Below the Seas of Rapture: Anachronism and Play in Bioshock

by Aaron Doughty

The word “rapture” evokes a flood of emotions and associations in the mind. Rapture, according to some Christian eschatology, is an event whereby the justified are caught up into the heavens in the Day of Judgment. Alternatively, rapture is pure ecstasy, jouissance, a state which shatters the coordinates of time, leaving only the solitude of bliss. In all these cases, the word is almost utopian in its connotations. Yet what if a promised utopia was too disruptive in its actualization, leaving only flotsam in its wake? Rapture, the setting of the Irrational Games 2007 dystopian first person shooter Bioshock, is exactly the halcyonic dream turned dreadful nightmare, a utopia turned dystopia. And unlike its counterparts in religious thought, this Rapture is not a journey into the clouds but a submersion into the terrors of an underwater fortress threatened by social collapse.

This exploration of Bioshock will focus primarily as an intersection of narratives about the past, present, and future and point to the ways in which the medium of games can in the words of art theorist Christine Ross “concur to phenomenally suspend the moving image to promote anachronism in ways that offset and transform unsatisfying deployments of historical time.” It is her claim that confronted with the rhetoric of homogenized, triumphalist narratives of time, art can break the hegemony of historicism by opening up new experiences of time (Ross, 2012)

Bioshock’s genre is clearly dystopia; the game, however, plays with this format by looking back toward the ideas of the past as well as the possibilities of the future. Essentially Bioshock is a work of anachronism, a retro-dystopia. Its recollection of the past is constructed through an uncanny mix of articles from various periods. Its foray into the temporal is sustained by an attention to both the visual and ideological trappings of the past. As such, the game draws on early 20th century design principles and on the philosophical and literary works of Ayn Rand, whose popularity grew during the 1940s and has seen some resurgence among modern libertarians.

The most obvious way Bioshock plays with the temporal is in its setting which immediately strands the player outside of a consistent time reference. Although set in 1960, most of the architecture harkens back to the 1920s and 1930s deploying art deco and hints of streamline design. While the strong lines, verticality, and flourishes of its art deco designs reinforce the Randian narrative about the pursuit of power, the insinuations of streamline reinforce the concurrent narrative which links physical prowess and beauty with moral superiority. Historically, streamlining and eugenics share some ideological roots in their attempt to naturalize power relationships and control propagation of undesirable traits (Cogdell, 2004). Although the plot is set in the year 1960, through a lack of government constraints, scientists have developed advanced modifications to the genetic code which allow people to augment themselves with powers. Bioshock’s reference to the potential to weaponize genetic modification, while futuristic in its actualization, has very real precursors in our contemporary debates concerning biological manipulation. The world of Rapture tangles historic time in a knot asking players to tease out all the sites of intersection. These are not isolated strands of the past but rather a mesh of interlocking narratives which extend through time.

Underlying Bioshock’s Rapture is the calculated rationality of objectivism, the philosophical position constructed by Ayn Rand. Everywhere slogans proclaim the virtue of rational self-interest and freedom from the constraints of social order. Attempts to limit this freedom constitute a fundamental breach and renunciation of Rand’s key moral center -- the self. Pursuit of power within this system becomes a legitimate and essential human right. Bioshock’s chief conceit attempts to tackle this problematic: power can only be attained by harvesting the resource known as Adam from Little Sisters, mutant children who can gather Adam from the corpse of others. Gathering the full amount of Adam from a Little Sister causes her death, but player may also choose to spare her for less resources. The resultant moral conundrum leaves players to grapple with the logic of objectivism and the shape the power takes with respect to freedom.

As players, we assume the role of Jack, an unwitting passenger whose flight suddenly plunges into the Atlantic Ocean only to find a city in the throes of the conflict between the city’s founder Andrew Ryan and competitor Fontaine. Both men are economic magnets who rule through control of resources as well as a penchant for violence. Eventually you learn that Jack’s appearance has been orchestrated by Fontaine from the beginning as Jack was psychologically programmed to assassinate Ryan. The trigger which allows Fontaine to wield power over Jack is the simple phrase “Would you kindly?” The use of this phrase is powerful in that it transgresses the underlying objectivist logic of Rapture. Your actions and complicity are based upon a feeling of normative obligation both as a player but also in the role of Jack. In both cases, you are compelled not by your free choice but simply by subservience to the requests that come to construct and constrain your moral framework and prescribe actions. And herein lies the central gambit of Bioshock: imposing self-limitations at the behest of other characters both limits your access to Adam, the source of power, and also means you must sacrifice your autonomy for the good of others; whereas, the choice harvesting Adam from the Little Sisters gives more immediate access to power and directly ensconces the player into the operative logic of Rapture.

Bioshock, however, suffers from a rather formulaic moralism favoring saving the Little Sisters. The moral choice, inasmuch as one can be said to have any, boils down to the patience of the player if the player is cognizant of the system’s reward structure. Actions designated as good produce significant rewards but their effects are delayed; the more suspect path of harvesting the Little Sisters produced immediate power though the outcome of such actions is predictably negative as one progresses.

Although its elements of moral choice are simplified and problematized, such is to be expected where the dilemma of human interaction are simulated by rather than mediated through the programming of the game. Nevertheless, there is yet opportunity for analysis beyond the narrative text of the game if we do not neglect the quasi-historical element of the game. The work of historical analysis is to engage the past in its moment of crisis. Rather than projecting a linear reading replete with triumphalist accounts of the necessary victors of ideological conflict, we must hold these moments of tension in earnest.

According to Benjamin’s thesis in “On the Concept of History,” the work provided through historical analysis is an engagement with the temporal which embraces the messianic capacity of each moment. Rather than embracing an absolute chronology and the linear narratives of historicism, Benjamin’s challenge is an historical analysis which engages the past in the moment of its very production and takes the encounter with it as an experience. As such, a proper historical frame is one which becomes entangled with the moment of history to become cognizant of its potentiality.

“Historicism justifiably culminates in universal history. Nowhere does the materialist writing of history distance itself from it more clearly than in terms of method. The former has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive: it offers a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time. The materialist writing of history for its part is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts but also their zero-hour [Stillstellung]. Where thinking suddenly halts in a constellation overflowing with tensions, there it yields a shock to the same, through which it crystallizes as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object solely and alone where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he cognizes the sign of a messianic zero-hour [Stillstellung] of events, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past. He perceives it, in order to explode a specific epoch out of the homogenous course of history; thus exploding a specific life out of the epoch, or a specific work out of the life-work. The net gain of this procedure consists of this: that the life-work is preserved and sublated in the work, the epoch in the life-work, and the entire course of history in the epoch. The nourishing fruit of what is historically conceptualized has time as its core, its precious but flavorless seed.”(Benjamin, 1940)

Are not games a medium which exactly allows for this possibility of confronting history in the tension of its production -- much more so when they weave the narratives of the past, present, and future?

Thus, the futuristic dystopia of Rapture is exactly one set in the past and given life by the presencing of the past. A Randian utopia of an underwater city in which the self is unconstrained is ruptured, leaving only the sinking feeling of moral vacuity and the nausea of choice. In essence, Ross and Benjamin ask us to assess the continued presence of the past and the ways in which the future resuscitates the struggles and turmoils of bygone eras. By bringing the past to fruition, the future has a central role in reconstituting the past anew.