Sunday, July 27, 2008

bioshock: final thoughts

All good things come to an end. Bioshock is, as I suspected, a brilliant game and deserves all the accolades it received. If you don't like SPOILERS then stop reading now and get the damn thing. You won't be disappointed, unless you tend towards disorientation and nausea playing fast-twitch shooters. If you doubt you'll have the time or inclination to ever play Bioshock, or don't mind spoilers, read on.

"Who can forget their first view of the city? Amazing what a man can create once he gets government and God off his back." (Bill McDonagh)

Bioshock takes place in an underwater city, Rapture, that was designed as an objectivist utopia by the mad genius, Andrew Ryan (a la John Galt in Atlas Shrugged). Ryan gathered some of the greatest scientific and industrialist minds of the post-war generation, brought them under the sea, and gave them free reign to build a better society. You walk onto the scene some 14 years later to find Rapture overrun by psychotic "splicers" and Ryan hanging onto the last vestiges of his dream in denial of his failure. One of my favorite features of the game is how you learn about what happened: as you wander through this massive human aquarium, you read posters and newspaper headlines, and listen to tape-recorded diaries left behind by the previous inhabitants. Since you'll encounter these diaries in a seemingly random order, you'll have to piece together the chronology of what happened very slowly, like filling in blank spots in a puzzle. The writing of these miniature soliloquies is mature, sophisticated and haunting.

The lesson of Bioshock is clear.
Given license to pursue his passions and individual goals in a laissez-faire environment, man will consume himself. Free market competition will lead to a strict hierarchical society, with plebes and patricians, alphas and epsilons, masters and slaves, irrespective of initial egalitarian principles. Perhaps this is inevitable and even, forgivable. But the fatal flaw of Ryandian objectivism (and modern libertarianism) is its absolute failure to understand basic principles of human nature.

First and foremost,
libertarians overestimate the altruism of the average man. Utopian communes aren't doomed to failure - but they usually do because it only takes a spoonful of shit to spoil a barrel of wine. Rapture is another case-in-point of the Tragedy of the Commons. If you could trust your neighbor to be selfless and kind and to keep his hands off your cattle (land/wife/money/etc), you wouldn't need authority figures maintaining the peace. But of course, sans government, it all goes to pot.

Some few, striving for individual greatness and personal gain, will reduce the overall happiness of the many. Those few (men, most likely) will take their greed and ambition to unnecessary heights, if for no other reason than they can. In Bioshock, you come to learn that these men (Andrew Ryan and his criminal rival, Frank Fontaine) destroyed Rapture through a devastating civil war, a barbarian struggle for power.

They are also responsible for your very existence. Every action you take, through the final scene, is dictated by their whims and grand designs. Eventually, the meaning of your mysterious wrist tattoos becomes disturbingly clear.

"So far away from your family, from your friends, from everything you ever loved. But, for some reason you like it here. You feel something you can't quite put your finger on. Think about it for a second and maybe the word will come to you...nostalgia." (Andrew Ryan)

Bioshock is ultimately a commentary on the complexities of freedom and free will. For example: recall that a key scientific breakthrough in Rapture was the discovery of a deep-sea parasite that produced stem cells which could instantaneously alter the genotype and phenotype of its human host. When this parasite is placed within a little girl, it mass-produces stem cells which can then be harvested. This distilled substance is called Adam and is by far the most valuable commodity in Rapture. People began taking Adam to become smarter, faster, stronger, more attractive - after all, it's instant genetic engineering - and criminals began taking it so that they could walk through walls, set people on fire, and kill with greater efficiency. But the more you "splice," the crazier you get. And in order to fuel your new genetic enhancements (called Plasmids), you need "Eve." So you eventually get hooked on two drugs.

Because Ryan's a capitalist, he allows people to purchase Adam and Eve through vending machines instead of keeping them confidential government secrets or instituting any sort of statewide regulation. His assumption is that the free market, and human ingenuity, will work out the kinks. But he fails to appreciate how powerfully addiction strips people of their free will.

Herein lies the second fatal flaw of Ryandian objectivism.
You just can't underestimate the determining effect of environment on human behavior. Rightists rely too heavily on the fallacy of democratic freedom: If you want something bad enough, you can have it. If you want to get rich, you can do it. If you want to beat a drug addiction, you just have to decide to do so. Statements like these contain some truth but ignore the obstacles that particular social groups must confront in pursuit of their goals. Is it as easy for a poor man to get rich, as it is for a rich man to become wealthier? Governments exist (in theory) to protect the rights of the downtrodden and to level the playing field whenever necessary. Without such leveling, a society will rapidly eat itself to death with a very small percentage of the populace controlling an inordinate amount of the wealth and power (wait, that sounds familiar). Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps sounds well and good but is, at times, made impossible by a particular cultural environment.

Consider Ann Ryand's words on the topic of drug addiction:

"Drug addiction is the attempt to obliterate one's consciousness, the quest for a deliberately induced insanity. As such, it is so obscene an evil that any doubt about the moral character of its practitioners is itself an obscenity." (Apollo and Dionysus)
"...drug addiction is nothing but a public confession of personal impotence."

There's little understanding here of how addiction alters one's freedom. Drug addiction can obviously be beaten by one's will. But doesn't society also play a role in engendering such addictions, and doesn't it have an obligation to help its citizens defeat them?

Back to Rapture. Desperate splicers learn how to hack the vending machines, or simply break into them. Sentry guns are built to protect these investments. Rapture devolves into a violent and chaotic place.
And then you come into the story.

Within 5 minutes of playing the game, you're told (by some disembodied voice through a speaker) to inject your first plasmid. Hey, now you can shoot electricity out of your hands! Pretty cool, right? But wait a second... Didn't the plasmids make everyone insane and destroy Rapture? Doesn't this mean that now I'm hooked on Eve? Yes, and yes. And as level after level pass by, you consume more Adam and take on more plasmids, you harvest Little Sisters, you inject syringe after sickening syringe of Eve, you start to see ghosts and have hallucinations, and you kill every splicer in your path. But you are a splicer. You have lost your free will, without even knowing it.

By the end of the game, you realize that your descent into drug addiction is purposeful manipulation. It is a disturbing feeling, and more than once I wondered whether I could stop taking Adam and still complete the game. And here is where Bioshock, unfortunately, fails. In its story-telling, it achieves an intrigue on par with a good novel. You actually begin to question the morality of your actions and yearn for another way to save Rapture. But even with all the flexibility that Bioshock grants, you're never actually given the choice to move outside of the prescribed scenario. Sure, you can use electricity to stun the {insert enemy} or multiple heat-seeking missiles or you can hack an RPG turret, etc., etc. - but you have to kill it. Or else the story won't continue. This feels very odd and uncomfortable when, concurrently, the game is literally begging you to consider the consequences of your actions and to break free from the chains of your heritage and conditioning.

"In the end, what separates a man from a slave? Money? Power? No.
A man chooses, a slave obeys." (Andrew Ryan)

Late in the game, you're tracking down Fontaine for the final boss battle. He's holed up in the Big Daddy training grounds, behind a dozen locked doors. But the Little Sisters can let you in, since there's always a little door embedded in every big door to help them navigate the city.

A Little Sister door-within-a-door

But the Little Sisters won't help you unless you look, talk, and smell like a Big Daddy. That's right, you have to become a Big Daddy. You wander around the Big Daddy factory looking for pheromones, a voice-modulator, and components to a giant suit. With each addition, you become more and more like a Big Daddy. It's a fascinating plot twist. While you wander, you discover evidence that becoming a Big Daddy is a one-way street - that the suit grafts itself to the skin of the host - and you start to freak out a little. Do I really need to do this? Finally, you find the boots, the final piece of your disguise, and you're ready to put them on and continue the game. You know that you need to put them on to continue the game. But I really didn't want to. I sat there for minutes struggling over this decision - do I want to become that which I despise most? Do I have to? Do I have any choice in the matter? The fact that Bioshock even gets you to ask these questions is astounding - but its failure to allow you to answer them, behaviorally, is colossal.

I became a Big Daddy. I escorted a Little Sister. She began harvesting dead bodies for Adam, and I protected her from splicers while she did it. My mind was twisted in knots, because for the whole game I'd been fighting against this very phenomenon. Rarely have I been so emotionally disturbed by my own actions in a game. I actually felt a little sick. And yet, I had no choice.

This explains everything. Really.

What hurts Bioshock in the end is that it's a shooter, first and foremost. It's got a strong pedigree, being a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, Deus Ex, and Half-Life 2. All these games allowed you to solve problems (usually "killing" problems) in many different ways, and the "freedom" was periodically intoxicating. But it was false. The overall plot kept you on a rail. You needed to accomplish Goal A before you could begin Goal B. And there weren't a ton of plot branches - e.g. save this person's life and the game goes in one direction, kill them and it goes in another. You can see why that's a rarity in video games, since it means that designers almost have to build two games in one. And imagine if you incorporate lots of such branches. But Bioshock shot for such a lofty ideal - it aspires to be something more than just a game - that you wish the designers had incorporated some more lessons from open-ended role-playing games, like Oblivion and KOTOR, where your choices create the story. Allow the player the freedom to explore the consequences of their actions.

People have complained about the weak finale (and it is painfully disappointing) - about the lack of denouement - about the cop-out alternate endings that really only weigh how many Little Sisters you've saved. But Bioshock's real failure is that is doesn't allow its player to actually learn from the lessons of Rapture. You're literally forced to commit the same mistakes those desperate people made and to become that which horrifies you most. It is sublimely ironic that while Bioshock is attempting to show us both the inevitable failure of a libertarian society and the evils of a totalitarian dictatorship, it forces us to play as a slave.

As a shooter, Bioshock is a resounding success. Buy it, play it, play it again. The level design is impeccable, the emotional tone devastating. But it is difficult not to judge this one harshly, since it flies so very close to the sun.


  1. I thought this was a great article. I stumbled upon it when looking for images of the wrist tatoos. I'm thinking about getting the three chain links on my left wrist.

  2. Way to just bash libertarians... You missed the phrase that was all around the game.

    "A man chooses, a slave obeys"

    looks like you love the choice that was made for you.

    Now, would you kindly research libertarianism.

  3. Bioshock is the failure of minarchy, not anarchy.

    Notice how it all went to shit when the self ownership of citizens was denied by the state via the use of plasmids.

    Rapture started out as a minarchist utopia and got worse and worse as Ryan instituted more and more statist control in defense of "free market" ideals (Of course a free market is one free of statist interference).

    Your article is massively flawed as it's written from the assumption that government has the ability to protect anyone or anything.

    A couple of unarmed teenage hobbits managed to set a cop car on fire at the G20, despite the world-moving security budget, and you really think that a neighbourhood cop patrol protects anyone? please.

    Rapture went to hell when Plasmids allowed what was previously a minarchy, that just had border control, to grow to consume the very citizens themselves by using pheromone mind control.

    When Jack arrives in the city, Rapture has collasped because it became a total state. Because Rapture is such a human goldfish bowl, the transformation from minarchy to totalitarianism is almost overnight. And it all happened because Ryan had a legal monopoly of violence.

    Would you kindly research both Bioshock (There are audio diaries which describe how it is state mind control in plasmids) as well as market anarchism.

    "sans government, it all goes to pot"

    Bioshock demonstrates how any government will cause things to go to pot. Sans government, there would be no smuggler execution. Sans government, there would be no survelliance and mind control. Sans government, there would be no execution because property rights could only be backed up by personal arms (plasmids) rather than the overwhelming guns of the state.

    I find it ironic you consider bioshock a game that supports statism when the game shows you how desire for control of the monopoly of violence drives Fontaine and Ryan to kidnap children (!!!) press gang innocents and transform them into brainwashed walking tanks called Big Daddies (A small step from Big Brother).

    Free markets are inherently stateless societies. Rapture isn't one.

    More stinerite ramblings at

  4. This was afantastic article. Many thanks for a real thinker here.