Originally released on the Xbox 360 and PC in 2007, BioShock has blown many minds with what is widely considered one of, if not the best narrative twists in video game history. It features the most well-integrated exploration of philosophy and morality/ethics in a video game story to date. If BioShock is still on your to-play list, beware of the MASSIVE SPOILERS ahead. It’s time to revisit Rapture!
Welcome to Rapture!
BioShock paints the chilling portrait of a society at the end of a twisted descent from a principled, objectivist haven for geniuses into a grim, dystopian nightmare due to the loss of human reason. After starting the game, it is nearly impossible to look away from the tragic mess of waterlogged, art deco ruins, an echo of a dying civilization of dreamers, hypocrites, and psychopaths at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
The mystery of Rapture’s collapse is told through audio logs and radio signals, posters and writing on the walls found by the player. BioShock is impactful as because of the manner in which it exposed Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy to a worldwide audience, whether or not the individual players realized the depth of its philosophical messages. The narrative twist toward the end of BioShock compliments the philosophical themes perfectly.
BioShock asks and answers: “What happens when humanity casts aside morality, ethics, and altruism in favor of pure, unbridled creativity and scientific progress?”
Brief Overview of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism
Ayn Rand is famous for authoring Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. The tenets of her objectivist philosophy are: objective reality, self-interest, reason, and capitalism. Objective reality means that reality exists independent of us and we are simply discovering it, a belief which goes hand in hand with atheism. In an ideal objectivist society, everyone is responsible for their own actions and the productive achievement is the most noble activity. Critical thinking and rationality are highly valued.
Ayn Rand considered objectivism a guide of sorts to living a virtuous life. While objectivism strictly rejects the moral code of altruism, it does not condemn compassion, kindness, caring, good will, or respect for others. For objectivists, self-sacrifice should be something one wants to do, not something one can be forced into (e.g., taxation). Self-interest is the only, true morally correct way of living. Happiness comes from serving self-interest first and foremost, and to love others, you must first love yourself.
Objectivism and the downfall of Rapture
Andrew Ryan fled Soviet Russia after the socialist uprising in favor of the free market found in America. Within a few decades he saw hints of socialism working their way into American society (social welfare) and decided to leave. He built and founded Rapture, an objectivist haven under the sea, and invited Earth’s brightest minds to this wonderful world free from limitations. Rapture is a parallel to Galt’s Gulch in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where a similar objectivist, free market society is first seen. In fact, Andrew Ryan is an anagram for Ayn Rand.
Many working class laborers were brought to Rapture to build it, but there was no program in place to help them reintegrate into society afterward, either in Rapture or back into the surface world. This decision resulted in a fairly large population of unemployed people left to live in slums and squalor, fending for themselves in the underbelly of Rapture with no one to help them. Rapture was a world built for captains of industry, not workers.
Entrepreneur Frank Fontaine began to produce an extremely successful brand of plasmids, a type of genetic mutation agent that gives the user superhuman abilities, powered by a newly discovered substance called ADAM. Fontaine formed a smuggling ring to fund his production of plasmids, but this contaminated Rapture’s isolated environment and came at the expense of those around him (frowned upon by objectivism and Ryan). Only young girls could be used to collect ADAM with the help of symbiotic sea slug living in their bodies, but the symbiosis turned them into inhuman versions of themselves.
After ordering Fontaine killed for his many crimes, Andrew Ryan seized all plasmid related assets and opened an “educational facility”, Little Wonders, for the Little Sisters to live in. He soon realized he would need to continue having them harvest ADAM to keep running his business. Big Daddies were “created” to escort and protect them. Over the course of the game, the player learns that Big Daddies are essentially lobotomized felons whom had been psychologically conditioned to protect the Little Sisters at all costs.
Next came Atlas, a mystery man who proceeded to lead a working class revolt against Ryan (eventually you find out this is Fontaine, who faked his own death). The working class began to heavily use plasmids in the conflict, quickly becoming addicted to ADAM. Splicers continued to obtain enhancements to the point of psychosis and total loss of humanity as they killed as many of the upper class as they could get their hands on. To get them under control, Ryan used plasmids laced with pheromones.
The entire situation is darkly ironic because Ryan fled soviet Russia due to his hatred of the socialist party, then found himself dealing with a nightmare version of a worker’s revolt in his supposed utopia – and it was largely his fault.
The player discovers Rapture during the tail end of Rapture’s civil war by climbing into a pod inside a lighthouse in the middle of the Atlantic ocean after surviving a plane crash. Rampant chaos abounds, most of the upper class have been routed by the Splicers, everything is trying to kill you, water is pouring in through cracks in the buildings, and it is up to you to help a man named Atlas power a submarine and escape with his family.
When you first encounter a Little Sister, she is in the act of harvesting ADAM from a dead Splicer and you are presented with the choice of killing Little Sisters for more ADAM or saving them for less. You make this choice many times.
A great example of the twisted extremes of unethical, radical objectivism would be Doctor Steinman. Steinman was was a plastic surgeon who went let his power go to his head. He became bored of “normal human shapes”, of fixing noses and breasts. So instead he started using his knife on people’s bodies, unwilling canvases in a quest to define a new, gruesome beauty standard.
Another stand out example is an artist who uses corpses to create plaster statues. He also writes some bizzare poetry you stumble upon about a rabbit being unable to “take off its ears”, trying to hop but cannot. This is very clever foreshadowing for a certain type of psychological conditioning you learn about later.
It’s hard to put to text how eerie it is learning the little stories in Rapture through the audio tapes. I would highly recommend listening to some clips on Youtube.
“Desperate times call for Desperate Measures.”
BioShock shows us what happens when objectivism goes too far, when those working within its bounds do not self regulate, as the principles of the philosophy demand. Rapture is the tomb of an ideology gone wrong. Andrew Ryan made a string of poor decisions as he tried to maintain control of the city that led to its downfall:
– Prohibited trade with outside world to try to keep Rapture a secret.
– This created greater demand for contraband (including religious texts).
– Encouraged Fontaine’s experiments with ADAM without realizing extent of ethical corruption.
– Used his power of position to seize Fontaine’s assets and plasmid experiments, creating resentment in the Rapture population.
– Actions fueled Fontaine’s (now Atlas) rebellion.
– Exploited the poor and weak (Workers, Splicers, Little Sisters and big Daddies).
– Ryan’s first sign of abandoning his principles was when he killed his own mistress in a fit of rage over her termination of her pregnancy.
“Would you kindly?”
When you finally meet Andrew Ryan in his office, he’s clearly lost at least part of his mind. It is revealed that instead of helping Atlas escape Rapture, you have actually been a tool all along, easily manipulated.
If you look carefully, audio tapes along the way and explain that the player character was actually born in Rapture. You were the child Ryan’s mistress allowed to be removed from her body by scientists working secretly for Fontaine. Your growth was accelerated, you were conditioned to respond without realizing it to certain trigger words, to follow those orders, then you were smuggled out and sent on a plane over the Atlantic, where you hijacked it and crashed it by the lighthouse. Of course, until now you had no idea.
Ryan has become aware of this and proves the conditioning to you by uttering the phrase “would you kindly”, causing you to lose control of your the character completely in the most jarring, upsetting sequence of events a player may experience in their entire gaming career. Andrew Ryan, after a crazed, philosophical diatribe, orders you to murder him. And you do. You beat him to a bloody pulp at your feet with a golf club.
It is this way you are made to question your agency as a participant in the video game. Expectations of the typical video game experience are flipped entirely upside down. Did anything you achieve during the game really matter?
In the end Andrew Ryan gave up on his ideas even though he refused to admit it. Our choices make us, says Objectivism, but you have no choice. Were any of the decisions in the game really yours? Would it have made a difference if they were or were not?
You, the player and the player character both, are an affront to everything Rapture was made to stand for. You are a tool, a slave, given only the illusion of choice until it is ripped away. You cannot “take the ears off”! You are literally used by a man who has betrayed his own ideology to commit suicide. You are the decisive end of Rapture.
The way you treated the Little Sisters decides your fate. I hope you chose well.
Thanks for reading!
Inspired by the fabulous Games as Lit YouTube Channel.
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