Welcome to Rapture: The influence of Metropolis on BioShock’s dystopian Gothic City

Posted by Timothy Jones on October 03, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with

 

By Michael Andrews

 

It is 2007. I’m twelve years old—only six years shy of BioShock’s PEGI 18 rating. At midnight I plug in a borrowed XBOX 360 and insert the disc. How scary can a game be, they’re meant to be fun after all? Approximately six minutes and fifty-five seconds into my first journey through Rapture, a terrifying, unseen voice says from the rafters ‘I’ll wrap you in a sheet’. I turn off the console and do not return to BioShock for another few years.

2K Games and director Ken Levine’s 2007 magnum opus BioShock[1][2] is still, in 2018, thrust to the front of the “video games are art” argument. The underwater dystopian city, Rapture, created by Andrew Ryan (a sloppy anagram of Ayn Rand), is the Gothic space that the player traverses, encountering terrifying residents, an intricately woven plot, and philosophical questions of what choice and freedom are. For those unfamiliar, the ‘BioShock Walkthrough’ ‘BioShock Walkthrough’ video below will give you the first ten minutes of the experience, whilst part one of Wisecrack’s ‘The Philosophy of BioShock’ should familiarise you with the beliefs that Rapture was founded on.

The architecture in BioShock fuels the feelings of terror, horror and dread that the player feels as they navigate the dark, dripping, creaking and groaning corridors of Rapture. The Gothic space of Rapture fuels the narrative through its design. The way it does this is heavily inspired by the design of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)[3]. BioShock’s vision of a city that reflects the anxieties of modernity can be seen as a continuation from Metropolis. When we compare the skylines (or waterline in the case of Rapture) we can see that both designs feature sprawling skyscrapers in the Art Deco style, with interconnected walkways and railways. We get the sense that these are cities in which everyday life is ruled by cutting edge technology. R.L. Rutsky describes how ‘the architect of Metropolis… designs and constructs his “utopian” technological city along strictly rational and functionalist lines’[4]. This design philosophy is recreated in BioShock as we can see in the images below.

(Metropolis, 1927)

(Rapture, BioShock, 2007)

Anna Notaro says that ‘what is interesting about Metropolis is that everything seems to be totally dependent on the mise en scene, upon the spacialization and visualisation of the material’[5]. Naturally, as Metropolis is a silent film, it would seem obvious that most of the narrative is told visually. But for Bioshock, which is in a medium that can use image, sound, text and interactivity, the choice to tell such significant parts of the narrative through visuals prompts us to investigate what we can learn through analysing these spaces, and how these spaces reflect an idea of Gothicised spaces and modernity.

An interesting comparison can be drawn between the depiction of nature in both texts. As mentioned above, both Metropolis and Rapture are cities driven by technology to the extent of taking control of, or overcoming, nature through robotics and genetic manipulation respectively. Yet both dystopian worlds feature a Garden of Eden like area, where the inhabitants may escape from the concrete city. In Metropolis we see the Eternal Gardens, whilst BioShock features a lush green leisure area called Arcadia.

(Eternal Gardens, Metropolis)

(Arcadia, BioShock)

Rutsky describes how Metropolis represents ‘a certain anxiety about modernity, about the “domination of nature” by a modern scientific technological rationality’ (p.13). We can see this anxiety in these two areas, as nature, or at least a representation of it, has been cordoned off from the technology of the city. There is a realisation that a technological world without nature is one that is not desirable. The Eternal Gardens and Arcadia represent the weakening grip of the idyllic scene as attainable, as anxieties surrounding modernity and the city distance the individual from nature. Arcadia especially was only used for leisure as an afterthought, originally acting as Rapture’s oxygen source. This shows how nature and beauty are an afterthought in the dystopian technological city.

Flooding appears as a destructive perhaps even cleansing, force in both cities. The destruction of the Heart Machine in Metropolis causes water to cascade into the workers city, whilst the pressure of the ocean above causes water to rush into Rapture as airlocks buckle. Anthony Vidler explains how the uncanny ‘became identified with the phobias associated with spatial fear’[6]. This flooding has a sense of the uncanny and unnatural, as it flows from above rather than rising from below as normal flooding would. It is inverted, and this inversion gives the feeling that nature is itself becoming unnatural to destroy the technological city and reclaim what has been lost to technology.

(Filming Metropolis)

(BioShock)

 

We can see that Metropolis strongly influenced the architectural and spatial design of BioShock, with the resulting city of Rapture being one that embodies similar anxieties of modernity and the technological city, as well as attitudes to the progression of science and rejection of nature. But Rapture is not an empty city. In the second post of this three-part series I examine the horrifyingly deformed inhabitants of Rapture. The Splicers, whose deformed faces take inspiration from images of the wounded soldiers of World War One, Gothicise the soldiers’ body as a symptom of modernity through the failures of early reconstructive surgery.

 

[1] BioShock, Ken Levine (2K Games, 2007).

[2] All BioShock images taken from IGN Walkthrough: http://uk.ign.com/wikis/bioshock/Walkthrough.

[3] Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang (UFA, 1927).

[4] R.L. Rutsky, ‘The Mediation of Technology and Gender: Metropolis, Nazism, Modernism’, New German Critique (1993), pp. 3-32, (p.5).

[5] Anna Notaro, ‘Futurist Cinematic Visions and Architectural Dreams in the American Modern(ist) Metropolis’, Irish Journal of American Studies (2000), pp.161-183, (p.177).

[6] Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994), (p.6).

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