It’s time for the second installment of my long-winded wafflefest posts! I said these were mainly going to be about anime, but actually I lied. This one is about videogames.
Earlier this year Bioshock creators Irrational were gutted, leaving behind a small team headed by series creator Ken Levine, intended to work on smaller (read: cheaper) projects. The Bioshock IP is still owned by publisher 2K and I’m taking it as a given that we’re eventually going to see another game made without Levine’s involvement, but this seemed like a good time to take a look back at the entire franchise, unpack its themes and try to figure out if the series actually deserves the amount of acclaim it received.
(Full spoilers ahead)
The first time I heard about Bioshock was in a videogame magazine, which I used to read before I realized you could get videogame news on the internet for free. My two immediate reactions were 1) This game seems really fascinating and artistically interesting and 2) wow Bioshock is a stupid name. it made a pretty big impression on both me and gamers at large, and is now looked back on as one of the crowning jewels of the previous generation.
The product of a long and meandering gestation process that at various points involved nazis and sentient chipmunks, Bioshock serves as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, a sci-fi shooter with strong horror elements and a focus on resource management. The two aren’t directly linked apart from some vague gameplay elements (you use a wrench as a melee weapon in both, for example) and the general thematic concept of being trapped in an enclosed location with formerly human occupants who have been corrupted by technology into dangerous enemies.
The conceit of Bioshock is that in the late 40s an ultra-rich capitalist and escapee from the Soviet Union named Andrew Ryan (if that name sounds vaguely familiar, wait a sec, we’ll get to it) built the underwater city of Rapture, a secret commune where “the great would not be constrained by the small”, a haven of industry, science and art unfettered by the petty morality of religion or the strong-arm government presented in different forms by both the USA and the USSR. The best and the brightest from around the world were recruited to come to Rapture and live in freedom under the sea, away from the threat of nuclear annihilation looming over the world above.
The player is cast as a mostly-silent dude named Jack, who’s flying over the Atlantic in 1960 when his plane goes down. Instead of drowning Jack stumbles onto a lighthouse, and below that a bathosphere providing access to Rapture. But upon arriving it turns out something has gone horribly wrong in Rapture: the city is falling apart, marred by signs of recent fighting and civil unrest, and most of the survivors have been transformed into violent mutants named Splicers. We quickly learn that Andrew Ryan’s dream was destroyed by two things, the first being the flaw in his plan that you’ve probably already noticed: it’s all well and good to claim you’re building a perfect meritocracy where the great and the talented will get to shine, but someone still needs to clean the toilets. What Rapture ended up becoming was a horribly unequal society where masses of the poor toiled under an established elite, ie the bad parts of the societal models Ryan was trying to avoid with none of the advantages, made worse because no one can leave the city. This led to rebellion and civil war in less than a decade, with the shit really hitting the fan on New Year’s Eve, 1959. By the time Jack shows up the situation inside Rapture is basically post-apocalyptic.
The other big factor in Rapture’s downfall was ADAM, a kind of super-potent stem cell found inside a species of sea slug that can be used to rewrite the human genetic code… and since Bioshock runs on X-Men logic, gene mutations let people teleport, conjure fire with their mind and shoot bees out of their hands. In a normal society this discovery might have led to incredible medical advances for the public good, but in the ultra-capitalist lassez-faire-on-steroids environment of Rapture it was quickly snapped up and shoved out onto the market as a series of gene serums called plasmids that grant people custom-made superpowers. In fact it was put on sale so quickly that no one discovered ADAM’s devastating side-effects until it was far too late: “Splicing” with the stuff too frequently (for example, if you’re in the middle of a civil war where superpowers could come in handy) leads to hideous physical mutation and violent insanity; push things too far and you become a “Splicer”, mutated almost beyond recognition and too deranged to function as a normal person anymore, consumed with a desire to acquire more and more ADAM. If the war didn’t completely finish Rapture off then the roving gangs of Splicers murdering people certainly did.
And now Jack is thrust into all of this, quickly becoming an unwitting pawn of the remaining power factions in Rapture. Andrew Ryan still rules over his crumbling domain by using pheromones to control the Splicers; he’s opposed by Atlas, a mysterious figure from the resistance days who offers Jack a way out of Rapture if he takes Ryan down. But how to get through a decaying city filled with murderous Splicers? Plasmids, of course!
So in case it wasn’t obvious enough: yes, we’re dealing with Objectivist themes here. Rapture is Galt’s Gulch taken to its greatest extreme, Andrew Ryan is almost a portmanteau of Ayn Rand, the posters bearing the question “Who Is Atlas?” are clearly references to the phrase “Who Is John Galt?” from Atlas Shrugged, Ryan’s pre-war rival is named Frank Fontaine in an apparent nod to Rand’s other novel The Fountainhead. But is this just a skin-deep affectation, or a meaningful exploration of Objectivist themes? That’s the question I want to answer in this part of the post, and I’ll go on to look at the game’s sequels and how they handle their own thematic content.
Rapture is the part of Bioshock that everyone remembers. The art deco city under the ocean has become one of the most iconic images in gaming history, and critics have often described the setting as the game’s true protagonist. Environmental storytelling is where the game shines, and where it most competently examines its own themes. Side-stories play out in the form of audio diaries, letting the player experience not just the downfall of Rapture but the downfall of its citizens, as once-decent people are corrupted and twisted by the environment they’ve been placed in. These stories tend to follow the same basic outline: someone comes to Rapture with a heart full of idealism, gets embroiled in the political turmoil of the city, ADAM or both and ends up either dead or doing something horrible.
An early enemy is a plastic surgeon who used ADAM to transform his patient’s bodies far beyond what conventional medicine or medical ethics would allow. His early diaries seem almost utopian: why not change your face? Your sex? Your entire body? They belong to you. They’re yours to change. It’s a laudable idea, but unfortunately ADAM’s side effects quickly started to rear their heads as patients were disfigured or horribly mutated. The entire scenario is a pretty clear and stark look at what a world without regulation would contain: not unfettered hero-doctors boldly pushing the limits of medical science, but naive rubes feeding their patients dangerous and untested treatments at the behest of wealthy drug manufacturers.
Unfortunately this sequence is also the most thematically coherent moment of Bioshock. The game is littered with little vignettes that comprise fairly biting critiques of Objectivist ideas (Ryan decides to start charging people to use Rapture’s public parks, for example), but they’re buried among compromises that Bioshock’s status as an action game have obviously forced on the designers. The prime example of this is the Little Sisters.
When Rapture had begun to fall apart but hadn’t quite gone completely to hell it became important to gather ADAM from the many corpses that the civil war was generating. The solution to this problem: Little Sisters, young girls mutated into ADAM-harvesting drones and protected by mutated men in diving suits named Big Daddies. Early in the game ADAM’s repentant creator implores Jack to rescue the Sisters by killing their Big Daddy guardians and using a special plasmid to turn them human again. Or, you could kill them and take their ADAM. Hey, Rapture is a dangerous place and you need that stuff to keep acquiring powers. What are you going to do, just altruistically sacrifice yourself for the Sisters?
When it’s phrased like that, the situation seems like a baked in invitation for the player to either accept or reject the tenets of Objectivism, which enshrines selfishness as the highest value. In practice, not so much. You can almost see the dilemma Bioshock’s designers put themselves in: the player can’t entirely forego collecting ADAM, because the game would be nigh-impossible without it. So to solve that problem, saving the Sisters somehow gives you ADAM… just not as much, and if you save enough Sisters you get a gift of ADAM later in the game as thanks, actually netting you more than if you had just taken it all upfront. I get the feeling this was meant to be an illustration of the power of the social contract and a refutation of Rand’s philosophy of selfishness; in practice it ends up feeling like an examination of delayed versus immediate gratification.
For the Little Sister mechanic to really mean what its creators intended, saving them would need to involve a real sacrifice from the player, performed with no expectation of reward. The payoff would occur right at the end of the game, perhaps involving the Little Sisters taking out the last boss for the player (this does happen in the good ending, but it’s a cutscene after the boss has already been fought).
But the game couldn’t work like that, because that wouldn’t be fun. I’ve always seen Bioshock as an illustration of the way games can be ill-suited to examining complex themes; the entertainment of the player has to be the prime focus at all times. The only way to avoid this is to uncouple the themes from gameplay entirely and examine them solely through storytelling elements- but then why make a game at all? Why not make a book or a movie?
I’ll leave my ultimate conclusion on the game to the end, because it mirrors what I think of the franchise as a whole.
Bioshock was a commercial and critical success, so of course a sequel was fast-tracked into development soon after it came out. But this time Ken Levine and Irrational weren’t involved; they were hard at work on another project, a far more ambitious game that would serve as the “true” Bioshock sequel. Instead development was handled by 2K Marin and 2K Australia.
It’s been eight years since the events of Bioshock and Rapture has been moldering away under the ocean, the surviving splicers still roaming its waterlogged halls. Andrew Ryan’s death and Jack’s ultimate victory at the end of the first game meant no more ruler of Rapture and no more Little Sisters…. for a while. By 1968 someone has stepped in to fill the power vacuum in the city: Sophia Lamb, a psychologist and member of the Rapture elite who ended up on the wrong side of an ideological war when she publicly rebelled against Ryan’s Objectivist principles. Lamb preaches unification and collectivism, and in the post-Ryan world she’s turned her ideas into a quasi-religion that allows her to control both the Splicers and the few remaining non-mutated people, who act as her lieutenants.
She also has a terrifying secret weapon: the Big Sisters, fully grown Little Sisters who returned to Rapture and underwent the same procedures as their former guardians to become immensely powerful enforcers, possessed of both incredible strength and agility and massive ADAM-induced abilities.
What could counter this potent combination? A Big Daddy. You play Subject Delta, one of the very first Big Daddies. Back before the events of the first game Delta was assigned to guard a very particular Little Sister: Eleanor Lamb, Sophia Lamb’s daughter. Unfortunately the elder Lamb was quite unhappy about this and took her daughter back, shooting Delta in the head in the process. Cut to eight years later and Delta abruptly wakes from death, through means explained later in the game, to find that Lamb has taken over Rapture and started the Big Daddy/Little Sister ecosystem up again by kidnapping girls from the surface. A now-adult Eleanor has an important role to play in her mother’s plans, but she wants nothing to do with them and beseeches Delta, via the psychic link they still share from her Little Sister days, to come and rescue her.
Bioshock 2 is often maligned or simply left out of the conversation when the Bioshock franchise comes up, which is a shame because I think it has a lot of good qualities. Rapture here feels much more like an actual city rather than a series of drab corridors, and the story has quite a bit more emotional punch to it thanks to the relationship between Eleanor and Delta.
At the same time, I’ll always lament the fact that the story we actually got isn’t quite as interesting as the one that was initially promised. It seems there was a bit of trouble behind the scenes and the plot went through some pretty major revisions- originally, there was only going to be one Big Sister (I’m guessing this was going to turn out to be Eleanor) who would serve as the game’s initial villain, operating for unknown reasons. Making the Big Sisters simply more powerful enemies who show up occasionally both robs the franchise of a potentially cool character and means that the game is front-loaded with a lot of clumsy exposition to get Lamb into the spotlight and explain what’s going on as early as possible.
But anyway, onto the themes!
…yeah there isn’t actually that much to talk about here. Sofia Lamb is sort of an anti-Ryan in that she’s sort of like Ayn Rand if Ayn Rand was all about selflessness and the greater good instead of Objectivism. Maybe it’s because the game isn’t skewering a real philosophy or maybe it’s because altruism isn’t as interesting to subvert, but Lamb’s regime simply isn’t as interesting as Ryan’s.
In the first Bioshock Ryan’s utopia is brought down by fatal flaws in his own beliefs (the fact that Rapture was doomed to descend into a classist nightmare and his free-market ideals preventing him from doing anything about ADAM even as it became abundantly clear that the stuff was out of control), but Lamb’s plan is actually proceeding exactly as intended until the player comes along and throws a spanner in the works due to personal motivations. Her ideology is patently bad for all sorts of obvious reasons (her commitment to the “greater good” leads her to entirely discount the suffering of individuals, including her own daughter) but it actually works just fine, letting her control the Splicers and come very close to turning Eleanor, who already has massive ADAM powers, into a kind of Utopian super-being containing a collective consciousness crafted from the minds of everyone in Rapture.
In the first game you’re coming into an ideologically-driven system that failed due to problems inherent in the system itself; in the second game the system is ticking along exactly as planned and you are the reason it fails. Essentially Lamb’s downfall comes about Delta pulls a Voldemort on her, and that’s just inherently not as fun.
Before we move away from Bioshock 2 I wanted to quickly mention its DLC campaign Minerva’s Den. It’s notable for being one of the earlier examples of really good, worthwhile DLC that matches or exceeds the base game, and also for being where the creators of Official Doing In The Wizard Best Game Ever Gone Home met. If you’re into the Bioshocks, do check it out.
While another team worked on Bioshock 2, Levine and co were busy with something bigger and altogether more ambitious. Bioshock Infinite is a spiritual successor to the first game, not taking place in the same world (until it does), that works with the same basic alt-history-fallen-utopia template and attempts to tackle some truly audacious themes.
It fails, but kudos for trying I guess.
The setting this time around is a version of the early 19th century that’s identical to ours in every way but one: in this world the US government created a giant floating city called Columbia, intended to serve as a demonstration of America’s power and sophistication. Prior to the beginning of the game Columbia defied government orders by destroying Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion and went rogue; its location is now unknown.
Booker DeWitt is a washed up former soldier and Pinkerton detective who’s done some very bad things in the past. He’s deep in debt to some dangerous people, who offer him a clean slate if he carries out a job for them: go to Columbia and rescue/kidnap Elizabeth, a mysterious young woman who’s being held in a tower in the middle of the city. Once he gets there it turns out that Columbia has turned into a fascist, racist and classist police state where American patriotism and Manifest Destiny fervor are a de facto religion led by Elizabeth’s father, Zachary Comstock. He’s not going to let her go without a fight, since her ability to open “tears” into other realities is just the thing he needs to complete his master plan of “purifying” the world he left behind. Luckily, Elizabeth wants nothing to do with her dad’s schemes and is eager to get out of Columbia, but can she trust Booker?
Well no, obviously, because he’s kind of an asshole. Then he becomes less of an asshole, but he’s still kind of an asshole.
So, Bioshock Infinite.
Where to start with this one?
There’s a whole hell of a lot to unpack here- whatever else you say about the game, you can’t fault it for lack of ambition- so I’m going to zero in on one key theme that the game spends the most time on when it’s not wanking off with meta-commenatary on the nature of spiritual sequels: oppression and rebellion.
Let’s start with Columbia. It’s an awful place. One of the first things Booker sees is a mixed-race couple about to be stoned to death. African Americans are imported into the city to live in conditions that are basically no different from antebellum slavery. The rich of Columbia live on the backs of the oppressed working class: black people, Irish, jews, Mexicans, the groups who at the time were immigrating into the US in large numbers cast down as a horde of degenerates fit only to serve the wealthy and powerful.
Have you spotted the flaw yet?
One of the problems with Columbia as a setting is that it’s supposed to be a stand-in for the sins of both Booker and the US as a whole, but since it’s smashing several hundred years of history into one time frame it ends up becoming incoherent. The early parts of the game present a society very clearly stratified by race- black people are little better than slaves, white people are the ruling class. Yes, there is a scene where we see significant hostility toward Irish immigrants, but let’s consider a question the game never asks: in a society with such all-pervasive racism, how do you think those oppressed Irish would view the oppressed African Americans? Would they be likely to work together, or would the Irish still consider themselves superior?
Later in the game you arrive at a slum where the working class toil under a larger than life caricature of an early 19th century industrialist. And here we do see Irish and black (and other immigrant groups) working, living and fighting together. All of a sudden the story has shifted from a focus on race to a focus on class, such that this part of Columbia doesn’t feel as if it belongs in the same world as the one we visited previously.
Now, obviously racism and classism aren’t wholly separate- in fact they’re closely intertwined. The problem is that the two kinds of oppression aren’t intertwined in Bioshock Infinite, they’re separate issues that somehow exist side by side without ever overlapping, neatly cordoned off by geography. The game can’t decide what sort of oppression it wants to portray, and thus it’s perhaps not surprising its portrayal of the response to that oppression- the rebellion- is so comprehensively bungled.
The rebel faction in Columbia are called the Vox Populi, a quasi-socialist working class uprising led by a cool woman of colour named Daisy Fitzroy. Daisy is as close as the game ever comes to nuance and actually has an interesting backstory. She managed to get a position as a servant to the Comstock family and was initially treated well by them, coming to believe that if she just kept her head down and worked with the system instead of fighting against it she might win in the end and earn a place in Columbia’s society as an equal. Then Comstock murdered his wife over plot shenanigans and framed Daisy for the crime, knowing that the narrative of “ungrateful black servant kills her soft-hearted mistress” would instantly turn all suspicion away from him. But he also accidentally created the very monster he he was invoking by doing this, as Daisy hid in the depths of Columbia’s slums and saw both the appalling suffering there and the smoldering flames of rebellion. In the middle of the game she uses the commotion caused by Booker and Elizabeth’s actions to begin the uprising, taking aim first at Bertram Fink, owner of Columbia’s many factories and workhouses.
Then she tries to murder Fink’s young son for no reason, so Elizabeth stabs her to death with a pair of scissors.
Game of The Year!
This is not only poor writing in that Daisy goes from a hard-hearted and ruthless but still rational revolutionary to a violent child-murderer in the space of a few hours, it’s also a sneak peek of what comes next. Throughout the early portions of the game Booker repeatedly insists, despite knowing almost nothing about them, that the Vox Populi are going to turn out to be just as bad as Comstock and his allies. He has literally no evidence on which to base this, but he’s proven 100% correct: as soon as Daisy is dead the Vox go on a violent rampage, slaughtering civilians and burning Columbia to the ground even though they literally have nowhere else to go.
The message this conveys is inescapable. Those who use force against oppression don’t truly want change; they’re really just violent thugs who will destroy society for the hell of it, tearing down all that the oppressors have built without replacing it afterwards.
You could argue that’s not the point Irrational was trying to make- I sure hope it isn’t- but even if we’re not supposed to read anything more into this than a non-committal shrug and “I guess both sides are just as bad”, that’s still lazy writing and an abject failure to engage with the theme of oppression on a meaningful level.
Are the Vox Populi really just as bad as the Columbia authorities? The game seems to forget that while the actions of the Vox cause enormous death and suffering, the very existence of Columbia’s society also causes enormous death and suffering. If the uprising hadn’t taken place the net total of human suffering in Columbia wouldn’t be zero; it would still be off the charts.
Now, to be clear: I’m not arguing that slaughtering innocent bystanders is justified under any circumstances. All I’m saying is that the game’s treatment of the Vox Populi rebellion is incredibly simplistic and lazy, bending over backward to make the both sides equivalently evil in some misguided stab at sophisticated storytelling or even-handedness.
Bioshock Infinite had two story-driven DLC packs taking place in Rapture (it turns out Columbia and Rapture are parallel universe versions of each other) which seem to exist solely to make the first game’s backstory needlessly complicated, but they also have the gall to try and retcon some of this bullshit by implying that Daisy Fitzroy was deliberately goading Elizabeth into murdering her as part of enacting some higher purpose. It’s exactly as stupid as it sounds.
Before I end this I want to point out something interesting that’s been bugging me for ages: we’re told at the end of Infinite that certain universal constants exist across dimensions, and that the Rapture/Columbia stand-in always contains “a man and a woman” who are integral to that dimension’s story. The first Bioshock has you playing as the man, but it isn’t immediately clear who the Elizabeth equivalent is supposed to be.
Bioshock 2 on the other hand features Eleanor, who is uncannily similar to Elizabeth. Both characters possess strong supernatural abilities, have black hair, have names beginning with ‘E’, are imprisoned by their parents, are referred to as “lambs” in a quasi-religious sense and are rescued by father figures (Eleanor thinks of Delta as her father, Booker turns out to literally be Elizabeth’s father). This seems like way too much of a coincidence- surely the Bioshock 2 dev team were aware of what Infinite was going to be about and wrote their portrayal of Eleanor accordingly?- but Levine has apparently insisted there’s no deliberate connection between the two games.
I don’t really have a larger point with this, it just makes me wonder if 2K Marin were spying on Irrational or something.
So does the Bioshock franchise deserve the hype? I’m always loathe to use the phrase “over-rated” since all it really means is that I didn’t like a thing as much as other people liked a thing, so instead I’ll say that I find the conversations around the games hyperbolic. I do think they deserve credit for pushing the medium forward, but not in the ways they were perhaps aiming for.
All of the Bioshocks deserve full credit for their amazing art style. Videogames have a long history of riding the visual coat-tails of movies (look at how many games are clearly lifting from Aliens, for example), whereas Bioshock presented iconic images that had never been seen before in any medium. Environmental storytelling had been used long before, but all three Bioshock games advanced the idea that the player inhabiting an imaginary space can by itself constitute a valuable component of gameplay; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Fullbright, who codified the story-exploration genre, formed after working on a Bioshock expansion.
Here’s what I don’t give Bioshock credit for: exploring ideas of morality (which it barely even attempts to do), meta-commentary on the nature of games (because this is ultimately a shallow magic trick), or handling sophisticated themes (which it does poorly). This is where I think I’m supposed to praise the games for at least attempting to handle ideas like Objectivism; after all, isn’t it better that games try to tackle big ideas, even if they fail?
No, because talking about complex or challenging subjects shouldn’t be an achievement. It should be the default. Bioshock only looks impressive because so many games are content to regurgitate shallow action movie stories or throw fistfuls of generic high fantasy nonsense at the player. The franchise undoubtedly stands tall over its big-budget brethren in terms of story sophistication, but that’s not something to brag about when the competition barely makes an effort to begin with.