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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Submerge yourself in the artistic warfare of BioShock

by Ken Newquist / October 18, 2007

Roger Ebert has famously said that video games may have the potential to be beautiful, well crafted, and technically competent … but they are not art. In a later column, he asked what video game made to date could possibly stand up against the greatest movies ever made?

Admittedly, I find his premise faulty; I don't think a movie has to rival Casablanca or The Godfather in its brilliance to be considered art, nor do I think that a video game has to clear that hurdle. But I think eventually they will … and BioShock is the proof of that.

Every aspect of this first-person shooter, from its tremendous visuals to its compelling plot to its philosophical challenges to its creative game play, marks it as art. And not just art … but Art.

Beneath the waves … lies Rapture!

BioShock opens with a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A cut scene reveals the plane falling from the sky, shot form the perspective of the main character. The character struggles to get out of the doomed aircraft as it sinks into the Atlantic, and surfaces to find himself surrounded by a ring of fire.

It says much about BioShock that I couldn't tell when the cut scene ended; I sat there, bobbing in the water, looking in stunned amazement at the interaction of the flames on the gentle rolling waves for about 30 seconds before realizing that nothing was going to happen. I was in the game … and I needed to get moving.

A short ride in a bathysphere took me far below the surface to Rapture, an underwater utopia founded by industrialist Andrew Ryan some years before. By the time Jack -- our hero -- arrives in 1960, paradise has been lost and overrun by genetically- madmen. It seems that Ryan's individualist utopia has fallen victim to its own freedom.  Loosed from the constraints of the surface world, the inhabitants of Rapture have learned how to re-write their genetic codes using a substance called ADAM. These "body hacks", called plasmids, give the user all manner of supernatural powers, including telekinesis, pyro and cryo-kinesis, telepathy, and a host of mental and physical enhancements.

ADAM isn't easily acquired however. Only "Little Sisters", genetically engineered slave girls who appear to be 6-8 years old, can harvest it from corpses. They are guarded by monstrous, dive-suited behemoths  known as Big Daddies, who kill anyone who gets close to them or their wards. The only way to secure ADAM is to slay the Big Daddy and harvest it from the Little Sister.

Unfortunately, they also give rise to insanity. Rapture might have been able to survive a few lunatics, but it can't survive the resulting civil war that erupts when a smuggler named Fontaine starts subverting Rapture's embargo against the surface world and a rebel named Atlas arises to challenge Ryan's autocratic rule.

It's a complex back story, one that's revealed in part by Ryan (who believes that Jack is a CIA spy, and sends legions of genetically corrupted "slicers" to attack him) and Atlas (who sees Jack as the sole hope he has of getting his own wife and daughter out of Rapture). But it also unfolds with audio recordings scattered throughout the game -- Ryan and Atlas are clearly trying to spin events in Rapture to their advantage, but the tapes tell the tale of what really happened when Rapture went mad.

Guns for Everyone!

Being a fallen free-market utopia, guns are everywhere. Yes, it makes about as much sense to have machine guns and grenade launchers in an underwater habitat as it does to have flamethrowers on a space station, but Bioshock is a shooter, and for a shooter you need guns … and you need a lot of them.

Bioshock is a competent first person shooter, eschewing the alt-fire combos so common to the genre since Goldeneye in favor of alternative ammunition for each weapon in the game. This adds a degree of strategy to your explorations of the sunken metropolis; sometimes you'll want to load up on anti-personal rounds to deal with the omni-present slicers; other times you'll want armor piercing or exploding rounds to deal with the true threat of the deep: the Big Daddies.

While slicers are dangerous, particularly when they use their own powers, it’s the Big Daddies that will put the fear of mutant tech into players. The brutes meander through the depths moaning like blue whales, and it’s a sound that players will soon come to fear … and long for. Fear, because Big Daddy's can kill with one or two hits, long for because of the ADAM carried by the Little Sisters.

Harvesting ADAM from the girls forms the fundamental moral choice in the story: do players liberate the girls from their enslavement by removing the ADAM-transmuting slug that lives in their stomachs (a process that generates less ADAM for the player) or kill them (which gives the player more … but carries a moral price at game's end).

Other FPS games have tried this combination of mutant abilities and firepower before -- the sub-par remake of Area 51 was one such game -- but it always felt kludging and gimmicky. In BioShock, it feels organic (or technoorganic at least).

"A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys"

What makes BioShock fundamentally different from other shooters is its focus on story and philosophy, it’s with the latter that I take issue with the game. The story is compelling, and there were many nights were I foresaw TV, writing, and podcast just so I could get a little further in the game and find out just a little bit more about what was going on. The game’s climax, which arrives about two-thirds of the way in is stunning, an provides one of those sudden, mind-bending realizations that made The Sixth Sense and Memento such great films.

Almost every review of this game mentioned Ayn Rand, and how her philosophy heavily influenced the game’s dystopia. They have similar setups; in Ayn Rand’s opus Atlas Shrugged, the heroes retreat to a mountain top utopia to form a society ruled by rational self-interest while the rest of the world falls into a collectivist hellmouth. In BioShock, the utopia is located beneath the waves.

But there are key differences, and this is where my primary complaint about the game comes in. I don’t have a problem with people criticizing Objectivism (the formal name of Ayn Rand’s philosophy), but if you’re going to spawn a dystopia based on those principles, then you should follow those principles.

One of the fundamental aspects of Objectivism is its recognition of reality as the sole plane of human existence,  and its rejection of the spiritual or supernatural. This is manifest by the axiom A is A; a thing is itself. Another key principle is the non-initiation of force; an Objectivist would never willingly heart another individual unless that person posed a direct physical threat to them or one of their friends or family. In short, Objectivists don’t shoot first unless they’re threatened with force, and they sure as hell don’t imprison or enslave people.  The sanctity of the individual is paramount within the philosophy, and everything about it goes toward maintaining and promoting individual rights.

Turning to Rapture, we see some aspects of Objectivism implemented – the concepts of free markets and free thought, the liberation from the collectivist group think of the surface world, the idea that a man should be the master of his own fate. But at the same time, Rapture’s philosophy, as articulated by Andrew Ryan, leaves out large blocks of Objectivist philosophy. Ryan claims Rapture is free of the constraints of morality; yet that was never Ayn Rand’s goal; she sought to find an objective philosophy based on reality, and through it, a moral code that promoted and protected individual human lives.

Moreover, Ryan is obsessed with something called “The Great Chain”, which is never articulated but seems to be a reference to a highly regimented society in which everyone knows their place, and works together to move forward. That sounds far more like Marx’s communist dogma then Ayn Rand’s rational egotism.

Moreover, while we see great technological leaps forward in technology in Atlas Shrugged (and, to a lesser extent, in The Fountainhead) those leaps forward never come at the expense of individual lives. In Atlas Shrugged, when Hank Reardan, a brilliant industrialist and metallurgist, invents an amazingly strong new form of metal, he’s one of the first to ride across a bridge made of the substance. In Rapture though, the creators are unbound frm any sort of moral code, and use it to imprison a legion of young girls to form the legions of Little Sisters. While Objectivism never spends enough time thinking or talking about children, no Objectivist I ever met would tolerate genetically enslaving children to do their bidding.

In truth, BioShock’s philosophy seems more inspired by that of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Kane was a man who ruled his world, who tried to impose his will on every one and everything around him, until finally descending into madness. The parallels in  BioShock are obvious, and its clear to me that while the game’s jargon and imagery may be superficially Randian, its heart truly lies with Orson Welles.

That said, the single best part of the game features the great quote that opens this section: “A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys”. And in that, the game is absolutely loyal to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, however haphazardly implemented it may have become in other places.

Final Analysis

Ultimately, the critique of Objectivism is flawed, but what makes the game amazing is that it even made the attempt! Which brings me back to my opening paragraphs and the argument of whether video games can be art. Playing through BioShock, I may have disagreed with how the dystopia came about, but the fact that I was having a mental argument with the game’s creators says worlds about its depth and whether or not it represents art. Art, in my opinon, makes you think. It inspires. It challenges. It burrows into your brain, and fights with your world view.

That’s exactly what BioShock does … and that’s why it’s Art.