Monday, 16 March 2009

Is Bioshock Steampunk?

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.

A Big Daddy & Little Sister

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:




  1. I wouldn't be so hastily either, i would argue that Bioshock is steampunk and not just that it is but that it is maybe sign post to a maturity or development to the "genre" that has been maybe lacking and is a clear sign of its progression.

    I would disagree with some of your assertions towards the game...

    All machines can be hacked; cameras, vending machines, bots etc.

    The process of hacking consists of a mini game which involves redirecting water through a system of pipes which your indicate that the machines are run on liquid or maybe steam. The mini game comes from a long cannon of shareware games from the 90's (usually for the mac) which are puzzle water games. I think that all the machines are "steampunk" machines but this is indicated towards rather than a major plot point or structural point to the text.

    I think that maybe Rapture, isolated from society is maybe a more metaphorical alternate timeline than usually found in steampunk fiction and it is un-necessary for it to be set in the 19th Century to indicate this alterative timeline to culture and technology.

    I guess it depends on your tick boxes to what makes something steampunk...

  2. I hadn't thought about the mini-games at all, Alan, but you are right. I've been too frantically trying to complete the minigames within the time limit to cotton on to the fact that there is the perfect insight into how the technology functions. Good call.

    Also, I am not tied to the idea of Steampunk needed a 19th Century locale for it to qualify as Steampunk. For instance, China Mieville's Perdido Street Station isn't even set in this Universe as far as I can figure, not to mention works like Polystrom by Adam Roberts. However, the 19th Century for some is considered essential for a piece of fiction to qualify as such, which is why I like the way that Bioshock reframes any discussion of what is and is not essentially Steampunk.

    Great game, in any case.

  3. 1930s, not 1960.

  4. I think a major divergence from Steampunk comes from the tone of Bioshock. My impression of Steampunk is that, philosophically, it is very much about how invention and technology are to the benefit of humanity. Inventors are heroes who enable a renaissance through their ingenious thinking. Many issues in steampunk fiction are overcome through human ingenuity and invention.

    Bioshock, to the contrary, is a dystopian story about how man's lust for power through invention is the primary means of his downfall. This would put Bioshock more comparable to Cyberpunk than Steampunk. Andrew Ryan is the inventor, and he's the villain. You're an average joe, and you're the hero.

  5. Anonymous said...
    1930s, not 1960.

    Sorry, check the game site. It is set in 1960.

  6. Good post, Vee.

    My research involves a completely different agenda and series of topics, and usually I would dismiss the various 'fads' in literary genres as a co-invention of the publishing industry, and subject to the dangers of producing more imitative than innovative works.

    However, there is something 'sticky' about steampunk, the genre has not only persisted but has actually made it into the mainstream. Through films, comic books and increasingly videogames (I *love* the look and concept of the upcoming Bioshock Infinite BTW) there is a forthright and promiscuous intertextuality that other genres would kill for.

    So what is it about our current socio-economic climate that fosters such things? Is this tantamount to a withdrawal from some of the complexities of cloning and genetic engineering that were so easy to attack from the 1950s onwards but which are now part of everyday life and constant newspaper reports? Is there a speculative introspection going on here that happens to coincide with more prosaic science and biotech agendas in the 21st century? A wish to make it all 'magic' once again through an alternative timeline?

    As an infrequent gamer (I'm an academic and a dad, so not huge amounts of free time), I've been struck by Bioshock's world and its believable, closed, thoughtful and politically engaged vision, and its vividness is (rarely, for videogames) tightly woven and as involving as a well-paced novel. Having completed Bioshock on the PC not so long ago, I'm still inexplicably haunted by its world, some of the ideas, and relished the idea of returning in Bioshock 2 (for my PlayStation - bigger screen!).

    Also, agree with the Gothic element of the game - the monstrous is not just an alien other, but the man-made becoming unrestrained.

  7. Oh, also check out the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and its celebration of Columbia, the interestingly female personification of the USA, exemplifying all that was greatest about the country in terms of trade, art and architecture etc:'s_Columbian_Exposition

    If you see the previews of Bioshock Infinite, there are definite similarities to the ethos of the city in the sky as a showcase, and Columbia features in the signage and the mythology of the city. I'm intrigued as to how this works out in the game...

  8. Might it be safe to say that Bioshock's artwork and design are heavily influenced by steampunk while it's message, tone, story and plot are wholly original and unique in their own right?

  9. The weapon upgrades are also note-worthy as being quite steampunk influenced. Pistons, gears and tubing are common among the components visible on upgraded weapons.

  10. The message, tone, story, and plot are textbook gothic - relateable but unfamiliar setting, character who transforms and reveals inner monstrosity to save the day, outer events are a reflection of inner struggle... very gothic horror.

  11. I know that this is over a year old but Bioshock is probably my single favorite piece of media and I just wanted to say that Ken Levine's creation is beyond a single genre of artistic or philosophical vision.

    Contrary to what has been stated before, Andrew Ryan is not the villain, he's only wish was to make people free to explore the metaphysical possibilities without any moral or political constraint, this was also one of the main points of the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand (yes it is a word play, almost an anagram).
    There are so many artistical, political, philosophical, metaphysical(...) ideias behind the game that I find it impossible to ever categorize it even if indeed there are obvious relations with horror, gothic, steampunk, and many, many other genres of literary and visual art.
    Also, I would not say that the main character is a "hero", he is doing nothing but what he is told to do, that is one of the main focus of the game; the sense of liberty.

    Would you kindly agree with me?

  12. I think Bioshock is steampunk. I'm currently researching steampunk and Bioshock crossed my mind. The game also reflects a retro feel.

    Bioshock is not entirely steampunk, but it's a combination of retro and steampunk.

    Looking all those rivets in the game makes me wonder how it cannot be steampunk, even just a little bit.

  13. Although set in 1960, the undersea civilization has been isolated since the 1930s. That would suggest dieselpunk, a sister genre of steampunk. The gothic elements are obvious as well. But it is an amalgam — all of the above, and something all together new.

  14. Funny that a four-year old article about a six-year old game is still garnering responses.

    I've only just bought Bioshock myself, and I found myself wondering about its connections to the Steampunk community.

    I'm not an expert, but to be honest I find myself completely agreeing with your central argument - "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."

    Arguably one could say that the world that Bioshock is set in would be a descendent of traditional Steampunk Victorianisms - the classic British/Wild West with steam power 1800s given fifty years, transformed into the bio-meddling of the 1930s-60s.

    But really, to my limited experience in the culture, it seems to me that "Steampunk" is most easily processed as an artistic style deriving from an alternative vision of life in which science has blossomed into the fantastical. Whether this fantastical takes the form of Jack the Ripper and his steam-powered robot companion or an underwater metropolis in which post-WW2 people modify their genetic code is almost blurring the point.

    Trying to microcosm exact definitions of what applies to each genre is essentially trying to stagnate the creativity of that culture.