Revisiting Bioshock

As details about Bioshock Infinite continue to emerge, it seems clear that the game is shaping up to be every bit as challenging and potentially controversial as the original Bioshock.

How serious is writer Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games about creating worthy sequel to one of the best, most intelligent, games ever made? Well, here’s one of the propaganda images from the upcoming game (due in the Fall), and here’s a tag attached to immigrants in the game world. (Note how the preferred “Partition A” includes anyone of European origins except for “Papist, Gypsy, Irish, Greek, Impaired or Sickly.”) With subject matter including eugenics, race, religion, politics, theocracy, nationalism, transhumanism, and more, Bioshock Infinite is shaping up to be even more provocative than the original.

And that’s going to be quite a feat, because even five years later, no one has come close to making a game that addresses serious issues so effectively. Bioshock was the game that finally got me off the sidelines and into the Catholic writing thing. I’d been thinking about using my long experience writing about games to cover the medium from a uniquely Catholic angle, much like my friend Steven D. Greydanus does for films. I just wan’t sure I had a “Catholic voice” after so many years of toiling in the secular media. I really didn’t know if I had anything to offer.

Bioshock changed that. It demanded serious coverage. It hit a sweet spot among my areas of knowledge: gaming, religion, philosophy, objectivism (I’m a lapsed Libertarian), pulp fiction, and transhumanism. I wrote the piece that follows in January of 2008 and gave it to my blogmother, Julie D., to use on the group blog Catholic Media Review. I used it to pitch the idea of continuing game coverage to the National Catholic Register, where the awesome and much-missed Dave Pearson took a chance and gave me a regular spot. That in turn became a regular gig as a Catholic journalist, and for those who knew me 10 years ago, that’s just … weird. But wonderful.

Anyway, didn’t mean to ramble on so as a simple introduction to a game review, but Bioshock was a turning point not only for games as an intelligent medium capable of conveying ideas and exploring morally complex issues, but also for me personally as a writer. As this blog continues to cover tech, gaming, and transhumanism, I thought it was worthwhile to have the entire review housed over here.

Bioshock

Rated: M
Content: Bioshock is a game for adults. It includes use of alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes as a gameplay element; strong, R-rated language; blood and gore; intense violence; and sexual, religious, moral, and ethical themes. Not for kids.

When game journalists and editors sit down to hash out an annual awards issue, the “Best Game of the Year” Award usually takes a least a little conversation and debate.

In 2007, the conversation was short: “Does anyone think any game other than Bioshock is worthy of Game of the Year? Anyone?  Anyone? Let’s move on then.”

In a year flush with fantastic, smart, well-crafted games for consoles, computers, and handhelds, Bioshock stands out as one of the rare game games to transcend its format. Bioshock is a game, make no mistake: you run around collecting things, shooting monsters, enhancing your character, unlocking new locations, and performing all the other functions associated with a role-playing action shooter.  But there’s more here. Much more.

Narrative complexity, character development, and even thematic depth are fairly common coin in modern game design, but Bioshock takes it further, probing issues of morality, bioethics, and the nature of the self, all within the context of a Libertarian/Objectivist Dystopia.

Those who follow computer gaming have been awaiting Bioshock for a long time. Its creators call it a “spiritual heir” to System Shock, a sci-fi game which remains one of the landmarks in PC gaming history. System Shock was a deep, first person experience that offered a vivid world and narrative, then let you progress through combat, stealth, puzzles, or any combination of the three. Bioshock’s developer, Irrational Games, is staffed with some of the original System Shock team, and several of System Shock’s core elements have been carried forth into a new and even better game experience.

Bioshock begins in 1960, as a plane crashes into the middle of the ocean, leaving only one survivor: you.  Swimming through the burning wreckage, you encounter a strange kind of lighthouse rising out of the deep like some Lovecraftian monolith. Inside, a bathysphere takes you to the bottom of the ocean, and a city of wonder hidden there.  This city is the work of a megalomaniacal visionary named Andrew Ryan, who named it Rapture.

Ryan is a radical Objectivist millionaire who seeks to create an anarcho-capitalist utopia, He’s Ayn Rand via Charles Foster Kane, with a bit of Howard Hughes tossed in for good measure.  Rapture is his monument to narcissism. Its soaring architecture and burnished brass seem like set designs by Albert Speer for an Art Deco production of Atlas Shrugged. These are not mere monuments to the ego of one man. Although Ryan’s cult of personality is complete and smothering—his voice (acted by Armin Shimerman) blaring from loudspeakers, his mottos carved into stone—Rapture is designed to create an entire city full of narcissists. The worship of self is central, as Ryan makes clear in one of his many pronouncements:

“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.”

What is the most vicious obscenity ever visited on mankind? To Ryan, it’s not slavery, the holocaust, Nazism, Bolshevism … it’s altruism. Altruism is the great lie that inverts the proper order of things. All the evils  of the world are brought on because people are conditioned to consider the needs of the other. In Ryan’s (and Rand’s) philosophy, they should think only of themselves. Rapture was created so that scientists would be able to conduct research free of the ethical constrains of civilization, so artists would not be bound by outdated moral codes, where the only rule would be the Law of Thelema: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Ryan builds the city in secret, and populates it with his own special selection of handpicked “brights”. As you’d expect from such a libertarian wonderland untethered from morality or restraint, it doesn’t take long for Rapture to descend into utter chaos. When you finally reach it, it’s already a leaking husk overrun by genetic mutants as various factions fight for power. The story of Rapture’s collapse emerges piecemeal through messages and recordings collected in the course of exploration. It’s a technique used to great effect in the original System Shock, and it works even better here.

Rapture’s collapse is an object lesson in what happens when bioethics break down. The city is undone by genetic tampering, as people attempt to turn themselves into Gods with gene modifying drugs. God’s work is imperfect, people are told, so science must step in to improve it. At the top of the crumbling pyramid is Ryan, with his Godlike delusions and warped philosophy. He sees Rapture as a New Eden. Indeed, two of the gameplay elements are “ADAM”, a mutagen which allows people to modify their genetic structure to enhance certain powers, and “EVE,” the fuel for these genetic mutations. In order to get through Rapture, your character needs to become one of these mutants without sinking too far into madness. It’s a dangerous balance, and in the end only love is able to bring you back, if you choose the path of love.

As you need more and more of these drugs to progress through the game, you’re forced to make moral choices. You see, roaming throughout Rapture are a chilling pair of creatures: Big Daddy and Little Sister. Big Daddies are huge genetic mutants in heavily armed diving suits. Little Sisters are innocent looking little girls with ponytails, cute little dresses … and giant needles they use to suck the ADAM out of mutants after the Big Daddies kill them.

The Little Sisters are the work a female holocaust survivor, Dr. Tennenbaum, who creates them to produce ADAM. She thought the girls could be used without consequence, but didn’t count on them retaining their childlike characteristics. They’re still little girls, who sing, and laugh, and play. As Tennenbaum says at one point: “I look at genes all day long, and never do I see the blueprint of sin. I could blame the Germans, but in truth, I did not find tormentors in the Prison Camp, but kindred spirits. These children I brutalized have awoken something inside that for most is beautiful and natural, but in me, is an abomination… my maternal instinct.”

Life will find a way, however. Dr. Tennenbaum’s maternal instincts win out. She turns into the Sisters’ protector, and find herself on the run inside Rapture. She forces the player to make a choice. As the character, we have been told to kill the Big Daddies and suck the ADAM out of the Little Sisters, a process that will kill them. Tennenbaum begs us to save the girls. Through her process, a smaller amount of ADAM can be extracted, leaving the girls alive and freed of the drug’s control. In return, she offers a vague promise of some reward down the road.

Which do you choose? It’s just a game, after all. The choices don’t matter. Expediency should win out.

But time and again, when I’ve spoken to people about it, they always say they left the Little Sisters alive. Since doing so changes the way the game unfolds (and ultimately ends), some may go back and harvest just to see the alternate ending, but most feel uncomfortable with it. (Both endings are easily found on YouTube.) There’s a strange feeling of rightness that comes from healing the Sisters. It becomes a part of the risk/reward cycle of the game. It also leads to an absolutely boffo “good” ending. (Killing the girls results in a “bad” ending, making it clear just where the developers’ sympathies lie.)

From a pure gameplay perspective, Bioshock can be called a first person shooter, but that would sell it short. The combat elements are handled elegantly, with many ways to approach each enemy. As you progress, you pick up Plasmids and Genetic Tonics, which can be loaded into a finite number of slots on your character. These genetic modifications add different kinds of attacks, but also enhance various physical, engineering, and combat skills. By using special stations, you can customize your character with very specific attacks and skills, enabling each player to create a unique character. You can thus customize your character to approach the game in a variety of ways, with an emphasis on hacking, stealth, frontal combat, and so on. The game also incorporates System Shock’s “hacking” mode, which allows users to solve puzzles (styled on the Water Works tile game) to bypass certain obstacles or gain bonuses.

There is much more in Bioshock than this, and a simple listing of features always comes up short in conveying just how immersive and engrossing this game is. The world itself is a richly detailed art deco hell populated with a large cast of characters and creepy enemies. Narrative emerges through recordings and messages left behind, with both major and minor characters sketched through deft little clips pieced together along the way.

Bioshock shows us a stark picture of what Libertarianism and Objectivism would look like in the real world. I spent ten years supporting the Libertarian Party through votes and donations before I finally grew up. It is, and always shall be, a philosophy of children. Unfettered individualism does not lead to an Objectivist Utopia. It leads simply to Rapture, and the hell of a society filled with narcissists trying to make themselves gods. Bioshock puts you in the middle of that hell, and forces you to choose a side.

It’s the kind of choice a radical Objectivist like Ryan would believe is irrelevant to society, but it has an absolutely central effect on how the game plays out, leaving us with a very clear message about right and wrong and the place of the individual in society.  Games just don’t get better than this.

Bioshock is available at Amazon.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    Looking over my 30+ year history of gaming, there aren’t too many games I regret never playing (and as we’re a Nintendo family, without an XBox or PS3, and that my limited game time is almost always shared with little kidlets, there are many great, solid games I never get to play). But Bioshock is the one game I have always regretted not playing. Maybe it’ll come out on iPad someday.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    There’s a PC version as well. It’s dirt cheap now, since it’s old, and as we all know, games expire faster than milk.

  • victor

    Thanks! I’ll keep my eyes open for that. In another 5-10 years or so I might have the time and a PC capable of playing it :)

  • Christian Mysliwiec

    Great article! Very insightful.
    Out of curiosity, are there any other games out there that you think are deep and thought provoking – that are not just “games”?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald
  • Pingback: Ryan, Rand, and the Catholic Angle

  • Geeta Patel

    Very good essay, actually maybe the best I have ever heard concerning Bioshock.

    And that’s very true what you said about Libertarianism and Objectivism. While people should be free (I myself am one of those elusive Muslim Republicans) I think that without boundaries people inevitably go nuts.

  • Tim in Cleveland

    Thanks for your article. I was revisiting your revisit in anticipation of Bioshock Infinite which was released today. Hope to get your views it… so far it has been getting very good reviews so I’m eager to play it when time allows.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    It’s just downloading now from Steam, but I probably won’t get to it this issue.

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  • Joe

    I think this is an oversimplification of the game’s message. Rapture is not an objectivist utopia since not everyone in the city is an objectivist. Not to mention Andrew Ryan’s absolute control over society which would make zero sense for objectivists. I’m not an adherent of the admittedly flawed philosophy, I just think the themes go deeper than just simple dystopia. It’s all about human nature and it uses the way humans behave using libertarianism as a springboard. Not unlike Ayn Rand’s use of communism or Bradbury’s use of technology. A fictional story setting up a utopia and making it fail with no deeper meaning would be the definition of a strawman.

    And though Catholic, I am very sympathetic to Ayn Rand’s principles. Andrew Ryan had a point, why should the fruit of my labour belong to anyone but me? You wrote a good article that got me thinking of all this though, keep it up.


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