Today I have for you, our readers, something a bit different. Today we will compare and explore in depth two titles. Two titles that have originated as two different mediums. Titles that have left a big impact on our culture and have influenced and have been influenced by other, also significant, works. Since this is a gaming site, one of those titles will obviously be a game. But more about that later…
To begin with, one could argue that comparing two different mediums is almost impossible. To a degree I agree, because each medium has its unique characteristics that set it apart – providing the reader, viewer or player with a distinctive experience. At the same time, though, I disagree, because there are many examples of various works across different mediums, which, despite these differences, can be compared – assuming they have at least something in common. One of these examples are BioShock and Metropolis, which, in my opinion, are an overlooked and perfect match. There are many differences between these two pieces of art that make them seem completely unrelated, sure. However, upon further inspection, one can see the opposite is in fact the truth.
BioShock is a video game developed by american studio Irrational Games, published by 2K Games and conceived by Ken Levine. It was released in 2007 and takes place in the city of Rapture in 1961. Metropolis, on the other hand, is a feature film by German-Austrian director Fritz Lang and UFA that came out already in 1927 – exactly 80 years prior to BioShock. Compared to BioShock, it takes place in 2026 and is a vision of the (for the time of its release) distant future. In other words, from our perspective, BioShock in a way looks back and explores the past through its setting and environment, despite at the same time toying with the hypothetical future of mankind, with Metropolis trying to imagine the future itself through a more grounded and to-our-reality-closer approach. One of the other major differences between the two pieces is the fact that one is with audio and in color (BioShock) and the other is black and white and mute (Metropolis). This alone offers a distinct experience, because in the movie the viewer has to heavily rely on the picture alone and the lack of proper audio is compensated only by intertitles and background music – as is with silent films of that time the norm. But the most striking difference is in the approach each medium offers. Metropolis, being a movie, is a limited experience in the sense that, every time one watches the movie, the progress and outcome will be exactly the same. It is a fairly passive experience. BioShock, being a more modern medium, a video game, presents the player with a more interactive experience – offering freedom and opportunity. Yes, the story does not change dramatically, but it is up to the player to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, choose his own pace and strategy and even, in certain parts of the game, make moral decisions adjusting the outcome. Simply put, BioShock as a video game can offer a richer experience if the player is willing to devote enough of his time to it.
Where the differences between the two end, similarities begin. Similarities, which bring the two works together. Although they perhaps aren’t as explicit, they are still present nonetheless. One of the core similarities is the environment both works are set in. Both of them take place in a secluded city down under that is perceived as the pinnacle of human creation. One (BioShock) is located underwater at the ocean surface, the other (Metropolis) is located mostly underground. Both cities also function in a similar manner, having an architect that is worshipped by many, the labourers who work for him and the everyday Joe who minds his own business. This hierarchical system gently brings into the picture the character archetypes, which share common traits, and the plot of the two works that tells a similar story beginning to end – transitioning from a dreamt-of scenario to all hell breaking loose. But what is perhaps most striking is the philosophical nature and concept of the two, along with the almost identical visual style and presentation. Also, genre-wise, both science fiction pieces use elements of drama and action, at the same time exploring themes like life and death, good and evil, occultism, mysticism and (trans)humanism, resulting in an unique atmosphere throughout. BioShock Infinite, the series third installment, altbeit perhaps not as creepy, then takes it to a whole new level.
To better understand the similarities in depth, one does not need to look much further than to the several characters each piece stands on and the roles they play. Mind you, though, that spoilers follow.
The mastermind behind Metropolis is Joh Fredersen. Joh is a ruthless ruler, but also a wealthy visionary. Everything seems to be going well until a young woman named Maria arrives. She makes Freder, Joh’s son, fall in love with her. Trying to find her, he descends where the labourers do all the hard work. An accident occurs, Joh’s assistant Josaphat is fired for not informing him and Freder helps out one of the workers – unlike his father Joh showing some sympathy. Meanwhile, a mad scientist named Rotwang is still upset about the loss of his love Hel, who left him only to marry Joh and die while giving birth to Freder. For that Rotwang wants revenge on Joh and has been working on a robot to bring back Hel to life. However, things take a different turn when Maria starts making prophecies about a unitor who can bring the working and ruling classes together and Freder decides he has what it takes to fill that role. In fear of losing power, Joh orders Rotwang to give his robot Maria’s likeness and stop her by ruining her reputation. Maria’s robot double unleashes chaos by convincing the workers to destroy the city’s main power generator and Metropolis starts falling apart. Freder is puzzled, but the workers later understand they have been tricked. Yet it is too late as the city is already almost entirely flooded due to the water pumps failing. Everything seems to be lost, but the false Maria is suddenly captured and burned to death. This then enables Freder to realize what has occured and to fulfill his role by uniting everyone, leaving room for a positive outcome. Putting aside the fact that for its time the movie had a very well structured and though out plot, the viewer is presented with several character archetypes.
In BioShock, the underwater city of Rapture is conceived by magnate Andrew Ryan for himself and a chosen few. Like in Metropolis, everything seems to work at first. However, with the discovery of plasmids nicknamed “Adam”, allowing its users to possess various super-human powers, soon things start going south. Businessman Frank Fontaine takes advantage of the situation by trying to orchestrate a coup, together with geneticist Brigid Tenenbaum mass producing these plasmids, and then convincing the enhanced lower class to go after Ryan. During the battle Fotaine is supposedly killed and Ryan takes back complete control of the city. Soon after a new character named Atlas emerged and continued in Fotaine’s footsteps, leading to competition between Atlas and Ryan who will create a better army of genetically modified loyal servants. On New Year’s Eve of 1959 Atlas orders an all out attack on Ryan, resulting in many casualties and chaos. At this point the player takes control of character Jack who is the sole survivor of a plane that went down in the Atlantic Ocean. After entering a nearby lighthouse and using the bathysphere terminal inside it, he is taken to Rapture and must deal with the challenges of the crumbling city. Atlas contacts him and guides him, asking Jack to help him take down Ryan in return. Eventually he manages to get to him and learn the truth before inevitably killing him. As explained by Ryan, Jack is his illegitimate child and was taken away from his mother and Ryan’s reach by Fontaine who hid him on the surface and planned to use him against Ryan himself. Atlas then reveals himself to be Fontaine all along and takes over the city, leaving Jack trapped. He’s rescued by Dr. Tenenbaum and together they eventually manage to stop Fontaine for good. Depending on the player’s actions the game then presents him with a good or bad ending. As can be seen, both stories have characters with the same roles. Both include a creator, visionary and master – in BioShock in the form of Andrew Ryan and in Metropolis in the form of Joh Fredersen. Both include an intruder who sets things into motion – Jack in BioShock and Maria in Metropolis. Both include a traitor who revolts against his master – Atlas/Fontaine in BioShock and Rotwang (and to a certain degree Freder) in Metropolis. There is also the role of frankenstein and the monster – in Metropolis brought to life by Maria’s robot double and in BioShock by plasmid-enhanced inhabitants and abominations such as Splicers, Big Daddies and Little Sisters. Last but not least, one cannot forget the scientists (Rotwang/Tenenbaum) and the abused workers who keep the cities alive.
If one were to explore purely the environments, one would notice their similar design. Everything, from the buildings themselves to their surroundings, is grandiose and majestic. At times even purposely exaggerated and monumental, letting everyone know that man is behind this and man has the power to do so – pointing both towards collective work and to a single person who had a vision and a dream.
From an artistic perspective, the environments are heavily influenced by the art deco style with bits of expressionism and are present throughout. Most notable it is in BioShock on little details inside the buildings with certain decorations, doors, walls, statues, lamps and ceilings. Neon signs and lights are present as well and bring darker areas to life. In Metropolis this overall presence remains, but is in comparison highlighted through symmetry and elegance rather on the outside, where the city visually shines as a whole – using the interior only as a link to give a full picture. One must not forget, though, that the film is presented in black and white, resulting in some of the components not being explictly noticeble at first sight. The art style is also present and translates onto posters of both works with the difference being that Metropolis as a more tangible work, once again, presents them externally and BioShock limits them to the game’s compounds. What they directly do have in common, though, is that both posters in the game and for the movie function as a form of propaganda.
However, the environments where these stories take place, while still important, are just that. They are there only to pull the viewer and player in, help set the mood and make the overall experience more believable. They are there to convince and support. It is first and foremost the characters and how they interact with each other what makes the events possible and transforms the setting from a prosperous utopia to a collapsing dystopia in a fairly short time.
Above all else, BioShock and Metropolis are about dreams, ideals and big ideas – addressing some questions and issues that remain unanswered and relevant to this day. For instance, in BioShock, it is visible right in the beginning when the player runs into a large bust with the words “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” In Rapture, religion is non-existent. It is prohibited. Man is elevated and takes on the role of the all mighty himself. There is nothing man can’t do and there is nobody man needs as long as he’s willing to make a sacrifice to reach his goal and commit to it. “The Great Chain is guided by our Hand.” is another of handful similar statements the player can encounter, further suggesting man is responsible for his own fate and everyone must carry a part of the burden – in this case more specifically referring to the economy.This celebration and superiority of man is then underlined by the plasmids that give people almost godlike powers and are nicknamed after the first man on Earth – “Adam”. One could say that BioShock is a constant struggle between science, religion, power, morale and ego. A lot can be uncovered by not only exploring the environment, but also listening to in-game dialogue. As Andrew Ryan, the man behind Rapture, asks and explains:
“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.”
It is somewhat ironic the city he built is called Rapture given what it has eventually become – an underwater wasteland. Rapture was meant to be just that – a rapture. A haven to escape from the unbearable influence and constraints of the outside world and let man peacefully ascend. But it was too good to be true and to last. In Metropolis the idea behind it was basically the same – a futuristic city where the elite can live above in luxury and where the working class below makes it happen. For the chosen few it’s a paradise, but for the majority it’s hell. They work manually around the clock and are so accustomed to this routine that they have become mere tools with most of them not even realizing it. Because of that, only a few have the courage, intellect and will to question things and change their outcome. Many need an inspiration. A spark. And this parallel can be seen with the society we currently live in, where it is hard to find a person with an original opinion and most people do and believe what they are told – because they find it convenient. As Mr. Ryan puts it: “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” How can the slave choose when he is not aware he is one? He can’t. And that is a reality, with the growing power of companies, governments and media, we are facing. A reality where the general populace exchanges freedom for protection and comfort, surveillance, and where how much one has in his pocket has bigger value than what’s in his head. Are we there yet? It comes as no surprise that the events portrayed in both works have some basis in the real world. For example it is said that the idea for Metropolis came to Fritz Lang when he visited New York City and the skyscrapers caught him by surprise. It is also worth noting that one of the buildings in the picture, Joh Fresersen’s headquarters, is based on the mythical Tower of Babel – which has apparently inspired also the design of the European Parliament. Interestingly enough, what was considered science fiction 87 years ago is now slowly becoming reality – robots are becoming very sophisticated and starting to mimmick us and medical advancements are taking health to a new level. It will not take long before humans and robots cross roads, giving birth to a new species. Mankind is already in certain ways playing God and tricking nature. What will happen when he actually becomes one? As Atlas reminds: “Plasmids changed everything. They destroyed our bodies, our minds. We couldn’t handle it. Best friends butchering one another, babies strangled in cribs. The whole city went to hell.” Do we truly want to go down the route where beauty becomes a moral obligation? Where we forget who we are and turn into something we later might regret? There is more, though. The flooding of Metropolis can be perceived as symbolic or even prophetic. The film came out in 1927. The Wall Street Crash happened just two years later. Coincidence? Most likely. However, one shouldn’t forget that a lot of Metropolis’s architecture was based on New York. Also, the flooding can have a different relation and that is to the Great Flood described in the Bible. Given that New York is located by the coast it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that at some point in the future, especially with the water levels rising due to global warming, it indeed will be flooded. In contrast, BioShock’s basis in the real world can be traced to the legendary city of Atlantis, which too is supposed to be located somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Did it really exist and will it ever be found? That is anyone’s guess.
And what made both BioShock and Metropolis over time so popular and acclaimed? It probably comes down to the fact they have some basis in the real world and people can relate to them. It also has to do with timing. Both were released around the time when the industry was stagnating, bringing unseen elements and rich worlds. BioShock gained recognition almost right away, because it effectively merged the first person shooter and role playing genre, heavily emphasized on story telling and presented this through a beautifully rendered world. Metropolis was revolutionary because it was one of the first sci-fi feature films of its time, included a strong message and was a spectacle of visual effects. Sadly it was not until the 1980’s that it gained some recognition. In 1929 the Stock Market crashed and when it recovered World War II was already knocking on the door. Nobody was in the mood to watch an over two-hour-long film with cryptic messages and an out-of-this-world presentation that barely paid itself. People had other, more important, things to worry about. Metropolis was indirectly rediscovered in 1977, 50 years later, when the popular robot character “C3PO” debuted in the first Star Wars movie – a robot whose design was influenced by Maria. By 1984, though, nearly everyone knew about the movie when famous British rock band Queen re-used footage from it in the music video of their hit single “Radio Gaga” – which gave birth pretty much to Lady Gaga’s stage name. See how’s everything connected? More recently the movie came to light a years ago when an original cut was found, the movie was restored and released on Blu-Ray disc by Eureuka! Entertainment for anyone to purchase in the best quality available.
Looking back and to conclude, the two pieces show us that with motivation and determination one can accomplish great things. They also show us what we should try to avoid and what effect it could have on us. Reflecting on today’s world, the ideas presented in the two works are anything but far-fetched and should serve as a reminder, or even warning, that at some point all things come to an end and we should cherish them while we can. From Ancient Egypt to the Roman Empire, civilizations collapsed in the past and there is no reason why it couldn’t happen again. After all, time repeats itself. Therefore I think it is only logical to end with the statement that “any utopia, no matter how perfect, is sooner or later bound to fail.”