BioShock's Rapture Is A Tacit, Metaphorical Narrator

By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Monday, August 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm
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Firsthand exploration is an experiential storytelling device peculiar to video games. In no other narrative medium can I peer through a window into what is essentially a functional, living, and moving world -- one that lets me interact with what stands before me. It goes beyond that of other narratives; a video game world doesn't need to be described, and I can do more than just see the setting, static and within a few frames.

But it is in the setting where many games fail to realize the video game potential for that whole new dimension of storytelling. Too often the backdrop of a game is utilized as just that -- a landscape on which the events of a game occur. But video game worlds can portray rich histories, character arcs, and aid a narrative in aesthetics and atmosphere. And it is never more evident than BioShock's broken kingdom, Rapture.


Rapture's functionality capitalizes on two of the game's core elements: BioShock has a holistically rich and embattled history, and it counts on the player to explore the setting before the whole of the story can be fully realized. By building the world around these two subsets, Irrational Games has managed to make arguably the most memorable and iconic video game world of the generation. And even more, they've used that to bolster gaming's most thoroughly and thoughtfully told story.

Rapture as an umbrella, or meta-entity, is a not-so-disguised metaphor for the life cycles of ideologies. It cedes that the ebb and flow of unbridled anything will begin as a propelled rise and crash down upon itself, leaving the pieces to be fought over by those that can survive its implosion. And that before such a catastrophic event, those that reside within this ideology (incarnate in Rapture itself) will stretch the thing to the limits. It loosely channels falls like that of Rome.

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The metaphor continues, on smaller scales, throughout the game. As we initially enter the crippled city, we're met with the phrase "All Good Things Of This Earth Flow Into The City," in block neon letters. The light powering "City" is clicking and sizzling, on the verge of full extinguish. Rapture as a community is acting as such, and we become intimately aligned with just that sentiment as we explore Rapture's full reach.

The story is told through far more than obvious metaphors, however. Throughout the whole of the game, we're exposed to political and social propaganda that motors our perceptions of the characters we've met, or are destined to meet, and how they function in the world we come to know. It can come in the form of cryptic, blood-smeared words on the walls, the Art Deco posters and pillars, or the Rand-eqsue Olympian statues that dot each courtyard and corridor. We know Andrew Ryan's reach, his businesses, and his love for industry, bits of his background that are observed through careful scrutiny -- not fed through exposition and dialogue. These intrinsic attributes are telling us of the foundational ideologues that built the place, the influences and eras that were considered in the construction of the underwater city.

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On an even more micro-level, situations can be conveyed to us that go beyond the need for words. At a point during the confrontation of Jack and Dr. Steinman, lights in the Surgery flick on, exposing three crucified patients, with bloody bags on their heads, victims of Steinman's insatiable want to build perfect beauty. The irony in those visuals can't be missed. We see the fruits of his incessant, murderous trials, and the tedium at which this crazed man has labored -- the horrific and grisly quest for absolute aesthetic perfection. And it goes beyond simply watching a psychopath with a Thompson dart by in orange scrubs, splattered with entrails. It is that which he has built around him.

Of course, the full story of Andrew Ryan's Rapture cannot be told through a setting. The persistent and present vocal narrations, the expository historical recaps, and the lunatic characters all complement the setting in providing that robust, fully immersing experience, and keeping us trailing it through hallway after hallway, seeing its next offering. But when we see, for instance, studios lined with goopy masquerade masks, dotted with plasterized people, we begin to organically understand the underlying insanity of the place. The arc of Rapture is less obscure when it is packed with heavy, loaded imagery. It becomes apparent to us as such, and we can process it piece by piece on a very large scale.

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From a player's perspective, we are able to live the life of a splicer -- though admittedly a far more motivated and less incensed version of the ones that surround us. But nonetheless, we're inured with the life of the non-player characters and goings-on that make up Rapture's ecosystem. We long for more Adam and Eve. We are hostile towards those that stand in our way, just as they are hostile toward us. We thrive on getting high. We are merciless killers. And, most importantly, we are molded by the Rapturian legacy that occurred before our descent to the depths of the city. That peculiar, exploratory factor is how we experience the video game's narrative.

And even then, there's an untold beauty in Rapture's voice that lies just there. We've been provided with an incredible amount of imagery, symbolism, and atmosphere that we can traverse the story over and over again and tease out more narrative devices streaked through the  large courtyards and passageways that define Rapture's guts. The full breadth of the world demands re-visitation. And on each additional immersion, we come to fully understand the fabric of the world we're so intrigued by, and why its brilliance resounds so profoundly within us.

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Schivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.
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