NOTE: I know this is pushing it, but it's not midnight yet!
In a medium that is still seen by too many people as “for kids,” Bioshock
is, refreshingly, a true game for grown-ups. Where so many so-called “adult” games are really just gorefests with basic, juvenile stories, Bioshock
takes its “Mature” rating to heart, with a serious story that deals with themes like the downfall of society, utopias corroding from within, and Ayn Rand.
Now that I’ve established that, I’d like to talk about Disneyland.
Before I go on, I have a confession to make: I am a huge nerd for Disney, particularly the theme parks. For a long time, my goal in life was to become an Imagineer (the people who design the theme parks). I have far too many books about Imagineering, the life of Walt Disney, and the history of the theme parks on my bookshelf. Now that I’ve gotten this disclaimer out of the way, time to move into my (admittedly unusual) thesis: the world of Rapture is made all the more real using techniques and tricks first used in Disneyland.
Although Disney isn’t necessarily known for putting together the most thrilling rides (though there are some great coasters at the various parks), the one thing that sets them apart from almost all other parks is their dedication to detail and theming. This is because from the beginning, Walt Disney viewed Disneyland as a new form of storytelling in three dimensions. Because of this philosophy, Disney’s first Imagineers weren’t engineers, like one might assume, but animators and filmmakers. They brought with them many tricks from film. For example, in Pirates of the Caribbean, as your boat leaves the cave and you enter the harbor with the large pirate ship, the way the mouth of the cave frames the scene as your boat passes through mimics the “iris-in”
transition of film, and the rotating “Doom Buggy” vehicles in the Haunted Mansion direct the attention of riders in the same way different camera angles do for filmgoers. At their prime, Imagineers aren’t ride-builders, but storytellers using the environment and often the conventions of a ride to create an experience. Every detail serves the story--not necessarily the main narrative, but the underlying idea behind the attraction.
Many newer games have adopted similar methods to the Imagineers in telling their stories. As a result, worlds like Rapture feel more complete and real than ever before. Take your initial descent into Rapture, for example.
After your plane crashes, the flaming wreckage leaves you no choice but to seek shelter in the mysterious entryway to Rapture. As you enter the tower, it is pitch black. Suddenly, the lights turn on, and you are greeted with an unusual sight: a large statue of Andrew Ryan holding a banner that reads “NO GODS OR KINGS. ONLY MAN.” As you make your way down the stairs, more lights flick on, revealing similar iconography. Already, without taking control away from the player, 2K is setting up Andrew Ryan’s world, which you will soon be thrust into. By making the walk to the bathysphere yourself, you, the player, are entering the world, discovering Ryan’s plans for yourself.
The actual descent to Rapture in the bathysphere, while simple, is a brilliant piece of game design, in my opinion, one which in many ways resembles the “Doom Buggy” system at the Haunted Mansion to which I alluded earlier. You enter the cramped vessel, pull the lever, and begin descending. While still able to control where you look, it is clear what the developers (storytellers) want you to see: first, Andrew Ryan’s introductory video, and then the incredible first view of Rapture itself. You take in the cityscape as various sea creatures swim through, the way pigeons would in any city on land. While Ryan extols the virtues of his utopia, you see all the signs of a thriving community: neon signs advertise entertainment options, skyscrapers (sea-scrapers?) climb ever higher, and you even catch your first glimpse of a Big Daddy, doing repairs in one of Raptures many glass corridors. As you move closer to the bathysphere station, you hear radio chatter, a soon-to-be familiar voice commenting on the plane crash. When you finally dock, you must helplessly watch one more gruesome scene: the murder of one of Atlas’s men at the hands of a splicer. Soon, you are out of the bathysphere, and taking your first steps into the world of Rapture.
Throughout your journey through the “grandeur” that was Rapture, the story of what was is revealed through many ways. The highly detailed environments hint at a city that was once great. “Ghosts” reveal specific scenes from Rapture’s past. My favorite method, however, is through the use of audio diaries. They flesh out many of the details of Rapture’s past: the founding of the Little Sisters/Big Daddy programs, the discovery of ADAM and creation of the plasmid industry, and Ryan’s growing problems with Frank Fontaine. In addition to this, mini-narratives become apparent throughout the game--the tragedy of Diane McClintock’s life and Sander Cohen’s descent into madness, for example. These diaries, though largely optional, add to the richness of Rapture’s history and deepen your understanding of the main narrative of the game. Important to note, though, is that this is all optional--if you want play the game through knowing only the most essential story points, that is an option. If, however, you want to understand the details of Rapture’s rise and fall, the diaries are there to flesh out the story.
This technique of leaving optional story details for those who want a greater understanding of the story can also be traced back to theme parks. Take, for example, the queue of “Expedition Everest” at Animal Kingdom. The ride itself is a simple roller coaster (with an awesome animatronic Yeti waiting at the end), but through the highly detailed queue, riders can view exhibits in a “Yeti Museum” and read newspaper clippings about the reopening of the train service to the allegedly cursed “Forbidden Mountain.” It sets up a backstory that adds a new level of meaning to what could be a simple roller coaster with a fancy robot at the end.
In a time when games are being seen as more and more cinematic, I feel that developers can learn a few lessons from Disney’s Imagineers (and vice versa). Theme parks are really the medium closest to video games, as they are the only media in which the observer is an actual part of the story and experience. This leaves me with one question: when will I get to visit an interactive Rapture theme park?