Game * Irrational Games * Objectivism Dystopia * 2007
This game is totally ten years old and who feels old now? Everyone does. Hooray! Bioshock is one of the few games that I can associate with a distinct time and place. First of all, the game was a revelation when it came out, and still holds up pretty well. However, playing this also coincides with an important life moment. My wife and I had moved from the relatively sleepy, small town-oriented Central Coast of California the year prior. This involved a brief period of living with my parents, which is of course not ideal when you’re in your mid-20s. Whatever, though, because we eventually found an apartment in what amounts to the closest thing Portland has to a ghetto, which is to say the grimy no-man’s-land between Portland and Gresham, otherwise known as Rockwood. We lived right on the MAX line and there was occasional gunfire! Still, come on, it’s Portland. Not exactly The Wire over here. Anyway, we stuck it out for the duration of the lease before we found a much better place in Portland’s other kinda ghetto, the Boise-Eliot neighborhood in Northeast Portland. The house was a split-level situation and we rented the top, which had two small bedrooms. Downstairs, a group of young Christian woman lived quietly and all in all, the neighborhood was legit. Now, of course, it’s been gentrified beyond recognition and you probably have to put a ‘1’ in front of the $730 we were paying a month for that place. When Bioshock came out I was beyond excited for it. I don’t read too much in the way of preview material, but I knew this was going to be exactly for me. Since we had just moved in, the not-bedroom was a mess of boxes and nonsense. Whatever, though, because I hooked up my Xbox 360 and set up a TV on the single flat surface I could find.
And it was great. For like four hours, and then my 360 red-ringed on me. Motherfucker. Like, I had never been blue-balled by a console before and I was upset. Here’s my most anticipated game of the year, I get just far enough in to be super intrigued and eager to press on, and then pfft. RROD. Fine, fine! I’m an adult, I can deal with this. So I called Microsoft up, and as anyone who dealt with customer service during these dark days knows, they were pretty on the ball. They sent my little cardboard coffin and I sent the dead console back. Like a week or so later my new 360 shows up. We’re back! I load up my save and okay, this game is still fucking great. For another six hours, and then the new machine red-rings. I’ve never been prone to temper tantrums, but I was close to one that day. I eventually finished, and the 360 breaking my heart made the experience of playing Bioshock one I doubt I’ll forget. So, thanks Microsoft? Oh, and for the record, I ended up with seven different Xbox 360’s over the first year or so. The seventh one still works. And, to Microsoft’s credit, I only ever paid the first.
I should probably talk about the actual game, although I feel like pretty much anyone with an interest in video games knows what’s up with Bioshock. The game begins with a plane crash which leaves you thrashing around a dark ocean with the tail of the plane slowly sinking into the sea and the rest of the wreckage slowly burning itself out on the surface. Nearby is an unlikely lighthouse, its Art Deco façade jutting into the moonlit sky. The moment is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as when you make your way inside and find a little round submarine. You get in and descend and oh, huh, okay. Someone built a massive city beneath the ocean. A city called Rapture. Oh, and there’s the delayed title card. Awesome.
As the game progresses, we come to understand just what the hell is going on. Once upon a time, a man named Andrew Ryan read Atlas Shrugged one too many times and decided he was going to secede from the world and build a libertarian utopia beneath the sea. Job creators are real humans, everyone else is a parasite. For a while, Ryan’s vision worked a treat. Rapture is a clear achievement, and those who lived there managed to create great things and push science and technology forward in great leaps. Then, somewhere along the line, rot and decay set in and Rapture declined and is now teetering on total collapse. The ways and hows of that decline are uncovered as you move through the game, but right away it’s apparent that Rapture is a hellhole. Everything is in ruin, and the city seems inhabited solely of crazy people who try to kill you on sight. The atmosphere is oppressive and claustrophobic, but the art direction is some of the best in games. Bioshock has a vision and executes extremely well. But then you knew that.
I don’t want to just unceremoniously declare Bioshock the greatest game to exist across space and time throughout the multiverse, because there are some flaws. Of course there are. From a storytelling standpoint, there are issues with the structure. First, the game relies far too heavily on audio logs which are littered all over hell and gone. The logical disconnect with these should be clear. Rapture – a city built beneath the ocean – is falling apart from the inside out. There is literally nowhere to escape the effects of decay and decline and things are turning violent. Hold on, let me record my thoughts on a sixties-ass tape recorder and leave them in random places around the city. Fine, it’s an imperfect approach which I guess is a better use of player time than a raft of cut scenes. However, the other problem with this method of storytelling is more practical, which is the fact that the player probably isn’t going to find them all. So you better make sure you find the ones which make the story make sense. The other structural issue is another use of the old silent protagonist trope. Of course, this time out Irrational at least makes this a valid choice. I’ll circle back to this.
Bioshock’s story is about the inevitability of social decline and the decay that is built into every human endeavor. We build, we destroy. It’s what we have always done, and every current trend indicate it’s what we’ll always do. This is a very pessimistic view of human nature, but it fits the data. On the optimistic side of the equation, the rise of a civilization can be a breathtaking achievement, and we are capable of great and beautiful things. That these achievements are doomed to decline and fall are almost beside the point when they’re being built. Rapture is an example of the rise and collapse of a civilization in an enclosed space. Sealed off under the ocean, Andrew Ryan’s vision of a society begins with a flourish and ends with a damp thud in a comparatively small amount of time. From beginning to end, Rapture lasts about a decade. If you listen to the audio logs – I got 93% of them according to the achievement tracker – you can trace where and why things went wrong. Turns out, it’s the same kind of shit that undermines every civilization, time and time again.
Andrew Ryan is an adherent to Objectivism, although not necessarily in name. Atlas Shrugged doesn’t exist in the world of Bioshock, but the worldview does. Also, “Andrew Ryan” is an unsubtle allusion to Ayn Rand, so, I mean, yeah. Rapture is a self-contained society comprised entirely of lassiez-faire, libertarian Objectivists. If you’re not familiar, allow me to define some terms real quick. Essentially, the core belief is that society should be founded in absolute freedom. This means the economy should be entirely governed by a market totally free of regulation. Further, government is inherently evil, in that it is a structure which people create to use violence to compel other people to follow regulations. This violates the rule of absolute individual freedom, therefore it should not exist. A less extreme form of this view is that government should be incredibly limited to a very few, nominal functions. Ideally, though, no government. Objectivism is the name applied to Rand’s worldview, which she illustrated in her novels. Founded on the above principles, Objectivism basically states that a person is the sum of their own effort, ingenuity, intelligence, and tenacity. Anyone claiming that outside factors affect an individual’s lot in life is a subhuman parasite.
Okay, so I tried my best to retain a neutral tone up there. I may have slipped a little in the end, but to be fair that kind of rhetoric is used by Rand (and in the game, Ryan) all the time. True Objectivists have nothing but contempt for people who suggest that there other possible factors which contribute to the state of a society, or to an individual’s place in said society. Anyway, that is my understanding of the ideas on which Rapture was built. Here’s my commentary: those ideas are all fatally flawed. This is obvious in the fictional world of Rapture, that’s one of the things Bioshock is saying. However, the concept of absolute individual freedom is fatally flawed in the real world too, and unlike Bioshock, it’s a problem of scale.
Look, have you met people? Most of them are totally fine, a few are truly great, but some of them really, really suck. In what universe do we want to leave those in the latter category to just do whatever they want? Because what they want to do is steal your shit and murder you. If you’re an Andrew Ryan type, someone who can be considered truly great by virtue of intelligence and hard work, what are you going to do when someone rolls in with a gun with no other motive than to wreck your shit? If you build your operation out big enough, now you have other people working in harmony with your vision, and you don’t necessarily want them robbed or dead either, if only because you need their ideas and labor. Also! Even if you’re Captain of Industry, you can’t do every damn thing yourself. You ain’t got time to grow your own food or do your own plumbing. Well shit, other people will do that for a price, and that’s a free market and that’s well and good, until one of the baddies uses violence to usurp the market. You could hire someone to protect your assets, unless you’re lower on the chain and now you’ve got to choose between paying rent, buying materials, or hiring a security force to protect your ass.
Gets complicated fast, doesn’t it? You also need infrastructure and utilities and protection and every other damn thing you can think of that a government does. Rapture is small. It’s self-contained and is pretty much an ideal test case for the desire for absolute individual freedom, and already it’s doomed to fail because the society gets too big. Multiply that out to over 300 million and now you’ve got the United States. I don’t know about you, but I have zero desire to keep track of every single service the government provides so I can pay for them piecemeal, according to need. I have enough bills, thank you. Every road is a toll road paid to a different company? Every city park is a different fee paid to a recreation company? The cops only come if I remember to pay my bill? This all falls apart from a convenience standpoint alone.
Let’s get away from the macro and return to the micro, in this case Rapture. I could go on about the need for civilization to use neutral abstract constructs (governments, corporations) to organize high-level social interactions, but that’s kind of beyond the scope of Bioshock’s self-contained world. Rapture falls apart because competing human interests tear it apart from within. Ryan is trying to prove the validity of his beliefs through achievement. Rapture attracts like-minded people in various fields, and they all succeed together for a time. One builds a forest under the sea to create sweeping parklands that also make necessary oxygen (and my favorite level in the game), another creates an entertainment wonderland. A brilliant scientist unlocks the secrets of the human genome and creates a system of psychic superpowers based on a system of goo called Adam and Eve. Rapture also attracts another kind of self-made man. A con man named Fontaine.
Fontaine is a piece of shit, and is the avatar of the bad human I mentioned above. He’s the wildcard who uses his individual talent not to create, but to destroy and steal. He’s subtle, and when Rapture inevitably creates a society of haves and have-nots, he creates a populist persona to capitalize on the anger of the have-nots. Atlas sows discontent not in an effort to make things better, but to enrich himself. That said, that discontent is very real and is there to be exploited. Again, all very human reactions which again and again undermine a civilization to the point of collapse. Usually this takes a long time, but again, Rapture is self-contained. Throw in the weird genetic mutations, and when the end comes Rapture falls hard.
Enter Jack, the nonspeaking player. Now, I don’t like silent protagonists. I’m never going to feel like “oh hey, it’s me shooting all these fucked up mutants under the sea!” I don’t really want to immerse myself like that. I prefer if the player character is an actual character most of the time (even if I prefer to retain the right to decide what that character looks like or how they generally act – like in Mass Effect). However, there’s a reason Jack doesn’t speak throughout the deeply fucked up proceedings of Bioshock, and that’s so the game can enjoy its twist. Turns out, you were brainwashed and programmed to do the bidding of Fontaine the entire time. When you finally find Andrew Ryan, the game takes away all player control and all you can do is watch while you murder Ryan with a golf club. This moment wouldn’t work is Jack were chatting it up the entire game, so I guess the silent protagonist thing gets a pass. The twist is a bit of meta-commentary that questions the actual player’s assumptions about choice in games, but also ties in with the larger themes of individual choice, how those choices affect the entire society, and the inevitability of that society collapsing.
Damn, this is getting too long and I haven’t even touched on a few important elements. The Art Deco styling of Rapture and the art direction as a whole are perfect for the game. They line up exactly with the industrial foundation of Rapture and Objectivism in general. Every room is crafted with care and things make sense as you move through the space. I also realize I haven’t mentioned the Little Sisters or Big Daddies yet, which is a major part of the experience. Bioshock is personally important because it’s one of the first times a game made me feel actively uncomfortable. That scene where you first encounter a Little Sister? And you approach her and you’re huge and she’s tiny and freaking out and you just scoop her up and she’s all “No! No no no!” I’m sitting here trying to visualize the human monster who “harvests” the child. To this day I’ve never seen the animation in which the player does this. Not even out of morbid curiosity. And I don’t even like kids that much!
The sudden shifts in scale are important here. You’re this big hulking dude with a gun lurking over this tiny little girl who is terrified of you. Really? You’re going to hurt her? You’re a goddamn pyschopath?
There’s more to talk about, of course, because this is one of those few video games with a strong point of view, and something to say about it. The moment-to-moment gameplay is fine, but isn’t really the point. The player is here to discover the world of Rapture, to figure out what went wrong and why. To this end, Bioshock succeeds as much as Rapture itself failed.