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‘BioShock’ takes gaming to a deeper level.
BY THOMAS L. McDONALD
Games are a
flexible medium, capable of everything from the mildest momentary diversion, to
complex simulations of reality, to profound narratives that blend storytelling
with interactive elements.
All too rarely, a game like
“BioShock” comes along to show us that the medium is capable of presenting
momentous issues in a complex and intelligent way. Although it was released
last year for the PC and Xbox 360, its debut for the PlayStation 3 (complete
with some new puzzles) gives us a chance to explore a profound interactive
Narrative complexity, character
development, and even thematic depth are fairly common coin in modern game
design, but “BioShock” takes things further, probing issues of morality,
bioethics and the nature of the self.
The setting is striking: an
underwater libertarian-objectivist dystopia where the cult of selfishness drove
the population to addiction and madness. As you explore the levels, you perform
the standard actions of any first-person shooter (collect weapons and kill monsters),
but you also solve the mystery of this strange city.
The story begins in 1960, as a plane
crashes into the middle of the ocean, leaving you as the only survivor.
Swimming through the burning wreckage, you encounter a strange lighthouse
rising out of the deep. Inside, a bathysphere takes you to the bottom of the
ocean, where a megalomaniacal visionary named Andrew Ryan has built a city
Ryan is a radical objectivist
millionaire who tried to create an anarcho-capitalist utopia. He’s Ayn Rand via
Charles Foster Kane, with a bit of Howard Hughes tossed in for good measure.
Rapture is his monument to
narcissism. Its soaring architecture and burnished brass seem like set designs
by Albert Speer for an art deco-production of Atlas Shrugged.
These are not mere monuments to the
ego of one man. Although Ryan’s cult of personality is complete and smothering,
Rapture is designed to create an entire city full of narcissists. The worship
of self is central, as Ryan makes clear in one of his many pronouncements:
“Is a man not entitled to the sweat
of his brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says
the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow. It
belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something
different. I chose the impossible. I chose … Rapture.”
In Ryan’s philosophy (as in Ayn
Rand’s), people should think only of themselves. Rapture was created so that
scientists would be able to conduct research free of the ethical constraints of
civilization, so artists would not be bound by outdated moral codes, so that
people could explore their true potential no matter the cost.
As you’d expect from such a
libertarian wonderland untethered from morality or restraint, it doesn’t take long
for Rapture to descend into utter chaos.
As the game begins, the city is
already a leaking husk overrun by genetic mutants as various factions fight for
power. The story of Rapture’s collapse emerges piecemeal through messages and
recordings collected in the course of exploration.
Rapture’s collapse is an object
lesson in what happens when bioethics break down. The city is undone by genetic
tampering as people attempt to turn themselves into gods with gene-modifying
drugs. God’s work is imperfect, people are told, so science must step in to
Ryan sees Rapture as a new Eden.
Indeed, two of the game play elements are “ADAM,” a mutagen (a physical or
chemical agent) that allows people to modify their genetic structure to enhance
certain powers, and “EVE,” the fuel for these genetic mutations.
order to get through Rapture, your character needs to become one of these
mutants — without sinking too far into madness. It’s a dangerous balance, and
in the end only love is able to bring you back, if you choose the path of love
as you play.
As you need more and more of these
drugs to progress through the game, you’re forced to make moral choices. One
type of “monster” in the game looks like a little girl. These monsters were
created as little more than a source of raw materials to be exploited by a
scientist. But the scientist didn’t count on their humanity, or her own.
As she says at one point: “I look at
genes all day long, and never do I see the blueprint of sin. … These children I
brutalized have awoken something inside that for most is beautiful and natural,
but in me, is an abomination ... my maternal instinct.”
Life wins out, however. The doctor
turns on Ryan in order to protect these little girls, and you are forced to
make a choice: Follow Ryan and simply destroy the girls, or follow the doctor,
and save them.
The game makes it pretty clear which
route is preferred, with two endings based upon the choices you’ve made.
Make no mistake: This is a violent,
M-rated (for violence, drugs, language and sexual themes), adults-only action
game, and fans of the genre know what to expect. It’s also brilliantly written
and, at times, profound.
“BioShock” shows us a stark picture
of what libertarianism and objectivism would look like in the real world.
Unfettered individualism does not
lead to an objectivist utopia. It leads simply to Rapture and the hell of a
society filled with narcissists trying to make themselves gods.
“BioShock” puts you in the middle —
and forces you to choose a side.
It’s the kind of choice a radical
objectivist like Ryan would believe is irrelevant to society, but it has an
absolutely central effect on how the game plays out, leaving us with a very
clear message about right and wrong and the place of the individual in society.
L. McDonald is
of Games magazine and a catechist in the
Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.