It is 1960 in a city called Rapture. The building I am looking at is ornately decorated, perhaps the lobby of a fancy theatre. There is music spilling out from behind a closed door - an old dance-hall tune, something about Papa loving mambo - and in the flickering lights I can make out posters that look like subtle parodies of 1950s advertisements. Rapture is entirely underwater, in the middle of the Atlantic, and through the windows there are fish swimming around its art-deco buildings.
It must have been a beautiful place once.
There is a thumping-bumping sound to my right. A shuffling creature appears - an undersea diver with an old-school iron helmet, unnatural yellow light glowing from its portholes - and behind him is a little girl in a Sunday-school dress. Her eyes glow, too, and she is carrying a nasty-looking syringe. In a singsong voice she calls her hulking bodyguard "Mr. Bubbles," which is cute enough, but then she kneels down over a body in the corner of the room.… Rapture is not a beautiful place any more.
In Bioshock, a new Mature-rated video game for PCs and the Xbox 360 from 2K Games, the setting is the star, a would-be wonderland that has mutated into a dingy, horrific dystopia. The player, as the only survivor of a plane crash near the city's island entrance, assumes the role of amateur archeologist. In addition to the standard game dynamics - kill or be killed, with gore aplenty either way - you have to figure out what went wrong with this grand underwater experiment.
It is a large-scale mystery, the fate of an entire society, and to their credit Bioshock's developers at 2K Boston and 2K Australia put a lot of thought into their alternative history. Creative director Ken Levine recently told EGM magazine that he was obsessed with dystopian works when he was young - 1984 and Logan's Run, specifically - and that he "loves exploring what happens when good ideas fall apart."
In Bioshock, those ideas are circa 1946, from postwar America. That was the year Rapture was founded by a man named Andrew Ryan (I knew The Globe's television writer had a sinister past, but who knew it involved undersea real-estate development?). In a nutshell, Ryan believed in the ultimate power of the free market and put no limits on what science and industry could produce for the city's inhabitants.
You learn about the results from audio diaries and journals found throughout the ruins of Rapture. Players can and should listen to them as they explore - the voice acting and writing are excellent - and they explain what you see: Mutants called "splicers" who paid attention to the ads telling them to "evolve" and took gene enhancers called plasmids; insane plastic surgeons, obsessed with bodily perfection; dying trees and vegetation, putting the oxygen supply at risk; and smuggled crates filled with Bibles, which were outlawed.
To navigate this dark but highly stimulating brew of ideas and atmosphere - and Bioshock oozes atmosphere, with top-rate visuals and sound design - the player uses everything the first-person genre has to offer. First-person games, wherein the camera viewpoint is that of the protagonist's so you see his hands in the foreground, used to be primarily shooters - and there are guns here, and a trusty wrench. But there are also physics-based abilities, thanks to those plasmids. You can pick up and throw objects using telekinesis, create bursts of electricity, fire and freezing ice, and much more.
Since there are dozens of plasmid powers and other enhancers called tonics, a good deal of time is devoted to managing inventory and abilities, making Bioshock into a hybrid role-playing experience. This is a game that gives you plenty to do, options as to how to go about it, and, once those things are done, even more to think about.
Take the little girl above and her metal friend, known as a "big daddy." The girls are called "little sisters" and they are another result of scientific research gone horribly wrong. They now harvest a substance called ADAM from the victims of Rapture's social breakdown and you need the stuff to make your implants work. This sets up numerous showdowns with the big daddies, bringing all the game's violent combat into play.
Once that is over, the player is given a choice: Press one button to harvest the ADAM, which will kill the little sister, or press another to rescue her. You get half the dose if you choose the latter, but it might turn out better later on - the game has drastically different endings depending on the fate of the lost girls.
It is dark material, making decisions like that, but unlike so many games that are brutal simply because they can be, Bioshock is all about exploring consequences. It is a well-crafted piece of dystopian fiction that sounds familiar warnings in new ways - and its message goes beyond Rapture's crumbling walls: There are a lot of places in this world that were beautiful once, too. What happened to them?