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Non-video game adaptations of video games are rarely good, and almost never great. Of course, it's hard to blame writers for this; video game stories naturally have a very interactive nature, and translating the story into a novel or movie format removes the interactive portion. What would Mass Effect be without the ability to make choices? What would Halo be without the ability to actually control Master Chief as he guns down hordes of Covenant soldiers? And what would Bioshock be without the suspense offered by the ability to personally walk through the city of Rapture?
Honestly, is there any way a movie could possibly capture the awesomeness of this game?
As it turns out, the way to negate the disadvantage caused by this lack of interactivity is fairly simple: Don't use the game's story for the adaptation's story. As some writers and moviemakers have yet to learn, following the exact story of a video game always results in failure. To be successful, the novel/movie has to be about some side story or aspect of the game's backstory, taking place in the same universe as the game, yet following different characters or telling a different story.
Bioshock: Rapture, written by John Shirley, is a novel that takes this lesson to heart. Rather than reusing the story of Bioshock, Rapture takes the backstory provided by both games' audio diaries and extrapolates it into a larger, cohesive narrative through the addition of new events and characters. It tells not just one or two stories, but more than half a dozen. Most of the original game's major characters are given a few chapters (or at the very least some sub-chapters) centered around them, and even quite a few characters that only appeared in audio diaries (such as the Lutz family) make extensive appearances. The characters of Bioshock 2 (primarily Sofia Lamb and Simon Wales) are also frequently mentioned and make a few appearances as well.
(I feel that I should mention at this point that this review may contain slight spoilers for the Bioshock game, and should be avoided by those who still aren't familiar with its story).
Oh, and there are also a lot of spider splicers in this book. A lot of insane, gibbering superhumans who jump around like monkeys and slice up people with hooks. If that didn't convince you to give Bioshock a chance, I don't know what will.
In most books, following so many characters would spread the plot thin and make it fall apart. However, Bioshock: Rapture avoids this by keeping every story linked to the general idea of Andrew Ryan's hubris and Frank Fontaine's power hungry schemes leading to the slow decline of Rapture. In addition, while the narrative does jump from one character to another, the vast majority of the novel centers on Bill McDonagh, Andrew Ryan's general contractor and close friend. A good chunk of the book also centers around Frank Fontaine, the villain from the first game, and shows the early stages of his grand scheme to take over Rapture.
The entire plot is divided into three parts, or the three "Ages of Rapture" (1946-1948, 1948-1957, and 1957-1959). The first part is undoubtedly my favorite, detailing the construction of Rapture and the pre-Rapture lives of several of the characters, including Frank Fontaine, Sander Cohen, and Jasmine Jolene. This is an era in the Bioshock universe generally ignored by the games, and the author handles it superbly. The chapters about Fontaine in particular add a lot to the character's backstory and reveal just how conniving and ruthless he is, even before arriving in Rapture.
One of the things that I love about Bioshock: Rapture is how it linked the events of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. Many fans of the series were puzzled by how Lamb and her followers weren't even mentioned in the original game, even though, according to Bioshock 2, they were supposed to be a powerful faction during the city's decline. While this novel doesn't necessarily answer that question, it does provide a lot of connections between the two games, thus avoiding the same problem. This helps bring the entire Bioshock universe into one cohesive story. Unlike Bioshock 2, Rapture doesn't feel out of place or unnecessary at all. If anything, it makes Bioshock 2's story seem more relevant in retrospect.
Now for the negatives:
This is when things start to go downhill.
The main problem with Bioshock: Rapture is that the novel is only for Bioshock fans. If you didn't like Bioshock, this book won't change your mind, and if you've never played the games, then this book isn't the way to start. A lot of the best parts of Bioshock are spoiled by this book, and it's often difficult to follow every single character's storyline if you haven't played at least one of the games already. I strongly recommend playing the first game before reading the book or playing the second game.
I was also slightly irritated by some of the foreshadowing. The author occasionally uses terms from the games in a literal context (ex. using the term "little sisters" to literally refer to two little girls) as a method of hinting at future events in the narrative. I find these moments to be forced and even groan-inducing at some points, but fortunately they're infrequent and don't leave much of a negative impact on the story.
Most of the other problems I have with this novel are nitpicks. For example, while I enjoyed the first part of the novel, I found the way that Fontaine initially discovers information about Rapture's construction to be highly improbable, given that federal agents are unable to find any information about Rapture despite being quite capable of using similar methods.
To conclude, I think Bioshock: Rapture is an incredible novel, to the point that I had a very hard time putting it down. It took me one and a half days to read this 400 page book; I don't think I ever read a book that quickly. Overall, I would give it a score of 9.5/10. It's not a perfect book, but it's a must-read for any Bioshock fan, and anyone well versed in the Bioshock story will find very few flaws in it. I highly recommend it.
Now would you kindly buy the book already, boyo?
I'd also like to take this opportunity to announce that I'm going to try to start regularly blogging (once a week, although I might switch it to once every two weeks if I find my current plan to be too stressful). I'm not sure if I'm going to add a theme to my blogs (are videogame novels released frequently enough for me to regularly review them?) or if I'm just going to blog about whatever I'm thinking about. I hope this will improve my writing skills, so I'd greatly appreciate any writing advice.
Anyway, let's finish this blog with a few questions:
Are there any video game novels that you think are great?
Are you thinking of buying Bioshock: Rapture after reading my review?
What is your general opinion of novel and movie adaptations of video games?
UPDATE: Why won't a picture show up next to my post?