PC/Videogame Commentary: Bioshock & The Objectivist Dystopia

NOTE: From time to time, I may run one of my older print reviews that are not widely available on the web. This review/essay was one of several things I wrote about BioShock. I wrote it originally for Catholic Media Review, and was able to write at greater length than anywhere else.

Reading it 2 years later, I find that I still hold to my original opinions: BioShock is one of the best games of all time, and one of the few to really explore multiple complex issues with intelligence and wit. The sequel was also good, but lacked the original’s satirical bite and philosophical depth.

This piece might also require some background. For many years (throughout most of my 20s and some of my 30s) I was a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the Libertarian Party. I never considered myself an Objectivist per se (Ayn Rand’s deadly prose would be a cheap alternative to Ambien), but I found much in Libertarianism’s doctrine of individual responsibility and freedom that appealed, and it still does in many ways.

As I read more and matured, I began to see the limits of Libertarianism in general and anarcho-capitalism in particular. I now believe that any entity (be it a State or a Corporation) can become large enough to threaten liberty. Obviously, capitalism is superior to socialism, but a wholly unrestrained marketplace is only slightly less dangerous than an unrestrained government. Both require limits. BioShock illustrates why, which may explain why it resonated with me so powerfully.

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 radical 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. 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.

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