Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 0 Hours
I swear I’m going to talk about Bioshock in a bit. It is a game that deserves to be talked about. But if you’d all be so kind to allow me a minor digression and retrospective, I’ll make it pay off. Cool? Cool.
November 2007. I’m hanging out with my best friend who has just bought Bioshock. The game was critically acclaimed for its setting and its stellar writing. Created by developer Ken Levine, it was considered a spiritual successor of his previous game series System Shock. The game won game of the years awards from BAFTA, IGN, and X-Play, all respected sources of video game journalism at the time.
These praises and accolades meant very little to me. I knew nothing of its setting or the System Shock series. The writing was good window-dressing, but I thought little more of it than that. At the time, I couldn’t have cared less about games criticism or analysis, because at the time, games did not mean much of anything to me.
Some games, like the Legend of Zelda series were a solitary recreation, like listening to really good album, or reading a book. Others, like Guitar Hero, were a display of skill, meant to challenge me. Others still, like Mario Kart or Timesplitters, were meant to be played socially and competitively, like billiards, or shinny on the local pond. To me, games were simply an activity. While they could create a sense of fulfilment, or even awe, I didn’t really consider them as a way to express complex ideas, or create lasting emotions.
The dismissive, self-deprecating, and honestly, mentally unhealthy part of my brain explains this attitude with a common refrain: I’m a stupid idiot. While that certainly is an element of my opinion of games at the time, there are other explanations. Most, if not all, of my friends played games. Growing up in rural Alberta meant that if I wanted to spend time with my friends, I needed a reason; games were, more often than not, that reason. Furthermore, while I enjoyed certain aspects of art, including the challenge of performance and the beauty of the product, I was not someone who really looked deeper than what was presented.
I could tell, in some movies and songs, that there was something more than that which was presented on the surface, even if I couldn’t really understand it. In a lot of ways, that is how I’ve changed the most over the past ten years: I’ve developed a far more inquiring mind. Maybe I got it from university. Maybe I got it from moving out of Lloydminster to Calgary, stepping into a far larger world. Maybe it’s just the product of more life experience.
Well, that was a fairly major digression, but I promise that it all ties back to Bioshock in just a moment. I used to think of games as nothing more than just games. Now I write about games, the ideas they communicate, and how they make me feel bi-weekly for a game-critique and philosophy blog. Here’s the kicker:
Bioshock is the the very first game that made me realize that games could do that.
In Bioshock, the player is transported through providence and circumstance to Rapture, a city built at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, wealthy industrialist Andrew Ryan has built a libertarian utopia, where government, religion, and morality shall not fetter the ambitions of the great. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has collapsed into a chaotic, unstable wasteland at the bottom of the waves long before the player shows up.
Let’s take a moment to unpack that paragraph. Without anything more than the barest of explanations, one can already see how Bioshock has lots to say.
Quite often, I find myself puzzled by the setting in which video games take place. Even in Liberty City, home to the notoriously lawless Grand Theft Auto series, your actions are judged and limited by the police. True, they are laughably easy to evade, far too easily convinced to give up the chase, and it doesn’t take very long in the games before your character acquires enough firepower to render what physical threat they pose meaningless. In the world of Rapture, however, you are limited in your actions by no one.
For example, your main opponents in Rapture are so-called splicers: citizens genetically modified past the point of sanity. They will, without hesitation, attempt to kill you at every opportunity. No one is there to stop them. Conversely, there is no one to stop you from responding in kind. Without any mediation or oversight, every conflict, however minor, becomes a matter of life and death. The only remnants of law enforcement in Rapture are security automatons (easily duped and controlled by anyone who wishes to) and leftover recordings of a dead security officer named Sullivan.
Despite all this, the very much alive Andrew Ryan is not remorseful in the slightest. After all, having an overwhelming police force is not consistent with his objectivist view of Rapture. In the entrance to Rapture, there is a massive statue of Ryan, with a banner hanging beside it: “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” I’ll grant that Gods and kings are imperfect sources of morality, but this world that “only man” has produced is horrifying in the extreme.
Morality is a concept that Bioshock explores in detail. Unlike games which grant you a morality bar, Bioshock doesn’t give a numeric value for the evil or good a player does. In fact, apart from two characters, no one in the series passes moral judgement on what the player. As I’ve already said, every interaction the player has with the splicers has fatal results. However, while splicers are the overwhelming majority of Rapture’s inhabitants, they are not the only ones in this damp dystopia.
There are the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. In Rapture, one can use the cells of a variety of sea slug to dramatically modify their cellular structure, making them stronger, faster, even capable of seemingly supernatural abilities like fire manipulation or telekinesis. These cells, called ADAM, are collected and stored by genetically-modified orphans, all girls, colloquially referred to as Little Sisters. Little Sisters wander the passages of rapture, collecting ADAM from corpses and storing it within their bodies. However, since ADAM is so valuable to the spliced citizens of Rapture, they are the targets of attack on a frequent basis.
Big Daddies are specially spliced individuals; they are heavily armed, incredibly strong, and trapped within massive old-timey diving suits. Conditioned through pheromones and mental stimulation, Big Daddies are paired with the Little Sisters, protecting them from any who would harm them.
As the player requires ADAM just as much as the inhabitants of Rapture, they will frequently find themselves in conflict with the Big Daddies. After dealing with Big Daddies, the Little Sisters and the ADAM they have collected are free for the taking. Herein lies the central moral choice of the game: Harvest all the ADAM from the Little Sister, killing her? Or remove the parasitic sea-slug which generates ADAM in the first place, reverting the Little Sister into a normal human child, at the cost of potential harvested ADAM?
ADAM is a valuable commodity in Rapture. There is no other source for it in the game. Furthermore, the process which turns children into Little Sisters robs them of their sanity and humanity. To some of the game’s supporting cast, this is reason enough to harvest as much ADAM as possible at every given opportunity. However, Dr. Tenenbaum, another supporting NPC, feels immense guilt over her part in the creation of the Little Sisters, and asks you to look to your own humanity, rescuing them from their fate.
At the time of the game’s release, some criticized this moral choice as being too extreme, with only a decidedly heroic, good option, weighed against a decidedly villainous, evil option. For my part, I think that the game is continuing its theme of no gods or kings, only man. This is Rapture; one can’t argue that you are saving these girls for the benefit of society as a whole. Conversely, one cannot say they are sacrificing a few for a greater cause or good. In the end, your choices, however good or bad, cannot be justified by god or authority figures of any kind. The choice, seemingly, is yours and yours alone.
Some of you have no doubt played Bioshock before. Some of you may have not played it, but will surely know about the twist at the end of act two. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, I won’t be spoiling it. To those who do, don’t worry, I will absolutely be talking about it at a later date.
You see, Bioshock and my computer don’t get along. I wasn’t able to access the Steam interface or take screenshots while playing this game (all of the pictures in this post have been take from the official promotional website), and about halfway through the game it started crashing hard without rhyme or reason. None of my fixes worked. That’s okay, because I know I got enough to write half a dozen posts without finishing the game. However, Bioshock: Remastered is also in my Steam library (albeit much farther down my randomly generated list). I will get the chance to tackle more of the game in the future.
For now, suffice to say that when I first played Bioshock over ten years ago, I was terrified by the malicious, insane villains lurking around every corner. Nowadays, I realize that the ideas presented in Bioshock are far more terrifying than any video-game villain.
Next Episode: From Dust