By: AJ Shapiro
Everyone loves the 1920’s. What’s not to love? Jazz, liquor, nightclubs, flappers… giant oceanic robo-monsters???
Released in August of 2007, the video game “Bioshock” took the player beneath the Atlantic Ocean to the undersea city of Rapture, a once-great metropolis turned zombie-infested nightmare. The city’s discovery and cultivation of a substance called ADAM endowed its denizens with supernatural abilities, like telekinesis and pyrokinesis, but also destroyed their minds, turning them into mindless “Splicers,” murderous creatures concerned only with obtaining more ADAM.
So what? What separates Bioshock from every other horror video game? While I can attest navigating the sunken ruin of Rapture is terrifying to me, personally, a young adult born at the end of the twentieth century, I can’t help but feel a 1920’s audience would get a great deal more horror out of playing the game than I did, had they the opportunity to play it.
First, the primary antagonist of the game (SPOILER ALERT) is revealed to be Frank Fontaine, a gangster and a thug who made his blood-spattered rise to power through bootlegging. People living during the brief period where we thought prohibition was possible would certainly find Fontaine terrifying as a villain, especially since the disguise he wears most of the game is that of Atlas, a family man, more in-keeping with the notions of 1920’s “good.”
But wait, what about the robo-monsters? Along with the zombified Splicers, scattered amongst the city are the Big Daddies, along with their Little Sisters. As seen in the pictures, the hulking Big Daddies provide protection to the Little Sisters, who wander Rapture and extract ADAM from the corpses of enemies. The Little Sisters are strikingly similar in appearance to that of Regan in the 1973 film The Exorcist, complete with pallid skin and demonic eyes, but minus the pea soup. Like the film, the freaky appearance of the Little Sisters in “Bioshock” is at odds with both a contemporary and a 1920’s audiences’ conception of an innocent little girl. The result? Even though Big Daddies can drill through our character’s brain and leave them a smoking puddle on the ground, we’re more disturbed by these forlorn little zombie girls than the metallic goliaths that accompany them.
Disturbing imagery accompanies the physical characteristics of the Little Sisters, and the nature of their relationships with the Big Daddies is suggestive and unsettling. The girls, for example, wield syringes to extract ADAM from the fallen, and while they’re not entirely phallic in appearance, the syringes definitely provoke thoughts of “penetration,” similar to the kind of horror we experience when Regan shouts horrendous sexual obscenities at her mother. In a society with two immensely powerful women’s movements happening, suffrage and prohibition, to reduce the Little Sisters to subservient and sexualized slaves to the Big Daddies would leave a 20’s audience feeling more terror than the haunted city of Rapture would itself.
And indeed, much of the gameplay of slaughtering the undead and shooting sparks from your fingertips is done to the tune of jazz music! One could argue this is merely a flavorful decision in-keeping with the games 20’s theme, but then again…
The 1920’s metonymy around the game, from bars to nightclubs to the overarching jazz music, makes the player unconsciously associate the themes of the game with the time period. For one, scientific advancement beyond the scope of humanity’s control bringing about apocalyptic ruin was a concept that certainly might’ve scared people in the 20’s. For another, Frank Fontaine’s ability to conceal his identity as a criminal while profiting immensely was exactly what men like Al Capone were doing, until they were caught, which would leave a 20’s audience wondering just how many criminals are hiding out there.
So, while many horror video games would scare just about anyone who played them, Bioshock’s profound ability to horrify a 1920’s audience informs the kind of horrific elements which would’ve most effectively played on their fears. By the conclusion of the game, sure, we’re scared. But a 1920’s audience would need some ice cream and a hug….