidbit is to assume that for some crazy reason all the automated systems are coded to hate Andrew Ryan on sight! (And by extension that Frank Fontaine is an idiot for wanting to make a half-clone of Andrew Ryan, since he should know that)

For the final major structural problem with Bioshock's storytelling, I'll next be talking about credulity.

See you then.


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