The Bioshock Infinite hype is moving from boil to a steady simmer, and everybody is slowly moving on to the next thing to be outraged about/for. All in all, it’s been a pretty polarising game, some have been singing its praises and whether it is loved of loathed, Infinite had a high measuring bar to stand itself against in the form of the first Bioshock which has a good shout for being one of the best games of its console generation. Without question, one of the best things about the game in the Bioshock series is the world’s they create and then plop the player into, crafting an engaging and compelling world that pulls the player deeper and deeper in.
So, which is better, Columbia or Rapture, does this city under the sea create the more gripping experience? Or does the city in the clouds give us the feeling of freedom and a sense of infinite possibilities?
Both Rapture and Columbia are very different places, polar opposites in many respects, but still having many common themes that make them similar as well as different. Rapture is dark, dank and confined; every effort was made to make this once utopian city a place that bears down on you, making you feel the weight of it, and the millions of tons of water on your shoulders. While not a survival horror in terms of its gameplay, its tone embodied the genre very well.
Rapture was a very striking place visually, while at times it was possible to see the lights and spires of the city through the huge windows and glass tunnels that perforated the city, at other times, little was visible through the murk than blurry lights in the distance. The water outside the glass had the potential to be much worse than anything within the confines of the city, any kind of monster could be floating just beyond your field of view, and on top of that, one tiny crack would be all it took for the entire ocean to rush in and crush you flat.
It’s difficult to tell if the true extent of Rapture can ever be seen in game, with the limited visibility and restricted movement around the city there really could be anything around that next corner.
Columbia on the other hand is bright, boundless and wide open. While players would travel through Rapture and really feel the place bearing down on them, Columbia creates a world seemingly without limits, where nothing is restricted and everything is easily accessible (or so it would seem), in spite of the place having more sheer drops than it must need oxygen tanks. Columbia seems to be the ideal American’s America, where everything is grand and people get on with their neighbours. It doesn’t take much scratching to reveal that this is just a thin veneer covering a heart of bigotry, racism and class divides belonging to a society on the fast track to imploding.
While the first sections of the game will have you drinking in the scenery and taking much longer than you probably need to absorbing the magic of the place, it does seem to take more of a back-seat to the gameplay and the story in the later stages of the game.
Both cities evoke wonder in different ways, but I’m going to have to give this one to Rapture for a number of reasons. First, while I felt like I really was in a giant tin can under millions of tons of water in Rapture, I never really felt like I was in a city in the sky in Columbia, even when flying through the air on skyhooks, falling off was so inconsequential that its effect was lost on me. Also, while Rapture continues to reveal parts of itself to the player over time, Columbia blows its load right at the start, after the beautiful introduction to the city, when the bullets start flying, the majesty of the city is shown pretty infrequently throughout and can be easy to miss if you’re not looking out for it.
Both Columbia and Rapture are at two different stops on the same flight/cruise. Both are the result of noble visions, but a combination of similar circumstances caused the downfall of the idealised societies. The same people who arrived at the city and sought a better life would eventually rise up and try to rip it down.
Players arrive at Rapture to find the remnant of what is left after and long, bloody and desperate revolution. So most of the population left have done what they can to survive, and in Rapture survival means heavy abuse of Adam. It’s difficult to find anyone in Rapture that isn’t homicidally insane, determined to rip your spleen out and then continue their incoherent monologue.
Columbia is on the doorstep of revolution though, and the vast majority of its population are simple civilians, not wanting anything to do with the bloody war that they’re about to be caught in the middle of. So when the player becomes public enemy number one, the police and military are generally men and women who are just doing a job, and you slaughter them brutally.
You don’t really feel anything when fighting the vicious plasmid abusers in Rapture, they’re monsters and far more deprived than the player (usually) Plus, while the Splicers are horrible monsters, they’re overshadowed by the poster boys of the game.
When it comes to the general populace, I’m going to give this one to Columbia. While Splicers are all monsters, bent on killing one another, the population of Columbia are still human as you or me. While some of them might be scum, others are just normal people, some of which are brainwashed to the point of suicide without a second thought, others out for bloody revenge for the way they’ve been treated by the ruling class. All of which are caipable of autrocites comparable to that of the Splicers.
The tipping point however it the brutal manner in which these human characters can go out through the player’s actions. The skyhook executions of suicide by possession are all gruesome ends that resulted in a physical reaction of revulsion from me, and for that I have to say it wins.
As I mentioned before, Rapture did a very good job of instilling a sense of fear into the players. The environment did play a big part in setting this mood, but there was one more thing that filled players with dread, the Big Daddies. In the early parts of the game, Big Daddies were something to be feared above all else and would soak up most of your ammo before finally going down. What Columbia has is something that is physically greater, but ultimately much less than its inspiration and counterpart.
Songbird is the obvious Big Daddy analogue for Columbia, being plastered all over promotional materials for the game, it’s like a Big Daddy, only it’s much, much bigger, and it can fly. To me, it suffers from all the design choices of a 10 year old mentality. “It’s like a Big Daddy, but much cooler, it can fly, yeah and it’s huge, big as a building, it makes horrible noises too, and Booker can never beat it.”
And that is probably my biggest issue with Songbird, you never fight it. While it dogs The player’s progress on and off throughout the game, the player never really fights it. It builds up a potential battle with it in the climax but eventually culminates in it being used as a game mechanic. It shows up exclusively in predefined animations and it essentially a very loud part of the scenery.
The real fighting presence of the Big Daddies is found elsewhere, in an enemy called the Handymen. Looking very much like proto Big Daddies themselves, the Handymen are the combination of certain choice parts of a human and a group of scientist dabbling with technology they only barely understand. Throughout the course of the game, you encounter a number of them, but you only ever fight four throughout.
It’s a good thing too, because people would be ripping their hair out if a number of these were popping up constantly. I’m not going to talk about gameplay mechanics here, that’s not the point of the piece, all I’m going to say is that Handymen are cheap and there isn’t much strategy to how they fight, not how to fight them.
There is no way I can give this to Columbia, The Songbird was lost potential I feel and the handymen were as irritating as they were generic. Even if there weren’t any of these problems though, the big daddy has become such an iconic gaming character that it would have taken something really special to top them.
There are a lot of striking similarities between Andrew Ryan and Zackary Comstock. They’re both men who started their respective cities with the best intentions, but soon let an abundance of power get into their heads. They also both have strong connections to the player character, and meet their end in oddly accepting fashions.
Ryan’s intentions with Rapture were to create a utopian society in which the world’s best and brightest could gather, away from the overbearing eyes of the government or the law, and work to their full potential to achieve greatness. His righteous belief was that anyone who couldn’t achieve excellence on their own was a parasite, and so created a very top heavy social standing within the city.
This downfall came with his refusal to moderate anything his people did, thus entrepreneurs could charge what they wanted for basic amenities, which turned out to be far more than the poorest people could the city could afford. He squashed any attempt to rectify this problem, believing that moderating his people or bowing to the parasites would become the very thing he built Rapture to get away from.
Through the recording found throughout Rapture we learn of Ryan’s arrogance and how he was the instigator of his own downfall due to naiveté of all things.
Columbia had a similar beginning, formed by the born again Christian Zackary Comstock. A city built on American Ideals and beliefs and to be the true envisioning of the American way. The problem was that this particular American way was one that righteously believed that the white man was superior to all others, and that Blacks, Chiniese and even Irish are little more than slaves or animals.
It seems that Columbia was destined for disaster, a fate that came much quicker with Comstock’s deteriorating sanity and desperation. Killing his own wife and framing his former maid brought about the formation of the Vox, and trying to kill the Lutece Twins would be what eventually brought an alternative dimension version of himself to Columbia to kill him.
While Ryan was undoubtedly a bastard and an idiot for not foreseeing the eventual fate of Rapture, Comstock is a much more imposing figure within Columbia, statues and posters bearing his face everywhere, it’s hard to look somewhere and not see him. On top of that, the people loyal to him worship him as a god, a fact he seems to love, and are willing to lay down their lives without a second thought if he were to ask them. Columbia Wins.
Through their madness the leaders of Rapture and Columbia have left a long trail of death in their wake. All for the sake of their progress they’ve done some pretty horrible things to people who probably never deserved it, and it all has a dramatic impact on the state of the worlds the player experiences.
One of Andrew Ryan’s founding it philosophies of Rapture was ‘progress, no matter the cost’ and that meant that as far as he was concerned, morality was on the top of the list of things that could go. So it was needless to say that when they found a highly mutagenic substance in a sea slug, of course he was going to take dozens of little girls from their parents and turn them into brainwashed gatherers from dead bodies. Weirdly, the little sisters apparently operated around Rapture while society was still intact, and nobody could interfere with them because of their Big Daddy guardians, would put an abrupt end to any dinner party. Not to mention to droves of people being abused by an unfair system.
Even with all of that, Columbia still seems to have it worse. In some shape or form Comstock manages to abuse every person in Columbia in some way. Those who aren’t brainwashed to view suicide as a casual pastime are being downtrodden and abused by those who lick the boots of their prophet. The low classes are pushed and abused to the point where they push back, and become bloody thirsty, bent on vengeance because of how they were treated.
Travelling through Columbia reveals one atrocity unto the player after another. The downtrodden working class that seem to be encouraged to kill one another for menial jobs, the gratuitous examples of racism, Comstock’s actions to ensure his personal legacy. Not to mention the woman who he claims to be his daughter that he keeps locked in a tower for most of her life.
Even his own child he keeps locked away and syphons power from her, all in an attempt to secure his personal dominance over the nation that ‘betrayed’ him as well as the entire world, even after he is long dead.
I’m struggling to pick a winner with this one. While Columbia is generally a worse place, the little sisters of Rapture are a terrible result of science without moral limits. I really can’t place one city over the other here in terms of its inhabitants suffered, I’m honestly not copping out here either, I had every intention of writing this article and picking a winner, but I’m going to have to tie them.
So there you have it, in spite of my initial cynicism at Columbia and very fond memories of Rapture, through a critical eye they are, while very different places, both very immersive worlds. If Irrational do one thing very well, it’s creating worlds that are as wonderful as they are terrible. Coming out of Infinite, Columbia is very much the thing that will remain in my mind, as Rapture did with the first Bioshock. What started out as me trying to criticise Bioshock Infinite, ended up with me giving the game the begrudging respect that it actually deserves. Any issues with gameplay aside, Columbia is a fantastic setting for a game and every bit the equal to Rapture in my opinion. It’ll be interesting to see where the series may go from here.
I’m positive that not everyone is going to agree with my conclusions here, so please feel free to add to the discussion and add your two cents to the pot, I have a feeling I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic and it could go a fair bit further.
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