The Heel-Turn: Atlas Shrugged

Can you please…

[I had a couple of ideas for the heel-turn prompt, but for some reason I never thought of this one. It’s a good choice really. What better heel-turn is there than this character, who literally is your ally and turns on you right at the pivotal moment? I applaud Gamemaniac’s choice and look at how Atlas works as the de facto heel-turn of BioShock but, spoilers, I guess? ~Marcel]

At the repeated insistence of local Kevin Deadmoon, I finally decided to see about writing a blog for this month’s bloggers wanted. I wasn’t sure what I’d pick at first – nothing immediately came to mind and I kept chewing on whether or not I could think of a good heel to muse on. Eventually after some ruminating though, I managed to stumble upon what I think is a good one that I still think holds up today. Spoilers within, but by this point the game’s so old that you’re probably aware of what I’m going to discuss here.

The opening of BioShock is incredibly well done, presenting a gilded view from the founder of the city itself which leads into seeing the city for the first time. It’s a magnificent sight and it contrasts incredibly well with what happens next. Upon your entry into the city proper you are made to watch as a man is gutted by an insane hook-wielding women. She immediately attempts to get into your bathysphere before jumping back into the shadows and out of sight. Its then that the bathyspheres radio starts communicating with you and you get introduced to Atlas – a friendly face in a clearly unfriendly city.

Atlas eases the player into moving forward, provides aid when the deranged women attempts to attack you, and explains the situation you find yourself in. He then asks you for your help in a sympathetic goal: he can’t make it to his family without your help and begs for your aid in getting to them. You build a relationship and trust with him as you go through the game and a lot of the material you find about him leading up to the confrontation with the city’s despotic ruler Andrew Ryan seems to support that he’s a good guy.

Throughout the game you use the weapons you want, the plasmids you want, and generally seem to be able to explore as you wish while moving along to whatever goal Atlas informs you to pursue. Soon enough you make your way to meet Andrew Ryan face to face and get revenge for Atlas’s family and the numerous attempts Ryan has made on your life. But before you can take any action, he uses the phrase “Would you kindly” to take away all control you have as a player. Even his own death he takes out of your hands with the phrase, as you come to realize that you as a character – and also by proxy as a player – had no control all along.

Atlas then instructs you to stop the city from basically self-destructing and control is ostensibly given back to the player before Atlas laughs with relief and then menacingly mocks the player character. He then reveals all: Atlas was using you as a puppet to further his own ends the whole time and is actually criminal/general asshole Frank Fontaine. You were born and made to obey, a puppet that was made to be able to get close enough to Ryan to kill him, wresting control of the city from Ryan to Fontaine. The security systems not being able to pin you down immediately and the vita chambers that resurrect people related to Ryan were all down not just to serving a player purpose but because you were specifically made for those purposes.

The death of Atlas’s family and their existence as a whole was a fabricated lie to get the player on Fontaine’s side and more amenable to liking him. Him being the only friendly voice was merely a charade and you realize how alone you were the whole time, and how you had no real control over what was happening. It impacts the character and even more heavily it impacts the player, in a very well done heel-turn that skyrockets the repulsiveness of Fontaine to the player while forcing them to consider their agency in not just BioShock but other games as well. Despite the fact that after the reveal the game arguably doesn’t do much with the concept as it progresses towards its end, I still think the event and setup is masterfully done. 

It’s a pretty impactful event and that’s why it sticks out even now as one of the more memorable betrayals in a game story while also saying more beyond the story aspect. It’s a heel-turn that’s stuck with me for years after playing and it’s one that in its execution does so much more than just surprise the player with a backstab. Thanks for reading, feel free to leave any thoughts below!  

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