Rapture In Paper: The Bioshock Novel

By Richard Cobbett on July 19th, 2011 at 2:30 pm.

No, the table doesn't magically change. Trick of the light. Move along....

Timing-wise, the long-in-development Bioshock prequel novel couldn’t have landed at a worse one. Remember Rapture? That’s right. It’s the place that was so awesome, before we were blown away by Columbia a few weeks ago. In the mood to return? There’s the rub…

The sad thing is that this is one of the better tie-in novels I’ve read, with just two major problems. The first is that while it sets out to chart the history of Rapture, from Andrew Ryan first deciding to build the place to the death of his effective conscience, engineer Bill McDonagh, but offers very little that we don’t already know about its rise and fall, aside from a little padding. McDonagh now has a family desperate to escape for instance, while we get to know Ryan back in his days as a visionary, rather than the paranoid, power-hungry king of a doomed Atlantis.

One of my favourite details is how McDonagh got the job of building the impossible city in the first place. He was simply Ryan’s plumber, who earned the man’s respect by not trying to inflate his bill, and taking offense at the suggestion that he might. Ryan doesn’t hand him the keys outright, simply gives him a more worthy test of his skills, but you can see that spark that the following years are destined to grind down – that of a true visionary who genuinely thought he was doing the right thing. There are cracks even at this point, from his hypocrisy in supporting Sander Cohen’s unprofitable art to hiring an ex-cigarette girl as his assistant, and then his initial intake in Rapture being rich, patrician types… and of course, we know how it all turns out in the end… but you can at least see the passion that convinced so many people to buy into his dream.

The actual quality of the writing is good, and it’s clear that author John Shirley has done his homework, unlike most tie-in books. Bioshock 2′s characters are all here and integrated right from the start, and while there are a couple of minor continuity issues here and there, like Lamb’s role in the construction of Ryan Amusements, most of the details are bang-on to the point I occasionally checked the wiki to compare versions of the story.

This isn’t however a book to read if you haven’t already played the games. I’m not sure why you would, but you wouldn’t get much out of it. It’s almost all dialogue driven, with very, very little description of the city itself – the assumption is that you know what Rapture looks like already and can fill in the gaps on your own. Likewise, with one exception, there really isn’t much in the way of resolution to any of the plot points, all of which are handled by the games.

Poor Rapture. You were too good a location to simply be a shooter...

The frustrating thing about Rapture as a novel is that it’s completely unnecessary. The Halo books could tell us more about the universe, the Dragon Age books can fill in backstory the main characters wouldn’t know, and more… but in Bioshock, we know every major plot beat already. The idea of doing a prequel sounds obvious, but really standalone stories simply set in Rapture both before and during the war would have been a much better premise. Let’s hear more about the Little Sisters orphanage, or a case from the PI in Pauper’s Drop – go properly behind the scenes on one of Sander Cohen’s plays, or see Tenenbaum’s concentration camp past. The moments in Rapture that do this are by far the most effective, from seeing what happened before the city’s founding, to individual moments like Lamb’s takeover of Persephone or McDonagh’s family’s growing desperation to escape back to the surface world.

Unfortunately, as the book goes on, the need to hit every major point soon becomes an albatross – not helped by the fact that much of Bioshock’s backstory is frankly pretty silly when you look at it in isolation. The book ends up having to dance between so many points of view to cover it all, and the pacing suffers for it. The worst case is near the end, when we get a page of Ryan throttling Jolene to death that cuts instantly to him walking through the market. That could be seen as a statement on the once Great Man’s collapsing state of mind… but it comes across much more as a necessary plot point being struck off a very long To-Do list.

Despite the core problem, this is far from a bad tie-in novel. It does what it promises very well – retelling the rise and fall of Rapture in portable dead-tree form. If that’s what you want, you won’t be disappointed. It’s just a shame that that’s all it is, now that most of us have moved on. Hopefully if there’s a similar tie-in book for Infinite, it’ll aim for a similar level of writing quality and understanding of the universe… but land when people are more likely to care.

, , , .

67 Comments »

  1. Richard Cobbett says:

    Some of the Halo books are pretty good, starting with The Fall of Reach. I really liked The Pandora Directive, but I was a big fan of the Tex Murphy games. The original Doom series is hilarious – not just crap, but absolutely bat-shit crazy. Not read the Dragon Age novels (although I have one of them), but the Mass Effect ones are respectable. Beyond that, most of the ones I own are absolutely toe-curlingly dreadful. Baldur’s Gate 2 is probably the worst, although it’s by no means an easy call.

  2. Malawi Frontier Guard says:

    Dante’s Inferno has a pretty good tie-in novel. They even made two sequels to that.

  3. CaspianRoach says:

    What is this “paper” you are talking about?

  4. deejayem says:

    @ Malawi – Yeah, but I heard they changed the plot around a bit for the books. Apparently he doesn’t even kill one baby!

  5. woodsey says:

    I would have thought a BioShock novel was rather missing the point. Kind of like films based on games.

  6. KauhuK says:

    Mass Effect books are quite good. The Guild Wars 2 tie-in book Ghosts of Ascalon is an ok read too.

  7. Gunsmith says:

    Eve: The Empyrian Age was actually quite a good read.

  8. Premium User Badge

    emotionengine says:

    Dante’s Inferno has a pretty good tie-in novel. They even made two sequels to that.

    But the sequels sucked. Too much dialogue, not enough action. The last one was the worst. That Beatrice chick just wouldn’t STFU.

    Seriously though, a friend of mine devoured the Star Craft 2 novel(s). But that had probably more to do with the fact that he was currently serving in the army and not in a position to play the actual game.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Diziet Sma says:

    Has anyone read any Assassin’s Creed novels, what are they like?

  10. Eight Rooks says:

    I thought all the Halo tie-in novels I read were mediocre to awful. Eric Nylund’s don’t deserve the praise they get, but the others are just… ewww. One was some of the worst ‘And then the Master Chief shot an Elite. And then the Master Chief shot a Grunt. And then the Master Chief shot another Elite’ rubbish I’ve ever read.

    While I find the Elder Scrolls games themselves as dry as stale toast, and can’t understand why people get so excited about them, I have to admit I read some of one of their tie-in novels and really, really liked what I saw. Much, much livelier and more engaging. So maybe it’s not the universe I can’t get into, maybe Bethesda just have bad writers… I did browse through a bit of the EVE novel in a Waterstones once and thought that seemed okay, too.

    And stay away from the Runescape tie-in novels. I got sent one of those in the hope I could do a review of it, but we decided not to go with gaming culture snippets, which I was thankful for as it meant I didn’t have to tell the PR guy just how bad I thought it was.

  11. Premium User Badge

    TeraTelnet says:

    But Richard, is the Baldur’s Gate 2 one actually worse than the simply horrendous Planescape Torment novelisation, which appeared to have been written solely using a picture of the characters as the writer’s background information?

  12. Richard Cobbett says:

    Baldur’s Gate 2 makes the (also appalling) Planescape Torment novel look like Lord of the Rings, from the dreadful dialogue to the weird decisions like giving Imoen a bizarre lesbian scene with the Drow.

    (In fairness to the PST one though, I suspect it was written based on an older version of the story, especially as far as things like the green cylinder/bronze sphere go. Still dreadful. The fan written one is much closer, for obvious reasons)

  13. Premium User Badge

    shoptroll says:

    How about the Blizzard ones?

    @Richard Cobbett: I remember reading the Doom novels in grade school. I was delighted when you covered them in a Crap Shoot :)

    EDIT: Runescape has a novelization? Wow.

  14. Richard Cobbett says:

    Glad you enjoyed it :-)

  15. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    Wait, where’s RPS’ totally fake exclusive excerpts?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      “I just finished Atlas Shrugged and realised… this is a stupid idea,” declared Andrew Ryan, slamming his hand on the podium. “A man chooses! A slave obeys! This man just chose to make the world’s biggest ice-cream sundae. I ORDER you all to bring a spoon.”

    • Tei says:

      I just started “A Perfect Vacuum”, from Stanishlaw Lem…

  16. Premium User Badge

    Oozo says:

    I also read “Tears of The Gods”, based on “Return to Krondor”. The case is a bit more complicated there, because Feist wrote a novel based on a game whose universe was based on his novels… it was an ok read, I guess, but hardly a must-read.

    (Oh, and the novelization of BG1 was also dreadful, even though I’ve heard that the “Throne of Bhaal”-novel is a bit better… Drew Karpyshyn, who was one of the game’s writers, took over after they had finally taken the typewriter out of Philip Athans’ hands and smashed it over his head.)
    There are some pretty good game-related novels that are not tie-ins, though.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Coren says:

    The only game tie-ins I read were the Myst novels. I remember I really enjoyed The Book of Ti’ana. And the other two were pretty alright too.

  18. Werthead says:

    The Elder Scrolls novels were written by Greg Keyes, who’s a very good SF and fantasy writer in his own right (though his stand-alone fantasy series, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, ended poorly after a great start), so it’s not a surprise to hear those are quite strong.

    Anyone read the new novels based on THE OLD REPUBLIC? Paul S. Kemp is a pretty good writer, so I’d be interested to see if they stand up.

  19. Dom_01 says:

    I heard that the new Deus Ex novel is pretty good, but haven’t gone around to checking it.

    The Halo novels show that game novels can be great, I really enjoyed ‘Ghosts of Onyx’ and ‘The Fall of Reach’

    Also, I’m not sure which came first, the game or the book, but ‘Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six’ was an enjoyable read back in the day.

  20. somini says:

    I read both Assassin’s Creed novels and found them great. It’s the exact same story of the games, but much more Darker and Edgier. More so in AC2 novel.
    I really enjoyed them, despite having read them after have played the games.

  21. Premium User Badge

    LTK says:

    I’m probably not someone on who tie-in novels are well-spent. I gave Mass Effect: Ascension a go, but what turned me off about it is that it consistently feels the need to remind the reader that, yes, this is set in the Mass Effect universe, and there was little room for creative interpretation. I guess the Bioshock novel is roughly similar in that it tells you a lot you already know, so I’ll pass.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      I read the first Mass Effect novel long before I played the game (I was excited about it, and it wasn’t out on PC yet. And then they went and lured me in with a free chapter on the web site). I kinda imagined a much bigger universe than I actually got to play in, to the point that I ended up kinda disappointed with the reality. Particularly of the Citadel and the Presidium. Mass Effect 1 just couldn’t give the sense of scale that the textual descriptions had put in my mind. Fortunately ME2 was so bloody brilliant that it kinda redeemed itself. Downloaded the comics in the freebie the other day, so need to read those now.

      Has anyone read Ragnar Tørnquist’s Anarchy Online novel? Is that worth checking out? For someone who never played the game?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Prophet Without Honor? It’s… interesting. Bites off waaaay more than it should, but with some interesting bits – the best of them being a sequence near the end which follows Philip Ross around. It’s a nice vignette, in which the Darth Vader of the Anarchy Online universe (at that point, anyway) basically runs into a group of new arrivals in town who ask him where they go to sign up with the Rebels. His response is to get amused and narrate that he wants to talk them out of it, but won’t actually take action against them if they decide to follow that path instead. The trouble is that even though it turns out to be a trap, he comes across as a guy who’d go home, cool down, grab a drink and get over himself pretty quickly, despite his cries of “GRAAAARGH! IF A FIGHT IS WHAT THEY WANT, A FIGHT IS WHAT THEY’LL GET!”

      If you didn’t play the original game though, it’s pretty skippable.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      Hmm… Thanks. I guess it stays on the list of books I’d be interested in reading but probably never will then. Mainly (if it wasn’t obvious) a curiosity bourne out of a love for TLJ and Dreamfall.

  22. Maxheadroom says:

    Did anyone read that novella that came bundled with the original Elite?

    Bored me senseless when I tried to read it back in the day, but then I was only about 12 at the time

    Probably still got it in the loft somewhere

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I remember at least appreciating the short story collection that came with either First Encounters or Frontier. More than I appreciated First Encounters, at least.

    • Premium User Badge

      TeraTelnet says:

      Ah, The Dark Wheel!
      http://www.iancgbell.clara.net/elite/dkwheel.htm

      I loved the compilation that came with Frontier; less so the First Encounters set which I thought was a bit too mature for the target audience, to be honest.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      Wow. Somewhere at home I have a copy of the novel about Jimmy McLemming’s adventures with the twelve tribes of Lemming Island. I seem to remember it amused me at the time, though I’m pretty certain it must have been terrible.

  23. Premium User Badge

    TeraTelnet says:

    Wow, Richard, that’s just … wow.

  24. Tei says:

    *steps in /say one tie-in novel/ subthread*

    The War40K novels are fun, too… all about the Horus Heresy, and Gaunt Ghosts.

  25. westyfield says:

    The Mass Effect novels (Revelation, Ascension, Retribution) are all fairly acceptable.

  26. Premium User Badge

    TeraTelnet says:

    Oh by the way, the Dawn of War novels are not particularly great either.

  27. chesh says:

    The Crysis 2 novel, Legion, by Peter Watts (whose writing, topically, heavily influenced Lamb’s actions towards the last third of Bioshock 2 is pretty good. Granted, as a pre-existing Watts fan, it sort of felt like his existing interesting ideas filtered through a decade of Hollywood development hell, but if you don’t already know him it’s a lot of fun and adds a lot of depth to the story (enough that, to my understanding, the story doesn’t make any sense except as travel-to-checkpoint-shoot-men-or-aliens-repeat without it.)

  28. chesh says:

    And if you enjoy what he does towards the end of Legion when everything comes together, definitely check out his most recent original novel, Blindsight, which takes all of those ideas quite a lot further.

  29. Sky says:

    I quite liked Diablo and Ultima trilogies. And some Warcraft books are good as well (I don’t remember the name, but the one with Medivh and the other with Thrall.)

  30. UnravThreads says:

    I like The Bard’s Tale ones, but they’re less of a tie-in and more of a “Very loosely based on” type read.

  31. UnravThreads says:

    From what I recall from reading on BioShock Wiki, this book was due out last year, if not earlier, but was delayed to allow BioShock 2 lore into it. I guess that’s why the Sofia Lamb sections seemed to be a little odd and suddenly fade out. It would have been more relevant a year or two ago, especially considering how we’ve moved away from Rapture, but I felt it did a fairly good job.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Nah, the Sofia Lamb bits are fine. It’s simply that like a lot of the other subplots, they can’t reach much resolution since the games themselves handle that, so in this case, we see her taking over Persephone but then pretty much just going “I’ll totally do something with this.” It’s not a fault with the writer, just one of those things there’s no real way to get past in a prequel book where the backstory is already so well known.

  32. Premium User Badge

    Daiv says:

    The Republic Commando books start out pretty good and then rampage off in a direction that takes them further and further from Star Wars to the point where the author must wish she’d started the series in her own original universe where she had creative control.

    A large part of the books revolves around Mandalorian culture, and the Clone Wars had a few episodes on Mandalore which were completely at odds with her writing, so chunks of the following book are desperate (and annoyed) retcons to beat Lucas’s brainfarts back into submission.

  33. utherdoul says:

    The Myst trilogy of books were excellent, detailing a lot of back story and grounding the overall idea into ‘our world’ a bit more, which was nice. There’s even an interesting indie film being made of the second book…

  34. iWHUT says:

    If you pick and choose, 40K literature can be fun. At least there is alot of it.

    Oh, and I was stuck in an empty room with a resistance novel for 4 weeks once. I can’t give you an opinion seeing as I read it under duress at least 15 times.

  35. noom says:

    I’ve honestly never been much drawn to video-game tie-in books. I did try Horus Rising after listening to a 40k obsessed fan going on about it. Not strictly a game tie-in, sure, but the closest I’ve come. I found that to be pretty awful, though it seems to be quite highly regarded as these things go. Hasn’t helped with my ethusiasm approaching other spin-off style literature.

    I am reading Greg Bear’s Blood Music atm, which I’m enjoying, and I understand he’s written at least one Halo novel, so I may look into that.

  36. Stormtamer says:

    The Warcraft novels are pretty good.
    Depending on your experience with the games might vary on your enjoyment though.
    Christie Golden’s books usually expand on something big, and try to follow along with the games storys and do it very well (Lord of the Clans and Rise of the Lich King especially), whereas Richard A Knaak takes something that is a big plot point, that doesnt have a great deal of in-game storytelling about, and make big storys out of them (War of the Ancients and Day of the Dragon)

  37. Post-Internet Syndrome says:

    Agreed on the Myst books. Especially the first one, since the games are full of references to Ti’ana and I always wondered what the deal with that was. And they can be found in a nifty little compilation that’s not too expensive.

  38. Premium User Badge

    Carra says:

    They’re making two Game of Thrones games. Go read those books :)

  39. jiminitaur says:

    I read a game called Metal Gear Solid. It was pretty good.

  40. Premium User Badge

    TeraTelnet says:

    That reminds me, did anyone read the Alpha Centauri tie-ins? I remember hearing that they were pretty decent.

  41. PiP999 says:

    Read Deus Ex Icarus Effect a few months back. Not a bad read, they pay homage to many classic Deus Ex characters. The pacing I thought could have been better, for an almost 400 page novel, not that many plot twists occur (considering how Deus Ex was so conspiracy friendly).

    Going through the Witcher books right now, so far I am very pleased with everything, though the books were highly praised years before the first game even came out.

    I could also recommend the Metro 2033 book if you’re a fan of the game. It follows many of the game’s events, though adds some twists that make it an interesting read.

    Also, if you like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., I’m currently working on a full sized novel which should be done by late summer/fall. It will be a free to download e-book (I didn’t get the publishing rights as they belong to a big publishing house in Russia which apparently doesn’t want to print in English). Once the book is finished I’ll send a link to RPS, if they like it they may share it with the rest of you chaps :D

  42. wodin says:

    Someone one mentioned Metro 2033….the game came out after the book….also Stalker was a (superb) Russian film in 1979!!!

    So I think there is a difference in quality between books based on games and games based on books…the later are usually alot better…

    I mean I could say I read LotR which is to do with the game and film…this would be wrong on many levels..

    • gummybearsliveonthemoon says:

      And before it was a movie, it was a 1971 novel entitled “Roadside Picnic” that has more to do with the game than the movie does.

  43. malkav11 says:

    I enjoyed the DOOM books back in the day (not the post DOOM 3 book(s), which are written by a different person or persons and are unlikely to be any good). Silly, sure, but pretty impressive considering the entire story for DOOM is basically “some bad men opened a portal to Hell on a Martian moon and a US Marine goes in to investigate.” And that’s not a paraphrase. That’s the whole thing.

    Pretty much everything between then and the last few years has been pretty dire when I’ve bothered to investigate. (There are some decent Star Wars, Battletech and 40K tie-in novels but none of them are tie-ins for videogames, except arguably Republic Commando.) Only recently have they seemed to figure out that yes, you might want to hire people who can actually write. Greg Keyes’ Elder Scrolls books were mentioned above. I also like Karen Traviss’ work on Republic Commando and the Gears of War tie-in novels. The latter is a particularly impressive feat considering how the Gears games have such leaden, awful, practically characterless writing. Big burly manslabs wandering around being big and burly and macho, spouting cliche soldierly dialogue and shooting and/or chainsawing things. Traviss actually makes them into real, human characters and since (at least in the first book) you get a bunch of flashbacks to how life was before the Locust emerged, you get a much better sense of how hellish the Gears world is now and how much the characters have lost. I haven’t read it yet but Peter Watts is excellent so I expect the Crysis tie-in to be high quality also. Oh, and the Dead Space 1 comic wasn’t awful. Neat art from Ben Templesmith, okay writing. The animated movie, on the other hand? Ugh.

    PS: Traviss is apparently writing (or at least co-writing) Gears of War 3. This makes me very pleased, though inevitably the game will have much less room for interesting story than her books. And of course no sign of it coming to PC.

  44. Richard Cobbett says:

    “And that’s not a paraphrase. That’s the whole thing.”

    Which still makes more sense than a race of aliens called Fred dressing up as demons to help them fight against a race called the Newbies in an endless war over literary criticism. And weirder.

  45. Premium User Badge

    Durkonkell says:

    I found the Warcraft: Cataclysm tie-in The Shattering (Christie Golden) rather excellent, but it’s the only Warcraft book I’ve read at this point.

    I also enjoyed Nylund’s Halo books a lot, and I’d recommend them if you’re into military sci-fi. Your mileage may vary though (typically for anything halo-related). I made the mistake of picking up The Flood after reading the Fall of Reach. I don’t think it was awful, but I haven’t got any desire to go back and make sure.

    Finally, I wanted to pick up the Elder Scrolls novel (the name of which I have temporarily forgotten) in electronic format as I have no more room in my house for any physical objects. Unfortunately, no-one will sell it to me because I’m not in the US, and it’s not as if there’s an international computer network that can send data anywhere…

  46. Richard Cobbett says:

    If you mean The Infernal City, you’re honestly not missing much.

  47. Premium User Badge

    Durkonkell says:

    Thank you, Serjo Cobbett. So noted.

    You’d think that for a game series whose lore is delivered primarily through many, many, many in-game books (some of which are quite good short stories in their own right) it would be possible for them to put something decent together in a full-length format. Disappointing!

    Still, I shall release authorisation for myself to read the plot summary instead.

    (Supplemental note: uesp.net has a comprehensive collection of every in-game book from every Elder Scrolls game. I recommend The Argonian Account)

  48. malkav11 says:

    While I suppose it’s true that one isn’t missing that much by skipping The Infernal City (by Greg Keyes, it’s one of the books I mention above), as I don’t expect it to have any significant impact on TES V: Skyrim except as background you won’t need to appreciate the game, I would call it one of the best videogame tie-in novels I’ve read. This places it squarely in the “average” category as far as general fantasy goes, of course.

    And yes, the DOOM novels end up going some pretty weird places.

  49. thelunaticonthegrass says:

    First post and just my 2 cents: Roadside Picnic was not enjoyable to read. And, from what little I know of Stalker, the novel and games are far apart in terms of setting and story. I might be wrong, but that was my impression.

    I’m interested in these Doom novels!

    • Premium User Badge

      VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      Roadside Picnic was an engaging read, but not always enjoyable. Mostly bleak. (The games can be similar to play, actually)

      The book, the film, and the game are all very different in the way they deal with the Zone. It’s probably more accurate to say that both the film and the game were inspired by the book rather than based on it.

  50. Premium User Badge

    VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    Read Deus Ex Icarus Effect a few months back. Not a bad read, they pay homage to many classic Deus Ex characters. The pacing I thought could have been better, for an almost 400 page novel, not that many plot twists occur (considering how Deus Ex was so conspiracy friendly).

    I read it too—it’s competently written, but quite missable. It doesn’t reveal anything very important about the setting or characters of DXHR (though it does reveal who the attackers are in DXHR’s intro level). It doesn’t either develop or expose any conspiracies. It doesn’t really attack any of the issues surrounding the use of augmentations. It’s basically filler.

    I could also recommend the Metro 2033 book if you’re a fan of the game. It follows many of the game’s events, though adds some twists that make it an interesting read.

    I’d definitely recommend the book Metro 2033 (the game was based on it, rather than the other way around). The characters that pop up in the game are much better developed, and the story as a whole works better—especially the ending.