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BioShock

June 17th, 2009 | Posted by Michael Clarkson in Critical Compilation:

BioShock is the rare game that really does change the way we think about video games, if for no other reason than that it has turned up as an example in almost every discussion of game style, mechanics, story, or design that has been written since its initial release in 2007. BioShock has received excessive adulation, a much-discussed backlash, and even a backlash to its backlash. Discussions of the game spawned the most popular jargon in games writing. So much has been written about it that I could only put my hands on a fraction of the material without driving myself nutty as a splicer. Thus, this constitutes an in-progress draft of a survey of critical thinking on a game that will likely be regarded as a classic.

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?”

One of BioShock‘s most compelling features is that it details an interesting philosophical system and then uses it to frame an ethical question. The underwater utopia of Rapture was founded by an industrialist named Andrew Ryan on a system of principles much akin to Randian Objectivism, so much so that John Lanchester argues in the London Review of Books that BioShock is the only popular work in recent years to give Rand a drubbing. Lorenzo Wang fleshes out this case in his rich and interesting essay BioShock Explained”. In his view, the game attacks two key flaws of Rand’s philosophy: society can never sustain its ideal state (somebody must, after all, scrub the toilets), and free will, even in the land of plasmids, is limited. A sprawling essay at Popular Symbolism interprets the game’s history and many characters as a condemnation of Objectivism and transhumanism. Jay Barnson felt that the game critiqued the intrinsic short-sightedness of the market, which is regarded as all-wise by the lovers of laissez-faire economics.

This interpretation of the game’s attitude towards Objectivism was not universal, however. Shamus Young interviewed an Objectivist on the subject, who argued that BioShock really aims its criticisms at the idea of philosophical certainty. Ava Avane Dawn argues that the game isn’t a fair critique of objectivism because the people of Rapture actually betrayed objectivist ideals. In his very interesting Marxist critique, Richard Terrell lays out a case that the game conditioned the player to accept the principles of Rapture’s economy. In his view, the choice to attack the Big Daddies (and possibly the little sisters) makes the player part of the oppressive capitalist regime. Justin Keverne argued that the mechanics of the game suggest that one’s goal is to acquire power in order to gain the ability to acquire further power.

At this point, designer Clint Hocking felt that BioShock went off the rails in a certain sense. In his essential essay “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock, Hocking argues that the game presents the player with two conflicting contracts. The gameplay establishes that the player must serve his own interest in order to advance, while the story forces the player to serve others in order to advance. Our attempts to deal with or ignore this tension are them mocked by the game’s central twist.

“How can you do this thing? To a child?”

The philosophy of rational self-interest provides context for the story, and also for a moral choice that the player makes. When Rapture’s lumbering Big Daddies are defeated, the player may choose the fate of “little sisters” they protect. If he rescues a little sister, he receives a small amount of ADAM that he can use to purchase plasmids, tonics, and other upgrades, and the girl survives. If he chooses to “harvest” the girl, he gets a great deal more ADAM, but she does not survive. For Leigh Alexander, saving the girls is like saving Rapture’s last bit of innocence. In her view, the whole saga with ADAM was like a child’s wish, and saving the girls is a way of forgiving Rapture for making that wish, despite the destruction it caused. Yet many did not find this choice to be compelling. As Wes Erdelack notes, in BioShock as in many other video games, the moral choices are too simplistic and do not feature a sufficient challenge to “goodness”.

One frequent complaint about the rescue / harvest choice is that if the player rescues enough little sisters, then the twisted Dr. Tenenbaum will leave a Teddy bear at a nearby vending machine, stuffed with plasmids, ammo, and extra ADAM she has presumably harvested on her own. In a thorough critique of this moral choice, D. Riley argues that the benefits of rescuing are sufficiently great that the whole system is neutered. Duncan Fyfe concurs, and wonders how the developers could have gotten this so wrong.

This opinion is not universal. Leigh Alexander believes that approaching the rescue / harvest choice with a cost-benefit analysis is too limiting. In her view the question to ask is not what you want to get but who you want to be. As she says, “The merit of choice in games may not be what we get from it, but when done this richly, how it feels.” In her detailed essay on BioShock‘s critique of objectivism, Mighty Ponygirl similarly argues that the choice to kill the little sisters says less about morality than it does about the player’s acceptance of Rapture’s ideals. In her words, “If you can look at a sentient being as an expendible resource… you would make a great objectivist.” Bonnie Ruberg feels that the choice is really there to expose the selfishness of gameplay tactics in general. I also felt that the near-equivalence (in economic terms) of the two choices was making a point about the hidden values of games.

Some also argue that the harvest choice is not compelling because the player is spared having to watch the act or even see the body that remains. D. Riley’s previously noted essay includes a comment on this point, and I make a similar case in my own essay, “Ecce, soror”. Nels Anderson acknowledges that this may be so, but points out that on-screen child murder by the protagonist of a game simply could never get by ratings boards or the easily-outraged public. Nonetheless, he argues that the nursery scene provides some of the necessary emotional impact.

And perhaps the little sisters aren’t even the real focus of the moral choice. Justin Keverne argues that the player’s real moral choice is whether to attack the enslaved Big Daddies for his own personal gain. Unlike the other denizens of Rapture, the extremely dangerous Big Daddies won’t harm you unless you attack them first. For Glenn Turner, the choice to put down a Big Daddy was harrowing because of the little sisters’ reaction. Gene Koo felt that becoming one of these lumbering behemoths brought the game’s emotional and philosophical threads close to each other. In his view, however, this didn’t quite succeed, because the player has no choice about whether he becomes a big daddy.

Whether the rescue / harvest choice was compelling or not, BioShock at least invited a fresh consideration of the meaning of moral agency in games, according to Leigh Alexander. She also pondered whether our behavior in the game would change if our peers were aware of it (perhaps through achievements or trophies).

“A man chooses; a slave obeys.”

Choice is the subject of BioShock‘s most compelling moment, the confrontation with Andrew Ryan. This moment twists the preceding exposition of the ideas of rational self-interest into a commentary on the nature of gaming itself. Wes Erdelack views BioShock as a parable about gaming, highlighting the fact that the feeling of agency is always an illusion. The Graduate School Gamer notes in an essay comparing BioShock to Braid that “The player can only converse with the text within the confines of the game’s design and always remains at the will of the designer.” The illusion of choice is not a subject unique to gaming, according to Roger Travis. He notes that the non-choice of killing Ryan resembles Achilles’ non-choice to join battle in the Iliad. Travis also expands on this idea in arguing that the game’s ethical challenges exist to highlight the illusion of choice.

The first-person perspective heightened the impact of the climax. Matthew Gallant regards the first-person viewpoint as essential, especially in moments like the confrontation with Ryan. The personal choices at the center of the game couldn’t be the same if the player’s eye into the game world didn’t seem to make him a part of it. Sinan Kubba shares Gallant’s skepticism about a BioShock movie, feeling that the immediacy and immersion of the game’s perspective could never truly be replicated in film. The praise was not universal, however: Brad Gallaway felt that the silent, first-person protagonist interfered with the narrative at several important points. He especially felt that the internal logic of the game collapsed when the player injected himself with a plasmid for the first time.

The more widely-expressed complaint about the plot, and specifically the encounter with Ryan, is that there is far too much game after it. The denouement of the game is widely recognized as its weakest segment, a fact that Josh Birk explains by pointing out that BioShock, like many other games, has more backstory than story. The confrontation with Ryan is the culmination of the fascinating backstory, leaving the rest of the game to become little more than the tale of a man with a gun out for revenge. Moreover, the game doesn’t exactly free the player up to make his own choices after its climax. The player continues to obey a character, only now it is Tenenbaum rather than Fontaine. Andrew Vanden Bossche was not disturbed by this, in part because the game did a good job of keeping the player’s goals aligned with those of the narrative. Duncan Fyfe, however, was frustrated by BioShock‘s refusal to engage this dilemma. Chris Dahlen also found it troubling, because the game’s most compelling character (Ryan) has so much agency and the player has so little. As he puts it, “…within the game, you never become a man. The only choice you have is to stop playing.” In a very interesting piece, Tom Francis proposed an alternate ending sequence with stronger inherent logic and an actual choice in the final moments.

Aside from Ryan, surprisingly few writers have gone in depth on the characters of the game. A worthy exception to this rule is Leigh Alexander’s examination of the bizarre Sander Cohen. She relates his personality to people she knows from her theater background, seeing in him a metaphor for the whole backstory of the game. In her view, Cohen is “a brilliant character not only for his spot-on characterization, but for the way his endless wrestling with ‘the muse’ is a perfect metaphor for the consumptive nature of Rapture in general.”

“I know why it has to be children, but why just girls?”

Without focusing a spotlight on particular characters, several interesting pieces have examined the role of women and femininity in BioShock. Although creepy little girls are a staple of the horror genre, as Leigh Alexander has noted, BioShock uniquely gives the player power over their fate. Bonnie Ruberg found the female enemies in the game particularly disturbing, and wondered whether their horrific power drew from the simple fact of their gender. She also found the power relationship between the player and the little sisters to be troubling, and agreed with a Penny Arcade comic suggesting that it had overtones of pedophilia.

Nels Anderson indicates that the design of the girls is intended to evoke sympathetic feelings, but what attitude does this imply on the part of the player and developers? In a comprehensive critique, Richard Terrell argues that BioShock pervasively trades in patriarchal values because it “depicts women as weak, emotional, submissive, and nurturing and men as strong, and protective…”. The little sisters are portrayed as helpless human commodities, and for much of the story Diane McClintock equates her self-worth with physical attractiveness. Moreover, Dr. Tenenbaum’s redemption comes through an acquiescence to patriarchal ideas of motherhood. Terrell’s analysis encompasses the mechanics of interacting with female characters as well. Alex Raymond offers a counterpoint, noting that Rapture’s only remaining sane geniuses are women who integrate intellect and emotion. Since the game shows the conditioning of the little sisters into partriarchal ideals as disturbing and corrupt, she believes it may even have feminist ideas at its core.

“I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture”

It’s easy to understand how Cohen, Tenenbaum, and so many others could have chosen Rapture. For Ed Borden, the environment was key to BioShock‘s immersion of the player. The crumbling city arrests the player’s attention and inspires his curiosity. Glenn Turner felt the same way, arguing that the art design was perhaps the game’s best feature. For Richard Naik also, the selling point of the game was Rapture’s auditory and visual design, overwhelming all of the game’s shortcomings. The art design unified the disparate levels, making the world of Rapture feel like a coherent whole and maximizing the emotional impact on the player, as Tom Cross explains in “Surviving Rapture”.

Part of the power of the environment was the way in which it was used to tell a story. Steven O’Dell compared the player’s journey through Rapture to a guided tour of a dying city, one in which the enormously detailed spaces tell a story through the way they are designed. Wes Erdelack points out that the much-loved environmental storytelling of Fallout 3 has some roots in the construction of Rapture’s spaces. While the audio logs constitute the most powerful storytelling in BioShock, the game’s spaces allow the player to play detective and reconstruct his own history for the game world. Careful construction of spaces and traversals played a significant role in player experiences as well, as Simon Cooke explains. Every time the player encounters a massive set piece, the developers use clever design to make sure he is able to see every bit of it. The hub-and-spoke design used for most areas of Rapture also increases the player’s sense of familiarity with its major spaces, as Steve Gaynor details in his essay “Reorienteering: Spatial Organization in Bioshock.”

“…bugger gets into his ‘ead that he’s gonna go down guns blazing.”

Also making sure that the player can see every inch of the city is the fact that he simply can’t die in it. In some respects, the Vita-Chambers that resurrect the player after every fatal encounter resemble a streamlined checkpoint system (much like Elika in the later Prince of Persia), and Scott Juster places them among a number of ways that BioShock used narrative elements to disguise common gameplay tropes. Nonetheless, the Vita-Chambers were widely criticized. This goes beyond the hardcore player’s lament, articulated for us by Josh Bycer, that resurrection makes the game ‘too easy’. Josh Birk complains that they interfere with the scare factor in the game and the logic of weapon collection. Justin Keverne points out that they encourage the player to take the path of least resistance, though for him the draw of using the plasmid powers was enough to keep him playing fair. Not so for Richard Terrell, who felt that the chambers too strongly encouraged the wrench / revive / repeat approach to combat, and demoted the central activity of the game, which he felt to be shooting. Moreover, he argues that the effective immortality of the player weakens the psychological impact of the game in his psychoanalytic evaluation.

Another way to conceive of the Vita-Chambers might be as a resurrection spell, an apt comparison since BioShock had so many RPG elements. In fact, Richard Terrell felt the game’s mechanics tended more towards the role-playing side, in particular because the almost nonexistent cover system forced the player to behave like a bullet sponge. He compares tactics in BioShock to the attack / attack / heal approach common in RPGs. Justin Keverne comments on the oddity of this, as the Vita-Chambers actually make healing and health packs totally superfluous in all but the final battle. Writing for Eludamos, Matthew Weise connects BioShock with RPG roots originating in Ultima Underworld.

BioShock resembled RPGs in even less flattering ways as well, specifically because of its fetch quests. These quests added numerous objectives that muffled the story, in Duncan Fyfe’s view. Rather than engaging in a breakneck pursuit of Ryan (or Fontaine), the player spends his time mucking about Rapture looking for 7 vials of bee spit. This quest temporarily scared Tom Armitage right out of the game, even though it ultimately led to some interesting exploration. He warns, “I was thrown by the instructions the game gave me…” saying that even a good game can be derailed by players’ bad memories of similar quests.

And despite the “too easy” vita chambers and exciting plasmid powers, the conventions that BioShock embraces limit its audience. Although Lanchester praised BioShock‘s consideration of Randian philosophy, he criticized the game because even its modest difficulty would keep it from being experienced by a broader culture that might genuinely appreciate it.

Author’s Note

If you go to any of these blogs and search them for the word “BioShock” you will come up with dozens of posts. The game has become a kind of yardstick by which we measure others, and a rich source of examples to illustrate points. I attempted to limit what I included here by stipulating that the post must be at least 50% about BioShock, and that it should be in fully developed paragraphs rather than bullet points. I’m not sure I actually ended up holding to that, but that was at least the approach I tried to apply. I am positive I left some excellent posts out, mostly by failing to find them in the vast wilds of the internet. If I omitted your dissertation on the semiotics of dentistry in the context of Rapture, it is probably because I didn’t run into it while I was doing my survey. Would you kindly let me know about it in the comments, via Twitter, or with an e-mail?

Last updated: 12/5/09

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