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.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”