Prose & Pixels

Prose & Pixels #2: Bookish Influences on Bioshock

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Prose & Pixels is a feature that combines two of my loves: books and video games. Here I’ll discuss all sorts of things to do with the two, whether it’s recommendations, influences or just a good old chat.

Today I want to discuss the bookish influences on the Bioshock series of video games.

If you follow my Twitter feed, you may have recently seen me talking about a game called Bioshock, and how I was terrifying myself by playing it with headphones and in the dark. Although it had me screaming, swearing and shrieking, it also got me thinking. There is an obvious bookish influence on the game – the imagery within, as well as some of the character names, instantly made me think of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. So of course I had to do a little research into it, and yes – it’s a big influence, along with many other books.

Bioshock Logo

If you’re not familiar with the games, here is a brief synopsis of the first one:

Set in 1960, Bioshock follows a man named Jack, who ends up in the ocean after his plane crashes. After heading towards a nearby lighthouse, he finds a bathysphere, which takes him to the underwater city of Rapture. Intended to be a utopia by its founder Andrew Ryan, Rapture unfortunately took a turn in the opposite direction with the discovery of ADAM – a plasmid that gives the user superhuman powers. The city is now filled with addicts and horribly transformed people, including the terrifying Big Daddies. Jack has no choice but to fight his way through the city, with the help of a man named Atlas, using plasmids, weapons and the very environment of Rapture itself.

One of the most obvious bookish influences here is the idea of utopia and dystopia. So many times in fiction, we’ve seen a seemingly perfect society peel back its shiny exterior to reveal something cold and very, very horrifying at the centre. And Bioshock is exactly like that. The environments are beautiful, Rapture’s art deco and 1950’s style is pretty breathtaking. Combine that with an underwater setting, where you can play around with water, light and reflections and it really does look like a utopia. I mean, just look at some of the concept art!

Bioshock Concept Art
(image source)

At first glance, Rapture looks beautiful. Neon signs, specially crafted underwater gardens, the city neatly divided into sections, entertainment districts – but soon you start to notice the graffiti. You see the blood on the walls, the smashed and ruined windows and belongings. Then the bodies begin to appear, and soon you hear the noises. A high pitched, maniacal laugh. Something running along the ceiling. A long, low groan. Stomping of heavy boots. A young girl whispering to herself (or someone?), whispering things that a young girl shouldn’t even know about. And that’s when you realise – this is DEFINITELY no utopia.

The influence of Ayn Rand on Bioshock

One of the first things that really demonstrated the influence of Rand’s work on the game, was a statue of Atlas, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. I can’t find a screenshot of it from Bioshock, but I am currently playing Bioshock 2 and managed to spot it there:

Bioshock 2

It immediately made think of this:

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

As well as this statue, there is also the mysterious character of Atlas, an Irishman who guides Jack through the halls of Rapture, and the character Frank Fontaine – the name perhaps inspired by Rand’s The Fountainhead? Perhaps a simpler comparison is that Andrew Ryan is an anagram (albeit with a few extra letters) of Ayn Rand, and that many events throughout the story of Bioshock echo that of Atlas Shrugged.

Like Atlas Shrugged, the city of Rapture is founded on the philosophy of objectivism: the idea that one person should follow their self-interest, and not let the opinions or morals of others get in the way of ambition and ability. A slogan to this effect is often spotted around Rapture:

No Gods or Kings, Only Man

Biblical influences on Bioshock

It’s not just Ayn Rand’s work that influenced Bioshock. The Garden of Eden was the original utopia, ruined by the actions of Adam and Eve. Similarly, the actions of man (and woman) have ruined the utopia of Rapture. Although ADAM can grant the superhuman powers, a drug called EVE is needed to keep the plasmids active. Not only this, but the very word ‘Rapture’ conjures up Christian imagery: of the ‘good people’ of the world being taken away to a better place. Rapture may have been that place but for, rather ironically, the use of ADAM and EVE.

The influence of other literature

One other book that was immediately brought to mind by the events of Bioshock was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Some of the toughest enemies in the game are called ‘Big Daddies’, which may not sound menacing but they are TERRIFYING. You’ll first know of them when you hear a low groan, and heavy stomping. You might also hear the accompanying Little Sister. The stomps will grow louder as they get closer, and the ground will shake. And it may look slow – but once it spots you or you try to hurt the Little Sister, it really isn’t.

franksteinbigdaddy

Big Daddies were originally human beings, genetically enhanced and with their skin and organs grafted onto an antique diving suit. I mean, that’s enough to make anybody mad, right? After the process, they are unable to make any noise but a low groan, similar to a whale call. Their original purpose was actually for construction work. However, when the Little Sisters (genetically altered young girls) were sent to collect ADAM from the corpses of Rapture, the Big Daddies were sent to protect them.

The whole idea of creating new life and playing around with genetics really reminds me of Frankenstein, and the Big Daddies are definitely monsters. And like Frankenstein’s Monster, the Big Daddy also has something he wants to protect.

The creators of Bioshock have also claimed that both 1984 by George Orwell and Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan were influences, in that way that the interesting societies in both books were ruined by their creators, humankind.

Have you played any of the Bioshock games? Are there any other books that you think influenced the series?

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