A great deal has been said about 2007’s Bioshock. Its interpretation and critique of Ayn Rand, it’s wonderful design and innovative philosophical stylings have received no end of praise. However, I think the element that is so often ignored is the way in which Bioshock’s narrative is so unique to its type of media. As I have outlined in an earlier piece, video games are a narrative art form that need to be played to be properly experienced. They cannot just be watched or listened to; it is the active role one takes in the narrative that defines the experience. However, Bioshock asks the gamer to delve further than this, into the relationship between the player, the character and the game. It poses questions as to the position of morality in gaming, if you can ever make meaningful choices; it asks whether games let you choose, or whether they make you obey.
Bioshock seems initially to operate as a standard first person shooter. Your character, Jack, has convenient memory loss and barely speaks. You are caught in a plane crash in the middle of the ocean and awake in the water near a mysterious lighthouse. After making your way in for shelter and find yourself locked in a submersible craft plummeting to the ocean depths, eventually arriving in a secret city created by billionaire Andrew Ryan and hidden at the bottom of the sea. A crackling voice from a nearby walkie-talkie in the craft asks who you are and how you got here. The voice introduces itself as Atlas, leader of the revolution in the city of Rapture; he explains how the city has fallen into chaos and asks you for help in getting his family safely to the surface. So far, so standard.
From here, you guide Jack through the game helping your new friend and – after some explosions – have to avenge the deaths of Atlas’s family by murdering the man responsible, Andrew Ryan. This is a very rudimentary explanation of an extremely complex story, but it is necessary in order to understand the real impact of the narrative, which comes to a head when the player, Jack, meets with Ryan. The twist revealed at this point is that throughout the entire storyline, Jack has been being controlled and manipulated. You have believed yourself to be Jack, a man with memories of a farm and family. However, you are actually the genetically engineered son of the antagonist, Andrew Ryan himself. Jack has been programmed from birth to obey any command or accept any idea if it is accompanied by the phrase “would you kindly”: the phrase that just so happens to be the cute little catchphrase of your only ally and confidant, Atlas. It transpires that your Jack was controlled from the very beginning and you, as the player of the game, then start to question your actions as you travelled through the narrative.
Atlas has no family. He is a ruthless conman hell-bent on seizing control of the city, and has been using Jack as an instrument to achieve his ends. The reason that Jack, the player-character, performed all those tasks and followed his orders was because he had to. He had no free will. However, is twist really even a true shock? Is it not something we knew all along? Jack never had any free will to begin with. It was you, the gamer, who controlled Jack and made him act as he did. It was you who obeyed all of Atlas’s commands. A voice on a walkie-talkie told you to shoot people and you unquestioningly obeyed, murdering a lot of (admittedly rather nasty) people along the way. The explanation given for Jack’s actions in the game is that he was under control and that he obeyed due to brainwashing. However, the real question is why did you – the player – do these things? In fact, it rarely arises as a possibility that the character you control is supposed to have autonomy and will outside of your own. This goes for many games, and it is the most intriguing question Bioshock poses: what is the role of the player in the game itself?
This is what Bioshock does that so few of the big “AAA” titles even attempt. It makes the player ask questions and examine the fact that, regardless of what task is given to you, you obey. Whether it is Wolfenstein or Halo, you receive orders and tend to carry them out: the object of the game is laid out and the player follows it regardless of morality. The player-character might be voiceless, suffer from “amnesia,” or be a soldier following orders. You don’t question the ethics of the task, because it’s a game. There is no real choice you make, even if presented with the idea of one. At most there may be a choice from predetermined options, but they aren’t your options, they are the options given to you.
People don’t question this in gaming. If in a book or a film a character performed the same actions, we might feel frustration at the character or analyse their motives. However, while dozens of games find innovative and excellent ways to explore the consequences of actions in gaming, what they don’t do is explore the intent behind these actions. Almost every game from Mass Effect to Deus Ex involves its players in moral decision making. Some are more cartoonish villainy, some are more nuanced and involve difficult decisions made in complex situations. Bioshock itself features one of these systems, an albeit rather heavy handed choice to “harvest” mutated children for, basically, drugs. Not exactly Sophie’s Choice but it’s a choice nonetheless.
The consequences of your actions have been hammered home a thousand times, but never the intent behind these actions. Why am I doing these things to begin with? Why am I continuing to do them? So frequently, you are just obeying orders. A communication will come in from a trusted source telling you what to do next and you do it. In a way, it’s a cheap shot at something that is a fundamental part of this form of media. Video games need a player: if you want to experience the game and its story you have to play it. The player usually has to relate to the character as whom they are playing. Often this means the character is either a total blank slate or operates with no intent or will at all. They just act. Your character is an avatar controlled by you to experience a narrative. In the words of Andrew Ryan, “a man chooses, and a slave obeys”.
I think this is part of the message that the creators of Bioshock wanted to convey to the game’s players. It highlights this unique element of gaming that sets it apart from other media and how that impacts gaming itself. In doing so, it also reveals its weaknesses; you control a character and thus their free will is lost. Their choices are meaningless as they are completely controlled by someone who is not a part of their world. In almost every first person game you play, according to Bioshock, the protagonist is simply a machine; an unthinking automaton that follows orders to whatever end without care. In every game, you are always Jack. How can there be any ethics in gaming without the ability to choose?
In addition to the character being completely controlled, the player controlling them is also always confined to a set of possibilities programmed into the game. Your actions can be repeated and reloaded and redone a thousand times. The free will of the gamer and the character is illusory. Therefore, your choice as the gamer is empty. You do as you are told or you do all you were allowed. It brings to mind another key quote from Bioshock’s Andrew Ryan: “We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us”. I wonder what this says about the person who can make no real choices.
If we start taking games seriously as a narrative art form, then I think a lot can be gained from considering their relationship to morality. Games are no longer just amusement. They ask questions and directly challenge us in fresh and engaging ways. Bioshock was one sign of gaming’s maturity. Its ability to craft a meta-commentary about gaming itself alongside its narrative and political messages shows that it deserves to be called a work of art. Bioshock wants you to game differently. It wants you to question the obedience of your character and to notice this trope in other games. Alongside Bioshock’s commentary on politics, its philosophy, and now its now established meta-commentary of gaming, we now come to its final and most undeniably relevant message: don’t kill children for drugs, OK? That’s messed up.
John Robertson, “Why Bioshock still has, and will always have, something to say”, ars Technica UK 10th August 2016. https://arstechnica.co.uk/gaming/2016/08/bioshock-objectivism-philosophy-analysis/
Harrison Cox, “Video Games From a Critical Distance – An Evaluation of Bioshock’s Criticism of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Objectivism”, Gamasutra 8th September 2011. http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/HarrisonCox/20110908/90171/Video_Games_From_a_Critical_Distance__An_Evaluation_of_Bioshocks_Criticism_of_Ayn_Rands_Philosophy_of_Objectivism.php