"It wasn't impossible to build Rapture on the ocean's bottom; it was impossible to build it anywhere else." The quote is from Andrew Ryan, the fictional founder of Bioshock's setting, the great utopian city 'Rapture', but the sentiment could apply to the game itself. Bioshock is the ultimate self-contained game, completely internally consistent, beautifully-designed and endlessly rewarding. It fits perfectly in its location, a dreamlike steampunk city where biotech has run rampant and where philosophers and scientists murder artists and musicians over conceptual quibbles.
The game is set in 1960, with you surviving a plane crash in the mid-Atlantic to find yourself by a lighthouse jutting improbably from the ocean. Entering it and descending by bathysphere, you find yourself amidst the submerged blocks of an art-nouveau city, looking like an amphibious cross between Times Square and a 1950s drive-thru. The Gomez Addams doppelganger Ryan planned Rapture as a demonstration of his individualist philosophy, attracting the brightest and best from all around the world, scientists and artists living side-by-side, in a shining conflicting model of what man can achieve. Unfortunately, it also has the potential to show the depths of man's degradation and inside the city all is not well.
Welcome to Rapture
By the time you arrive "not well" has turned to "****". The discovery of a stem-cell carrying sea-slug with regenerative and splicing attributes has set the underworld of the city, headed by gangster John Fontaine, against the city's establishment, headed by the elitist Ryan. After starting a war between his genetically-spliced gangsters (called "splicers") and Ryan's, Fontaine has lost but the repercussions still rumble on. Roaming splicers battle each other and the increasingly-rare innocents for the precious serums of the sea-slug: Eve and Adam.
We're not going to say anything about the plot beyond that stunning opening sequence, because it's 24-carat gold. Amazingly-written and beautifully constructed, it's a complete emotional-rollercoaster that we can't draw any parallels with, not because it defies comparison but because any such comparison would give away some of the plot and it would be a tremendous moral crime for us to spoil this gem in any way. If you want to avoid ruining this game for yourself and others, would you kindly not talk to anyone about it until you know they've completed it too?
Ken Levine, the studio's founder, took the majority of the script-writing up himself, and it's really paid dividends. Beyond the wonderful plot, the messages you receive from your allies and friends are pithy, the incidental dialogue from the splicers and Little Sisters is kooky whilst still being believable, and the individual character of each audio log author really comes through. There's such a wit in the writing, such an understanding of people that the lines approach the heights of classical aphorisms, great quotable sayings that match the best products of the minds of antiquity.
This sounds like ridiculous overblown hyperbole, but it isn't. Ryan describes you as a "termite in Versailles", amidst the rest of his rhetoric, and the fantastically insane artist Sander Cohen matches him for oratory, among others. Even incidental characters come out with gems, such as a splicer with ice-powers who temporarily freezes you and keeps you as a statue in his anteroom, intoning to your frozen form "the iceman cometh, yeah, the iceman cometh mother******". The plot literally turns on such wordplay and the game achieves a completely different air once completed, necessitating at least another playthrough merely to understand the connotations of how later revelations alter your early discoveries.