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The Battle of the 1950s-Inspired Post-Apocalyptic Environments You Can’t Help But Love

BioShock's Rapture


Fallout 3's D.C. Wasteland

Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.

The past four months of my in-game life have been spent waltzing about increasingly decrepit environments rooted within the exposed underbelly of Utopian 1950s societies. And man, are these locales a blast. (Nuclear bomb humor.)

Both BioShock and Fallout 3 paint a very distinct picture of potential futures as influenced by a more technologically-focused and separatist society. BioShock’s “future” takes place in 1960, within the underwater world of “Rapture,” while Fallout 3’s is set in Washington D.C., 2277. Rapture was built toward an Objectivist Utopia by the leading scientists and engineers of the 1950s, while the Wasteland Washington, D.C. of 2277 was a result of nuclear war with China 200 years earlier. This war, and its technological precedents, were achieved by a branching in the 1950s toward a different future path than our real world is currently traveling—hence the future we find in Fallout 3 still retains the optimistic innocence of that Leave it to Beaver era.

The readily available and advanced technologies, as well as the fractured and twisted inhabitants of these two worlds, directly juxtapose the kitschy, ruddy-cheeked societies they emerged from. It’s this juxtaposition which creates such a memorable, yet haunting experience for the player. Sure, Rapture is a dank, partially-flooded underwater nightmare, but at least its neon LED signs provide enough light for you to see who’s bashing your head in. Yeah, most of Washington, D.C. is in rubble, but those posters of happy families skipping towards their Vault-Tec futures offer a warm reminder that you’re alive—thanks to metallic catacombs. All the potential of those worlds and their hopes for the future remain alongside their realizations and subsequent destruction.

Let’s get to specifics.

BioShock’s underwater setting places us in a perpetual nightfall, sunlight unable to reach the ocean floor. Lighting is provided by murky shafts of exterior building decorations pitching through the windows, overhead dome lights, the ever-present neon LED signs, and any interior lamps which are still functional.
Fallout 3 has both interior and exterior settings, from claustrophobic underground Vaults to rocky hillsides under the noonday sun. Though typically, when inside a building, lighting is highly lacking or obscured by dust and debris. Your Pip-Boy flashlight is an essential addition to your environmental arsenal.

BioShock’s world is confined, yet split into distinct sections. They range from the hospital / medical ward to an arts and shopping center to the central, industrial complex of the city. Each section contains specific, identifiable traits while fitting in with and matching the rest of the world’s decorum. The lighting and general mood always remind you that you are at the bottom of the ocean, trying to pick your way through a dystopian nightmare.
Fallout 3’s world is much more open, yet intertwined. Certain areas of the Wasteland have their own characteristics—the western plains are especially irradiated, the interior D.C. ruins are filled with crumbled buildings and impenetrable rubble—but each area overlaps and contains homes or offices nearly identical to the other zones. When you enter the abandoned home in Arlington, it looks just like the homes in Grayditch. Each Vault, no matter its location on the map or the psychological experiments it implemented, is laid out the same as the other Vaults. However, the variety between areas, and amount of zones to visit, still exceed the more confined locales of Rapture.

Enemies are a significant part of the environment, as these are comprised of each game’s inhabitants. Rapture is populated with the engineers and blue collar workers of the realm, turned into bloodthirsty splicers always searching for their next fix. They have all moved well beyond compromise and will kill anyone—especially little girls—for a shot of precious ADAM. Big Daddies and their ADAM-carrying wards—the Little Sisters who are much more than typical little girls—are essentially a neutral party, until you open fire on either. Otherwise, the heavy footsteps and echoing vocals of the Big Daddies are like the mewing of nearby whales: potentially intimidating, but not to be feared if you remain amicable. The most cordial and friendly face you encounter is still a cold-blooded killer, inescapably focused on righting those who have wronged him and completing his demented ‘masterpiece.’ The very (very) few sane souls you meet during your exploration are still delusional in their own way, fueled by an obsessive philosophy or unwarranted sense of self-righteousness. The rest of Rapture is long dead, their still-bloodied corpses offering leftover ammo or health packs to help you avoid their fate.

The D.C. Wasteland offers a wider variety of friends and foes to interact with. While Rapture’s current citizenry is the result of an unchecked Objectivist ideology alongside limitless availability of supplies both addictive and deadly within an ultra-confined space, the residents of Fallout 3 have followed a number of paths, mentally and biologically. We are initially introduced only to those who were protected from the nuclear war and its inescapable results, those who have lived their entire lives in underground solitude—the status of BioShock’s inhabitants. Very soon, though, we meet the rest of the world–those who were exposed to radiation and genetically altered by it; the citizens who left their Vaults before the current year and have tried to create a new life from the wreckage; the vagabonds who have turned the current world into their own shopping spree; the creatures spawned from the leftover radioactive waste; the factions trying to make a difference in the world, to bring order to a dangerously uncontrolled land. Unlike BioShock, where the sound of nearby footsteps is a guaranteed danger, many interactions in Fallout will be friendly and pleasant, civilized. Friends can become enemies, and vice versa; many of your relationships in the world are up to you, whereas Rapture’s fiends have determined to kill you long before you set foot in that bathysphere.

The in-environment art styles for both games are similar, given they’re each trapped in that 1950s’ mentality. Part of Fallout 3’s immediate appeal was that “Hey, those commercials are like the Plasmid advertisements in BioShock!” The commercial art style we’re all gleefully familiar with is rampant in both games, cheerful and ironic against their backdrops. BioShock advertises Plasmids (now used not to light a cigar, but incinerate insane splicers); Fallout 3 advertises Vault-Tec security (now turned maniacal psychological test) and household robot helpers (currently trying to blast you with their laser guns).

The games’ varieties are so minute and so specific to their respective scenarios that it’s almost impossible for me to select a winner. Each game is a serious achievement and amazing experience, entirely deserving of this expanded write-up. Without their environments, they would be System Shock 2 and Oblivion. The worlds they exist in are absolutely essential.

So what it finally comes down to is: which world creates the precise experience of its events for the player? Does BioShock’s confined and perpetually darkened quarters best embody being ship(plane)wrecked and forced to explore its maddening interior, its thinly-veiled secrets? Or does Fallout 3’s vast expanse of desolate destruction, a ruined version of a recognizable home, truly place us in the shoes of a newly freed Vault-dweller, opening his eyes after living in the dark for 18 years? We are led through BioShock one room at a time, to our final destination and the truth, with pieces of realization fed to us in tiny spoonfuls. We are free in Fallout 3 to explore a world we are not prepared for, to walk in any direction and seek out any path that suits us, so long as the rubble is not blocking our way.

Fallout 3’s Wasteland is as beautiful as it is disturbing; as recognizable as it is foreign.
BioShock’s Rapture is a nearly realized fantasy; a city that could only exist underwater, and a city that could only destroy itself there.

And in the end, I have to award the victory to BioShock. For creating a dream Atlantis, destroying it, filling it with danger and chaos, and still allowing me to see how beautiful and real it was at one time—though it really never was.

BioShock’s Rapture, for the win.