I love BioShock. It has one of the best — perhaps the best — twists in video game history. The series is notorious for the indelible marks it leaves on the human psyche. Few games have compelling stories, let alone at the business end of a shotgun. Masterful combat coupled with a gripping narrative set in morose environments remains a recipe for success, just as it was in 2007. But a pitch document from 2002 reveals that BioShock was a very different game from the one that hit consoles and PCs five years later.
This isn’t a knock on how the game turned out, because it was incredible. It’s merely an exercise to see what could have been, as well as possibly shedding some light on what the next BioShock game could be.
It’s interesting to see that the document mentions Carlos Cuello, a different protagonist altogether minus the underwater city backdrop that would become instantly recognizable to gamers: Rapture. There’s plenty of stuff here that would eventually find its way into other shooters and features that would revitalize the genre even in 2020. Fortunately, a good deal of the facets mentioned so kindly make an appearance in the game, some in full force and others in spirit. Here’s the side of BioShock that never saw the light of day; for better or worse.
An entirely different setting
“What is the measure of a man?
Is it the hands and feet?
The eyes and ears?
Or is it the Holy Spirit that animates him?
If the body is lost, but the soul is saved, is that anything less than a victory?”
- excerpt from Irrational Games’ BioShock pitch document
A remote island. A religious cult. A princess in a cultist's castle.
BioShock’s initial setting doesn’t sound like the most intriguing premise you’ve been to until you take into consideration that this is an Irrational Games title. The pitch document lists audio logs (they are just as prominent in the final version of the game) that speak of untold terrors that rocked the Isla de Salvacion’s shores. Religious sermons that forced aquatic life to beach themselves on the sand à la Death Stranding and humans undergoing physiological changes that would grant them terrible power reeked of suspense and intrigue. If a document could make one shiver, you can imagine how the game could have turned out. It clearly had potential.
But would I have picked a lush island over Rapture? Certainly not. It’s a decision that I am more than happy with. The eerie depths of a submerged dystopian metropolis certainly served BioShock’s ambitions well. While I’m not saying that Irrational Games couldn’t have made a remote island just as iconic, Rapture possessed a sense of claustrophobia and unrest that few games could ever hope to capture. It served as a setting that furthered the story just as much as the narrative did. The looters and genetic horrors that populated its deserted corridors won’t leave your headspace in a hurry.
Need I remind you of the Big Daddies and the Little Sisters?
In addition to a rock-solid single-player component, a story-driven multiplayer mode was also in the works. While details are sparse as to what it may have contained, clues can be found in the game’s sequel. BioShock 2 featured a multiplayer mode created with the help of Digital Extremes, known for their work on the Unreal titles right from the nineties. While Irrational Games had MMO-esque proposals that promised scale and grandeur, Digital Extremes wisely toned down its aspirations to keep things realistic in terms of feasibility.
Unfortunately, this eschewed narrative components for a shooter that lacked the poise and depth of its competitors. Poorly balanced weapons and a wonky matchmaking system buried the series’ multiplayer aspirations. BioShock Infinite tossed out its prequel’s multiplayer and instead focused on the series’ greatest strength: the campaign.
Had Irrational Games got their way with BioShock’s multiplayer element, who knows what eccentric take may have been bestowed upon us?
While plenty of games today feature an insane level of gun modification (Escape from Tarkov and Loadout come to mind), I can’t think of a game that lets you mix and match gun components back in 2002. The crux of the system Irrational Games intended to craft would work on bonuses and tradeoffs; a tenet not uncommon in multiplayer shooters today. Weapons would have had the ability to be modified with all sorts of unique properties, from a full-auto shotgun to a chain-lightning tazer pistol.
The document even refers to snipers that spew acid-coated rounds, magnetic grenades that could pull robots in (eerily reminded me of Halo 4), and a silent rail gun. An arsenal worthy of the game’s aspirations, no doubt. And just like the end result, the developers wanted players to know that science had its limits. Meddling with your fashionable weaponry would make them unstable in combat situations and I’d hate to be on the business end of one of these denizens of destruction.
The regular archetypes of these weapons would be scattered across BioShock’s world for players to discover, akin to most recent narrative-driven outings. The pitch mentions resources of some kind that would let one apply said gun modifications, but they weren’t specific as to whether it would involve players raking up currencies or hunting for parts. All in all, it would have certainly made for a fine addition to an already impressive game.
Change the world
Tinkering with the game world isn’t exactly new; games that gravitate towards puzzles have implemented such systems in the past. But while things like fog and lighting merely serve aesthetic purposes in shooters, Irrational Games steps things up. Terminals peppered across the campaign let you meddle with the weather itself. This doesn’t just cause some cool visual effects; it drastically alters the playing field as well, affecting both friend and foe.
Dabble in humidity control to raise fog that can aid stealth encounters or increase the oxygen level in an area to give your explosives an extra kick. Metal flooring can be magnetized to slow down robotic foes but drags your bullets down with them. The best part? Grenades are effectively sticky bombs now. The possibilities sound too good to be true. And they’re just getting started.
Flip gravity around, ionize the air, or flood/electrify the room. The choice is yours. But be wary: every change affects enemies differently. Robots may be impervious to some attacks while temperature changes would affect cold-blooded and warm-blooded foes differently. Amp up the heat enough and thermal security scans won’t pick you up. But cold-blooded foes get a speed boost to counter said threat. It’s a cohesive system that gels well with a game that promises unique combat situations that can be adjusted on the fly.
Among the features on this list, this is perhaps the only one that had been implemented in BioShock’s final build, albeit in a limited manner. DNA-altering substances were all the rage in Rapture, luxuries that the wealthy stowed away; buried but not forgotten. BioShock players could use Plasmid serums to modify their bodies, granting them potent abilities like hurling fireballs or whipping up electric storms. But Irrational Games had intended to take things even further: biogenetic manipulation.
The cult was to possess unorthodox tech that would let one sacrifice their humanity to turn into an enhanced killing machine. Advanced genotypes could be retrieved from terminals on the map to augment the player’s malleable human form. The genotypes specified in the document point toward aquatic traits that could radically reconstruct enemy confrontations. The crustacean genotype would have made the character a tank with a meaty hard shell in addition to a crab claw for encounters up-close. If you’d rather have echo-electrical awareness and the occasional electric attack, consider the electric eel genotype. You could level these traits up as well, letting you prepare yourself based on the encounter ahead.
Just as the other features mentioned, benefits come with flaws as well. Switching to a hydrozoan (jellyfish) genotype might grant you gelatinous and invisible skin coupled with poison on contact, but robots could still spot you with their infrared vision. It’s rather disappointing to note that this innovative take on body modification didn’t make the cut. The game’s combat could have been all the more memorable. It sounds like it could have stood toe-to-toe against Cyberpunk 2077’s futuristic augmentations, a game that showed up 13 years later.
Irrational Games struck a delicate balance between bizarre and business with their original vision for BioShock and it’s a shame that not everything made it. Considering that a new game is in the works, I hope some of these features seep into their next outing. Gizmos that let you tinker with the environment and the player’s physical self have the potential to revamp sandbox titles as we know them. And few developers can do it better than Irrational Games. I wouldn’t trade Rapture for an island even if you asked nicely.
Nonetheless, BioShock is a crowning achievement in video game design, a narrative experience every video game enthusiast must discover for themselves. The twist is one that only a video game can offer. An absolute masterclass in storytelling that merits its own article all by itself. No other medium remotely comes close to delivering what I felt when the game sprung its trap. I suggest playing it before the next one shows up.
Would you kindly?
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