Book Review: BioShock: Rapture

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No video game world in recent memory has captivated me more than that of Rapture. Andrew Ryan’s deep sea refuge from the “parasites” above, a dystopian universe created by Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games, is an alternate history setting that actually seems feasible, believable. One that introduces diverse, memorable characters at every turn and overflows with a rich untold history that gradually seeps through to the player like water drips from the city’s leaky seams.

In the game, you discover the back story of Rapture’s existence bit by bit through collected audio diaries littered throughout the environments, but you never quite get a complete picture of what the underwater metropolis was like before it went to hell in a hand basket. BioShock: Rapture, written by John Shirley and published by Tor Books, tells this story. The story of Andrew Ryan’s bitter rivalry with Frank Fontaine. The story of plasmid invention and ADAM harvesting. The story of how Little Sisters and their Big Daddy protectors came to be.

Flowing chronologically between the years 1945 and 1959, BioShock: Rapture details the complete history of Rapture leading up to the events of the first game, which takes place in 1960. Over more than 400 pages, you will learn about Rapture’s conception and creation, its prosperous beginnings, its utopian rise, and its downward spiral into plasmid- and ADAM-fueled civil war.

The book’s 430 pages are divided into three ages and 20 total chapters, and each chapter unfolds over a series of smaller sub-chapters, each one headlined with the year and the scene’s current location within Rapture. Sometimes these sub-chapters connect to each other, but at other times they veer off to touch on completely different areas and characters. Because of this, the read is somewhat scattered at times. Rapture has so much history, that it could easily fill a Lord of the Rings-sized trilogy. Condensed into one book, there is a lot of material that needs to be covered in a relatively short space, and as a result there is a lot of bouncing around and skipping ahead.

While this can make for inconsistencies in cohesion, it is befitting of the BioShock style of storytelling. In effect, these sub-chapters are like reading smaller stories filling in a broader narrative, in much the same way the audio diaries bring the game’s story together. In fact, many passages read like transcribed audio diaries, only in greater detail. If you’ve played the games, you’ll appreciate this format and frequently recall listening to specific audio diaries as scenarios unfold.

Overall, Shirley does a splendid job describing Rapture, its key players, its spliced-up inhabitants, and its gruesome plasmid battles, to the point where you can picture scenes from the game in your head while you are reading the text. I absolutely loved his portrayals of the game’s many memorable characters too. After reading the book, you will know just how bat-shit bonkers Sander Cohen and Doctor Steinman really are; just how far Frank Fontaine (or is he?) goes to sneak into and seize control of Rapture; how Andrew Ryan, as Diane McClintock states in a letter late in the book, transforms from a lover and a tycoon into a tyrant.

Through all the madness and all the hypocrisy, Bill McDonagh, a minor role in the game, shines bright as BioShock’s real hero. An everyman plumber hired to fix a toilet for Mr. Ryan as the tale begins, McDonagh becomes Rapture’s lead engineer and its founder’s closest friend. Even as he sees Rapture change from dream to nightmare and watches what used to be his trusted friend become the dictator Rapture was built to get away from, Bill is the only person who seems to maintain his sanity, his morality, and his dedication to the true vision of Rapture. When the time comes to take action, his loyalties waver but never die. All of the characters are compelling in different ways, but for me Bill McDonagh became the one I cared and rooted for most.

Engaging characters and setting make this novel a mandatory read — and once you start, you won’t be able to put it down until the final period closes the final sentence. If you’re a fan of the games, BioShock: Rapture belongs on your bookshelf. It fleshes out the back story of the world and its characters in such a deep and meaningful way, without tainting or contradicting the original work you’ve come to hold so dear. Even if you’ve never played the games for a second in your life, read the book and I bet you’ll be hustling off to the nearest game shop soon after. I know I am suddenly in the mood to go back and replay them both right now – if only I didn’t have so many other current games that need playing.

BioShock: Rapture is available at Amazon.com in Paperback ($10.19), Hardcover ($18.43), and for Kindle ($9.99). If you’d prefer to read before buying, get your feet wet by reading an excerpt from the first chapter here.

A hardcover copy of BioShock: Rapture was provided by publisher for review purposes.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!