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  • Bioshock and the Art of Rapture
  • Grant Tavinor

I am Andrew Ryan, and I am here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? "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." I rejected these answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose Rapture! 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! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.

Andrew Ryan, opening Bioshock


Bioshock is the Masterpiece of recent gaming. Genre-wise the game is a first person-shooter survival-horror game—already a complicated mix of gaming forms—and Bioshock is excellent in these gaming terms: playing the game is a consistently engaging, challenging, and tense experience. The narrative of the game, set in Rapture, a dystopian city beneath the sea, fits perfectly with this interactive gaming form. The premise of Bioshock is a parody of Ayn Rand's objectivist novel Atlas Shrugged. Led by the magnate Andrew Ryan, the industrialists, artists, and scientists have retreated from the world and built Rapture through sheer force of will. But when the player enters the city at the beginning of the game, it is evident that nature is pushing back, and that the sea is slowly but surely retaking Rapture, while its citizens have become corrupted by the arts and sciences the city was built upon: as genetically manipulated "splicers" they now creep through Rapture's darkened halls bemoaning their lost humanity. Andrew Ryan "chose the impossible," [End Page 91] and inevitably his hubris is being repaid by the recalcitrance of human nature and the impermanence of human achievement. Much of the immense fun of Bioshock derives from the irony of an objectivist utopia running amok.

The immediate visual impact of Bioshock, depending on its employment of cutting-edge high definition 3D computer graphics, is striking. The aesthetic qualities of the water, in particular, have drawn wide praise. The world of Rapture is also presented through an engaging and excellent style. To depict this decaying world, Bioshock draws on the architectural motifs and cultural themes of 1930s and 1940s America. Portrayals of decaying art deco facades, faded Hollywood socialites, and echoes of Hearst, Hughes, and Citizen Kane, are combined with period music and philosophical and literary references to produce a coherent artistic statement.

Two features of Bioshock bear out its unique artfulness as a game. First is the role in the game-world of the Little Sisters: cute little girls that pose a game obstacle with which the player must decide how to deal. In Bioshock, the task of harvesting the game-world resources needed to survive is given a moral dimension in that the resources can be extracted only from the Little Sisters by killing them, and so a key part of the gameplay rests on an emotionally provocative moral choice. The second artful aspect of the game that warrants special attention is a narrative twist partway through the game where it becomes evident that player's principle sympathetic source of information in the game-world is a dissemblance. Bioshock has an interactive twist on an untrustworthy narrator, which clouds and complicates the decisions the player has made in Rapture. Rather than an actor, the player-character is a pawn in someone else's game. At the forefront of both of these aspects of Bioshock are considerations of freewill and morality.

To really appreciate the art of Bioshock we need to understand its nature as a game, and moreover, to treat the gaming nature seriously and with sympathy. Bioshock is a videogame, and it is also clearly art; but it is not as if the game is art despite its being a videogame and that the art is a mere gloss or veneer. Rather, Bioshock's nature as a game allows it to be art of a distinctive kind. Treating videogames as a kind...


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pp. 91-106
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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