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September 20, 2007Glenn Turner

"Before its release, even, people bandied [BioShock] about as art, both in the visual and emotional spectrums."

I'm not positive that our own Mr. Riley had me in mind when he penned his stimulating BioShock critique, but I certainly resemble that remark (and if you haven't read his article yet, I beseech you do to so!). Yes, I drooled over the initial trailer. I was totally won over by what appeared to be a completely realized & cohesive game world, a world so familiar, but so different in many tiny ways. I desperately wanted to know more, but subsequently refused to read or watch anything more about the game until it was released, for fear of prematurely spoiling Rapture for myself. I even planned my Xbox 360 purchase around the release of the title, utterly convinced that, artistically, it'd repay me many times over for the purchase of the system.

In hindsight I certainly don't regret my decision, or believe that I overreacted in any way. The game lived up to the hype I had built up in my mind: Rapture as a whole, the sprawling architecture, its unbridled economy, its rampant technology, its characters – everything inhabiting the world – is immensely well-drawn & fleshed out and tied together. In my mind, Rapture fully justified the expense of Microsoft's console.

Are there flaws to BioShock? Certainly, and Mr. Riley brought up a number of problems that I found myself nodding my head to (I think everyone's at least a little disappointed in the final hours of the game so we'll skip that). I definitely agree that it falters in the ADAM balancing act; rewarding the player so often and so gratuitously for sparing the Little Sisters seemed too beneficial for what feels like should be an act of humanity. By tacking on the additional plasmid and tonics, the act of saving each girl turns from a sympathetic gesture to one of self-gain, and ultimately detracted from the importance of sparing them in the first place.

I also agree with him that interacting with the Little Sisters became all too mechanical, but for different reasons than his binary choices. For me, the most harrowing part of the game was actually putting a Big Daddy down and hearing the Little Sister's sobs and moans, anguished by the loss of her protector. Even though I was purportedly keeping this girl away from what was construed as a monstrosity, it still felt like I was truly ripping her away from family and, initially, I had a hard time coming to terms with that, thanks to the girl's lamentations.

As one might assume, I was a goodie-two-shoes and never harmed a hair on a Little Sister's head. The first time I went to rescue one I was taken aback by the fight the Little Sisters' put up, as they shout and slap futilely at you, trying to resist your grip. But then the scene abruptly turns from violent to poignant, the light flashes and recedes and she's no longer shouting and fighting you but thanking and praising you. While the sudden nature of this change is a bit shocking, due to the pitter-patter of the girl's feet as she scampers away towards safe haven, I felt pleased, that I had done the right thing. However, that feeling subsided and grew more distant as the game progressed and I rescued more of them, not just because of the escalating number of Little Sisters you encounter in the game (although that doesn't help), but because you're treated to the same throes, the same smacks, the same articulations & enunciations each and every time you save them. There's no variation, no change-ups – they react the same way every time you rescue one.

This could be construed as trying to de-humanize them, that they're simply reactive creatures, part of Rapture's industrialized food chain – not human, not then at least as ADAM harvesters – but that's a cheap way of looking at it (although, while there's no variation in their pre-saved motions or speech, there are some variations in their speech post-rescue). Regardless of whether it was intended or not, the end result was the same for both Mr. Riley & myself: It ultimately felt mechanical, copy/pasted, to borrow his term. However, I don't think we needed to see evisceration or any additional violence inflicted on the girls – I just wanted more added to the girl's shell, to preserve the illusion of humanity & need for sympathy towards these abstractions. A few more gestures and additional verbal exclamations while saving them would have easily done the trick for me, just a little extra something to prevent me from feeling that I was simply responding to a digital puppet.

"There is no space for shades of grey in BioShock, and there is no atonement for one’s sins. A player could go through the game guiltlessly killing the Little Sisters and, as the mystery of their creation unfolds, feel legitimate remorse for his actions and set himself on a more righteous path. But by then it’s too late, and the computer has checked off boxes on its list that label him as a murderer."

Here I don't think it's so much the computer checking off boxes, as Mr. Riley says, but the now-repentant scientist Tenenbaum herself. After all, she's the one with the 'final say', so to speak, as she narrates the closing cinematics. In this sense, she's the one judging you and if you harvest just one of her creations, just one Little Sister, "it's a sin". You're essentially murdering one of her daughters and she holds you firmly responsible for your greedy (or malicious) nature, for not righting the wrongs she inflicted on these innocents and helping her bear her cross. Sure, if you harvest 'just one' you can feel remorse after the fact, but you do have to live with the consequences. Tenenbaum won't let you forget, nor will she allow her children to forget just as she's unable to forget what she did to these girls. Atonement doesn't necessarily result in absolution, and mothers aren't too forgiving of those who chose to murder her young.

Nevertheless, the Little Sisters are just one facet of the game's world, just another part of Rapture's twisted ecosystem, and the ADAM imbalance does little to tarnish the world itself. And this world is fascinating. I'm sure my playtime was doubled simply because I roamed around the city, jaw agape, staring at every little facet, every art deco flourish, every miniature model of itself encased in glass, every nook in the Farmer's Market, learning more about the city and thus, the people in it, and why Rapture is crumbling. From the ballrooms to the janitor's room, each and every square foot of Rapture has a story to tell, details to impart, class conflict to exhibit or human suffering to expose. Items as small as some strewn vodka bottles & cigarettes, or as loud as a bright, shining banner, showed that this is a place people lived in.

And it's this environment, this world, that turned its populace into crazed loners, power-thirsty mad-men, or delusional auteurs. It ripped daughters away from mothers, fractured families, destroyed culture and stability. It's a flawed, withering world, now unsure of itself, of what it wants or what it needs, a world that's sparked a civil war between ethos that can never sustain it.

In other words, it's a fantastically speculative world, one that shows us an alien, but relevant culture. BioShock succeeds because Rapture is such an engrossing, well-realized fictional world, one that we're not necessarily happy to be stuck in, but we learn quite a bit from it while we're there. We see, strewn in Rapture's hallways, the effects of hubris, we see the potential for destruction that unimpeded freedom can bring forth, and most vividly, just how quickly humanity can devour itself. Thanks to Rapture, I can't help but hold BioShock up as a shining example of science-fiction in video games, of a brilliantly drawn world with a message to impart, and while some may see the final act, the limited choices or the Little Sisters themselves as holding the game back from being a work of art, I say it's all part of Rapture's magnificent design, and that design is at least worth a Hugo.

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1 comment for ‘BioShock: Rapture's Design’

#1 Clitter Jan 26, 2009 09:14pm

nice article. long but all true. Just seen no comments and figured you needed to know you did a good job.