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BioShock: The Art Deco design of Rapture

Bioshock

In 2007, 2K Boston’s BioShock was unleashed onto the gaming consciousness like an immense trident of creativity thrown by Poseidon himself. The game’s multi-pronged facets of a novel worthy narrative, compelling gameplay, benchmark graphics, ear-haunting sound design, genuine scares and its completely original world made it an instant sub-aquatic classic. As both critics and the press lauded it as something special, one prong was especially sharp: the game’s unique setting and aesthetic. From the moment it’s revealed to you in all its splendour, it’s clear that the underwater city of Rapture is an outstanding achievement of design – a fully realised, retro-futuristic Art Deco Atlantis that’s rightly been acknowledged as a wonder of the gaming world.

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The prevalent use of Art Deco in both Rapture’s external and internal spaces is principally responsible for their distinctive look. This design style, prominent in the 1930s and 1940s, embraced the rapid advancement of technology by highlighting geometric forms and symmetry in patterns with vibrant and contrasting colours. It’s not a style that’s been plucked from obscurity by the games’ creative designers, it was used to demonstrate opulence and fits in with Andrew Ryan’s utopian vision perfectly. It also conveniently played into the budget for the original game, as lead animator Shawn Robertson noted in a recent interview on IGN, ‘…Art Deco is full of nice, solid shapes[…]you can make something Art Deco and it’s automatically low-poly and fits into a game budget perfectly because of its large simple shapes.’

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Rapture’s underwater skyline is a direct reflection of New York City’s, with its towering Art Deco skyscrapers like The Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center and The Empire State Building. It’s not inconceivable to think that the architects of Rapture, Simon and Daniel Wales, would’ve been massively influenced by contemporaries such as William Van Alen (Chrysler) and William F Lamb (Empire State) besides Art Deco specialist Raymond Hood and artist/sculptor Lee Lawrie. As referenced on the BioShock Wiki, Hugh Ferriss’ perspective drawings of NYC were another influence on Rapture’s external design, and the comparison between the works of art is clear.

For the most part, gamers are used to battling aliens, mutants and psychopathic killers aboard spaceships and military bases – not amidst affluent surroundings at the bottom of the ocean, and therein lies another part of the games’ special allure. Besides its signature visual appeal, Rapture’s spaces also feel realistic and functional; like they’re actually part of a working city. This was a specific intention by the designers, as level architect Alex Munn notes (with regards to a hospital design) on the second BioShock 2 Community Podcast, ‘We try to think of it more as like a functional space, to design around what would architecturally make sense and what would have good game mechanics.’

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Besides Rapture’s buildings and internal spaces, Art Deco design exists within its sculptures, posters, paintings, signs and marquee entrances, among other items and features. Ancient Greek, Roman and Biblical stories and culture are referenced in the names of Rapture’s many locations and the prevalence of power signifying classically inspired statues can also be attributed to this influence. The huge metallic bust of Andrew Ryan in the Lighthouse’s bathysphere entrance stares intensely at you, its existence intended to visually hammer home the the banner’s statement of ‘No gods or kings. Only man.’ The Kashimir restaurant’s hulking Titan Atlas statue, often used as a symbol of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy (to which Andrew Ryan subscribes), is clearly a tribute to Lee Lawrie’s bronze Atlas statue which lies outside the Rockefeller Centre.

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The grand ‘welcome to Rapture’ entrance both invites and dominates entrants in equal measure. The large glazing allows you to see the enticing magnitude of what awaits in Rapture but the towering, obsidian male statues signify strength and power. The elaborately designed Securis door frame is a symmetrical combination of geometric forms with sharply contrasting colours and the door itself is sleek and industrialised.

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Possibly constructed from bronzed aluminium composite or steel with a bronzed chrome finish, the vents which act as portals for the haunting Little Sisters are superbly designed Art Deco sunflowers. The stem is depicted through strong vertical lines, with leaf offshoots, which lead to a dramatic sunburst motif for the sunflower’s inflorescence. The vent shown above is especially noteworthy as the area around it shows the beginnings of a barnacle infestation, and this provides a stark contrast between the colliding worlds of the man-made Rapture and the relentless Atlantic Ocean.

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The games’ vast array of neon-lit marquees are often a spectacular site to behold, especially as their unnatural glow sharply contrasts with the city’s dark spaces and the gloomy depths of the ocean. Found in the Minverva’s Den DLC for BioShock 2,The Rapture Central Computing Marquee is an extravagant example of a sunburst motif, boldly offset by a ruby red font. Fort Frolic’s atrium is a fine example of the dazzling effect of multiple marquees in close proximity to one another, each of them loudly vying for the player’s attention. Notice also the lighting at the top of the bold structural pillar which holds up the first floor, looking both elegant and also like some luminous sea slugs clinging to the column.

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The atrium is also host to a large water leak, as are many other places (something Simon Wales blamed on his designs) and in both games, Rapture feels like it’s waning in its oceanic battle: the Atlantic is reclaiming this fraught space, its consent of usage was neither asked nor given. Indeed, perhaps even if it had been a success, Rapture was ultimately doomed by the very nature of its surrounding environment – its striking beauty always destined to be absorbed into the sea that once separated it from the world it sought to escape.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2009. Get in touch on Twitter @p_worth.

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