Realism and Surrealism in Bioshock

Posted: February 4, 2013 by jeffleblow in Uncategorized
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Though the city of Rapture in the universe of Bioshock is set within the familiar territory of America in the 1960s, the events of the game are very clearly separated from the events of real life. In the onset of the game, I find myself swimming through the water towards a lighthouse, not necessarily out of the ordinary. However, I am soon plummeted deep into the underwater city of Rapture, the brain child of the mysterious Andrew Ryan. What began as a plane crash over the ocean has rapidly descended into the surreal. I am jettisoned through the underwater city, marveling at the beautiful structures and scenery around me. Upon reaching my pod’s destination, I witness a man brutally murdered by a mutated human with hooks for hands. My character is then contacted and guided by a mysterious voice, identified as Atlas. I do not know where I am, I do not know who Atlas is, and I am pretty sure that the man with hook-hands is going to kill me in the near future, but I find myself pressing forward, into the chaos and turmoil of Rapture. What makes Bioshock unique compared to other games is the designer’s use of realism and surrealism in coordination with each other to create a truly unique experience. I learn that the utopia of Rapture has become overrun with “splicers”, humans who came to live in rapture only to become addicted to ADAM, a DNA-altering substance that allows its users to gain super-human powers. The splicers themselves are controlled by Andrew Ryan to keep monopoly over his domain. My character soon after agrees to help the mysterious Atlas locate his family, without even being given the choice to decline. I fight my way through numerous splicers, using the plasmid Electro Bolt to stun my enemies, where I can then finish them off with my trusty wrench. What was most noticeable to me during my play was the use of music and scenery to blend realism and surrealism. The music in Bioshock is presented as the music of the Bioshock universe, that is, depending on where I am in Rapture, I hear sounds of jazz and 1950s style music playing through speakers. The music is not presented as a soundtrack, but rather as an element of the space that I inhabit. The fact that Bioshock leans heavily on creating a familiar environment through the use of the music and scenery harkening back to America in the 50s blurs the line between what is real and what is not. Clearly, the universe that I am in does not exist in real life, but at the same time I am convinced that it could exist, drawing me further into the game and the universe. Huizinga writes, “We found that one of the most important characteristics of play was its spatial separation from ordinary life.” In Bioshock, I am forced to consider how far from ordinary life the space I inhabit actually is.

  1. suzannescott says:

    You offer an eloquent description of your experience, but this relies too heavily on synopsis of the game, rather than analysis of the experience of playing through the application of course concepts. You point towards course concepts here without directly engaging with them (e.g. the 5 elements of digital game experience…visual, aural, etc.), so make sure you’re making these connections explicit in your next entry. I would have been especially interested to see you expand on the balance of the real and the surreal in the game. The video you’ve provided is a fantastic resource I would have liked to see you make more explicit use of, referencing specific moments (via timecode) to reinforce your analysis. Feel free to draw on this same video for future entries, considering the length.

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