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.