No Gods Or Kings. Only Man: Bioshock

Published on September 29th, 2011 in: Game Reviews, Gaming, Halloween, Horror, Science Fiction |

By Paul Casey

“I am Andrew Ryan, and I am here to ask you a question: Is a man not entitled to the sweat on his brow? No, says the man in Washington, it belongs to the poor. No, says the man in 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. The city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be restrained by the small. And with the sweat on your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.”

Bioshock was released in 2007, and was a watershed moment in my gaming life. While much code has been spent on the idea of choice within a video game—Lionhead Studio’s Fable, Bioware’s Mass Effect, and Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls series being of particular note—Bioshock is one of the few that understands that all choice in video games is fundamentally illusory, and in understanding this, provides a uniquely powerful interactive narrative. Its script and voice acting are without peer in the medium. The world of Rapture and its inhabitants are crafted with an imagination and skill that eludes many of the people working in video games.

bioshock 1

The player takes on the role of a passenger on a plane crossing the Atlantic sea. The plane crashes and you are submerged into the water as the engine of the plane floats by, in a scene reminiscent of the one which began Lost. Luckily you are near to a lighthouse. Climbing up onto the land and inside, you see a sign that says, “NO GODS OR KINGS. ONLY MAN.” Walking down the stairs you board a submersible which takes you down, down, down.

A film begins playing. Andrew Ryan—an obvious play on Ayn Rand, whose Atlas Shrugged and ideas on “objectivism” are the basis for the story of Bioshock—tells you of a world where the individual trumps all. Bioshock is in many ways the Event Horizon to Atlas Shrugged‘s Solaris, though I am in no way comparing the quality of Rand’s long-winded and obscenely obvious novel to those great science fiction films. In every area where something could go wrong in empowering the individual it does so in Bioshock. Yet if Rand’s legacy can take credit for Bioshock, then it is almost enough to make up for those who think it is both great literature and philosophy, when of course it is neither.

Upon exiting the submersible, you are contacted by Atlas—har har—who needs your help to rescue his family. It seems that unregulated-everything has led to people genetically altering themselves into twisted and insane quasi-human forms. Through the manipulation of a sea slug, scientists have discovered a way to rewrite the genetic code. To facilitate the acquisition of ADAM (the currency in Rapture, with which you purchase new powers and abilities), girls are taken from their families and put into special orphanages where they are genetically altered to allow the harvesting of ADAM from dead bodies. These Little Sisters are protected by Big Daddies, men also genetically altered to protect these twisted visions of childhood from the many dangerous people of Rapture. The Big Daddy is the most enduring image of Rapture, a hulking metal behemoth who inspires both pity and fear in equal measure.

bioshock little sister big daddy

On the surface Bioshock presents the player with the same moral choices which the games mentioned earlier do. Choose to save the brainwashed and genetically engineered children, and receive less of the helpful ADAM, or “harvest” them and receive more but put your character’s soul on the line. 2K Boston, the developers of Bioshock, have received some criticism for this on the basis of its shallow impact on the game world and story—it basically amounts to choosing between different sets of powers—yet this highlights one of the shameful blind spots within the world of video game journalism and criticism.

Focusing purely on the gameplay mechanics, on which the story of Bioshock is built, is to fundamentally misunderstand its genius. The tiresome reductionism which states that a game built on tried and tested formulas of the first person shooter (which Bioshock undoubtedly is) cannot excel or innovate within its genre and medium is where much of the negative criticism of 2K Boston’s masterpiece is rooted. True, Bioshock is not at the cutting edge of the FPS on mechanics alone. Yet how does it manage to produce something with more artistry and beauty than so many of its contemporaries?

Looking at the moral “choice” in Bioshock is key to explaining this disparity. Whereas games such as Fable or Fallout are intent on presenting a series of choices—which will then have a cumulative impact on the character, whether through becoming more “evil” or “good” in appearance or through forking story paths—Bioshock‘s brilliance in addressing morality is in impacting the player. When consequences of the choice made to either harvest or save the Little Sisters comes around, it is not a laughably childish difference in clothing that impacts the game, but in the presentation of two different, utterly affecting scenes.

If you choose to be good, you will be given a scene in which you see the children who you have saved, who now look to you as a hero. If you choose to be bad, you will see the children who now fear you as the sign of their ultimate demise. The lengths to which 2K Boston has gone to create a connection between the player and Rapture is what makes this feel like a worthy reward or punishment, something which has little to no impact on the practicalities of gameplay.

Yet to suggest that this all-encompassing connection with the downfall of Rapture and the sad end of so many of its citizens has no impact on the gameplay experience of the player is to be most foolish. In its stellar sound design—surely the best of the the last generation—its hauntingly beautiful art design and architecture, and a series of memorable characters, the fate of Rapture and your own self matters in a way in which a hundred of those achievement-obsessed, “I need to go back and experience what would have happened if I had stolen that fork!” games are unable to achieve.

While the mechanics of fighting a Big Daddy or taking on a group of splicers is simple, the fear, awe, and significance of everything around the basic mechanics transform it into something with which Halo or Call of Duty cannot compete. I will not say that pure mechanical innovation and storytelling genius cannot co-exist, just that I feel Bioshock‘s progress in the latter is at least as significant as Halo‘s rewriting of the mechanics of the First Person Shooter. Personally, I feel it to be more so, a hundred times over.

bioshock big daddy

There is no world as bleak and beautiful or one which better expresses the symbiotic experience which the best video games give to the player. I do not want to see a change in my character; I want to see a change in myself. The gradual reveal of the sincere but misguided denizens of Rapture, by way of the doomed grace of audio diaries scattered throughout the city, is something at the zenith of this misunderstood medium of ours. As is the awe in the first reveal of the wonders and hopes of the city under the sea.

There are many set-pieces which make the story of Rapture matter more than any other. Combating the insane and brutal plastic surgeon, Dr. Steinman, sets the tone for scares and atmosphere early on. The demented, but charismatic, conceptual artist Sander Cohen gives the game perhaps its greatest moments.

Dr. Tenenbaum is one of the two most important characters with whom you interact. A former Nazi scientist who was instrumental in perverting the girls who became Little Sisters, is in search of redemption, and you are her means. The second character is Atlas. Both are key in how the game examines the illusion of choice, and the final conversation with Andrew Ryan—final boss gripes aside—may be the finest example of insight into our love of the medium and the disparity between the form we wish the illusion to take, and its actual reality. Bioshock manages to address this without breaking the illusion, which is a further sign of its excellence.

The final section is both the claiming of individuality and “choosing” to give it away for the betterment of others, something which speaks powerfully to the intelligent gamer, and the medium’s obsession with impact on fictional worlds. It is the altruism that Ayn Rand so detested. That the gamer is unable to twist Rapture to his or her every whim or to interact with the game in the same way that was emphasized in Fable and Fallout, is beside the point. In fact, it may be the point. Take your brain out of the box you keep it in and consider that a game can do more. In saving Tenenbaum and what’s left of Rapture, you save yourself.

bioshock no gods or kings

No, Bioshock is not an arthouse game or wildly divergent in its basic form, yet in its unashamed credentials as a blockbuster action title it has introduced serious ideas into video games in a way which can reach a mass audience. No, it did not redefine the FPS like Half Life or Halo. It did redefine what a video game narrative can do. Its world speaks to the conscious and subconscious in a way which Call of Duty‘s butch erections never could.

No, it does not present a hundred different decisions which lead to a hundred different stories. Its moral choices are more involved and significant than any forking story road that hardcore gaming loveys Bethesda have managed to turn out. A hundred choices that come across with all the subtlety and impact of an angular turd, while pleasing for the player seeking “impact,” will not make her care for the fate of that world, or think on how these things have changed her.

Its sequel, Bioshock 2, and the terrific Minerva’s Den by 2K Marin, are worthy successors, although Bioshock Infinite by the original Bioshock team looks like it will be something very special indeed. Bioshock will live on, in spite of the reductionist objections of its detractors. It is a marvel of interactive art. It is the Twin Peaks of video games: mainstream but oh so strange. Perhaps Bioshock Infinite will soon give us an Inland Empire.

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