Monday, April 6, 2009


Bioshock is one of my favourite newer games, and is probably one of the best examples of superb narrative art, and interactive art. If you have not played Bioshock yet, I am warning you that I completely spoil the game here. It is important to discuss the ending in order to fully understand what makes Bioshock so amazing.

Atlas Shrugged Part 2: Underwater Adventure

I cannot talk about Bioshock without mentioning Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged. I admit to never actually reading the original novel but from taking some political science and English courses throughout university I have a passing knowledge of the subject matter in the book, enough that I understand the link between this book and the game. Ayn Rand was very conservative and right-winged. She argued for limited government and personal freedom. Atlas Shrugged was about the decline of Western Civilization as she saw it happening and she used a work of fiction to promote her own philosophy.

The game Bioshock is set in an underwater society gone wrong, called Rapture. The society was created by business man Andrew Ryan. Andrew Ryan is obviously a stand in for Ayn Rand. In essense Andrew Ryan created Rapture similar to how Ayn Rand would have created her own society. In Atlus Shrugged some of the main antagonists are categorized into "looters" and "moochers." Looters are people, sometimes the government, who confiscate earnings at the point of a gun. The looters are a very thinnly vieled disguse for tax collectors. Ayn Rand was not a fan of taxes or having to answer to the government. In the game Andrew Ryan creates Rapture in part to get away from the American tax system. Moochers, in Atlus Shrugged, are people who demanded earnings because they could not work for themselves. The moochers are supposed to be the poor and those on welfare. Ayn Rand was a big believer in earning your own keep in life and individual power, she was not an advocate for charity. Moochers are seen as parasites who suck the life out of society. In Bioshock, moochers are non-exsistent, because they are not allowed in Rapture. Rapture is a society built on the best and the brightest.

You are greeted in Rapture by this image. It sets the tone for the dark and mysterious game as well as give the player cues toward Ayn Rand's Philosophies.

Rapture was supposed to be Andrew Ryan's (Ayn Rand's) perfect society. However, the lead designer, Ken Levine, was not a big believer in Ayn's philosphies and uses Bioshock to poke holes in her beliefs, showing that her idea of utopia is actually more of a dystopia. It was a bold move for Levine to incorporate this layer of symbolism in his game. Doing this is not as common practice as it should be, and it brought his story to a new level of sophistication. Rapture completely failed and all the inhabitants became mad with power. The best and the brightest were in ever lasting competition with each other rather then working together. Instead of a group mentality, the indivdualism turned into selfish behavior (Ayn Rand wrote a series of essays entitled The Virtue of Selfishness). The moral values of everyone on Rapture were completely lost. The people were so self involved that they became addicted to modifying their bodies to constantly improve. Rapture is a violent and chaotic place when you start the game.

Moral Choice in the Game

Throughout the game your character gained power after beating the "boss" characters called "Big Daddy." Big Daddies protected "little sisters." The little sisters contained ADAM which is what you needed to become more powerful and progress through the game. You could either rescue the little sister by recovering a small amount of ADAM and letting the girl live, or havesting a great deal of ADAM and killing the girl. The choice is up to the player as you held the little girl in your hands. Personally I could never bring myself to kill the little sisters. Ken Levine wanted a moral choice in the game that was tough to make and would get a real emotional reaction from the player. In most games you gain experience from killing monsters in self defense. In this game you gain the most experience by killing helpless children (if you do only save children you are rewarded with a bigger bonus in the end but this is not immediately apparent). The little sister squirms and yells "no no no" when you have her in your arms. They are portaryed as monsters beyond saving but you can make it your mission to do so. It's hard to think of another game where it actually bothered me too much to kill a character.

Lack of choice

I have talked about interaction and how we have control over the games we play. However, in the end most games have a clear end-game. Sure you can play around all day in level 1 in a game but you will never reach level 2 that way. Bioshock has a series of missions which are given to you through radio transmission from a charater named Atlus (yet another link to the novel). Atlus always asks you to do something by saying "Would you kindly..." For example if he wanted you to get into Area 2 he would say "would you Kindly get to Area 2." The whole time the player takes his orders and follows through with them. Near the end of the game you find out that you were actually created on Rapture and you were brainwashed to do anything when someone says, "would you kindly." Atlas turns out to be the real evil mastermind (even though Andrew Ryan is still seen as evil) and is really a criminal named Frank Fontaine (a reference to The Fountain Head another Rand novel). When you take a step back and look at the whole "would you kindly..." trigger, you see how it isn't just the character Jack who is brainwashed but you, the player. You complete all the missions, even though Jack is your avatar, you are the one in control. The moment you find out your character is brainwashed, is the moment you find out your brainwashed, it completly breaks the fourth wall. It not only makes an important statement in the game but makes a statement about the entire video game art form. We might be controllers of someone elses vision, but we are still controlled by the scope of the game.

Bioshock contects to the player like no other game in two distinct ways. The uncomfort the player feels when faced with the choice of whether or not to kill a child, and learning that they have no other choices in this game, or really in any other game. This game really displays the power that vide games can have as an artform.


  1. I'm having mixed emotions here. I want to play the game because it's really amazing but now I already know the twists. I wish I found out about the game earlier....haha


  2. Haha, you should have paid attention to the warning.

    I think you will still enjoy it when you play it, and having the background knowledge before hand might let you see even more. I usually play games I like twice to catch a lot that I missed the first time around.

  3. I wonder about games like this. On the one hand its cool that it has something to say beyond just shoot everything in sight. I also like its layered criticism of Rand. If it teaches people the possible corrosive aspects of unlimited libertarianism then that's a good thing.

    That said, just from a players perspective, are games supposed to reflect our reality or take us out of it (at least for a brief period)? I'm not sure. I guess the same question comes up with any form of art.


  4. I think a video games main goal should be to be fun. They should take us out of our reality but that doesn't mean it can't also make us think. However not all games have to do this. Some games are just pure fun with barely any artistic merit. For example I am playing KillIzone 2 now. It has nothing deep about it but I am having fun. You'll never see an blog post about the art of killzone.

    I think there is room for games for games sake and games that have a deeper value.

  5. You could compare video games to any other art form in the same manner Mat. Film can either be an art form that makes us think about its meaning or they can be made just to entertain. Music is the same way as well.


  6. Just like in that classic debate of pornogrophy vs. nude art, the artistic merit lies purely in the intention of the creator/artist.