My favourite aspect of our culture is our collective decision that 'universes' are most definitely 'a thing'. We have accepted that while any individual item of media can stand alone, it can also be just one viewpoint into a larger overarching narrative for which we have adapted the word 'universe'. Popular culture is replete with compelling universes; from getting that Captain America and Iron Man 3 take place within the same one, to hoping that the future Justice League movies can save a universe that got off to a clunky start, or even that Frasier once drank in a certain Boston bar and therefore Norm Peterson and Martin Crane are part of the same universe. It seems that universe-continuity is either here to stay or has always existed, depending on how you feel about it.
Why begin with this fairly obvious comment on the nature of interwoven storytelling in popular media?
Well, my last two articles, about controversial statues and men's mental health, have been a little heavy, so I thought I'd indulge in something that I think is awesome and is by far my favourite example of great universe building - the Bioshock franchise. Furthermore, given that it's been 10 years since the release of the first Bioshock game, I feel now is the ideal time to talk about it.
But what's the point right?
Since this will be published on the internet, unless Huffington Post have started an ironic print edition I'm unaware of, and the internet already knows how awesome the original Bioshock is; going over the stellar story, brilliant characters, and difficulty curve whose perfect gradient is matched only by that of Super Mario Bros 3 is pointless, right? It's a waste of time! Everyone knows how good it is! Bioshock earned several 10/10 scores, multiple gaming awards, and even had a bloody BAFTA thrown at it, case closed right?
Well yes... but not quite. It is true that the original Bioshock is one of the best games ever made. Characters like Andrew Ryan, Frank Fontaine, and Dr Tenenbaum are not just some of the most well-developed in video games but in all media.
The pacing and variety of gameplay dwarfs most other games and the dramatic tension has only been rivalled in recent years by the trouser-change-inducing Alien: Isolation. The music is perfect, the atmosphere is both claustrophobic and makes the player feel small, and each enemy is exquisitely detailed. Even the notoriously harsh Escapist critic Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw gave it a positive review, a rarity.
So why bother? Well, because I didn't just say that Bioshock, the 2007 video game, was great. I said that the Bioshock universe is the best universe that has ever been built, and since this claim puts it up there with Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the MCU - I had better explain myself.
From the moment you splutter out of the water into the first lighthouse and descend into Rapture, to the minute you realise the significance of the "Ace in the Hole", there is the feeling that, regardless of whether it is seen through the eyes of Jack, Subject Delta, Subject Sigma, Booker, or Elizabeth and regardless of whether you are in Rapture or Columbia, that you are not seeing everything. This feeling is established through the use of audio logs, ghostly hallucinations, excellent supporting characters, and subtle insights into other characters' lives, and it means that the player of all the Bioshock games is fully aware of their smallness despite their importance to the events of the story. While our protagonists are vital, they are, very obviously, making their way through the world and not having it revolve around them. It is the setting that matters and these connecting settings make a universe in which, while we don't see it, there is always lots going on out of view.
This is Bioshock's true brilliance in terms of building the Rapture/Columbia universe. Where other franchises, Star Wars and Star Trek being the best examples, have universes created by their POV characters. In Bioshock, the characters are built in the the two cities and reflect them as such. In the end, this helps the player genuinely connect with our protagonists because we see each of them for what they actually are - a human being having a really bad day; and we've all been there.
If you haven't played these works of art, would you kindly do so now?
N.B. For more on the implications of universes and the absurdity of insisting on rigid continuity, see the extended literature on the Tommy Westphall hypothesis, or this excellent video by Bob Chipman.