As will become apparent to anyone reading more than a few of my posts here I am a huge fan of the Bioshock series. I believe them to be a shining example of how sophisticated and powerful the medium of gaming can be if treated with the passion and respect a creative venture deserves.
Bioshock is for the most part a narrative driven game, an in depth story unravelling in both directions of time with strong allusions and reverence to important works of literature and philosophy. The plot not only deals with the subjects of idealism, faith, loyalty and dystopia it also focuses on the concept of choice, both in the real world and in the meta-philosophical sense of gaming itself. Throughout the game you are directed onwards by well formed and believable characters while learning about the games past events through found audio diaries scattered around the game environment. While this drip feeding of information appealed strongly to the completist in me, attempting to form a logical timeline out of these morsels proves to be difficult especially when factoring in the addition of a sequel based in and around simultaneous events in the ailing city of Rapture.
Not all games have narratives strong enough to warrant novelisation but still dozens of game to book tie-ins are produced every year. Science-fiction horror writer John Shirley has a few of these movie/game tie-in novels under his biblo-belt but also arrives onto the deck of the Bioshock franchise with a series of successful original novels and a Bram Stoker award to boot.
His account of the events leading up to the original game is a mix of tribute and expansion, a collection and extrapolation of those ambiguous and inviting titbits found around the undersea city of Rapture. It details the shift from utopian ideal to supercharged dystopian nightmare distilled from the myriad of characters that populated the Rapture community.
Where the source material may be rich and ties to the creative team behind the game helped steer Shirley past any fan-boy pitfalls the novels plot is not without its revelations. I would not have been surprised or even disappointed with the novel taking the direction of simply distilling the audio diaries into one cohesive tale of the history of Rapture; but this is where Shirley surpasses the usual tie-in offering. The story does hang true over the numerous plot points already purloined from the game but on top of that the novel provides an alternate narrative which does well in both picking up on previous knowledge and feeding additional character to its own focussed tale. For a plot which spans over a decade and ties together a city of characters the novel excels in the ticking boxes of key points in Raptures history and gathering all that information such that no thread is left glaringly untied.
The novel begins with some much needed background to a character who has become one of the most ambiguous and enigmatic pro/antagonists in gaming. Andrew Ryan, objectivist and industrialist is the intellectual and financial founder of Rapture, an underwater city built with the intent to free its citizens from religion, government and petty morality.
During the course of the first game Ryan is portrayed as a faceless overseer; a dictator gone into exile under the stress of a coup d’tat which threatens to pull the curtain down from his façade of ideals. Shirley, in describing the conception and foundation of Rapture, gives us insight into the ‘Great man’ as Ryan is known amongst his closest advisers. The novel gives a deeper sense of the hard forged dreams Ryan strives for and the lengths he will go to realise and eventually enforce those dreams into the very bedrock of Rapture.
Seen through the eyes of protagonist Bill McDonagh, a humble plumber taken at first under Ryan’s wing and later under the Atlantic Ocean to Rapture itself, Andrew Ryan is given a softer, patriarchal side unseen in the games. As cracks, both literal and metaphorical, begin to appear in Rapture’s structure Ryan’s beliefs and stubbornness begin to blind him and as such the tension which grows between Ryan and McDonagh adds a bittersweet wash to the city’s founder while complimenting the differences in the two men. Ryan becomes the embodiment of the city, strong and stoic in his efforts to hold back a sea of failure while McDonagh becomes as pliable as the water surrounding the city, filling in all its gaps with understanding and compromise. McDonagh’s story is one of the lamb led astray, fooled by the gleam of Ryan’s overwhelming rhetoric of freedom, this theme of a grand con is found piercing the novel from many different angles.
The lust for control over Rapture divides its increasingly tempestuous populace between three distinct parties, Ryan’s initial objectivist rule has left the workers poor and dejected, Sophia Lamb, antagonist of Bioshock 2, wishes to unite the denizens into a ‘family’ in praise of her captive, messianic daughter, while Frank Fontaine sees the directive-free city as golden fruit, ripe for the picking and without the means to obstruct him.
Fontaine is another character who has further flesh and history added to the bones of the man represented in the original game. I’m not claiming that the identities of Ryan and Fontaine were anything other than beautifully crafted in the game but the novel allows them history and depth which can only go so far with an interactive medium.
While gaming your attentions are drawn in a dozen ways to the various tasks at hand; combat, exploration and foraging all while the undertow of narrative seeps into the spaces in between. A novel is a single immersive entity requiring only that you absorb the information it imparts and thus can provide detail and accuracy beyond that of the pull in several directions that games require of your attention.
There are strong ties between the character of Ryan and Hank Reardon one of the many industrialist heroes of Ayn Rand’s opus ‘Atlas shrugged’ to the level of mentioning a fictional metal invented by Ryan known as ‘Ryanium’ used to build the city structures of Rapture. The ties between Rand’s philosophies and the first game in the Bioshock series are well documented and it is good to see Shirley paying homage to the works which inspired the game.
Each of Raptures colourfully distorted characters is expanded upon, from the boisterous and (thanks to knowledge imparted in this novel) clearly homosexual Sander Cohen right down to Ryan’s secretary/squeeze Diane McClintock. These characters allowed the game real texture and believability; in turn Shirley has used this book to give lives to these characters who as a whole gave Rapture a voice and impression of a striving metropolis.
With this novel Shirley has created a rather unique addition to the franchise, having it create a tangible history to Rapture allows the novel a respectable place no matter how you approach Bioshock. Having played the games, I was relieved to have someone tie together the rich tapestry of characters involved in the creation and downfall of the Atlantean city, I was also impressed at Shirley’s ability to give me even more information about some of the key players in the Rapture saga considering how highly I regarded the narrative of the game. For those who have yet to play the game the novel gives you a far more comprehensive account of how Rapture began and fell and while you may be covering some old ground, should you get into exploring the game and discovering the audio diaries, I get the feeling this book will provide more of a sense of confirmation rather than repetition.
A prequel game was never something that would have worked for the Bioshock/Rapture story, the gameplay mechanics Bioshock has become synonymous with have little place for the brooding decent of the idealised city. Shirley’s novel goes a long way to being a fitting and respectful medium by which this chapter of the saga should be told. It harbours insight and revelation while retaining familiarity and respect to a much loved story. There may or may not be much of Rapture left since the days of Lamb, Fontaine and Ryan but Bioshock: Rapture has collected them all and houses them safely like a decrepit ship in a bottle placed lovingly on a shelf.