In-Depth Tuesday is a segment in which I try my my best to explain some of the more difficult narratives that exist in videogames. This means I will dissect and find things such as symbolism, allusion, etc. The main point is to help get across the overall message or messages of the game and help illustrate some other confusing things within the continuity. Suggestions for future segments can be made in your comments.
In 2007, Bioshock
received quite a bit of praise from both critics and consumers alike, many calling it the best game of the current console generation so far. It was praised for it's nonlinear gameplay, which juxtaposed against it's linear progression, it's technical prowess and art direction, which perfectly captured it's dystopian setting, and most of all, it's story. Ken Levine, the lead writer, was lauded for taking influence from Ayn Rand's Objectivist novel "Atlas Shrugged"; however it occurs to me that not many people really "get" the message of the story. The most obvious quote of "A man chooses, a slave obeys" leaps immediately to mind, but let's get into the actual grit of what Bioshock
WARNING: There will be spoilers in this discussion.
When you talk about Bioshock
, you must first talk about Atlas Shrugged
, the novel by the Russian-American author, Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand formed the philosophy known as "Objectivism", which was controversial at the time and remains controversial even to this day. In fact, when released in 1957, Atlas Shrugged
was critically beaten, with many accusing it of being a lesson in anti-social behavior that when practiced would lead to selfish, morally-reprehensible, and dangerous actions.
However, over time, the novel found a very vocal and dedicated following who found the philosophy that the novel advocated to be one that they could follow. Because of this, the novel has sold well over the years and has become, along with fellow Rand novel The Fountainhead
, imbued with "classic" status. In fact, in 2008, Atlas Shrugged
ranked number 33 on Amazon's top selling books, even 52 years after it's original release. My guess for this bump in sales is that gamers heard of the novel because of it's attachment to Bioshock
. This is what brings us to the connection between the two.
The basic plot of Atlas Shrugged
, since 70% of people who bought the novel because of Bioshock
didn't finish it, follows Dagny Taggart, the executive of a railroad company. Ms. Taggart and her brother James are having a tough time, with the economic depression (Obviously inspired by the Great Depression, though not actually referring to it), but it seems that James, as President of the company, refuses to act impulsively, instead choosing to make small decisions to keep the company safely, but barely afloat. Dagny believes it is because he wants to avoid making any large, hazardous decisions that will sink the company, leading to the blame of the fall being placed sorely upon his shoulders.
Along with James, Francisco D'Anconia, a childhood friend of Dagny's, is doing everything to ruin his own copper industry, seeking physical delights. It seems that she is alone in the fight for economic survival, with Francisco and James dragging her down because of her emotional and business connections to both. It is then that she meets Hank Rearden, a Steel tycoon whose marriage is getting in the way of his business and Dr. Stadler, whose scientific achievements are being slowly taken over by the government. The three all suffer together, held back by their family, friends, and the government.
When the government starts to take over successful businesses because of the economic crisis, Dagny becomes all too acquainted with the phrase, "Who is John Galt?" The phrase was uttered to her earlier by an employee who quit his job even though Dagny made him various advantageous offers to stay. The phrase is meant to be an ironic saying that means "I don't know because nobody knows," and thus many don't believe in the tall tales of the man known as John Galt. However, when well-known business men start to disappear, Dagny and Rearden begin to struggle as their businesses begin to be threatened by people in high positions of authority.
In the end, it turns out after much paranoid plotting and the discovery of a miracle device that turns atmospheric static energy into raw, usable kinetic energy, that Galt is a real man who seeks the global "strike" of the highest echelon of business men and entrepreneurs. The device that Taggart and Rearden find allow them to become members of the separatist rebel group built by Galt, and as the nation and economy continue to fall, Galt describes the society that he will create, where the Government and other forces will not be able to interfere with the radical productions of his society; the perfect Objectivist community.
Now at this point, the figure of John Galt should sound all to familiar to players of Bioshock; to a "t", he is Andrew Ryan, the creator of Rapture. Ryan is the leader of the society that Galt described in the ending chapter of Atlas Shrugged
and thus Bioshock can almost be seen as a spiritual sequel to the novel. However, unlike Ayn Rand, Ken Levine does not believe that Objectivism is an appropriate philosophy. Objectivism, which says that the pursuit of one's own happiness is the meaning of life because of how we perceive the world through physical and sensual sensation alone, will only lead to the destruction of society if taken to the extreme.
Levine is countering the views of Rand, and thus the views of Objectivism by showing the results of Galt's/Ryan's perfect Objectivist Haven; Rapture. Ryan himself speaks in the language of propaganda, and the focus of his propaganda is to defeat the counter-philosophy of Objectivism (Which is technically this
philosophies counter-philosophy), Altruism, which says that the welfare of others and society as a whole is more important the self. Ryan sees this as a view that limits prosperity; if you concern yourself with the moral majority, the individual cannot seek his/her own happiness. Ryan and Galt, as Objectivists, are supporters of laissez faire
, or complete economic freedom, where the government has no say over it what so ever.
America, the country I call home, is a Capitalist nation, which has recently become a dirty word in popular culture. Capitalism is the practice of enforcing little control on the economy, allowing it to grow and develop on it's own with no interference from the Government. This means that since Capitalism follows the basic principals of laissez faire
, we are on the right of the scale when it comes to Economics, with the left side being complete and utter Socialism, which has also turned into a dirty word. Socialism is not a political system, despite what many believe, but it is instead a economic system, where those in charge, the Government, own the means of production, meaning that they control the Government and follow and egalitarian method of compensation, meaning everyone gets equal treatment economically.
's Rapture is a city where Capitalism is the form of economics, where those in charge don't do anything with the economy, much like America. However, Ryan, despite being basically a Capitalist, believes that the American Government is imposing upon the great that he now calls his citizens. He says that the "Man in Washington", the"Man in the Vatican"(The center of Catholicism), and the "Man in Moscow", are all constraining the great and their possible accomplishments. This means that despite what I described earlier, he is not a hypocrite; it seems that he isn't criticizing the economic practices of America or The Soviet Union, a former Socialist nation, but instead the ways in which they concern themselves with helping the majority, or the "weak", as he would put it.
This kind of view is odd considering that both Capitalism and Socialism both have similar criticisms that say with either, the people at the bottom suffer more than they should; with Capitalism, critics say that the rich are rewarded over the needy, and with Socialism, the strict economic practices do not allow for Civil Liberties. This is why we see/saw the Soviet Union as an incredibly strict, freedom-less hellhole where nationalist propaganda flooded the public, and why many see America as a safe haven for the freedom of beliefs but a place where the poor are harshly treated more than anyone. That is why we see many complaints about President Obama, whose Health Care Plan and Economic Plan are seen as Socialist, which in America, a Capitalist nation, is a very dirty word. But I digress, this is about videogames, not politics.
This is important to see, because it shows that the fall of Rapture is not a direct result of any economic philosophy, but instead due to the Objectivist beliefs of Ryan and the citizens of Rapture. We see that the ultimate, amoral (Not immoral) freedoms that Ryan has allowed has turned people into maniacs; Dr. Stienman becomes obsessed with seeking beauty because his standards have reached murderous peaks. Dr. Suchong has abandoned his humanity for the advancement of cold, heartless science. Sander Cohen has become a paranoid artist who believes every criticism is an attack because his limitless freedom should enable him to create perfection. Every villain, Fontaine not withstanding, has become insane due to the freedom they've been given. There is no restraint to keep Stienman from seeking beauty through turning faces into what he sees as works reminiscent of Picasso.
This brings us to Ryan himself yet again, who is one of the final villains to be defeated by you. As we all know, the main character, and thus you, are the illegitimate son of Ryan. He had Suchong genetically enhance you to the point that you take the form of a man in his mid-twenties by age two. As to why he did this, I can go into but I won't (suffice it to say that I believe Ryan is still alive, more on that later perhaps). What this means is that because of Suchong's enhancements, you are able to be controlled by the phrase "Would you kindly?", which Fontaine/Atlas and Ryan take advantage of. Ryan, a man who prides himself on giving the citizens of Rapture ultimate freedom, has created a slave, a man with no freedom. A slave that will obey any command, even one to kill the master himself, in this case, Ryan.
You, the player, are the symbol of slavery. You are a being who both in the game and out of the game must conform to the orders given to you, both by the game itself and by Atlas, who controls you with the phrase "Would you Kindly?" without your knowledge. In the game, the protagonist "John" is sent through the hell of Rapture by Ryan, but is taken over by Fontaine, who uses you as his own personal assassin against Ryan. Ryan knows this, and accepts his death and in fact endorses it. More on why later. John is a slave to those around him, a person who is constrained by the people whom he calls "family" much in the way that Rearden from Atlas Shrugged
is. John is a slave to Altruism, ironic given that he is the son of the embodiment of Objectivism.
Symbolically, this means that when John kills Ryan, the embodiment of Objectivism and his father, he is set free from his bonds. He is given freedom by the original creator of his shackles, which are tattooed on his wrist. Altruism has destroyed Objectivism, which in the story of Bioshock
, was the original party responsible for his slavery. Fontaine seeks to have John killed after he kills Ryan, so after John is given ultimate freedom by Dr. Tenenbaum, he is able to dedicate himself to giving meaning to the lives of the Little Sisters, the ultimate form of Altruism. This is of course considering that the player took the moral highroad, which is the road I believe gives the symbolic images of the story more meaning.
As the player, you are given the choice to either use the little sisters to better yourself (Objectivism) or save them at the cost of your own benefit (Altruism). This of course is an easy decision when you figure that you actually get around the same amount of Adam either way, and in fact get more plasmids from taking the morally correct action of saving the Little Sisters. However, what it comes down to is that we ourselves are given a choice. "A man chooses; a slave obeys." The player, given the choice by the game, is a man who is in control of a slave, John. Through his actions, we can perform miracles or misdeeds, and either way, we are men. The fact that the player is a man and not a slave leaves out the fact that the man is bound by neither good nor evil. A man is a man. By this logic, we can say that Adolf Hitler was a man just as Gandhi was a man.
Of course this isn't supposed to be some anti-feminist rant, I'm simply using the terms that have been given to me. The point is that the player themselves are able to choose freely what to do and how to do it, which the plasmid system allows. Throughout the game, we are made unaware of the fact that Atlas is Fontaine and that we are being controlled by him to kill Ryan, meaning we are given the illusion of freedom; after all, you seek the death of Ryan as well since he holds the key to your cell that is Rapture. However, once we make it to Ryan, we are not given a choice in the way that we dispatch him in the way we do for Stienman, Cohen, or anyone else; in fact, we have no control over the outcome or how that outcome is achieved at all. We have become slaves to Ryan, just as John is. We realize we have been slaves the entire game, given only the illusion of choice.
In this moment, more than any other, the player and John are the same entity, with the same emotional response and all. We have become slaves to another, and in desiring freedom from this slavery, we are believers of Objectivism. We seek to be given freedom from the chains that Ryan and Fontaine have ensnared us in, and by killing him, we are set free, only to be put right into another. You see, the entire game has the illusion of choice, and yet we are slaves to the designers. We do what we are the told to do, unquestioningly, unflinchingly, and without thought. We are slaves to what the designer wants us to see and hear, thus giving us the experience that the designer wants us to have and not ourselves.
However, the choice that is not an illusion is the one that is the most obvious: saving or harvesting the little sisters. The choice the player makes is totally up to the player, and no one has any control over which one they choose. This is the only time that we are truly men and not slaves, and this is when the designer has no ability to tell us what to do. Of course they control the circumstances of said choice and the outcome of it, but we, the players, are able to choose freely for the only time in the game. Of course the moral high road yields a much more concrete evaluation of the story, meaning that there is a flaw in the narrative of Bioshock
(There are many, not big, but they are flaws none the less). However, even as a flaw, it has symbolic meaning.
That is what Bioshock is about to Ken Levine; the disapproval of Objectivism over Altruism and a tale about the results of the acceptance of it's principals. It is a commentary on Objectivism and videogames at once, and even if the narrative flaws keep it from being an absolute masterpiece, that doesn't make it's message any less effective or brilliantly told. It is a masterpiece, just not perfectly so, much like a flawed Picasso painting. Oh, and Ryan is alive because he wanted to be "killed" so that Fontaine would believe he was dead. This is why even though he is aware that Atlas is Fontaine and that he is using you, he doesn't reveal it to you; Fontaine doesn't know that he knows of his true identity. If Fontaine knew that Ryan knew his true identity, he would know that Ryan would want to be "killed".
When about to face Ryan, if the player is killed in and around his office, you will re-spawn in Andrew's personal Vita Chamber, meaning it is functioning. You re-spawn in it because it responds only to his DNA, and since you are a product of his DNA, you re-spawn in it. This, with the fact that this is explained in an Audio log by Dr. Suchong, is supposed to hint that Ryan [i]wants[i/] to die, just so that he may be reborn in his own Vita Chamber, which is functioning and responsive to his DNA. This means that his "death" would be accepted as such by Fontaine, and that he can go into hiding and reveal himself at a later date, either ready to fight an unexpected Fontaine, or ready to fight however else he needs to. I'm not sure if he is aware that John would kill Fontaine. Whether this is all true or not will be revealed only by time.
LOOK WHO CAME: