As I play through the thrilling and utterly gorgeous Bioshock Infinite, I often find myself thinking that whilst the flying city of Columbia is an artistic and visual masterpiece, it is a very, very different place than the one portrayed in the Bioshock of yesteryear.
At the bottom of the cold Atlantic ocean lies the derelict ruin of one man’s dream to create a Utopia. Broken glass and buckled metal. Neon lights flickering along dusty corridors. Rust and blood. A world design that has so far surpassed any other I have ever seen.
Would you kindly carry on reading this tribute to the sights and sounds of Rapture?
Your first arrival in Rapture is one stuff of video game legend. The plane crash, the abandoned lighthouse and the bathysphere descent will be forever engrained in my memory, at least. As the screen withdraws and you crest that last rocky outcrop, you are treated to an all encompassing view of Rapture, the city beneath the waves. At that point, everything seems fine. Not FINE fine, but the buildings are intact and lights are on, so the city seems to be functioning normally.
Of course, it is most definitely not normal.
The year of Rapture’s founding was 1946, and as such art-Deco is the name of the game. The restaurants evoke themes of cabaret; all pillars, neon signs and stylised artwork. The homes of the wealthy look as if they were pulled straight from the Ritz, and those of the poor from Prohibition-era moonshine distilleries. Marble statues and fountains adorn large plazas, wrapped in sheets of red and gold. It’s all decadence and sometimes it’s easy to forget you’re actually underwater and not in some giant theatre in downtown New York. Then you round a corner and come face to face a shoal of fish outside a leaking porthole.
All of this overlaid with the dust, debris and decay that the 10 years of genetic civil war has brought about.Streets are littered with flaking plaster, broken tiles and corpses. Dust hangs in the air, causing rays of light to streak the open atrium and hallways. A once-pristine hospital lies flooded and bloodstained, the grizzly trophies of the resident doctor nailed to the wall with rusted surgical equipment. From the first moment you notice the huge lines of abandoned luggage at Rapture’s entry-exit bathysphere station, you know something horrid has happened here. Not an instant thing, but a long, drawn-out and painful descent into madness.
Character design is as well implemented as the rest of the art direction. This is a world where the elite hold all the power, all suits and Godfather style class, and the poor scrabble in the streets for food and ADAM, splicing their bodies in order to protect themselves from their equally deranged neighbours. A city where criminals and political prisoners are grafted into diving suits, and charged with protecting young girls stolen from their families, who themselves have to walk the streets to violate the corpses of the dead. It’s not a pretty place, and the character models represent the daily struggles each must endure.
The sound work on Bioshock is also fabulous, with era-friendly blues and jazz playing in public spaces jarring completely with the discordant screeching of the city’s residents and the whale-like calls of the Big Daddies.
Here’s something for you to do: just stand in one of Rapture’s many deserted corridors. Don’t move, just stand still and listen. You’ll hear the floorboards creak, and metal straining against the crushing pressure of the ocean. The rustling of something crawling through the wall-space. It makes what is visually a tight enclosure already something truly claustrophobic. The walls feel paper thin with millions of tonnes of seawater just waiting to come crashing down around you.
As a fictional city, Rapture is realistic and believable (if you ignore the mutated freaks with bees crawling out of their arms, and such.) There are residences, commercial outlets, industrial zones. Everything you would expect from a normal city. As a game world, it is a perfectly grim and terrifying setting for the story that unfolds within, both the one the player experiences first-hand, and the one that is told through audio diaries and mutilated bodies. I have memories of its darker corners that still cause the hairs on my neck to rise, and Rapture’s dentist office scares me more than any three other things you care to mention.
I’m happy to have explored Rapture myself. It has helped make me realise what kind of novel ideas games can present, beyond the grey-brown corridor runners that seem to have been the staple diet of gamers for the last five years. It is a truly remarkable city to explore.
Just never ask me to go there.