I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? “No!” says the man in Washington, “It belongs to the poor.” “No!” says the man in the Vatican, “It belongs to God.” “No!” says the man in Moscow, “It belongs to everyone.” I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose . . . Rapture, a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well. —Andrew Ryan
So goes the player’s introduction to Rapture, the sprawling, undersea, gloriously art-deco metropolis that serves as the setting for Bioshock, one of the most well-reviewed video games of this or any year. The tone is unmistakable. Bioshock’s creative director, Ken Levine, took Atlas Shrugged and turned it into a video game. Sort of. . . .
Most big-budget video games made in recent years have production costs that rival major Hollywood action films, and Bioshock is no exception. Like a film, the game strives to completely absorb its audience (the player) through a combination of imagery, music, audio effects, and—above all—a compelling narrative. And like a good film, Bioshock succeeds in all respects.
As a game, Bioshock is extraordinary. The art direction is top-notch, and the audio-visual presentation is stellar. It has been lavished with praise within the gaming community and that praise is certainly well-deserved.
Bioshock is an “immersive first-person shooter.” In the contemporary gaming world, that means that the playing experience in Bioshock is designed to be as absorbing—and as personal—as possible. The action is presented from the protagonist’s point of view; the player’s screen is a window that allows him to peer through the eyes of his digital avatar. The game is called a “shooter” because the game-play is dominated by constant, violent, and brutal combat. As the player makes his way through world, he is continually assaulted by monsters and villains that he dispatches—one after another—with his portable arsenal of weapons. Bioshock is also emphatically single-player. Unlike other popular shooters, there is no multi-player option. The player’s trek through the world of Bioshock is an individual journey.
The game opens with the player on a transatlantic flight, sitting quietly in his seat, reviewing family photos, and thinking of his parent’s praise. The lights flicker, there’s an explosion, and the plane crashes into the ocean. The player is immediately plunged into a world of fire, water, and chaos.
It gets worse from there.
The player soon finds himself descending into Rapture, a vast city built on the sea floor. This weird and wild city-under-the-sea is the creation of Andrew Ryan, a maverick individualist who sought to create a sanctuary where there were “No gods, no kings. Only man.” It’s Galt’s Gulch, under water and suffused with soft jazz.
But all is not well in paradise. A soon as the player arrives in Rapture, he is witness to a brutal murder. The area is strewn with protest signs and placards: “Ryan does not own us!” “Let us ascend!” As the story unfolds, the player discovers that a scientific breakthrough has allowed Rapture residents fast and easy access to genetic modifications that allow them to sculpt their bodies and endow themselves with superhuman powers. But the side-effects have proven disastrous. Rapture is overrun by genetically modified and brain-damaged freaks—the “splicers.” The player is guided through the game by a faceless protector named, of course, Atlas. The player’s mission is to rescue Atlas’s family and make it back to the surface. If only things were so easy. The city is breaking apart and chaos reigns.
The macabre nature of the splicers, the sickly green tinge that the seawater gives to the light, the melancholy jazz, the flood of black water, and the rubbish of a decaying city combine to create a mood that is an evocative mix of film noir and horror. But all that is mere background to the centerpiece of Bioshock’sgame-play: the player’s confrontations with the “Big Daddies” and the “Little Sisters.”
Genetic modification in Rapture is not free. The modifications require a particular substance called Adam. It’s a substance that’s created only as the product of a biological process that occurs in the bodies of certain little girls who have been bred, genetically modified, and infested with a parasitic sea slug.
These little girls, the Little Sisters of Rapture, emerge shyly from recessed holes in the dark corners of the city to drink the blood of the corpses that lay strewn around the hallways of Rapture. These mutated little girls then process the blood into Adam. They wield their syringes in their pastel dresses and ponytails and are protected by their voiceless, hulking bodyguards, the Big Daddies. The girls speak softly and sweetly, carry teddy bears, refer to their protectors as “Mr. Bubbles,” and cower from whoever attacks them, whether it’s a crazed splicer . . . or the player.
To survive in Rapture, the player needs access to the same kind of genetic modifications that his opponents have. The only way to get these enhancements is to “buy” them with Adam, which can only be found in the bodies of the Little Sisters.
The player must first dispatch the Big Daddy bodyguard, and then, while the sobbing child huddles over her protector and begs, “Wake up Mr. Bubbles! Wake up!” the player is given a choice. He can “harvest” the Adam in the child’s body and kill her in the process, or he can “exorcise” the parasite and rescue the child. The catch is that rescuing the child results in only half as much Adam.
The experience is profoundly moving for a video game. Everything in the game is designed to set the mood for these moments, and the effect is mesmerizing. The player towers over a defenseless, sobbing child and is presented with a stark choice: kill her and prosper, or let her live and take your chances. It makes for good drama and a very good game.
But it makes for bad philosophy.
No Choice at All
Much has been made of Bioshock’s moral dimension, including the deep Objectivist influences that Ken Levine used to inform so much of the narrative structure. Of course, there are no explicit references to Ayn Rand , her novels, or Objectivism as such within the game. But these omissions seem more likely to be the result of a cautious circumspection of copyright law than anything else. And while it is interesting that there seems to be little consensus as to whether the game’s final judgment on Objectivism is more positive or negative, there is little doubt that the game represents a relatively shallow interpretation of Objectivism .
The moral alternative at the heart of the game is presented as a simplistic choice between selfishness and altruism. Kill the child and you’re better off, let her live and you suffer by comparison. But does the moral mini-game represent a punishment for altruism and a reward for selfishness? In its own terms, it doesn't.
There are aspects of the encounters with the Little Sisters that speak volumes about the nature of the choice ultimately presented. First, the Big Daddies won't actively attack the player’s character unless the player attacks them or threatens the Little Sister they’re guarding. Second, the Big Daddies are unresponsive and nonverbal. There is, as a point of plot, no means by which the player can communicate with them. As a function of game mechanics, it is impossible to interact with a Little Sister while her guardian is alive.
So, when the player encounters a Little Sister, he’s faced with an initial choice: attack and kill the little girl’s only protection in a dangerous world and then—and only then—deal with the child. There is no option to trade, to reason, or to cooperate. The only choice is to use force.
That’s not a moral choice. It’s a moral vacuum.
And it’s not instructive or enlightening—or particularly interesting outside the context of the game. The real-world situations in which force is the only option, in which trade, negotiation, and reason have been completely and irrevocably foreclosed, are not situations that are morally instructive or enlightening, either. (They’re also, thankfully, exceedingly rare.) The producers of Bioshock want the audience to experience the choice presented with the Little Sisters as an authentic moral choice. But that requires deliberate manipulation of the circumstances, much obfuscation of essential facts, and deliberately warping the consequences of certain actions.
In the real world, trade works. In the game-world of Bioshock, there is no real trade.
The Sum of It All
There is only simulated, faceless, automated “trade” in Bioshock. Rapture is dotted with various vending machines which helpfully dispense alcohol, potato chips, armor-piercing bullets, and napalm. Presumably, Rapture was a thriving capitalist paradise for a time. The player sees the ruins of shop after shop. He hears various anecdotes about how the winery is watering its wine, how it’s wrong to charge admission to parks, and exhortations on why the thief is a social parasite. The player sees billboards advertising football games, plastic surgery, and teeth-whitening. But these are all failed businesses. Rapture is dying and the shops are all closed. Even the smuggling ring has collapsed.
Yes, there was a thriving black-market smuggling operation in Rapture. After establishing Rapture, Andrew Ryan was so concerned about foreign contamination—and the threat that of government intervention—that he strictly forbade all exports, imports, and communication with the outside world.
To be fair, the game designers seem to have understood that these were contradictions—they don’t ascribe this protectionism to Objectivism as much as they do to the paranoia of the character, Andrew Ryan. In that sense, much of the portrayal of Rapture can be read as an indictment of the lust for power, whether that lust is driven by naked greed, strained ideology, or control over others. In fact, in an interview last August published on shacknews.com, Ken Levine has said of the game that
It’s not an attack on Objectivism , it’s a fair look at humanity. We screw things up. We’re very, very fallible. You have this beautiful, beautiful city, and then what happens when reality meets the ideals? The visual look of the city is the ideals, and the water coming in is reality. It could have been Objectivism , it could have been anything.
But if the game is not meant to be an indictment of Objectivism as such, it is an indictment of human society. The game presents trade as a zero-sum game. One person’s gain must ultimately come at someone else’s expense. Throughout the game, the player is confronted with people who have crassly used and manipulated the innocent, the powerless, or the defenseless for their own personal profit. Implicit in the narrative of the game is the idea that other people represent obstacles to be overcome, parasites to be cleansed, or tools to be used.
In the game, the “ideals” that Levine refers to are peace, freedom, and accomplishment. The “reality” is social strife, class warfare, child abuse, and murder. This is the background for the action of the game; it’s the context for the player’s character. In any narrative, it is the hero’s actions and choices—in contrast to the actions and choices of the other characters—that give the narrative a broader meaning. In a game like Bioshock, the hero’s actions are controlled by the player. In that sense, the ultimate moral judgment might be left to the player to decide—and that is certainly how the game is billed and has been presented.
However, in what is arguably the key moment in the game, when the player is faced with a choice that will have enormous consequences, the option to avoid violence is completely foreclosed and the player’s character is literally compelled to violence. As with the Little Sisters, the player has no choice but to submit to compulsion and force. And that’s the social “reality” of Bioshock.
Of course, in the context of a video game, the violence shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It is a game marketed mainly to young men, after all. But the if the designers want their audience to think about larger issues—or in other words, if they do actually have a point, then the juxtaposition of the ideals and the choices offered, and the violent context in which those choices are presented, become extremely important.
In Bioshock, the lesson is ultimately that the search for personal gain must come at the expense of others. That has always been the conventional and shallow critique of egoism. And for all its thought and effort, Bioshock ultimately fails to make a profound statement.
But it does make a great game. For all of its ideological faults, the game is brilliantly designed. The atmosphere is rich and evocative, and the encounters can be so wonderfully and compellingly creepy that the game rises above its philosophical limitations.