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Thoughts on a ‘Bioshock’ movie: all the light has gone out of my life

Caring about things is the gateway drug to disappointment. I have been burned by this simple fact again and again. I loved “Game of Thrones,” and then season eight happened. I loved “Star Wars” and then the sequel trilogy happened. Like the bright-eyed romantic I am, I always rush into another escapist diversion, thinking that this time I won’t be left reeling in an exhaust of wasted time and emotional investment. Perhaps I care too much about fictional nonsense that doesn’t matter getting subjectively ruined, but it feels nicer than caring about our real world that does matter and is getting objectively ruined. I’d rather be obsessive about something with lower stakes. Anywho, in corporate media’s dark quest to hunt down every property that is even remotely enjoyable and vampirically monetize its every facet until it is an unapproachable desiccated husk, Netflix has announced that there will be a movie based on the Bioshock, my favorite video game series. I am… upset, but subject my roommate to another of my famous two hour rants, I think it would be healthier for everyone if I used the inexplicable goodwill of The Hoot’s Art section editors to hash my feelings out in print. 

The Bioshock series is a masterpiece of storytelling and game design. When I say the “Bioshock series,” I mean Bioshock 1, 2 and 2’s DLC “Minerva’s Den.” The masturbatory Ken Levine self insert fanfiction known as “Bioshock Infinite” is not a real Bioshock game, and if you think it is, you are a fool who is easily impressed by faux-deep messages and flashing lights. I will die on this hill with a sword in my hand and a smile on my face. The REAL Bioshock games take place in the fallen city of Rapture, a 50s Art Deco dystopia built at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean and founded by the megalomaniacle industrialist Andrew Ryan, in order to gather all of the greatest minds of the earth together to live in a paradise devoid of laws, religion and moral quandaries. It is a capitalist hellscape that, predictably, collapsed in a civil war fueled by corporate tyranny and worker unrest. Players attempt to escape its beautiful ruins, all the while learning more about the city’s history and the corrupt science that still runs through its veins. The franchise is a dark and compelling exploration of objectivism, populism, morality, choice and change and is chock full of iconic moments and charismatic characters. It’s no wonder that the possibility of an adaptation would make the wallets of corporate suits rumble.

Video game adaptations get a bad rap, and while they mostly deserve it, they don’t have to. The key interactive investment produced by video games is impossible to translate between mediums, but as long as the key narrative draws of the source material can be identified and distilled, I believe an adaptation can work well. The “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie pulled it off, kind of, since it understood that the biggest draw of the franchise were its cartoonish and charismatic characters, and so those were the main focuses. Additionally, I have high hopes for “The Last of Us” series since it has an incredibly simple world and centers around two fleshed out characters and their endearing relationship, which lends itself to emotionally engrossing TV. But Bioshock can’t be translated to another media, because its biggest draw isn’t its story, or even its cast, its world, the city of Rapture, which is a character unto itself. 

Bioshock doesn’t have a plot like other video games do. Ninety percent of the time you are walking around, filling a checklist of objectives to overcome one obstacle, move onto the next and then leave the level. However, while you are traipsing around, you are collecting “audio diaries,” short recordings of various Rapture citizens talking about their backstories, experiences in the city, personal philosophies and challenges during the war. These dozens of harrowing little side stories are dictated by characters we usually never meet and who are usually dead by the time we are experiencing Rapture. Even the few characters we encountered in the present of the game are already baked through by the time we meet them face to face, their previous character development conveyed through the audio diaries we find. These tapes also fill out the backstory of the city piece by piece, explaining the idealism of its founder, the war that threatened it all and the scientific breakthroughs that paved the way to damnation. But all of these brilliant little lore pockets take place in the past. Movies tell stories about things happening in the present of the story. You see the problem? If all the best parts of the Bioshock narrative are side stories happening to people other than the protagonist, then they will either have to be excised from the film or dumped in an unswallowable boulder of bastardized exposition. Or the movie could take place in the heyday of Rapture and we could witness the fall, which would be possible if this were a 20 episode mini series with an ensemble cast rather than a two hour movie rushing to the end so it can alchemize our enjoyment of the games into gold and squeeze it from our pores. 

Other untranslatable elements include: game mechanics such as “plasmids” which tie directly into the world and its themes, the numerous self indulgent plot vacations such as the Fort Frolic level that have nothing to do with the “plot” and are simply self indulgent fun, and of course, the silent protagonists. Jack Wynand, the character you play in the first game, lacks either a personality or a voice, which is for the best as it allows us to experience Rapture personally rather than through the screen of another identity. This also makes the central twists of the plot more effective and the choices we make as Jack thought provoking and thematically impactful, choices whose existence would be erased by adaptation via the distillation of an interactive experience into a static slump. I suppose a writer could do the writerly thing and give Jack a personality, streamline the world and twist together a narrative held together by pipe cleaners and gum. But Bioshock isn’t good because it’s simple. It’s a Gordian Knot of a world composed of side stories and atmosphere which a movie would have to cleave in half in order to make it coherent for audiences. But cutting anything from the source material would be akin to removing screws from an engine to make it fit in a smaller car. Everything contributes to the whole. Because of this necessity of removal, the best Bioshock movie that could possibly exist would still not be good enough to justify its own existence. All this enterprise can do is propel the Bioshock series into the public consciousness. It was bad enough when Ben Shapiro’s sister thought the series that is explicitly about the value of empathy was actually a love letter to Ayn Rand. My skull feels smaller at the thought of talking heads, nimrods and nose-pickers alike all weighing in with their own gleefully bad takes. The adulation of Bioshock Infinite and the underappreciation of Bioshock 2 was bad enough. Of course I can’t stop the blood-rusted wheels of media conglomerates from grinding my favorite series into a cheap marketable biscuit. I can only watch and despair. And rant to you, I suppose. I do feel a little better now. Though not by much. Actually, not at all. Dammit. 

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