Here are some longer thoughts on BioShock, expanding on my review. There are BIG SPOILERS.
Most of the talk I’ve heard about BioShock revolves around the choices you get to make. People love to ask each other whether they saved the little sisters or harvested them; it’s even more fun when you ask somebody who hasn’t finished the game. But maybe because I played it before it shipped, and alone, and obsessively for three days, I’m more interested in another part of the game – a part where you don’t get a choice.
Early on in the story, it’s clear that you’re on a collision course with Andrew Ryan, the man who built, ran and ruined the underwater city of Rapture. He appears to be the “big boss,” and the biggest threat to whatever’s left of the place as it crumbles and springs leaks all around you. But when you finally get to him, the game’s mindfuck clicks in place.
Walk into his lair and look closely, and you’ll see a wall of clues – and I’ll admit I missed a couple – that explain who you are: Andrew Ryan’s your dad, that dead stripper you saw a couple chapters ago was your mom, and your growth has been fantastically accelerated by some kooky scientific process. Ryan’s also not pleased with how you turned out: “you are my biggest disappointment,” he tells you over the PA system.
But that’s not the weird part. When you finally come face to face, the game switches to a cut-scene – you can’t control your actions throughout the encounter. And that’s when Ryan tells you that you haven’t had any control since the moment you got here. The phrase “Would you kindly,” which Atlas – your only friend in this world, and the man who’s been leading you to Ryan – regularly deploys in his instructions to you, is actually a codephrase. You’re conditioned to obey anything you hear after those three words. You have no free will here at all.
There are two mindfucks here. First is for the player: yes, your character is mentally conditioned. But you’ve been sitting on your couch with your controller for hours, doing whatever you were told, and there’s nothing wrong with you! You just did it because you didn’t have any better ideas about how to play the game. How does it make you, the player, feel to be so pliable? Did you ever stop to wonder what Atlas was really getting at? And even if you did, did you consider stopping? This is a similar situation to the ethical transgressions in Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles, where you’ll often commit evil acts – torturing suspects, murdering other adventurers you’ve never even met – simply because the game tells you to. The only choice is to stop playing, which never crosses our minds. But at least BioShock calls you to the carpet for it.
If you’re feeling a little small right now, think how your character feels. Ryan has basically called you (I’m speaking of you “in character” now) a bug. He built a city; you’re just running around blowing stuff up. He led these people; you’re just killing them. You’ve created nothing, accomplished nothing. Taking him out wasn’t even your idea. You are a far lesser man than your father.
And that’s when you kill him. Except he’s really just using you as a tool to kill himself: he gives you the command, “Would you kindly,” and you murder him with a golf club. (This is still in the cut-scene, so the player has no control over how it unfolds.) There’s a lot you can read into his motives here. A couple scenes ago, in Arcadia, he explained how he once destroyed a whole forest rather than let the government take it from him. He almost does the same to Rapture, and now he’s doing it with his own life. You’ve backed him into a corner, and you forced him into his suicide. But the fact remains: he’s in control. He’s taking his own life. He never gives you the satisfaction of so much as pulling the trigger on him.
Nobody beats Andrew Ryan.
After this scene, you should be feeling like quite a shlub. You’re still under Atlas’s mental control, he’s betrayed you, and now what do you do? Well, you do the most logical thing in the world: switch allegiance to someone else – this time, Tenenbaum, an ex-Nazi doctor – and you start doing whatever she asks you to do!
Here’s where the game “fizzled out” for me from a story perspective. It’s a little bizarre, after the lesson we learned about trusting strangers in the first 2/3 of the game, that in the last third, you would just start following Tenenbaum’s orders. I mean, she is a Nazi, right? Yet that’s what you do. The game gives you many clues that this is a bad idea. In Point Prometheus, you have to turn yourself into a big daddy – and you’ll frequently hear that this is a bad idea, that “there’s no turning back,” and that the process is dreadful. (The voicebox modification tool is particularly gruesome, and could’ve used some gorier sound effects to go with the image of a swirling blade that fits down your throat.) As you assume the role of a big daddy and follow a little sister through a museum – where she draws ADAM from bodies that are marked, “TEST SUBJECT #1,” “TEST SUBJECT #2″ etc. – it’s fair to think that something is up, and that you’ve not only walked into a trap, but willingly given yourself up to it.
But then you kill Atlas, and you’re free again. The two endings make some sense in terms of the original choice in the game – how you decide to treat the little sisters. They’re over the top and a little too specific for my tastes (if I’m a good guy or a bad guy, is this really where I would go with it next?). But they make sense.
Yet that question of player agency – of why you trust these people – never comes back. You’re punished for following Atlas – and granted, it wasn’t your choice, in theory. But you’re apparently just right to trust Tenenbaum, and the air of foreboding that at least I felt near the end never pays off.
And more importantly, you never redeem yourself. I guess by taking out Atlas and resolving the situation with the little sisters, you bring some closure to the game. The job of most gamers in a game is to kill all the stuff the game gives you to kill: and yes, that’s a job you can get done. But Andrew Ryan has challenged you to do something more. To be even a tenth of the man he is, to create instead of destroy, and most of all, to set your own course – to be your own man, to make your own decisions, to embrace the freedom that’s the birthright of every man or woman on earth. The message of the game came straight from Ryan: “A man chooses; a slave obeys.” But within the game, you never become a man. The only choice you have is to stop playing.
UPDATE: By the way, I stole the image above from Kieron Gillan’s fantastic interview with Ken Levine on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Give it a read.
UPDATE 2: If you absolutely, positively have to hear how everything in the game works, check out – courtesy Rock Paper Shotgun – this interview by Chris Remo at ShackNews, where Ken Levine basically gives away the whole store.