Rapture Ready: on the libertarian nightmare of BioShock’s objectivist city

Rapture, the city under the sea. Image: 2K Games.

Videogames have increasingly become a form of virtual tourism, allowing us to explore places both real and imaginary in ways both plausible and implausible. The Assassin’s Creed series is as much about the gymnastic pleasure of visiting the world’s most beautiful cities at interesting times in history and running across the rooftops as it is about conspiracies and neck-stabbing. Horror games often indulge the vicarious thrill of seeing a modern urban environment reduced to ruin, while fantasy and SF based games allow us to explore exotic lands that we’ve only seen a narrow slice of on page or screen.

Often, these places are simply cool backdrops for the mechanics of the game to take place, with a simple justification for why you should be allowed to do as you will: the city is overrun with zombies, or terrorists, or criminals. Occasionally, a game arrives that has more ambition and uses its environment to build narrative and explore theme.

BioShock is the Big Daddy of these games, an oft-copied but rarely matched exercise in nuanced interactive storytelling delivered through world building. That world is the city of Rapture.

Opening on a plane across the Atlantic in 1960, BioShock soon crashes that plane and leaves your unnamed protagonist swimming towards a mysterious lighthouse as the wreckage sinks around you. Inside the lighthouse, a startling angular construction with a gorgeous deco interior, is a bathysphere station.

Get in the bathysphere, pull the lever and you start a descent into the deep, a screen dropping down across the porthole and a crackling period information film begins - BioShock is a game that knows when to tell instead of show, to step back from interaction when it’s more dramatic to just tell it to you straight.

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” booms the recorded voice of Rapture’s founder Andrew Ryan. “No, says the man in Washington, it belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican, it belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow, it belongs to everyone.” As Ryan explains, he chose another way – and at this point the screen slides away to reveal a view of the underwater city you are approaching – he chose Rapture.

Constructed in the 1940s, Rapture is essentially Manhattan on the ocean floor, a spectacular landscape of – theoretically – watertight skyscrapers linked by sealed walkways of glass and brass, blinking neon signs advertising places and companies in this haven for untramelled capitalism and scientific experimentation. A whale, squids and other sea creatures move between the towers as your Bathysphere moves towards the station into Rapture proper. On arrival it becomes very clear that Ryan’s dream has become a nightmare.

The industrial genius that has allowed a city to be built on the sea bed isn’t the only scientific genius at work in Rapture: Ryan Industries has developed and marketed Plasmids, drugs that rewrite the genetic code of the user to give them superpowers including telekinesis and wielding electricity or fire. In a city without regulation, a free market in genetic upgrades, accelerated with social tensions that have driven the inhabitants to defend themselves using these powers, has weakend the genetic stability of the population, turning them into violent mutants dubbed splicers. Following an uprising on New Year’s Eve 1958, the city has descended into a leaky, conflict-ridden hellhole as psychotic splicers fight for survival as their very world falls apart.

Let’s party like it’s 1959. Image: 2K Games.

The story of how Rapture descended into chaos, worsened as Plasmids exaggerated the failings of its citizens, is told partially through straightforward telling devices like audio diaries and ghostly visions of past events, but also through showing, through Rapture itself as you explore.

The splendour of Raptures decor and its dilapidated state tell one story, but clues are also scattered throughout the world: the deserted wreckage of a New Year’s Eve party, the merciless capitalism of a world where superpowers and ammunition are sold from vending machines on every corner (the way the machines squawk “Welcome to the Circus of Values” is a charmingly irritating note of objectivist kitsch), in the contrast between the trashed deco opulence where the city’s elite’s once dwelled and the sunken tenements the worker’s inhabited.

Rapture is where the libertarian dream escaped the constraints of society, only to decay from within when faced with its own contradictions and manifest inadequacies. And this is written in the cityscape, not just in the contradictions between luxury and squalor, between brash advertising slogans and ugly graffiti, but also in the action that takes place there. The war within Rapture isn’t a struggle between clear forces of good and evil, it’s about the conflict that arises when good and evil are ignored altogether in favour of open competition: the marketplace of ideas has inevitably descended from debates and commerce into fighting for survival, struggling for resources with wrenches and hooks. The splicers are murderous, but they’re also worthy of pity and sympathy, wandering around in the faded party clothes they’ve been wearing since that last New Year’s Eve bash, mumbling and wailing to themselves.

Amongst this chaos stride wandering double acts of Big Daddies and Little Sisters, powerful genetically altered beings with a specific purpose that embodies the moral pressure of a place like Rapture. The Little Sisters are small, eerie girls that gather ADAM from corpses, a vital resource for boosting your powers, and are guarded by the hulking, diving suit wearing Big Daddies.

Defeat a Big Daddy in a challenging boss battle and you can capture a Little Sister, but then you have a choice to make. Killing the Little Sister will give you a larger dose of ADAM, a vital leg-up in the battle for survival. However, cure a Little Sister and they become human again, but you get less ADAM for your trouble. Go with the flow, with conflict and bloodshed, and empower yourself in the process, or make the hard choice to disadvantage yourself while helping another, knowing no one else in Rapture would ever make that choice. The right thing to do is obvious – but there’s no pressure to do it.

BioShock was released in 2008, developed by Irrational Games under the leadership of Ken Levine, the figurehead for the franchise before moving on to other things. It was followed by two sequels, the latter of which, BioShock Infinite, saw Levine creating an entirely different city drawn from another political viewpoint – but that’s a whole other story. All three games are available as a bundle for current gen consoles and PC, enhanced for that hardware, and PS4 users will find them on offer this week.    

Although it’s eleven years old now, BioShock in some ways feels more timely than it did back then. The game was released between the first season of Mad Men in 2007 and the election of Barack Obama in 2009, and subsequent years have seen our fascination with mid-20th century styles and themes deepen while the optimism of Obama’s early administration has given way to cynicism and our current carousel of populist horrors. The world feels like it’s heading towards the ruthlessness of Rapture, without the redeeming features of natty party outfits, deco decor and cool superpowers. Pulling yourself up to the lighthouse steps, then navigating Rapture’s rusty, leaking corridors, it’s hard not to feel a premonition of real cities gradually sinking beneath rising sea levels.

Today, then, BioShock definitely warrants a revisit. It’s a beguiling exercise in fantastical urbanism, its rusting city soaked in themes that feel both melancholy and prescient. The protagonist we play may be on a journey to discover his own identity and role in the world, but the player may find themselves reflected more closely in Rapture’s troubled, anxious denizens as they struggle for survival in a brutal, collapsing world. 

BioShock: The Collection for Playstation 4 is Deal of the Week on the Playstation.Store at the time of writing. It is also available for XBox One and PC.


How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?

Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  

(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.