There’s Always a Lighthouse, Part the Second: in which we finally produce the goods

It’s finally done. After completing three different 20-minute voice overs, only one of which worked as it should; after seven attempts to save said voice overs in the presentation and export it, three as HTML presentations, four at mp4s; and after being driven to near madness with how some animation builds weren’t working, or my meticulous attention to timing was ignored, or older voiceovers leaked through the new one in the final export—I did what no sensible person would do—I turned to iMovie. I know, I know, but I was pushed to extreme measures.

If that seemed nonsensical, there’s a good reason. In a previous post, I indicated my intention to upload some sort of recording of my presentation to the North American Conference on Video Game Music in January. I’ve been working for over a fortnight on this frustrating little project that should have taken a day. It didn’t turned out as polished as I’d have liked, but at some point one has to simply wring one’s hands in exasperation and go drink a pot of tea. I realized that several pots ago, but continued to work on it. At any rate, it’s done, cobbled together from bits of gameplay video and presentation slides though it be. I hope it may be of some value.

The presentation can also be viewed, along with its abstract, here.

Video Game “Immersion”: in which we Contemplate a return to Enjoyment

I am in the midst of reading a recent article in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Games Criticism by Brendan Keogh entitled “Across World and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games.” This article has made quite stir, apparently, making the rounds (assuming one pays attention to the right circles—Dan Golding, Daniel Joseph, Ian Bogost, Zoya Street, Felan Parker; I imagine there are others too, but hat tip to Dan Golding for this particular list).

One of the things Keogh says in his introduction reminded me of another recent read completely unrelated to game studies. (Although, as a good votary of the liberal arts, I should never say “completely unrelated,” as we shall see.) In an earlier post, I reflected, as I am wont to do, on C. S. Lewis’s essay “Meditation in a Tool Shed,” which was, in turn, much influence by philosopher Samuel Alexander‘s Space, Time, and Deity.

This excerpt is what got me thinking:

The first of these sections observes how the concept of ‘immersion’ obscures critical analysis of video games [sic et cetera] as cultural forms that actually exist, as it leads to the same separation of form and content that Susan Sontag (1964) so completely dismantled half a century ago. The videogame critic, I argue, must avoid immersion to understand how videogame play functions across worlds. . . In my conclusion, I argue why a shift towards close, critical analyses of specific videogames is inevitable and, indeed, is already emerging as a younger generation of theorists with a more everyday relationship to videogames begins presenting and publishing research. These scholars have grown up in a time where playing a videogame is as mundane as watching a film or listening to pop music; they do not require all-encompassing formal methods to understand what videogames are, but critical toolkits to deploy and alter as they build a stronger understanding of videogames as a cultural form.

—Brendan Keogh entitled “Across World and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games,” Journal of Games Criticism, v. 1, no. 1, 2014

(emphasis added)

Compare that to Lewis:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

— C. S. Lewis, ”Meditation in a Toolshed,” from Essay Collection, p. 607

(emphasis added)

Looking along the beam versus looking at the beam. Samuel Alexander referred to theses as Enjoyment and Contemplation, respectively. In some ways, Keogh’s words reminded me of Lewis and Alexander. It seems to me the very nature of formal criticism must be Contemplative, i.e., looking at the beam, studying object of interest from without in order to gain an appreciation for its composition (structure, artistry, fill-in-the-blank). Conversely, Enjoyment, i.e., looking along the beam, would correspond to Keogh’s use of the term immersion, a slippery word commonly used in the gaming community. This strikes me as the same idea, albeit in significant different language. Lewis, as literature professor, took a much more literary tack. Thus, can one say…?

Alexander / Lewis / Keogh
Contemplation = at beam = criticism
Enjoyment = along beam = immersion

I got the impression from Lewis that he did not advocate one of these perspectives at the expense of the other, but preferred to let them inform one another. I suspect that may be at the root of what Keogh says as well when he mentions young scholars who have grown up with video games as a norm. Despite the fuzziness of what age-range constitutes a young scholar, I suspect that those who think of video games as a normal part of their childhood (of which I would consider myself a member), and continue to participate in that culture have an easy enough time looking along the light beam and have, perhaps more recently begun to look at that beam they have long enjoyed. Perhaps they will indeed find it easier to shift between those two experiential paradigms, allowing for a balanced understanding of reciprocal perception. That is not to say, of course, that “older” scholars cannot find such a balance, but I suspect they will have to be willing to lay aside the clinical sterility of Contemplation in order to let themselves Enjoy games, which will, in turn, deepen their critical engagement.

All this from the introduction to an article I have not yet finished. Maybe I should have thought that through before posting this; it may be far off from what the author’s intended destination. Still, there it is.

Levine Shall Sit the Throne and Drown in Reflection the Musings of Man: in which we think on story in Bioshock Infinite

In a previous post, I reflected on the intellectual impact that playing the 2007 video game Bioshock had on me. Today begins what may become a few posts along similar lines. I’m given to expect multiple because my other Bioshock post was rather interminable. I hope that by addressing different aspects in turn, I can better treat the facets that fascinate me.

I can’t help but notice that mere days after finishing the game, Roger Ebert, whom I mentioned in that previous Bioshock post (maybe you should go read it so I’ll shut up about it) died. I don’t know if it was his age or the fact that people are lauding yet another Bioshock game as artistic. (Too soon?)

(The title for this post is a tweaked version of a foreboding missive seen numerous times throughout Bioshock Infinite; Ken Levine is the creative mind behind the Bioshock games. The original lines goes: “The Lamb shall sit the throne and drown in flame the mountains of man.”) For those unfamiliar with the story—and who don’t think they will play the game itself—there is a good run-down of the characters and plot on Wikipedia. I cannot stress enough, however, that part of the power of this story is the way in which the pieces are revealed and then put together. Reading it on Wikipedia is a distinctly anticlimactic experience, but it may have to do. From here on, I will be free with my references, so spoiler-haters…you’ve been warned.

I will try to organize all this topically, but, as with any well-crafted tale, the cogs all interlock and it is the sum of their parts that bring the “whoa” to bear. But taking the machine apart may be necessary to appreciate its ingenuity.

I. Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

These words are key. I plan to revisit them in a future post, but for now, let’s think about them. Not only does the song from which these words come fit the religious vibe of the game, but they also portend, from early in the story, what that story is about. I confess I love it when story’s do this—when the pieces were laid out for me from the beginning, but I didn’t have the glue to stick them together until the end. So let’s consider the pieces Levine gives us.

A. The Multiverse: If you are any kind of self-respecting sci-fi geek, then you should know something about string theory, time travel paradoxes, the multiverse theory, and Schrödinger’s Cat. If you are not a sci-fi geek (or a self-respecting one) then you might need a primer. Bioshock Infinite uses ideas from theoretical physics, philosophy, and ethics to drop epiphany bombs on our mind grapes. Premise: for every decision made, two (or more) realities potentially branch off. This would imply an infinite number of realities (universes/timelines), some so similar to each other as to be nearly indistinguishable—taking tea instead of coffee in the morning. Others are wildly different—what if Hitler had been accepted to art school?.

All different, yet similar. Constants and variables. This notion keeps arising when the Luteces appear, providing their witty British banter, as though the entire game is one big thought experiment. Heads or Tails? The Bird or the Cage? Alive or Dead. In fact, the coin flip is, as the Bioshock Wiki notes, a reference to Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Deadwhich is itself a piece of metatheatre (assuming I’m using that term correctly) based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (The rabbit hole just keeps going deeper, doesn’t it?)

The notion of division is embedded everywhere, along with a yearning for its implied antithesis—reunion. That is of course, what the song Will the Circle Be Unbroken is all about. 

Booker and Comstock are divisions of each other, branching off from that crucial decision (the very word decision means to “cut off”) of baptism. The Luteces are divisions of each other; they are forever divided from their natural existence, but always together with each other. Booker is divided from Elizabeth (but neither he nor we realize it at first). Elizabeth is quite literally divided from herself when he finger is cut off as a child. The City of Columbia, gilded image of the American melting pot, descends into civil war—a house divided against itself. Several times during the game, Booker is separated from Elizabeth, whether by argument, Comstock’s minions, or Songbird. What keeps us moving forward is the desire to see them reunited in the midst of all the division around them. Most poignant of all, Booker’s and Elizabeth’s agreement that he must die in order to avoid the “birth” of Comstock—a more permanent division. Even with the tag scene after the credits, we never actually see baby Elizabeth in the cradle. Perhaps they are forever divided, perhaps not.

One by one their seats were emptied.

One by one they went away.

Now the family is parted.

Will it be complete one day?

—from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

B. Greek TragedyRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead shares its major themes of determinism, free will, and existence with Bioshock Infinite. As NPR’s Laura Sydell observes, Bioshock Infinite bears the earmarks of Aristotelian tragedy, much like Hamlet does. To be more specific, I would point out the twist on the tragic tradition of hamartia. Often translated as “tragic flaw” or “tragic error,” it can have a number of nuances—wrongdoing committed in ignorance of its eventual consequences; this wrong act begins a chain of causality that ultimately ends in the demise of the one who committed it. This is certainly not my area of expertise, but I think I’ve got a decent handle on it:

  • Booker’s hamartia is metaphysically himself, in the person of Comstock, but also literally himself in that he gave Anna/Elizabeth away as a child, resulting in his journey(s) to Columbia, and eventually his death. But Booker’s giving his child away is one of the constants, Elizabeth observes toward the end of Infinite.
  • Comstock’s hamartia begins at his decision to bargain for Booker’s daughter, setting off the chain of events that lead Booker to come to Columbia and kill Comstock. Part of Comstock’s downfall is tied up with a sort of second-level hamartia involving the Luteces.
  • The Luteces initiate a twist on the hamartia trope when they decide to help Comstock steal Elizabeth away. Regretting the action and planning to reverse the damage results in Comstock’s order to have them killed. Because of their universe-hopping device, they are not quite dead (unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who , as we know, are quite dead). They are more like Schödinger’s Cat (or the Ringwraiths), neither living nor dead per se. And because of Comstock’s attempt at murder, he in fact frees them from any one particular reality, enabling them to more easily work events toward his downfall. They have all the time in the multiverse. Still, for them, it’s not truly a “fatal error” so much as a “timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly error.”
  • Jeremiah Fink’s avarice and ill-treatment of minorities in his factories results in his death at the hand of the very sort of person he sought to exploit.

C. Doppelgänger: There are a few moments centered on confused or mistaken identity in the game that seem innocent on the first play-through, but take on another meaning once you know where the story’s headed.

  • Immediately after escaping the destruction of Elizabeth’s tower prison (relatively early in the game), Booker awakens to Elizabeth’s face and groggily calls her “Anna.” Hmm…
  • Having lost Elizabeth, Booker overhears a man telling a woman that he will leave his wife for her. She replies, “Some men don’t know who they are.” Innocent enough, but it turns out that Booker doesn’t know who he is—his own worst enemy.
  • Soon after that eavesdropping, Elizabeth and Booker make their way to a dirigible airship in order to escape Columbia. Just before entering the turnstile, a woman stops Elizabeth and nonchalantly calls her Annabel. The writers hang a lantern on the oddity of the exchange, but then we simply move on. On the second play-through, we know that Elizabeth is, in fact, Annabel—Booker’s Anna—as in, the “AD” etched into his flesh (Annabel DeWitt). The woman who “mistook” Elizabeth for Annabel, because she (and several others past the departure gate) are plain-clothes Columbia security, intent on bringing Elizabeth back at Comstock’s behest. After fighting them all off, we find an audio-diary that confirms this.
  • Mid-game, Elizabeth finds a ledger outlining how much money Comstock exacts from the people of Columbia (50%). Booker comments that he ought to get into the prophecy business. Of course, he doesn’t know that he did—in an alternate reality.
  • Over the course of the game, we continue to pick audio diaries left by one, Preston E. Downs, a Wild Bill Hickok sort of showman whom Comstock hires to hunt down Daisy Fitzroy. After trying to trap her, he accidentally maims a child of Sioux descent. He then feels remorse, begins to care for the boy, and resolves to hunt Comstock instead. Downs himself is in some ways a mirror of Booker. He initiates a seemingly straightforward hunt for a girl, albeit for different reasons. His search is complicated by accrued emotional baggage—a debt, if you will—(just as Booker’s true debt is the lives he has damage or taken), and seeks acquittal via vengeance upon Comstock.
  • When Booker kills Comstock, his nose begins to bleed again, something that happens as Booker’s mind tries to reconcile “reality” with what he remembers.

    “He doesn’t row”

D. 123rd Tim’s the Charm:

At the end, we learn that the game we just played was one of numerous attempts by Booker to free Elizabeth.

  • As the Luteces row Booker to the lighthouse, what we take for repartee, is actually quite telling:

Robert: Can we get back to the rowing?

Rosalind: I suggest you do, or we’re never going to get there.

Robert: No, I mean I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d assist.

Rosalind: Perhaps you should ask him [Booker]. I imagine he has a greater interest in getting there than I do.

Robert: I suppose he does, but there’s no point in asking.

Rosalind: Why not?

Robert: Because he doesn’t row.

Rosalind: He doesn’t row?

Robert: No. He doesn’t row.

Rosalind: Ah. I see what you mean.

We don’t see what they mean, initially. The Luteces already know that Booker just sits in the boat because that action (or inaction) is a constant from trial to trial.

The Luteces’ Coin Toss

  • The game hints this a few times. When we unlock the launch chamber in the lighthouse, we ring three bells in the pattern: 1x, 2x, 2x.
  • During the coin flip with the Luteces, we notice they’ve been keeping track of the heads vs. tails. The mark they make after the coin is flipped is the 123rd mark on the board, indicating 122 previous attempts to extricate the girl and wipe away his “debt.”
  • The dead man in the lighthouse might also be taken as evidence of a prior attempt to launch to Columbia.

II. There’s Always a Lighthouse

Now let’s compare and contrast the Bioshocks (not necessarily including Bioshock 2)…

A. City as Character: Both stories prominently feature a city treated as something akin to a character. The setting not only sets the mood in these stories, but it is also entangled somehow in the plot (i.e., the plot could not enfold as it does if it were not for the unique pros/cons to the city-setting). In Rapture, the city held an ominous sway over the player’s mood via an oppressive sense of confinement, entrapment, and claustrophobia; Columbia, on the other hand, embodies the story itself by juxtaposing a bright, cheery façade with a sinister subtext. Both cities are reached by means of a lighthouse that turns out to be more than it appears, and both cities are cities intentionally cut-off from the rest of the world in order to form a more perfect society. Many people classify Bioshock as dystopia, but dystopia requires a society. In Rapture, society has broken down—that’s what we call post-apocalyptic. Even though it’s not post-apocalyptic in usual sense (à la nuclear fallout, climate change, or zombie viruses), it is about what happens when society breaks down after some sort of cataclysm. Rapture used to be a dystopia, but during the events of Bioshock, I think we can safely say it is some variety of post-apocalyptic fiction. Conversely, Columbia contains populations of people who, though misguided, are perfectly sane. Social structures, commerce, holidays—all guises to that sinister subtext I mentioned—this is dystopia.

B. Civil War: Dovetailing into that discussion is the presence in both story lines of civil war. In Rapture, the civil war is technically ongoing, although my perception of the political situation was that of a stalemate, with all hostility focused on the player. In Columbia, we arrive in the midst of rising tensions, but prior to all-out war. One of the curious and, I think, compelling aspects of this conflict is that neither side is particularly championed. The dark seeds of power-lust and violence are openly acknowledged in both camps.

“Let there be light—at my price per gallon”

C. Haves vs. Have-Nots: This war is given a patina of racial tension by the writers of Bioshock Infinite, and that element should certainly not be discounted. But when we dig down to it, the conflict between Columbia’s Founders (essentially WASP-stand-ins) and Vox Populi (everyone else) is very much the same as that between the citizens of Rapture—an economic one. Jeremiah Fink, one of the most prominent members of the Founders, is a business magnate and manufacturing giant who conjures images of John D. Rockefeller. Fink’s voice comes over the public address system at points, chiding his workers (made up mostly of minority groups) for being discontent with their compensation. Likewise, Booker and Elizabeth learn that Comstock takes 50% of people’s income in a kind of tithe-tax.

D. Playing a PlayerBioshock’s story capitalized on player expectations. The midway reveal of the game still sticks in my mind as a brilliantly clever bit of story telling. The metanarrative underlying the story is a commentary on players’ suspension of disbelief when playing a video game—that they will blindly work to accomplish the objective the game gives them in order to complete the game. Similarly Bioshock Infinite hoodwinks us in the end too, by revealing an interesting twist on the grandfather paradox—that of Booker being Elizabeth’s father AND he and Comstock being the same person, albeit from parallel realities. So once again, the question of choice asks if we ever truly have a choice and who our worst enemy truly is—casting a brighter, retrospective light on the events of Bioshock. In the original game, we were given a “choice” to rescue or harvest the Little Sisters of Rapture. That choice revealed one of two endings. Bioshock Infinite‘s story highlights the fact that for all the semblance of choice video games may try to provide—regardless of what we the players choose, however we choose to play—creating seemingly infinite number of versions of the same story/experience—we ultimately end up in the same place. (I think no other game has displayed this more disappointingly and obviously than Mass Effect 3.) Furthermore, this is a fascinating twist on the classic gaming trope of princess-rescuing: Mario rescues Princess Peach, Link rescues Zelda, etc. The joke here is that your princess is not in another castle; you find her pretty early on. The problem is keeping her. As we near the end of the game, she is taken away from Booker, and he, in effect, has to fight through another “castle” to reach her.

E. Predestination vs. Free Will: This begs the question, “is there such a thing as free will?” Both Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite raise this question; it is essential to both stories. I plan to deal with it in greater detail in a future post, but for now, let me give a quick summation. Is the true nature of reality one of predestination or free will? Yes.

Big Daddy, Alpha Series

F. Man in the Machine: Big Daddies and Handymen are some of the most tragic characters in the Bioshock series. Unwilling men whose bodies have been fused with mechanical body parts, ostensibly making them stronger, but leaving them dehumanized and tortured. In both games, the player must confront these creatures in battle, and they are indeed a tougher battle than other enemies. But there is always a certain amount of remorse, when the Big Daddy groans an inarticulate cry of anguish, or the handyman yells, “Every step is like burning coal!” No other video games have elicited from me such pity for enemies as these have.

Handyman

G. There’s Always a Man, a City, and a Lighthouse: There are a number of oblique references to the original Bioshock, and I’m sure I haven’t noticed them all.

  • The stairs up to the lighthouses at the beginning of each game are nearly identical
  • In Bioshock one of the creepiest moments early in the game was coming across a woman, ADAM-addled, talking like a mother to a baby carriage which actually contained a revolver. At Battleship Bay, Booker passes a baby carriage containing pistol ammunition.
  • The design similarities between Songbird and Bid Daddies.
  • Bioshock (potentially) ends with Little Sisters you had rescued, now like adoptive daughters, holding your hand when you die. Bioshock Infinite ends with the hands of your actual daughter holding you under the water.
  • Submersion—always everywhere all the time.
  • Jack’s wrench from Bioshock makes a couple cameos in Infinite.
  • I assume the writers noticed that the reverence by Columbia’s inhabitants, and use of “Lamb” as a euphemism for Elizabeth would be compared to Bioshock 2‘s Eleanor Lamb, who is also a special and uncannily powerful young lady, equally venerated by the inhabitants of Rapture.
  • Booker bears scars forming AD on his hand. Jack bore a chain tattoo on his wrist—both alluding to the murky pasts of each character.

So, it has proven laborious to even get these thought down in any cogent order. There is so much floating around, and I’ve tried to save certain things for a discussion on religion and faith, and one on the use of music.

This video is a handy summary. It does contain some language, but it also contains the most crucial and revelatory moments of the story. (Whoever put it together, however, decided that in a list of top ten moments, there should be two no. 8’s.) Each scene is separated by an excerpt from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Sources:

GameSpot GamePlay Podcast

Slate, “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later”

CVG, “Unlocking the Secrets and Mysteries behind BioShock Infinite”

Game Front, “‘He Doesn’t Row’: How BioShock Infinite Isn’t Booker’s Story” [really interesting!]

Numerous entries from the Bioshock Wiki

NPR, “‘Bioshock Infinite’: A First Person Shooter, A Tragic Play”

Reddit, “My Detailed Ending Explanation…”

Bioshock: In which we reflect on human nature and video games as art

Can video games be art? Notable film critic Roger Ebert, in his words, “was a fool” for declaring that video games can never be so. He hasn’t changed his opinion so much as realized that he shouldn’t have commented at all. Roger Ebert wields a far more eloquent pen than I do, and his comments have been debated back and forth since at least 2005 [But for highlights of the juicy gossip, check out the oldest reference I could find (27 Novemeber 2005), a recap (16 April 2010), Ebert’s caveat (1 July 2010) and more via the Wikipedia page on “Video Games as an Art Form“] so I’m not particularly interested in writing a polemic against what he freely admits is an opinion, nor in debating the nature or definition of art (which will never be agreed upon). I’m interested in talking about Bioshock.

As video games go, Bioshock isn’t exactly old, nor is it particularly new. In an industry constantly obsessing over the next big thing, Bioshock is the middle child— it was a really cute kid, but we’ve kind of forgotten about it in our enthusing over the newest darling baby. I played it again recently and found myself transported, dare I say, “enraptured,” in ways few games have been able to achieve. It is typically categorized as a First-Person Shooter (FPS), which it certainly is. But it transcends the genre is ways the Call of Duty franchise never has. The former, I submit, is art; the latter, entertainment. These two need not be mutually exclusive (art-ertainment? ent-art-tainment?). Video games developers gotta eat too.

Bioshock is not easily explained, as evidenced by a quick Google search of “How to Explain Bioshock.” But I can tell you that it has probably exposed more young people to deep philosophical thought on society, politics, art, free will, and human nature than books will. It’s sad, but in all likelihood, true. What’s more, these young people are so moved by these ideas that they turn to the internet to find out more about what they just experienced, why it moved them, and if others shared a similar experience. They are producing fan fiction, and pages devoted to Bioshock-inspired art. (Of course, this begs the question, “Is it art?” but that’s a recursive discussion.)

The game amalgamates numerous influences: sc-fi horror, Ayn Rand’s objectivism, Art Deco, Cole Porter. When the game was released in 2007, it fueled and added new dimensions to my interest in the history, popular music, technologies, and philosophies of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, a lot of the “punk” sub-genres (steampunk, dieselpunk, gearpunk, atompunk, etc.) have this effect on their participants. In many ways, it draws on into the spirit of the era, if not the actual historical facts. Bioshock straddles the grittier dieselpunk and shiny decopunk sub-genres.

To be sure, the game is creepy. Really creepy. I couldn’t play it at night. So why did I play it at all? Especially since I already knew about the mid-plot twist and the ending? My brain answers that it’s because it was a richly intellectually experience, and that’s true. But my heart answers that it was a catharsis, and I suppose that is also true. Isn’t that what art does? Ebert’s own criteria for what art should do seems like affirmation to me: “[T]he real question is, do we as consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them? Something may be excellent as itself, and yet be ultimately worthless.” (Source)

“ALL GOOD THINGS OF THIS EARTH FLOW INTO THE CITY”

Here is the set-up. In 1919 a young man, soon to be known as Andrew Ryan, flees Russia, realizing that his people have merely traded the lies of the Czar for the lies of the Bolsheviks. He emigrates to the United States, following so many others in the hope that a free society would let him prosper. America was better, but Ryan saw in the New Deal programs of the 30s a threat to that freedom. He came to despise any form of socialism for its parasitic effects. Further disillusion came from the government’s attempts to nationalize some of his land, as well as its use of atomic weapons to end WWII.

Ryan, fearing atomic war and government interference, poured his wealth into the building of a secret utopia he called Rapture (which as one reviewer has noticed can have multiple, telling nuances: in modern usage “a feeling of intense pleasure or joy,” but in a more archaic sense “seizing and carrying off,” from which the word rape comes). Rapture is a city beneath the waves, built on the sea bed of the Atlantic, “a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small!” With such promises, Ryan lures the cream of the world’s crop to his underwater city (rapturing them, as it were).

Ryan’s vision is one free from government interference and religious morality. Consequently, artistic expression becomes increasingly sadistic, creating tableaux vivants by casting living people in plaster. The scientific community, free from the constraints of ethics, experiment on living humans. They create plasmids, elixirs that splice the human genome, giving users the ability to cast ice, electricity, and other forces from their hands.

This genetic manipulation is made possible by the discovery of a secretion of sea slugs dubbed ADAM (the catalyst that activates it is called EVE). But Adam is addictive. And it has some other minor side effects—like excrescent growths and insanity. Anything in the name of science, right? The denizens of Rapture keep on, believing they can perfect the formulae and evolve beyond the defects. No one stopped to consider that that might not b the real problem. As Brigid Tenenbaum, one of Rapture’s few sane survivors, says:

ADAM improved every aspect of man, except his character.

“NO GODS OR KINGS. ONLY MAN”: humanism

You will have notice the eye-popping visuals that rely heavily on the art deco movement, with its incorporation of a noble and heroic take on the human form that seems almost Hellenistic in scope. Let’s compare some of Bioshock‘s statuary with some real-world, Art-Deco counterparts:

Real: Oscar statuette

Bioshock: Descent in the Bathysphere.

Real: Statues at the Hoover Dam, designed, I believe, by Oskar J.W. Hansen.

Bioshock: Welcome to Rapture. Opportunity Awaits.

Real: Central train station, Helsinki, Finland

Bioshock: bust of Andrew Ryan

Real: The famous likeness of the titan Atlas at Rockefeller Plaza

Bioshock: Atlas holds up the world.

Oskar J.W. Hansen was the sculptor responsible for the statuary and and bas relief sculptures at the Hoover Dam. He wanted his work to express “the immutable calm of intellectual resolution, and the enormous power of trained physical strength, equally enthroned in placid triumph of scientific accomplishment.” (Source) Sound familiar? This echoes the first words of Andrew Ryan we see in the game: “No gods or kings. Only man.”

After disembarking from the bathysphere shown in the clip above, what the player discovers is neither a utopia nor even a haven for mankind. I’ve seen sci-fi explore the science-gone-amuck angle before, but I’ve never experienced it so viscerally. The player is thrust into a horrifying environment in which self-inflilcted genetic mutation has driven the world’s once best and brightest to madness or death. At every glance, irony stares back. You may have noticed Django Reinhardt’s 1949 rendition of “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” in that last video. Here’s the whole thing.

If nothing else, this game has introduced or reignited a younger generation’s interest in music from the era. A quick iTunes search reveals that this particular version of the song has become immensely popular, with downloads funneled through searches for Bioshock’s music. The licensed music used in the game certainly serves to place Rapture in an historical context, but it also serves a narrative function, poignantly providing ironic commentary on the location or information just received. It’s use is summed up well by William Gibbons.

“SOMEBODY’S GOTTA SCRUB THE TOILETS”: class inequality

So why did Ryan’s utopian vision end in madness? The short answer is greed, hubris, and hypocrisy. How do you keep a construction project the size of a city at the bottom of the ocean a secret? You take all the manual laborers who built it and you forbid them from leaving once they’re done working. Ryan’s vision for a society of brilliant visionaries, thinkers, was like any society. As antagonist Frank Fontaine says, These sad saps. They come to Rapture thinking they’re gonna be captains of industry, but they all forget that somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets.” Consequently, Fontaine manipulates the disenfranchised to undermine Ryan’s authority, instigating a civil war unknown to anyone on the surface.

A key, yet silent, narrative element of Bioshock is the experience the player has first of the sprawling, luxurious Olympus Heights apartments that housed elite citizens (the veritable “gods” of the Rapture), followed soon after by wretched, cramped, lower-class accommodations in the Artemis Suites. (For more on the used of Greek mythology, read on.)

Here’s a fan-made video depicting some of the events leading up to the 1958 New Year’s Eve Riots that became the death knell for Rapture.

“IT IS ONLY WHEN WE STRUGGLE IN OUR OWN INTEREST THAT THE CHAIN PULLS SOCIETY IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION”: philosophy

Ayn Rand’s objectivism holds up human reason and self-interest as necessary and virtuous in the pursuit of human progress. Andrew Ryan, in his audio logs found throughout the game, echoes this philosophy: “I believe in no God, no invisible man in the sky. But there is something more powerful than each of us, a combination of our efforts, a Great Chain of industry that unites us. But it is only when we struggle in our own interest that the chain pulls society in the right direction. The chain is too powerful and too mysterious for any government to guide. Any man who tells you different either has his hand in your pocket, or a pistol to your neck.”

Unless I’m much mistaken, the developers intended to show the fallacies of this philosophy by looking at what a society becomes when there are no checks and balances on one’s selfish ambition. Almost everything I’ve read about Bioshock mentions Ayn Rand’s didactic novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957), which forms the philosophical inspiration for the game. The game probably sparked curiosity in the book, as it did me. But Bioshock came out in 2007. In 2008, the United States (and the world) experienced a severe economic downturn. Spawning a January 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Atlas Shrugged: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years.” But the recent films have also contributed to renewed interest in Rand’s ideas. Regardless of the side of the aisle one happens to prefer, the fact remains that Bioshock, almost presciently, brought objectivism to the attention of a wider audience before it seemed to matter to so many people.

“APHRODITE IS WALKING THE HALLS”: mythology

Bioshock is rife with allusions to Greek mythology, often dripping with hidden meaning and irony.

The airplane flight that begins the game is Apollo Air Flight DF-0301, named for the god typically associated with the sun, but interestingly was also the god of music, poetic inspiration, prophecy, medicine, and pastoral life. The plane crash in some ways foreshadows the wreckage Rapture’s inspiring purpose has become.

One of Rapture’s economic centers, Poseidon Plaza, named after the god of the sea (and earthquakes).

Artemis Suites, a working-class residence attached to Apollo Square, named after the goddess of the hunt and, ironically, protector of young girls.

Arcadia is an undersea park and oxygen generator, named after a mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. In poetic fantasy it represents a pastoral paradise, and in Greek mythology it is the home of Pan. This area of the game features the Saturnine cult, named after Saturn (Cronus), who ate his own children. Very telling.

Rapture’s power production facility,Hephaestus, named for the crippled god of fire and of craftsmen.

This in-game protest poster sports Atlas, “defender of the people,” the pseudonym of taken on by Andrew Ryan’s opposition during the Rapture Civil War. It is, of course, obliquely referring to Ayn Rand’s “Who is John Galt?” from Atlas Shrugged.

Hestia Chambers houses Fontaine’s Home for the Poor and the Little Sisters Orphanage, ironically named for the goddess of hearth, home, and family.

Mercury Suites, the most affluent homes in Olympus Heights, are named after the god who was patron of both merchants and thieves. Hmm.

Point Prometheus houses the facilities where plasmids were developed. Like their namesake, the scientists here though they were bring mankind the very power of the gods. And for their meddling, they were punished.

Other references include: the cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Steinman, and his obsession with Aphrodite, goddess of beauty; Neptune‘s Bounty, Rapture’s fishery; Siren Alley, Rapture’s red-light district, named after the mythological mermaids whose singing lured sailors to their deaths; Plaza Hedone, a subsection of Siren Alley rife with old, illicit plasmid facilities; Persephone, Rapture’s “correctional facility” that is suspended over a chasm, named for the woman carried off by Hades and made queen of the underworld;

Of course, the over-arching symbolism of Atlantis is not lost on me. A city of paradise beneath the waves, brought to its knees by cataclysm. Indeed, Atlantis has historically been linked to the idea of utopia, such as in Francis Bacon‘s New Atlantis and Thomas More‘s Utopia. In 1882 Ignatius L. Donnelly published Atlantis: the Antediluvian World, in which he confessed to believe that the Garden of Eden was in Atlantis (remember ADAM and EVE?). It, along with Atlantis, he said, were destroyed by the Great Flood of Genesis chs. 6–9, linking the ideas of Atlantis’ destruction with retribution for sin.

“THE END IS NIGH”

So, this turned out to be a much longer post than I had envisioned. I began working on it 21 February, and have intermittently worked on it until now, so I will end here. I will say, though, that the visual and audio elements are so important to the experience of Bioshock. You can visit the Rapture City Archives for images of posters, sighs, banners, and more. Garry Schyman’s moody scores for Bioshock and Bioshock 2 can be heard at his website. The licensed songs from the 30s, 40s, and 50s can be found on iTunes or via YouTube. I look forward to the release of Bioshock: Infinite on 26 March.