Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Space Invaders: BioShock's Rapture, Part Two

[Part of an ongoing series of posts exploring the way videogames use their spaces to convey their overall experience, ranging from design and dynamics to aesthetic and artistic appeal, and everything in between. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead.]

Yesterday, I took a look at the Welcome To Rapture level in BioShock to explain the ways in which it introduces us to its story, characters, gameplay and atmosphere. I discussed things like the subtle visual information the level contains -- such as the protest signs that lay on the floor when you first arrive in Rapture -- which enrich the experience and leaves the impression that this isn't just a level in a videogame, but a real place, one with a history, personality and culture that is now slowly meeting its demise. Every element that can be found in that level sets up the rest of the game superbly, and there are very few other opening levels in videogames which draw the player in as effectively as that one does. But it's not the only level in BioShock that uses its space in fascinating ways. A few of the other levels are really clever with the way they define Rapture as a fully-fledged city. Allow me to explain.

Aesthetic Ideals

An interesting thing to note is that each level provides an attraction to see or exemplifies a particular person's personality. Two in particular, the Medical Pavilion and Fort Frolic, stand out to me as really effective -- both in terms of how they flesh out Rapture as a whole as well as the ways in which they explicate the characters who essentially run the two places.

In the Medical Pavilion, Doctor Steinman is the prominent figure, and the level does what it needs to in order to ensure that the player knows this. As progress is made through the Medical Pavilion, we start to get the impression that Steinman -- a plastic surgeon specialising in rhinoplasty if posters on the walls are anything to go by -- has an obsession with perfection. Not necessarily in his craft but rather in his subjects and what he can achieve with them. Bound by no morals or fear of judgement from Rapture's fellow citizens, Steinman has the freedom to experiment, meaning that he has no shame in sculpting them until they are deformed to the point of no return, and it's quite common to come across his ex-patients dead on the floor of the Pavilion, surgical instruments still inserted into their bodies. Other artifacts such as framed photos showing "before" and "after" shots of patients; messages written in blood suggesting that the existence of Adam means there's no reason not to be beautiful; the frozen pipes and oil spills that remain unattended to; and the ramblings about precision and "surgical artistry" found in Steinman's many audio diaries all combine to convey the sense of an obsession that has gone too far, as well as the insanity that is derived from it. This obsession is most obvious when we eventually meet Steinman and find him working on a dead patient, with three others all hanging above him. As we watch he talks about how his patient doesn't stop moving and all he wants is for them to be beautiful, eventually ranting about how the three above him are too fat, full and symmetrical. After that he notices us, the player, and believes we are an intruder who is too ugly, engaging us in the mini-boss battle that ensues. You could argue that this moment is poignant, as we must fight and kill him just as his mentality has completely gone insane due to his obsession. Whatever way you look at it, it's an intriguing end to a character who we learn about through visual and aural clues found throughout the Medical Pavilion.

Fort Frolic is another level that superbly elaborates on its central character, Sander Cohen, through what we see and do within. A man of the theater, the eccentric, vain Cohen is obsessed with performance, and the level demonstrates this in a similar way to that of the Medical Pavilion. Interestingly, Fort Frolic is a hybrid level, catering to shopping enthusiasts as well as featuring a focus on the arts and entertainment. It is the latter that is Cohen's area of expertise, and we see his influence over the place the most in the Fleet Hall, which is situated in the middle of Fort Frolic. It's in here that we start learning about the man, his reluctance to meet us until he is ready suggesting he's not one to be seen in public unless it is under the right circumstances. Shortly thereafter, we watch as a pianist (splicer) called Fitzpatrick loses his mind due to constantly messing up the melody that Cohen is forcing him to play repeatedly, the objective that follows being to take a photo of his corpse and place it on 'Cohen's Masterpiece'. For the rest of the level, our goal is to track down Cohen's disciples, kill them and add their picture to the masterpiece in order to complete it. While doing this we learn more about him through what we hear in various audio diaries as well as what we see -- sculptures of Splicers in various poses; advertisements for his many shows; performance masks lying on the floor -- and, by the end of the level, we've got a clear idea of who Sander Cohen is, not just in terms of his personality but also his place within Rapture's community. *

It's a perception gained through the environment and our actions, and it's this detail that goes a long way in showing that Rapture isn't just about the ideals and motivations it was built on, but also the individuality and unique characteristics of its residents, providing insight into those whom we will meet later, as well as how they operate within Rapture's society. It's clever, effective and enforces the values that continue to define Rapture's walls.

The Sweat Of Our Brow

The levels discussed above are also interesting to think about from a design standpoint. The Medical Pavilion, for example, introduces us to the ways in which we interact with the Little Sisters, our choice to either save or harvest them defining our experience with the rest of the game. Shortly thereafter, the first Big Daddy that can actually be fought is seen stumbling around the level, Little Sister naturally in-toe. What's interesting to note is that the area in which you first meet him is relatively large, with multiple obstacles littered around the level to both help you once you've engaged him in battle (structures that slow his aggressive charges at you while also providing beneficial cover) as well as challenge you and your focus as you continually try to avoid his attacks and get the upper hand. The lack of confinement doesn't just make the initial fight potentially easier to prepare for, it also gets the player thinking about their approach to the fight -- a crucial component to future Big Daddy fights when added weapons and Plasmids allow for a variety of ways in which to engage the combat situation.

The Medical Pavilion also sees the player obtain their next couple of Plasmids, with oil spills and a tennis ball launcher allowing them to test their new-found Incinerate and Telekinesis abilities instantly after acquisition. But it's not just immediately that these Plasmids get used, either: access to the funeral parlour Twilight Fields is blocked by the aforementioned frozen pipes, requiring incineration before the small area is available to be explored, whilst a new form of enemy -- the Nitro Splicer -- throws grenades (and later the more effective Molotov Cocktails) as his main form of attack, Telekinesis providing the chance to catch them and throw them back for explosive, ironic damage. Combined with the Electro-Bolt Plasmid obtained in the Welcome To Rapture level, the player is slowly but surely introduced to the many varieties with which they can play the game, the Medical Pavilion's many locations ripe for experimentation. Throw in the introduction to hacking -- including security bots, vending machines and health stations -- and the level paves the way for the gameplay dynamics that will come in the future. The important thing is that these introductions are not overwhelming and go a long way in demonstrating what the player will be able to potentially do in the future, while also allowing them to play around and form their ideal playing style. It's subtle, but it's effective and continues the intrigue and compulsion for the player to continue as initiated by the opening level.

The remaining levels don't necessarily work to introduce the player to new gameplay elements or mechanics, but they are designed as a way to flesh out the perception that Rapture is a real place, once lived in by a civil society and now falling into chaos and ruins. It makes sense that there's a segregated yet accessible Medical Pavilion, complete with places for surgery, dental and even death; it makes sense that there's a garden-like level (Arcadia), providing a place for Rapture's people to be reminded of the simple pleasures of nature, as well as an attractive place to socialise; it makes sense that there's a shopping mall district (Fort Frolic), where the industry side of Rapture can combine with the creative, and where artists can mingle with consumers; and it makes sense that there would be a place specifically created for people to live in (the upper class apartments of Olympus Heights, as well as the lower and middle class residential areas of Apollo Square), or for people to work in (the industrial complex that is Hephaestus). It all adds up to suggest, indirectly, that Rapture isn't just a city full of people conditioned towards a certain mindset or particular ideals, but that it is also a fully-functioning city as efficient and productive as any of the ones you will find on land.

Whether these inclusions are necessary in terms of how BioShock plays is irrelevant; they exist as a means of creating a space, one that doesn't just project an atmosphere and personality onto the player, but one that is interesting to explore, has a history that's easy to relate to or understand, and one whose existence is entirely possible to believe, should the player allow their suspension of disbelief to accommodate Rapture's many pleasures. The end result, in my view, is a videogame place like no other, one that was at once dreadful and delightful, and one that was unlike anything else I had ever seen before.

The attention now turns to BioShock 2, and while I am interested in the improvements the sequel will no doubt bring, my anticipation and excitement isn't necessarily for the gameplay or exposition of the story, but rather the mere fact that I get to return to Rapture and see more of it. I couldn't ask for anything more, really, as it is exactly the kind of utopia that I'd want to visit -- it's up to you whether you deem it as paradise, or as perdition.

*We also learn a little more about Cohen in another level later on in the game, giving BioShock even more cohesion that's subtle but effective.

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