“No Gods or Kings, Only Man” Andrew Ryan’s sneering visage impresses upon you from his bronzed effigy. From the outset, Bioshock’s city of Rapture is one of affirmed ideology. Rapture isn’t just a city under the sea. It’s a vision. The game wastes no time in exposing that vision; Ryan introduces you to his libertarian utopia through a propaganda slide show; the leaks are beginning to show here before you even get a hint of the calamity is unfolding in the city. Such an intellectually pitched concept naturally encourages a deeper world; and one no book or film could possibly accomplish. By allowing the player to choose what they want to look at, you’re not forced to take in the developer’s interpretation of the scene in the same way. You don’t have to listen to a single audio tape if you don’t want to. Or you can comb every nook and cranny for hints about the city and its unhinged inhabitants. In this respect, Rapture really could only come from gaming
If one thing truly sets Rapture aside from other game environments, it’s the aesthetic. Sure, 50s futurism had been done before in Fallout, but Rapture propelled this to heady new heights, fusing an intriguing array of different art styles to create a world quite altogether removed from any of its brethren. Breaking it down, there’s a lot of different material at place: Being set under water naturally provides the first layer; bronze pipes, valves and leaks everywhere. I call it Bilge Punk (ahem. Sorry.) Libertarian Ryan’s city may well be, but much of the art-deco architecture smacks of Soviet realism; most overtly in the form of imposing statues found throughout the city, peering down on the player from the edifices that raise them. Lurid neon signs complete the picture. It’s an artistic rendition of man’s – Ryan’s- achievement in habituating the sea for human living. It is, quite simply, a stunningly well realized environment; both physically conceivable and metaphorically intriguing.
Putting a magnifying glass to the city reveals more, and each location tells more than one story; that of the place it was before the fell into chaos, and the ongoing struggle that has proceeded it. When you reach the city proper, you’re first glimpse of the city is what came before as placards protesting against Ryan’s authoritarian rule litter the ground as an angry Splicer (the cities now deranged residents) prowls the area. Continuing on, and you reach the Kashmir Restaurant, the site where audiotapes describing the cities descent into madness begin to appear, while detritus of the New Years party still sprawl throughout the area. Each further level further develops the story in this way. Arcadia, for example was once the tranquil gardens of Rapture, and helped balance out the city’s oxygen economy. By Bioshock’s time, it’s a strategic resource controlled by Ryan and falling into total disrepair. Another particular highlight is Fort Frolic; former entertainment district to the cities residents that has become the dominion of the truly bonkers artiste Sander Cohen: Indeed some of these locations would be nothing without the deranged madmen who rule the roost.
Much like the locations, the characters tell their story before Bioshock as well as during. Perhaps one of my favourites is doctor Steinman, the plastic surgery so obsessed with creating the perfect looking person under the imaginary guidance of “Aphrodite” that I couldn’t help but find to be a brilliantly contorted take on the Greek myth of Pygmalion – whether intentional or not. Again, audiotapes carefully lead up to your encounter with him, building up his utterly convoluted ideology and excesses over time before you actually meet him. The result is a thoroughly fleshed out character, with motives and methods to his madness. What intrigues me most perhaps, is the way that even with the city falling to pieces around them, each character is totally and utterly absorbed by their passions. No taboo of their fields is too great in the chaos of Rapture. This design philosophy pervades every aspect of Rapture’s inhabitants, particularly the aforementioned Sander Cohen, and of course the main two characters besides your own, Andrew Ryan and Atlas. Even the basic enemies that harry your progress throughout the city have a place in the cities social heirarchy; a role to play, and stories to tell.
The final key ingredient is of course, ADAM; the gene twisting wonder goop that Bioshock uses to exaggerate Rapture’s excesses. As we saw in Command and Conquer, ADAM represents the adoption of a game mechanic into Rapture’s narrative fibre. It’s not just the arbitrary adoption of wonder weapons, but has a place in Rapture’s society. Fundamentally, it’s important to note that it’s not the cause of Rapture’s descent into chaos, but the catalyst. Even before the discovery of the sea slugs that gifted ADAM, the libertarian nature that governed the city’s rules (or lack thereof) Ryan’s utopia was breaking down. The Bible black market demonstrates the weakness of Ryan’s ideology; while Fontaine uses it to support his bid for power and fan the flames of dissent against Ryan’s rule. When ADAM arrives, it creates a new economy of power, that ultimately makes the subtle socio-political wranglings more obvious, and lets be honest, more fun. It’s philosophy with angry bees coming out your fingers. What’s not to like?
But why, after all this praise, have I only put Rapture at number 9? It’s perhaps mostly because I fear for the way it’s going to be used in the future. Bioshock 2 already looks set to prove a less intellectually stimulating experience, and for me, is focusing on the pomp and display Rapture gave us, without the substance. Most tellingly, I thought the fake plot released just before the official press releases went out, replete with Commies and the player as a private investigator sounded far more interesting than the pitch being thrown our way with the actual game. Unless Big Sister is being given a voice, I can’t see (effeminate) mournful wailing proving that involving. Especially compared with Andrew Ryan’s tour de force narrative diatribe. There’s possibilities I’m wrong of course. I’d say there’s still plenty of scope to build an involving picture of the development of the city’s social structures 10 years on. Maybe the Commies will still make an appearance. But I don’t know. The skeptic in me says that it wont be there in the same way the first game handled it so brilliantly.
Even if the series does take a creative nose dive however, Rapture does deserve a mention. The complexity of the original may well have been lost on some, but it remains a hallmark of the stories games can tell, the worlds they can create, and the other mediums they triumph over in doing so; Rapture is a thoroughly game built world. And if nothing else, it’s certainly a touchstone in the efforts to bring a little high philosophy into the neanderthal bone whacking world of the first person shooter.