Having written my Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood novel review, I decided that I should discuss one of the standard-bearers to which I compare it. Bioshock: Rapture is the first videogame novel I ever read, and it’s a prime example of how such novels can successfully complement a game’s universe.
(It’s also an example of picking the right author for a book. John Shirley, the writer in question, has over 30 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has won plaudits for his horror writing, and he has significant experience writing sci-fi as well. Since Rapture is an apocalyptic civilization with sci-fi elements, he’s a natural fit with the Bioshock franchise.)
Bioshock: Rapture chronicles the conception, creation, and catastrophes of Andrew Ryan’s underwater civilization, starting all the way back in August of 1945. In the first pages, Mr. Ryan, ensconced in his New York penthouse and aghast at the destructive power of atomic bombs recently showcased in World War II Japan, resolves to build a world underwater, safe from the coming Cold War. After that foundation, the novel follows numerous familiar characters, from mechanic Bill McDonagh to jack-of-all Frank Fontaine, in order to give a complete picture of Rapture’s development.
In one small sense, the novel is a synthesis of all the audio diaries from the series, arranged chronologically to give players a better understanding of how early developments led to the domino effect they see in-game. But Bioshock: Rapture is so much more than that.
The novel is divided into three large parts, each with dozens of mini-chapters, using these breaks to switch characters. Because it switches so frequently between Ryan, McDonagh, Fontaine, and others, Rapture gives the sense of real-time developments. This isn’t a history lesson that we’re getting; rather, we are witnesses to everything as it unfolds via multi-page snapshots of all the characters, whether major or minor.
This mini-chapter style is extremely accessible in a pick-up-and-play kind of way. Make no mistake: One should read it from front to back, as the novel progresses chronologically from 1945 to 1959; there is a strong narrative structure of increasing tension, climax, and denouement that one can’t get from random page-flips, and the interwoven nature of events make it crucial that one reads in order of events to understand all the torrential domino effects that characters unwittingly set off.
But after having read it, I could open it to any random spot and immediately get sucked into the current drama. It’s rare in literature, period, for that to happen. That it’s perfectly present in a videogame novel, a genre treated with as much care and respect as one would give to a vampire romance novel even trashier than Twilight, is significant. Mr. Shirley takes his work seriously, and he deserves kudos for it.
Having said that, the prose of Bioshock is nothing to swoon over. There are lines that stand out for their shock value or importance in the plot, but none shine for their descriptive language or notable word choice. While informative and descriptive, the prose always takes backseat to the ebbing and flowing of plot tension.
Shirley plays wonderfully with tension and the reader’s emotions. One short paragraph that’s burned into my memory is a scene in which the actor/playwright, Sander Cohen, and his assistant torture three random strangers. (Excerpt reprinted below)
“Ha haaaaa!” Cohen cackled just before he vanished – reappearing close to the groaning young man hanging slack in his bonds. “Only one panel of the triptych remains! Come, come and play with Nod, Martin!”
Martin found he was drawn to Nod, that his hands went easily to him. He was a very pretty young man, after all. Cohen took out an elegant little straight razor…
On one hand, there is a definitive resolution – an easing of tension as the torture comes to a decisive close. At the same time, a reader’s horror at the implicit future event – rape – ratchets up personal anxiety. It’s an interesting paradox, and it’s effective.
As with all videogame novels, a good portion of dialogue – and most of the story – is taken out of the author’s hands. One of Bioshock’s narrative strengths were the stream of audio diaries that the player can pick up and listen to, each recording giving a character’s perspective of unfolding events. Yet Shirley does a decent job of making the dialogue – recorded in audio diaries – work in person-to-person conversations. A case in point is Brigid Tenenbaum’s audio diary about her scientific career.
“You were pretty young when you started working as a scientist, Miss Tenenbaum,” Fontaine prompted…“How’d that happen?”
She took a sip of wine, lit another cigarette, and seemed to gaze into another time. “I was at German prison camp, only sixteen years old. Important German doctor; he makes experiment. Sometime, he makes scientific error. I tell him of this error, and this makes him angry…he screams at me, ‘then why tell me?’” She smiled stiffly. “‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you’re going to do such things, at least you should do them properly!’”
…Suchong rolled his eyes. “She tells that story many times.”
Shirley weaves Tenenbaum’s audio diary into a conversation fairly effectively, bringing back memories of when the reader (hopefully) found and listened to Tenenbaum’s monologue, found in the Medical Pavilion level, while skulking around in-between battles. Suchong’s quick, caustic comment serves as a sharp retort to snap readers back to the context and situation in the scene.
At other times, Shirley deigns to mock the entire notion of audio diaries conveniently left around for Jack Ryan to understand Rapture. In Chapter 13, we see Bill McDonagh struggling to make use of them.
Bill McDonagh wondered if keeping records of his “thoughts and impressions of life in Rapture” was really a good idea. He’d tried it for a while, but it didn’t come naturally. Ryan was pushing for everyone to keep recordings of their problems, their plans, for some kind of planned historical retrospective, and it was becoming something of a fad But Bill was starting to wonder exactly how it might be used against a man…
McDonagh’s thoughts turn out to be prescient. Playing through the game, it’s unclear who has access to which audio diaries. After all, if they’re left out in public spaces for the player to find, then who must have left them there, and after showing them to which people? When Ryan uses the audio logs as grounds to order the executions of friend and foe alike, including a protest artist and McDonagh himself, a close ally of Ryan, the player can only wonder.
It’s through intrigues like these that Shirley manages to keep readers engaged and absorbed in his work. To spot some of these clues and questions requires a level of attention that falls short of close reading, but which is certainly above a skim or casual study. The mysteries – and just as often, the dramatic irony – are engrossing and gut-wrenching.
What separates Bioshock: Rapture from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood isn’t prose or the quality of the original videogame. (While Bioshock has a better story than AC: Brotherhood, the latter has a veritable wealth of historical entanglements, scandals, and potential.) Rather, they are separated by the quality of their inter-personal conflicts and Shirley’s skill at hooking his readers, something Bowden lacks.
Rapture fits all the criteria I described in one of my first blog posts, about what makes a great videogame novel. Bioshock has an incredibly strong story and universe, John Shirley is an experienced, acclaimed author, and combat is kept to a minimum in the story. When it occurs, it’s quick and frenetic. And the novel clearly knows its audience – Bioshock players who want to know more about the (admittedly, fascinating) origin and development of Rapture.
Were it written by any other writer than Shirley, Rapture would be less an independent novel and more an exercise in clarity, a synthesis of the series’ scattered audio diaries. Instead, because Shirley is such a skilled writer, readers are treated to a whirlwind of political machinations, fallen ideals, and a metropolis that morphs into a watery gravesite.