Welcome to the final installation of “The Auditory Experience of Rapture and Columbia” Bioshock miniseries! In this three-part investigation, Paige Sammartino will sound out why this 2K Games series is music to our ears. This article contains spoilers for the Bioshock series.
To integrate narrative more seamlessly into their first-person shooter horror settings, the Bioshock games make great use of score and soundtrack, sound effects, and dialogue. These elements weave into the time and place so well that they don’t often draw attention to themselves or else their significance doesn’t become clear until a second playthrough. Even on a first playthrough, however, every Bioshock player can point to a noteworthy use of audio as a way to communicate story and characterization: recordings.
Rapture’s audio diaries and Columbia’s voxophones are recording devices that hold snippets of dialogue from characters often not met in person. These reflections range from heavily plot-relevant musings from the big bad to seemingly irrelevant commentary from random citizens, and the recordings’ locations hidden around the cities make receipt of information a bit disjointed, like a puzzle coming together. Bit by bit, players learn about the setting’s values, beliefs, triumphs, and losses.
The recordings establish character, not only of the individual speakers, but that of the city as a whole; the mythos and history players need for context to enrich their experience of the game and the plot. They create a sense of oral history, varied in bias and perspective. Including these recordings is also a clever way for the game creators to communicate information the player character that wouldn’t be privy to anyone without breaking point-of-view rules.
The major patriarchal figures have a number of important recordings for players to find. Andrew Ryan’s audio diaries and Zachary Hale Comstock’s voxophones explore their thought processes, political stances, views of the people, and justification of their choices. Characters who could easily be one-note villains prove to have more depth when players hear their recordings. Ryan is a businessman who believes that self-reliance and focus on individual betterment and achievement are the keys to furthering mankind; his audio diaries emphasize his knowledge of the market, profitability, and self-preservation. Players understand his grudging respect for Frank Fontaine’s business sense, though it is tempered with Ryan’s need to maintain control. His diaries also help to explain his coined concept of the Great Chain, his view of the universe in which every individual is a link who keeps the Great Chain in motion, and how no link is greater or stronger or worthier than another. Ryan abhors limitations; artists should be free to create, he argues, and scientists should be able to take their research as far as it can go. He rejects those who accuse his ideas as selfish or his actions as playing God, referring to such people as “Parasites” who leech off of the individual’s hard work.
“What is the difference between a Man and a Parasite?” Ryan asks in one recording. “A Man builds. A Parasite asks, ‘Where is my share?’ A Man creates. A Parasite says, ‘What will the neighbors think?’ A Man invents. A Parasite says, ‘Watch out, or you might tread on the toes of God…’”
Ironically, Ryan’s concept of a parasite is embodied in BioShock Infinite’s Father Comstock, a self-titled prophet and alternate universe version of Booker DeWitt. Comstock accepted baptism as a teen and embarked on a life of religious zeal. Where Ryan views individuals as links in the Great Chain, Comstock sees them as cogs in God’s plan, and as a prophet, he takes it upon himself to lead and teach them. Comstock’s voxophones explore his view that Columbia, a flying warship, embodies the true spirit of America, as well as his deep-set racism. One of Comstock’s recordings discusses murders of Native Americans he committed as a teen Booker DeWitt to challenge the suggestion that he was mixed race himself. Comstock’s voxophones have significance in first playthroughs building the villain’s character and exploring his psyche and motivation, but it also gives second-time players a fuller understanding of Booker.
Both villains represent choice, and their recordings leave no room for mistaking this priority. Ryan regularly insists that choice is what sets mankind apart, perhaps his most famous quotation from the first game being “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” Comstock is also the product of choice, evil borne from conscious decision. Though neither of these characters is a hero, each views himself as the hero of his story and chooses actions he believes will benefit him to that end. The evidence players need to understand why they make these choices and how their ideals led to these decisions are there for the listening.
Ryan and Comstock also listened—to the hardened women of science whose intellect built their realities. Brigid Tenenbaum, a geneticist who discovered ADAM and created the Little Sisters, and Rosalind Lutece, a quantum physicist who discovered how to manipulate tears between universes, are responsible both for Ryan’s and Comstock’s rise to power respectively, as well as for guiding the player character to defeat them.
Tenenbaum showed an aptitude for science as a teen prisoner of Auschwitz who pointed out errors the Germans were making in their experiments and actually assisted them, being labeled the “Wunderkind” for her prodigious abilities. After moving to Rapture as an adult, she discovered the existence of ADAM, and her research eventually found financial support in one Frank Fontaine. At first, she was happy to experiment with the Little Sisters under Ryan’s unrestricted policies in Rapture, but the guilt of corrupting little girls in her pursuit of science eventually changed her mind. Tenenbaum’s audio diaries are critical for players’ understanding of Little Sisters and the horror behind the power of ADAM (harvested by inserting sea slugs into Little Sisters’ stomachs and having them vomit up ADAM). Tenenbaum recounts her discoveries and initial experimentation with cool calculation, but her rising anger and disgust with herself and her creations build in each audio diary. Eventually she abandons her research altogether, going into hiding with the Little Sisters where she is working on an antidote. In the course of the game, Jack meets an older Tenenbaum whose maternal compassion, an instinct that once repulsed her, has overridden her intellectual curiosity for what she could achieve through science.
Rosalind Lutece does not share Tenenbaum’s change of heart. At least, not as Rosalind. A master physicist who saw the start of her career in a childhood dream, a nightmare in her mother’s view, Rosalind clawed her way into a position of respect in science during an era in which it was a man’s field. Her findings led her to Robert Lutece, an alternate universe version of herself whom she pulled into her reality. Rosalind’s matter-of-fact speech and analytical nature make much of her voxophone recordings, as well as her in-game dialogue, less beginner-friendly for first-time playthroughs. In terms of the plot, she explains her success in applying her research to Columbia to make it fly; her use of Father Comstock’s influence and funds to pursue her work; and, in a roundabout way, the fact that it was Robert who insisted the Luteces help Elizabeth. She casts judgement on Comstock’s “playing prophet” and Lady Comstock’s accusation that Elizabeth is the illegitimate child of Comstock and Rosalind (an idea she finds absurd). Rosalind’s role in Booker’s story does come from R. Lutece’s desire to right what went wrong due to their involvement, but it is Robert’s emotional response, not hers, that compels the intervention. Her final voxophone admits that Robert wants to settle down and start a family, but that she feels such a life would hinder her happiness and her pursuits as a scientist.
Besides major characters of the games, audio diaries, and voxophones from minor characters supplement players’ understanding of the setting and stakes. Diane McClintock, Ryan’s girlfriend, and Lady Comstock both leave behind recordings that illustrate the broken pedestals of their utopias. Diane, a typical Rapture citizen enamored with Ryan’s ideals, is a witness to the true brutality simmering beneath the surface, and soon the shine of Rapture fades. She joins up with Atlas’s resistance and fights against the false paradise her former boyfriend built. Her everyman perspective chronicles the ingenue’s perspective of the city’s bright beginnings, realization of its corruption, and refusal of its offerings. Lady Comstock’s few voxophones offer a similar perspective; after burning bridges with former loved ones, she found forgiveness and compassion in her future husband. She follows him devotedly and praises his kind heart, but soon she observes the bloodshed and lies he brings upon his people. In one of her recordings, she questions why God would reveal his plan to “a monster” such as her husband. Her final recording shares her plan to reveal the truth about her husband when he brings home a daughter that isn’t hers, a choice that led to Father Comstock’s having his wife killed.
In addition to Tenenbaum’s notes, Dr. Steinman discusses ADAM’s role in his work as a doctor. Driven mad with hallucinations, Steinman revels in the ability to perform even more extreme cosmetic surgery on his patients, to the point of mutilating and killing them. His pleasure in use of ADAM reinforces the notion players will have gleaned that the power is not a good thing. One of his recordings recollects a conversation with Tenenbaum in which she likened harvesting slugs from Little Sisters to removing life support from a terminally ill patient, an observation from before her horror at what she had created set in. In Columbia, Jeremiah Fink further illustrates the role of tears, which he’s used for his own prophet. Fink is also one of the primary links between the original Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, as he observes a Big Daddy through the tear and is inspired to create the Handymen and the Songbird that guards Elizabeth. He expresses lack of faith in or camaraderie for Comstock, but a great fondness for his money.
Lastly, the supplementary recordings humanize characters who have little opportunity to speak for themselves. Mariska Lutz is the mother of a girl taken by Ryan’s men to become a Little Sister. Her few audio diaries grieve her stolen daughter, then her reappearance as a Little Sister crawling through the vents and traveling with Big Daddies, whom Mariska dubs an “awful golem.” The impact of a mother’s anguish would instill additional protectiveness in players upon rescuing Little Sisters, and Mariska’s diaries also drive home the horror of how far Rapture’s leaders would go for ADAM. In Columbia, Hattie Gerst similarly offers insight as to the nature of Handymen, recounting how her husband fell ill and Comstock’s solution was a metal body. Her husband agreed but was soon ridiculed and hated. Before dying herself, Hattie left a voxophone for her husband to soothe him, repeating how much she loved him and how proud she was to be his wife. Booker finds this voxophone clutched in the arms of a dead handyman being stepped on and ridiculed by Columbia citizens.
The Bioshock games take place in worlds too complex to explore fully with the small casts of characters typical for an FPS game. Yet they sneak in many more characters through use of the audio diaries and voxophones, sharing new perspectives and information in a way that doesn’t overwhelm or overload the player. Snippets of dialogue here and there challenge players to piece together the story and to think critically about what information they’ve gleaned, and the knowledge that characters purposely recorded these particular thoughts gives weight to their presence.
If you could only leave behind a few seconds of speech, what would you say? What if a sentence or two you recorded could save a life or finish it? What a haunting concept.