After Pressing Start: Bioshock's Elevator Pitch

If you go to an entrepreneurship lecture, you are sure to hear about an elevator pitch: the concept of communicating a value proposition to someone in 30 seconds. If you ever meet Bill Gates inside an elevator, you only have about 30 seconds to try to sell your idea for him to invest. It’s the sort of concept that sounds like bullshit at first. You may feel that only 30 seconds is a disservice to all the time spent on your idea, but making your pitch fast is an absolute necessity: CEOs, angel investors and high-level executives are extremely short of time and the little they have is worth thousand, if not millions. The lack of a good, hard-hitting pitch is a waste of their time.

Many games feel that way. The plot unfolds lazily and the game takes its time to acclimate the player in its world. Sometimes it takes the entire game for us to understand what it is about, e.g. Final Fantasy XII. Sometimes the unfolding feels like it will never fully come, e.g. Dark Souls.

Not Bioshock though. Bioshock was the perfect entrepreneur. We entered the same elevator, I pressed my button, Bioshock pressed its own, waited a few seconds, looked at me and said “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.”

I never ended up on my own floor that day.

The beauty of Bioshock’s introduction is how lean and efficient everything is. When the screen fades in, we found ourselves sitting on a plane in the middle of the Atlantic. The game says it’s the 60’s and the fact the first thing we see is the lit cigar in our hands reinforces that. We hold a box and look at a picture of our parents. “Son, they told me, you are special” says the voiceover. That tells us we belong somewhere, somewhere that’s not here – a useful tidbit of information our minds are going to use to start constructing the structure upon which the game’s famous plot twist is built.

Then the screen fades to black and you hear the sound of the plane crashing. The fact you don’t witness the crashing per se, only listen to it, is an important ellipsis. It implies that, whatever happened to that place, it was outside our control (useful tidbit #2, and we are still on the first minute of the game).

And yet, we survive. A lighthouse looms ahead. Much like Myst, we are propelled by the mystery it promises. Inside, there is the famous bust of Andrew Ryan and a banner with the elevator pitch above.  The phrase is bold and concise, perfectly capturing Ryan’s philosophy; this is a jab. But the game wastes no time. It knows you are hooked, so it throws another punch. Inside a bathysphere, you get to watch a short video. In the business world, the next step after a successful elevator pitch is contextualization, and that’s what the video does here: it explains who Andrew Ryan is and what he his dream was: to construct a world of his own, where every man is entitled to the sweat of his brow

We are three minutes into the game when the right hook comes. After the video is done, the underground city of Rapture is revealed. It’s massive and eerie; its architecture very linear and very symmetric. Most importantly, the city is dark. We are talking about a city that embodies Ryan’s philosophy, so this is an important piece of foreshadowing.

Confirmation of something dark going on comes almost immediately, as you are instantly attacked as soon as your bathysphere arrives. It’s not the best first impression the game could offer, though. Too loud and sudden, that attack kills the suspense. What should have been your first experience in the city happens right after that: you see luggage on top of luggage of people who were trying to flee Rapture. It’s the difference between reporting Rapture is dangerous (you are attacked) and conveying that information through an imitation (people were trying to leave Rapture in a hurry; the place is dangerous).

It’s a minor blunder of an otherwise perfect pitch. In a world of sequels, where games feel like they are born from some kind of mitosis, Bioshock manages to cover all the three golden rules of a good elevator pitch: it knows what about it is unique, i.e. its strong theme; it made that theme exciting, and kept its presentation simple and to the point. Try that with your boss next time you come up with a killer idea.

After Pressing Start is a new series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. This guest entry of After Pressing Start was written by Fernando Cordeiro. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those introductory stories influence the arcs of video games. Check out some of the other articles: After Pressing Start


  1. Rediculam

    I forgot how amazing the introduction to Bioshock was, now I want to play it again.

  2. CodenameV

    What kind of human would enter that bathysphere though? Only the mentally disabled. But you are required to do so in Bioshock; there is no other choice. If you had seen Jack enter the bathysphere in a film, you would question his motivation and probably conclude that he is as much an idiot as any victim in a cheesy horror film. Somehow, this is not communicated as clearly in game form; but it remains a valid criticism. The bathysphere begets a form of dissonance which permeates (at least) the beginning stages of Bioshock. I mean, who would outright jam a disgusting needle into their arm? 

    • kormyen

      “What kind of human would enter that bathysphere though?”
      One with no other option? One who has just survived a plane crash in the middle of the ocean and is stranded with no food, fresh water or other place to go? Someone curious? I would.
      “Who would outright jam a disgusting needle into their arm?”
      This part in game at the time did definitely feel questionable. If you wanted to you could argue that considering he had been (forgive me if I’m mixing things up, its been a while since I played it…) hypnotized to respond to “would you kindly” requests, and was “created” for this “task” it isn’t a stretch to assume he could have been trained in some way to use the plasmids?

      • CodenameV

         @kormyen I disagree with the bathysphere conclusion. Would one honestly not wait for rescue and only resort to the mysterious, ominous bathysphere as a last resort? If nothing else, I feel a more convincing scenario could have been devised. I mean, I’m sure I’m not the only one who experienced some dissonance.
        But I do agree that using the needle may have been a product of Jack’s whole mind-control thing. The only problem then is that the dissonance remains up until the mind control twist is revealed. And even then, it’s still a bit ridiculous. Jack still eats chips and candy bars which are surely rotted, feeds from the trash cans of Rapture, and talks to a man who can apparently see his every move despite lacking a camera. I feel this distances the player even more, working to tarnish any sense of genuine immersion.

        • @CodenameV @kormyen Rescued…During the 50’s? Even today is not easy to come up with any rescuing effort for airplanes that crashed in middle of the ocean. It actually took 2 years for the black boxes of the Air France plane that crashed in 2009 to be found (… imagine back then who long could that take!

          No…there shouldn’t be any hopes to be rescued during the time Bioshock takes place. Besides, unlike the needle example, you entered the bathysphere yourself. The game never took control of Jack. Perhaps you just felt curious to take a peek and the bathysphere closed up behind you. Who can say, really?

          And there’s more: doesn’t the lighthouse’s door close once you get in? How could you be rescued then?

          Anyways, same explanation for the needle could also apply here. The same way Fontaine commanded you to drop that plane, he could have easily commended you to enter the bathysphere.

          That’s why, all in all, I do not see a plot hole here.

        • CodenameV

           @frpcordeiro  @CodenameV  @kormyen I’m not calling this a plot hole, I’m calling it a disconnect between player motivations and linear storytelling. I will grant you the bathysphere case — though I would still not be so quick to push the level within the bathysphere (am I not to look for survivors?). But I cannot grant the needle, nor the fact that Jack literally consumes garbage, nor the fact that Atlas somehow witnesses every action you make, despite lacking sight of you.
          The needle can be explained by the — crazy! — plot twist, but up until the twist is revealed, there remains incredible dissonance. Up until the twist, Jack is probably one of the most unabashedly stupid protagonists in any game. He will eat garbage for fun, and he will jam needles into his arm senselessly. 
          Beyond this, Bioshock also violates its own tone. The visuals depict a decrepit Utopia, a place fallen to ruin for curious reasons. The tone is somber, ruminative. The atmosphere invites you to question the causes for Rapture’s demise. Yet, there are no silly slides, or carnival rides or playgrounds — the visuals do not evoke a sense of *fun*. But that’s what I actively experience when I play Bioshock. It is less a ponderous and intelligent story than it is a fun frolic through a run-down city. I’m chuckin’ bees from my hands and clobbering dudes with wrenches, lightin’ oil on fire and shootin’ rockets!
          If I may relate Bioshock to a film, I will say that Grave of the Fireflies does not evoke a sense of fun. Grave of the Fireflies is depressing and melancholic through to its very core; and it never violates this. If Grave of the Fireflies were a videogame, it *would not* be a first-person shooter. Likewise, the story of Bioshock does not mesh as perfectly as I would like with its ludic elements.
          Bioshock is a smart story, and one which tries very hard to utilize interesting gameplay. But I see no reason that Bioshock would be any worse as a film. In fact, I think it would be better. I think a truly linear, authored story would serve Bioshock well, emphasizing its themes and providing a less dissonant, more cohesive experience. Perhaps Bioshock could find harmony as a film, because it stumbles as a game. It is a *great* game, and certainly better than most; but it is not our Citizen Kane, nor is it even the greatest mainstream release. 

        •  @CodenameV @frpcordeiro 
          Fully agree with frpcordeiro’s statement regarding bathysphere – resque chance, closed doors, curiousity, command.
          Please note though I last played the game in 2007.
          The needle case is definatly weird, but not the weirdest thing going on in Rapture. 
          Whats to say that Jack isn’t just as weirded out as you are after having involuntarily stabbed himself? You could even argue that your very thought while playing “Wtf? Why would anyone jam a disgusting needle into their arm?” was foreshaddowing of later events and added to the mood that something-is-wrong-here. 
          Correction: He will eat garbage for survival, and he will jam needles into his arm because he was created, trained and hypnotized(?) for this journey. IMO.
          Jack is a faceless, blank slate of a character for you to embody and project yourself into. I understand that the needle case disrupts that for some… but insulting him is besides the point – you made him eat the garbage 😛
          There are valid points for both sides of the arguement. I see where you are coming from but I personally don’t think its that big of a deal. It obviously is a problem for some.
          Too bad the movie was cancelled then.
          “It is a *great* game, and certainly better than most; but it is not our Citizen Kane, nor is it even the greatest mainstream release.” Fully agree, its a beautiful game. The intro is particularly amazing. I was disappointed by Bioshock 2 but very very much looking forward to Infinite!

        • CodenameV

           @kormyen  @frpcordeiro I recommend the Minerva’s Den DLC for Bioshock 2. It is better than even the original Bioshock (methinks). 
          My only issue with the garbage is that the game directly supports your garbage-eating habits. Just as Dead Space supported your incessant corpse-stomping habit, Bioshock practically begs for you to consume dreck; the garbage benefits you directly, giving you a health-boost, or an EVE-boost (which is actually odd, because it’s just a bunch of chips and alcohol (which is kind of a poorly disguised game mechanic, I think)).
          The bathysphere conclusion I can concede to, as I’ve said. Though, if it were me, I would still be hesitant to pull the lever. I wouldn’t resist forever, but I would certainly ponder the thought of it for a great long while.
          I’m not saying these things are *big* issues. They’re really not. I just prefer to criticize Bioshock than praise it.

        •  @CodenameV  @kormyen I completely agree that the needle doesn’t make sense when it happened. I also completely agree on the garbage issue. Bioshock is not perfect exactly because these “gamey” issues.
          I completely hated Bioshock 2 btw. Have you guys read our review on it?

        • CodenameV

           @frpcordeiro  @kormyen I haven’t, but I also dislike Bioshock 2. However, I respect Bioshock 2’s ‘Minerva’s Den’ DLC quite a lot. 

        •  @CodenameV After finishing BioShock, I quite pondered the advantages and disadvantages of telling a story in a film vs in a game. Like you, I believe BioShock would’ve been much more effective as a film. As fascinating as exploring Rapture can be, I still felt that the gameplay got in the way of the story at the end of the day.
          This raises a more general question, though. How can the narrative be more easily blended with the gameplay, in a way that favors both? It’s very rare to see a game that gets this perfect, or anywhere near perfect. In fact, I’m struggling to come up with one now.