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T n YA – BioShock: Rapture

A very good friend of mine recently said that the reason The Punisher doesn’t make for a good film is that he is already a character based on another medium. Since he is ostensibly a jacked-up version of Charlie Bronson translated to comics, it’s difficult to reimage him for film again. It seems redundant, somehow, to create a film of a send-up to other films. Just go watch Death Wish.

A very good friend of mine recently said that the reason The Punisher doesn’t make for a good film is that he is already a character based on another medium. Since he is ostensibly a jacked-up version of Charlie Bronson translated to comics, it’s difficult to reimage him for film again. It seems redundant, somehow, to create a film of a send-up to other films. Just go watch Death Wish.

The same should be true for any medium that tries to adapt video games. Video games, even more than books, movies, and comics, are really, truly difficult to adapt due to the nature of experience. One is not simply dragged along through the narrative but has a choice as to the pacing of events. In Red Dead Redemption, for example, one can ignore the main story completely, wandering through fields, collecting flowers, or hunting bears in the wilderness. It doesn’t progress the story whatsoever, and it turns the game into something completely different from what the creators intended, but there is something to be said for how that fundamentally separates video games from other mediums.

(Side note: I suppose one could change the other mediums by consuming them differently, like reading a book backwards or watching films in slow motion, but you get my main point.)

Books, even more than movies – and content creators have had no more luck with one medium than the other – are more problematic for adaptation, because they place the narrative on rails and push it through to the end. I’ve read several video game adaptations, for that matter, and I have come away feeling as though they are merely cheap novelizations of the games’ plots, and I suppose for the most part they are.

However, John Shirley’s wonderful BioShock: Rapture, which is basically a prequel, does more than simply play a note-for-note cover version of the original story. BioShock, more than most games, is ripe for a novel of some kind. The storytelling elements devised by Ken Levine play heavily upon a kind of postapocalyptic version of the underwater city of Rapture, and since so much of the backstory is told obliquely through audio logs and other non-visual ways, putting the story into a linear context actually makes sense.

Not only that, but Shirley himself is a fine writer, and he gives the book the right tonal flourishes. The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane come to mind as influential in the storytelling method here, and though I realize the folly of using such highly-regarded works as comparisons for a video game adaptation, Shirley’s approach is nothing to sneeze at. His early chapters involving Andrew Ryan are told from other characters’ perspectives, which gives the man a much more shadowy, ethereal presence, which is kind of what made the game work, too. A lesser writer would have approached the mysterious billionaire character much more directly, but Shirley uses the cast of characters from the game to his benefit, placing Bill McDonagh in the catbird seat for Rapture’s rise and eventual fall.

The first half of the book builds Ryan up while keeping him sort of blurry in the reader’s mind, and yet, for those who have played the game, the familiarity of the world and the people make the subtlety of the characterization alluring. It elevates characters without pandering the way that other video game novels do – I’m not naming names – and there is an actual philosophical underpinning to the writing that adds a much-appreciated depth and texture.

I’m spending a lot of time on Andrew Ryan because he is both the most interesting and the most tragic character in the book. (Bill McDonagh is the most likable, by far, but there is very little to say about him. Frank Fontaine does come off as a bit one-note in his desire to overthrow Rapture, and it would have been nice to see some more depth added to his motivations.)

But ANYWAY, Shirley gets Ryan just right. He is both libertarian and authoritarian. In dialogue it is revealed that he values freedom but also wants to contain freedom. It is the dichotomy of every tyrant who has ever lived. At one point, Andrew Ryan says, “‘My feelings about loyalty…are very…particularized. I believe a man must be loyal to himself first. But I also look for men who believe what I believe – men who believe it enough that being loyal to me is being loyal to themselves” (Shirley 57). That statement is the perfection description of what most cult leaders believe, and it codifies Andrew Ryan’s personality perfectly. It is also one of the guiding principles of Objectivism (and, by extension, Libertarianism).

There is no need to self-consciously preface every statement about the quality of the book by saying that it is good for a video game novel. I would go so far as to say that it is just a good novel, and it actually makes me want to delve into John Shirley’s other novels, and there is no better testament to an author’s talent than the sense of momentum coming out of a book and wanting immediately to pick up another one.

Don’t get me wrong; a few indelicate touches pervade the book. (The explanation for why so many guns and bullets exist in Rapture seems like too close a glance at the inner workings of game logic, but even that is such a minor part of the book that I am straining to keep it in the review.)

Finally, I won’t go too far into the author’s portrayal of Objectivism, but it is a somewhat interesting endorsement and critique of it. The point that a lot of people missed in searching for BioShock’s “message” (or whatever) about Ayn Rand is that Ken Levine doesn’t seem to object to Objectivism; he seems to hate ideology. The old chestnut that political ideology is great on paper but horrible in practice extends to Objectivism, and I don’t think the portrayal in the novel contradicts that whatsoever. In fact, the early enthusiasm for a perfect libertarian utopia is balanced by what happens when its principles are taken to a logical extreme.

But I digress…

However, overall, the novel was absolutely a blast to read. It was moderately paced, well-researched, true to the game, and extremely well-written. I’d recommend it not only to fans of the game but fans of interesting genre fiction.

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