It's taken me a long time to get my hands on a copy of Bioshock (2007, 2K Games), mainly because I knew that as soon as I started playing it, I wouldn't want to stop. It is with some surprise then, that I find myself in the office on a Monday morning rather than at home, 360 controller glued to my hand.
First off, it's a fantastic game and deserves all the credit and acclaim it has garnered since its release. I don't need to devote a post telling the world how great it is since it has done very well without my interjection thus far. I will say that I have so far experienced the narrative and gameplay as being seamlessly integrated, on a whole. The opening sequence is excellent and, like any well-paced story, you learn the details and backstory on the fly. Delivering narrative content through audio tapes and radio transmissions can - in another titles - seem contrived but in Bioshock it comes across as both authentic and fitting.
Ok, is it Steampunk? Arguable not. Then why bother posting on it at all? One thing I'm currently thinking about is that there are certain people researching Steampunk fictions and subculture at the moment - myself included - who are grappling with the definition of Steampunk. It strikes me that this process of imposing a definition on to a body of art and fiction that is constantly mutating and evolving is very problematic in itself. When we designate, or attempt to designate, this or that as Gaslamp, Steampunk, Biopunk etc, I wonder how much the people producing and/or consuming what they happily accept as Steampunk are affected by these restrictive definitions. Generic works are, by their very nature, both archetypal and atypical.
Which leads me back to Bioshock. Steampunk has not yet, I would argue, consolidated its canon. I positive thing, I feel. Part of the early stage of my PhD has neccessitated a gathering together of works that have been labelled Steampunk and a critical assessment of that status. Bioshock is a game that people have consistently talked about when referring to Steampunk works, even if it is just to highlight the uncertainty of its status. Therefore, when considering Steampunk, I would include a text like Bioshock because the general conception that the game has a place of some kind in the body of Steampunk fictions evidently exists and the importance of this conception for the future development of the genre cannot be overestimated . More importantly, and this is where my research interests lie specifically, while lacking some of the more overt Steampunk tropes and indentifiers - namely a19th Century locale and contemporary/futuristic steam driven technologies - Bioshock demonstrates Steampunk preoccupations that are, ordinarily, overlooked. These are the generic markers, tropes, and structures that unearth Steampunk's emergence from and continuously fruitful relationship with the Gothic.
Bioshock is a first-person shooter set in 1960. You play the role of Jack, a passenger of a plane that crash lands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at the start of the game. Jack appears to be the only survivor and, as the wreckage burns on the ocean around him, he makes his way to a structure protruding from the water. He has found an entrance to Rapture, a failed utopia built under the sea. The city was envisioned as a breeding ground for the arts and science but the leaking, dark, and dilapidated environ Jack finds himself in and the immediate attack on his person by an obviously crazed and mutated human attest to an ambitious project gone terribly wrong.
Psycopathic surgeons, murderous and autonomous defense systems, a liberal coating of gore, and the presence of sinister, seemingly cannibalistic, girls called Little Sisters protected by groaning pieces of mecha known as 'Big Daddies' all lead to the exquisitely constructed sense of pervading horror and doom that qualifies Bioshock as an exemplary work of contemporary Gothic. These are also features that could be mapped out onto any number of Steampunk fictions, from China Mieville's Bas-Lag trilogy with its bio/mechanical Remade, to Ian R. Macleod's The Light Ages, replete with aether mutated Changelings. It is the anachronistic use of high concept steam technology that proves to be the sticking point for any unequivocal categorisation of Bioshock as Steampunk. Bioshock's narrative is set in the 1960s, after all, and the main technological advancement - and the reason behind the unravelling of the denizens of Rapture - has been the breakthroughs in genetic engineering and biotechnology.
Does this mean then that the Steampunk tag needs to be jettisoned entirely in favour of Biopunk or, to use Di Fillipo's term Ribofunk? I wouldn't like to be so hasty, although there is a good case to argue the alternate. Rather than inventing a different '-punk' for every type of fiction that deviates from the archetype, I am more interested in tracing the similarities and noting the mutations. In this way, the genre stays open and the possibilities for new experiments in Steampunk is vastly increased.
So, in answer to the question 'is Bioshock Steampunk?', I categorically affirm the following: