Bioshock is officially categorized as an FPS, but I think that is a misnomer. It is not strictly incorrect since the gameplay takes place in the first person perspective and there is gunplay. However, most of the game’s charm is present in the terror the game inflicts on the player. Every instance of this game’s strength is subtle, but it all comes together to create an overwhelmingly entertaining experience. I think Bioshock is the best horror game I have ever played, and I describe it as such. Calling it a horror game gives the new player a more authentic understanding of what to expect before starting the game.
Bioshock starts with the player trapped in a small bathysphere, forced to watch a freakish entity (known as a splicer) kill a man five feet in front of them with glowing hook hands. While allowed to “move”, I can do nothing but watch. Being introduced to the splicer, a major enemy in the game was startling. The hook hands drew my attention and were the cause of my unease. The game doesn’t even explain why this horror’s hands are unnaturally glowing. It gave me a sense that the unimaginable could be achieved in Rapture, the game's setting, which made rationalization impossible. Perhaps even more intimidating was the atmosphere. Every area of Rapture looks like a warzone. I felt like even if I survived the encounter with “hook hands”, I wouldn’t be able to find safety any time soon. To reinforce that, there is no consistency to the lighting. The already dim electric illumination will arbitrarily cut out for short periods of time, the only reliable light coming from enemies and the window to the ocean. I’m utterly terrified, and I am not even five minutes into the game.
It seems odd to think about, but the color choice of each level also has a huge impact on keeping that scared feeling alive. Keep in mind that I did my playthrough on max graphic settings, so I was getting the best visual experience the game could offer. Much of the rubble scattered around the floors has a muted gray color to it. This amplifies the omnipresent darkness in each room. It isn’t just the rubble that is muted, though. The walls, furniture, and decorations are all also muted. Looking at a sofa, it seems like it should be a vibrant red, but now it is only a deep maroon. The only evidence of flashy and encouraging colors is seen in neon signs to businesses that are abandoned and destroyed. The constant presence of dark and dull colors invokes an emotion of borderline hopelessness. I don’t know what Rapture looked like in it’s prime, but I can clearly tell that a metropolis of people was not able to cope with the environment I just entered.
The terror that is inspired in the opening gameplay combined with the color aesthetic of the levels is precisely why this game excels in embodying a feeling of horror. Thinking of it now, I know that there was no possible way for me to die in that opening moment. However, in the moment I was too scared to think logically. Other games that try to inspire fear tend to take the route of introducing an enemy and bluntly establishing it as something that should be feared. They tell you what you should be afraid but not why, so the experience feels forced.
As I progressed, I had no reason to lose my fear. Each level holds pieces of the first encounter that keep the fear alive. The rubble scattered across every floor continues to offer dull hopelessness. The level progression offers constant stories of people who crumbled to the corruption of Rapture, just like the initial slaughtered victim. Splicers will tear through your health if you aren’t paying attention and don’t give them the appropriate respect. The other characters in the game constantly reminded me that I was an outsider, which meant I could never get familiar, and therefore comfortable, with the environment. Seeing the same train model three levels in a row should have been repetitive, but it felt unique every time. Since I never shook the feeling of an outsider trying to make his way out, everything felt like a discovery rather than an expectation. Discovery is implicitly connected with the unknown, and the unknown is terrifying in Rapture. Creatures with glowing hooks lie in the unknown. Flickering lights cast long shadows, draping the cityscape in the unknown. A memorable and thrilling experience lies in the unknown.