As the player wanders the sea soaked halls of Bioshock’s Rapture it is hard not to be awed by the beautifully produced art deco interiors and the mammoth bronzed statues of the patron of this utopian society, Andrew Ryan. The art and style of Rapture is juxtaposed with the sickness and eventual death of the underwater city itself. The 1960’s style advertisements for tobacco and alcohol somehow fit nicely along with graven images of hands pulling off the chains that Ryan believes the “parasites” above ground have placed on free enterprise and, in turn, humanity. This is an example of how Bioshock uses the city of Rapture as a character to impart the story of how this Objectivist society went from utopia to tribulation in a few short years.
Andrew Ryan created his sacred city to stand in contrast to what he believes went wrong with American capitalism. He believes that American society’s move towards socialism, through Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it’s predilection for ethical behavior in business have lead to a point where the producers, inventors, and businessmen have been enslaved in the chains of “socialism” and America’s capitalistic origins have been watered down so much that Ryan’s only option was to “create” Rapture.
As you explore Rapture you see how this Ayn Rand style Objectivist society that Ryan built up has failed; the plastic surgeons who didn’t think a nose job was quite enough, the artist who uses those around him (physically or mentally) to produce his art which is of questionable quality, and the grifter who wanted to take his piece of the pie by any means necessary. At every point in the story we are told to believe that Andrew Ryan’s ingenuity, money, and vision built the city of Rapture, but through audio-logs, the predominant storytelling mechanism, we find hints that there are citizens who realize that they are the ones who built the city; they are the ones who maintain this man’s vision of utopia. We find out later what happens to the poor in Rapture to keep this notion that an Objectivist utopian society can be sustained by the rich, without help from the poor.
Bioshock is a beautiful game. The way that it tells it’s story through audio diaries and visual cues is a testament to modern storytelling. No other medium allows the player/viewer/reader to absorb the world like video games can and Bioshock showed us that auteurs like Ken Levine can tell amazing stories using video games.
On the other hand, the point where this game fails also has to do with it’s nature as a video game. When the player is hacking into the hundredth camera or auto-turret s/he will probably feel the ever present tedium that goes with playing a 20 to 30 hour game. When the player realizes that s/he hasn’t spec’d their character in the right way for the upcoming fight and has to respawn at another Vita-Chamber, the games version of checkpoints, the utopian future for storytelling in video games starts to fall apart, much like Rapture.
The guns are fun to use in combination with the plasmids, basically magic, but, towards the end of the game, as the enemies get tougher, fighting become a bit of a slog. The enemies are interesting, they have personality; they talk to each other, they talk to you, and, sometimes, they even apologize for killing you and taking your Adam. Adam is the lifeblood of Rapture and needed for the Plasmids that empower everyone. But, after a few too many respawns, the enemies reveal themselves to be bullet sponges; by the end of the game their idiosyncrasies have worn off and they are no more interesting than terrorist #3,442 in Call of Duty.
Bioshock is an amazing game that has pushed forward storytelling in video games. Around every corner the player is presented with visual and audio clues that present the story in memorable ways. The only problem comes when repetition and uninspiring combat rear their ugly heads and remind us that video games are still a young art form.
Bioshock is a story told in comparisons. It is about the people who took too much and the people who got too little. It is the story of parents and children and how that relationship mirrors the society/citizen relationship. Bioshock presents the player with hard questions; Does the power that we give leaders to foster society equal the rights we require to feel free and to feel human? Bioshock, like any art form, does not delve into the answer to a problem it offers a simile of real-world problems and asks the player whether they would fight for what is right.