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There's a lot to love about BioShock, particularly the artistry. The level design is inspired and gorgeous, the music is flawlessly integrated and memorable, and the voice acting is emotional. These and other aspects of the art design have been discussed and praised, but I'd like to talk about the graphic design of the game.
One thing I particularly love are the Audio Diary Portraits. Simple, straightforward, and elegant, these pictures say a thousand words about many of the characters we never had the pleasure of meeting during the game. They put a face to the voices that move us and show us the everyday citizens of Rapture before things went so wrong. In my opinion, some of the images (like Tasha Denu, Martin Finnegan, and Mariska Lutz) look photorealistic, others (like Jasmine Jolene, Kyle Fitzpatrick, and Dieter Sonnekalb) look like they were simply "drawn" by talented portrait artists. Regardless, I admire the time and energy spent in creating these beautiful images.
Have you ever stopped and wondered what circumstances these photos were taken under? All of the subjects are facing straight ahead, looking directly into the camera. The subjects are only slightly smiling, if at all. These are not candid pictures, these are formal photographs. What if these were the identification portraits of Rapture's citizens taken when they first arrived at the Welcome Center and were processed into the city? These images certainly resemble official images like drivers license, ID card, and passport pictures, some even seem to have the Rapture seal stamped on them.
Then I saw this image and a new thought arises: mugshots! This mugshot of Tanya Williams was clearly reworked to make Diane McClintock's Audio Diary Portrait. Perhaps it's my background in academic analysis showing, but the fact that the game designers chose a woman from a police booking photo for the basis of one of the major participants in the Rapture Civil War leads to serious theoretical possibilities.
What if all of those Audio Diary Portraits are originally based on mugshots? Even if they aren’t, they all have the pose and framing of a police booking photo. It's like say "they're all criminals." Everyone had some part to play in the Civil War and it's lead up, what occured in Rapture is the fruit of their collective guilt.
An exception to this comes in the form of Brigid Tenenbaum whose portrait is a redesign of a publicity shot of Hollywood actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. One could argue that Tenenbaum is more guilty than anyone else for her part in the creation of ADAM and Little Sisters. However, Tenenbaum takes an active role in redeeming herself: rescuing the Sisters and searching for the cure to ADAM sickness. Her reward? We see her as a good and noble figure and she is given a glamorous photo to serve as her inspiration.
With the sequels to BioShock, we note a... difference in the Audio Diary portraits.
I appreciate that there's a continuation of quality, hand-designed portraits in BioShock 2. It's just that a large number of the citizens are, shall we say, less attractive. I get it though, the majority of the people presented in BioShock 2 are the second-tier citizens of Rapture. People who wouldn't have necessarily risen to the top under Ryan's rule. However, working-class doesn't have to translate as ugly.
From Stanley Poole's deeply sunken eyes to Daniel Wales' hydrocephalic-looking head these people aren't winning any beauty contests. Gideon Wyborn looks like he was beaten with a bag of hammers while Davis Pittman just wants those damn kids to get off his lawn. Simon Wales is freakin' Rasputin, for God's sake! Why? How many Irish architects from that era looked like that? Oh right, your making a connection between the possibly scary Russian monk and the evil preacher. Subtle.
However, I am glad the designers exercised some restraint with the final choices. 50% of the unused Audio Diary portraits can only be described as... fugly:
It's not all bad, far from it actually. Main characters like Sofia Lamb, Grace Holloway, Mark Meltzer, & Augustus Sinclair look great and others like Nina Carnegie, "Big Kate" O'Malley, Mike Novak, and Gloria Parson all look respectable. However, the one thing that is truly disappointing is that we don't see a continuation of the face-forward, mugshot-style photography for the Audio Diary Portraits. A lot of the pictures are taken in the three-quarter view pose. Rachelle Jacques is practically in profile for goodness sake. Yes, this pose is more flattering aesthetically, but it completely ruins the official photograph quality present in the first game. These people look less like they're posing for a government ID picture and more like they're taking a yearbook photo.
With the Multiplayer game we happily see a return to the face forward mugshots of BioShock. All of the Civil War participants look more like hand-drawn characters instead of redesigns of real photographs, but that's totally understandable. You can't expect the game creators to find photos of someone who looks like Suresh Sheti, Naledi Atkins, Oscar Calraca or Zigo d’Acosta just lying around (especially not from the 1950s).
More to come...