Bioshock A Critical Historical Perspective Essay

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Video Games from a Critical Distance:

An Evaluation of Bioshock’s Criticism of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Objectivism

A man chooses, a slave obeys.[1]

Video games are now not only valid texts for study, but they can also create particular characters and settings that have the ability to test philosophical principles and values. Specifically, the world of the game has the ability to simulate human behaviours which can in turn assess notions of morality espoused by a novel or other literary texts.

Ayn Rand’s epic novel, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957 advocated her philosophy of Objectivism, a philosophy that viewed, “man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity and reason as his only absolute.”[2]  Rand was writing in the politically conservative climate of America in the 1950s where the nation’s fear of the communist threat forced individuals to forgo their personal freedoms to provide for the needs of the nation. Rand viewed policies such as taxation to provide for the defense force at this time as unacceptable and a violation of one’s rights, and thus created Objectivism to allow individuals to pursue their own happiness and in doing so; the individual will benefit society economically, socially and creatively.

In 2007, exactly 50 years after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, head game designer Ken Levine created Bioshock, a video game that can be seen as more than an action/horror “first person shooter”[3], but also a scathing critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.The explosion of technology in the 21st century has allowed video games to become more real, and Levine creates Bioshock to mirror the conditions of an Objectivist Utopia that Rand presented in Atlas Shrugged in order to simulate the philosophy and determine whether or not it can actually function in society.

 In Bioshock, Levine exposes the political, economic and social contradictions inherent in Objectivism, as he did not believe that Rand’s novel, “realistically portrayed Objectivism, as the story followed unrealistic characters”[4]. Levine creates the underwater city of Rapture in the game to mirror the societal constructs of John Galt’s Gulch[5] in Atlas Shrugged to act as the ultimate simulation of an Objectivist Utopia. By showing that the city of Rapture fails in Bioshock, Levine’s simulation illustrates that an Objectivist Utopia is an unrealistic ideal.

 In my essay I will closely analyse Levine’s appropriations of Objectivist theory from Atlas Shrugged in Bioshock and evaluate how his Marxist critique of the philosophy in the game highlights these three deficiencies:

  1. An individual’s inherent selfishness and fallibility prevent an Objectivist Utopia from functioning within a society.
  2. Circumstances dictate an individual’s preconceptions of reality, thus they do not have the complete free will necessary to fulfill their own “rational self interest”[6] in an Objectivist Utopia.
  3. The environment of an Objectivist Utopia we see flourish in Atlas Shrugged, cannot be realistically implemented into real life societal constructs. The fall of Rapture illustrates Objectivism’s failure despite the perfect conditions it has to flourish.

Dive in! - The Context of Bioshock

Bioshock is a “first person shooter”[7] video game developed by Irrational Games and designed by Ken Levine. It was released in August 2007 to critical acclaim for its, “morality based storyline, immersive environment and Ayn Rand inspired back story”[8]. To drive his critique of Objectivism, Ken Levine creates Andrew Ryan,[9] a character who was born in Russia during the revolution, and developed a life long fear of communism after he saw socialists feed off the labors of others. He founds the underwater city of Rapture[10] in 1946, to host his Objectivist vision of a city of elite artists, scientists, and thinkers free from the regulations and social limits of the surface world. It was crucial that the founder of Levine’s Objectivist ideal, Andrew Ryan, was influenced by Marxist values and ideals, as it is Ryan’s exposure to left wing politics and socialist movements that motivates him out of fear to find an alternative societal vision, as explained in Ryan’s opening monologue in the game:

I had thought I had left the Parasites of Moscow behind me. I thought I had left the Marxist Altruists to their collective farms and their ‘Five Year Plans.’ But as the German fools threw themselves on Hitler's sword for the good of the Reich, the Americans drank deeper and deeper of the Bolshevik poison, spoon fed to them by Roosevelt and his New Dealers. And so I asked myself, ‘In what country was there a place for men like me? Men who refused to say yes to the parasites and the doubters? Men who believed that work was sacred and property rights inviolate?’ And then one day the happy answer came to me, my friends. There was no country for people like me. And that was the moment I decided to build one![11]

The use of rhetorical questioning in this monologue reinforces the idea of a visionary (Ryan) questioning the society he lives in, and these questions are often broadcasted to the player in the game through Rapture’s public announcement system, so we are constantly reminded of Andrew Ryan’s resentment for societal constraints of the surface world, particularly those espoused in left wing politics. The use of the metaphor of “poison” to describe well known left wing political movements emphasises the scathing critique of Marxist, socialist and even altruistic values, as these ideals are seen by Ryan to be infecting the minds of men, namely the Americans – an allusion to Rand who described the Americans as having “the most malleable minds of any people in the world”[12].

To criticise the Objectivist notion that all advancements are beneficial to society Levine creates ADAM,[13] a substance that allows its users to modify their genetic material. The substance is harnessed and converted into an addictive drug that all the citizens in the game soon fight over in an attempt to satisfy their cravings. In conjunction with the in-game combat, ADAM is seen in the game mechanic of the “upgrade system” where the player uses acquired ADAM at a “Gatherers Garden”[14]  in order to modify their genetic material to harness the abilities of “Plasmids”[15] which improves their character’s ability in combat by providing them with superhuman abilities such as the ability to freeze or incinerate enemies[16]. These powers are unnatural and are a deliberate critique of the Objectivist view that scientific progress is always beneficial to society.

The player is thrust into the city in the middle of a civil war (New Year’s Eve 1959) that has erupted over the struggle for ADAM. Levine implements a Marxist critique highlighting that distinct class divisions have now occurred as a working class has materialized out of the society of creative elite who now resent the aristocracy and most citizens have lost their sanity and arguably their humanity, as they become “Splicers”[17] – monsters driven only by a thirst for ADAM.  The player ultimately has a choice in the way they play the game. Depending on the way they interact with characters and the environment, they either become Rapture’s new tyrant by following the Objectivist value system or its savior by maintaining values of altruism. But most importantly we notice that whatever path the player takes, Rapture still falls and Objectivism is shown to fail.

The Inherently Fallible Man – How Bioshock Shows that the Innate Selfishness of Individuals Contradicts an Objectivist Utopia

Bioshock shows what happens to society when the theory of Objectivism is applied to believable human characters, unlike the “paragons of virtue”[18] that are the characters in Atlas Shrugged.  Levine illustrates how the city of Rapture could never sustain its ideal because when Objectivism is applied to characters that reflect actual human behaviors, namely greed and desire, a power struggle is inevitable.

In Bioshock, the city is quickly stratified due to the resentment that started the civil war, and many inhabitants become disillusioned as they get recruited to support the upper levels of the creative elite. Simple music changes highlight the transition from the luxury areas of Rapture to the slums. Levine uses a grandiose orchestral score in “Welcome to Rapture”[19] when the player enters Olympus Heights,[20] in contrast to the percussive “All Spliced Up” when the player explores Neptune’s Bounty.[21]Levine also uses “level layout”[22] to emphasise the vast class divisions in Rapture, where in Olympus Heights, the player explores restaurants, gentleman’s clubs and high-rise apartments in contrast to Neptune’s Bounty, which is dominated by warehouses, derelict sheds and decrepit shop-fronts.

A working class of characters emerges and they end up fixing leaks, growing food, performing manual labor, as well as other necessary yet menial tasks. In order to showcase the concept of the inherently fallible man, Levine creates Frank Fontaine,[23] a character who is not afraid to exploit the resentment of the working class to form a faction of “have-nots” in opposition to Ryan’s “haves.” Levine’s Marxist critique through the character of Fontaine highlights that, “an upper class can easily exploit and control individuals, but when individuals develop a consciousness of themselves and their connection to a particular societal group, significant change occurs when the individuals act as a social class”[24]. We see Fontaine create this new social class that many citizens of Rapture wish to be a part of in order to act on the resentment they feel towards the upper class in Rapture. Thus Fontaine’s armies of gene Splicers are formed as he describes in one of his in game soliloquies:[25]

These sad saps. They come to Rapture thinking they’re going to be captains of industry, but they all forget, somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets. I hand these mugs a cot and a bowl of soup and they gave me their lives. Who needs an army when I have Fontaine’s Home for the Poor?[26]

Fontaine’s use of colloquial language sets him apart from his opponent in the civil war, Andrew Ryan, as a man who has the ability to connect with the newly formed working class in Rapture. One of Fontaine’s main recruitment strategies was his promise to offer ADAM and Plasmids that would help the working class fight their superiors, as due to the expensive nature of these products, Plasmids were previously unavailable to the working class. Unfortunately, chaos and anarchy result by providing all citizens the opportunity to achieve greatness in an attempt to overcome class barriers in Rapture, as we see in the example of the street fights that spontaneously occur between the two factions in all areas of the city, highlighting the destructive nature of offering the “upgrade system” to all members of the community.

Levine highlights that in a society where greatness becomes easily achievable in the form of ADAM injections, citizens will not hesitate to transcend this barrier of imposed class distinctions. Rand states that it is the “natural tendency of man to improve himself”[27], but Bioshock shows that not all improvements are for the good of society when they are temporary, unethical or self-destructive. In Atlas Shrugged, every man’s selfishness leads to greatness and ultimately benefits all of society. In Bioshock, junkies hoarding their ADAM and citizens who specialise in the arts do not supply the reliable productivity upon which stable societies are built. In order to illustrate how the inherently selfish nature of humans undermines an Objectivist Utopia, Levine creates the character of Sander Cohen,[28] a once brilliant playwright turned insane auteur.

When the player first encounters Cohen, an establishing camera shot of the room shows all of Cohen’s masterpieces including paintings and awards won for musical brilliance, before the music changes to the frantic “Cohen’s masterpiece”[29], and a slow zoom introduces the player to Cohen’s newest artwork, a sculpture decorated by the photos of maimed corpses. Levine introduces Cohen in this way to highlight his descent from creative elite into crazed citizen, so the player can recognise that unlike in Atlas Shrugged, humans can not only lose sight of their vision but also their sanity when they exist solely in a society of creative elite. In order to distinguish themselves, they must push the boundaries beyond sane means. The character of Sander Cohen embodies the idea that “Rapture was doomed by its own brilliance”[30], which is in stark contrast to John Galt’s “Gulch” in Atlas Shrugged where the brilliance of the citizens improves the society, as we see in the example of Hank Rearden who creates an unbreakable metal which is used for construction in the “Gulch”. Levine uses Cohen in Bioshock to contrast characters like Rearden in Atlas Shrugged to highlight that because individuals are egocentric, an Objectivist Utopia cannot be achieved because individuals who are deemed to be “brilliant” are not always beneficial to society.

Rand explains that “The ladder of success is best climbed by stepping on the rungs of opportunity”[31], which is a concept that underpins the thriving Objectivist Utopia in Atlas Shrugged. However Bioshock shows that the “opportunities” which Rand mentions are often opportunities to exploit others in order to gain power, wealth and influence. Levineuses the characters of Fontaine and Cohen to criticise the unrealistic portrayal of human beings in Atlas Shrugged as the citizens of Rapture highlight that corruption is simply part of the human condition. However, theoretical Objectivism does not take this reality into account, as it makes the dangerous assumption that all Objectivists will refrain from this basic human instinct – to exploit others if the opportunity arises.

How Circumstances in Bioshock Remove an Individual’s Free Will, Thus Removing their Ability to Create an Objectivist Utopia

Free will is not always necessarily good, since it is rarely truly free.[32]

At the core of Objectivist philosophy are what Rand calls the “Three Axioms of Existence”[33] – identity, consciousness and existence. These create the world as we know it and it is the Objectivist’s duty to come up with their own perception of the world by interacting with these axioms. In Atlas Shrugged these axioms are followed without question as John Galt explains, “the axioms are the way of the world, to ignore them is to ignore what it means to be human”[34]. Rand makes the assumption in the axiom of consciousness that, “every human being has free will; it is whether or not we exercise it that separates those that are conscious of the world and those that are ignorant of everything outside their normal routine”[35]. However Bioshock shows that this viewpoint may not always be the case and free will may in fact be an illusion as an individual’s circumstances can be manipulating them directly or indirectly.

Bioshock shows that reality is in fact subjective and that a man’s perception of reality can be radically altered if the right “facts” are put into his head. Levine highlights how characters can be manipulated through the introductions of plasmids such as “Enrage”, “Hypnotize” and “Decoy”, which are all employed by the player to alter an enemy Splicer’s sense of reality so that they are easier to kill. If man has no free will, an objective reality cannot exist, as man’s perception of reality is provided for him. The concept of mind control is outlined as, “systematically using unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s)”[36], and Bioshock illustrates that mind control is at work in order to highlight that free will is an illusion and that Rand’s axiom of Consciousness is contradicted because once free will is removed, an Objectivist Utopia is no longer possible. An example of how the citizens of Rapture have lost their free will is seen by Levine strategically placing Splicers across the various levels of the game who are unable to attack the player unless ordered by another Splicer who possesses the mind control plasmid, where we notice their dialogue reflects a loss of self-determination: “Do I do it? Do I do it now?”[37] Levine introduces these methods of mind control to illustrate the impossibility of creating an Objectivist Utopia when aspects of an individual’s life are controlled by others.

Furthermore, Bioshock shows that as well as experimental methods of mind control, conventional methods, such as using propaganda, are also used in an attempt to provide citizens with the illusion of free will when they are in fact working towards the desires of “Rapture’s Best and Brightest”[38]. Propaganda posters such as one that states, “The end of Ryan is the end of the Self”[39] encourage citizens to be mindful to support the intentions of their leader otherwise they will lose their self-determination.

The city of Rapture saturates its citizens with propaganda in the form of community service announcements that are broadcasted over the city’s telecom system such as, “A Rapture reminder, we all make choices, but in the end our choices make us”[40]. This is an intentional criticism of Rand’s view of the axiom of Consciousness, as Bioshock shows us that the minds of individuals can be conditioned to do monstrous things by the tools of propaganda and persuasion, and that experimental mental conditioning is almost superfluous as the citizens cannot exercise free will because they are subtly conditioned by their rulers and the city itself.

Ultimately this aspect of Bioshock’s overallcriticism Objectivism shows that once the axiom of Consciousness is removed, man can no longer pursue his own rational self interest as he will always be fulfilling the interests of others. Levine shows how the player is conditioned to become “something bred to sleepwalk through life until it is activated by a simple phrase spoken by its kindly master”[41], which is a deliberate juxtaposition to the laborers in Galt’s “Gulch” in Atlas Shrugged who state that, “We work because we choose to…there is no better feeling than building something out of nothing…we choose to suffer labor in order to enjoy our creation”[42]. Friedrich Nietzsche explains that, “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man,”[43] and we see Levine affirm this view in his Marxist critique of Objectivism’s assumption of free will, as he shows that it is the illusion of free will that allows certain individuals to exploit the system by keeping the majority of the population under control to further their own selfish intentions. Rand and Atlas Shrugged make the dangerous assumption that following selfish intentions will not lead to exploitation – Bioshock shows us one’s circumstances and notions of free will can be manipulated to make them vulnerable to victimisation.

How the Environment of Bioshock Provides the Best Possible Simulation for the Objectivist Ideal – Yet the Objectivist Utopia of Rapture Fails.

It is Levine’s intention to construct in Bioshock a government that imitates the ideal Objectivist government, one that is completely impartial, neutral and regulates the use of force amongst the citizens, seen in Atlas Shrugged, where the government is a non-profit organisation that solely attends to the affairs of the citizens. Rand outlines the construct of the ideal government in the quote below.

Government is the agent of restraining and combating the use of force; and for that reason, its actions have to be rigidly defined, delimited and circumscribed; no touch of whim or caprice should be permitted in its performance. It should be an impersonal robot, with the laws as its only motive power.[44]

In the vein of the above quote, Levine creates “Rapture’s Best and Brightest,”[45] a governing body that is made up of a mixture of scientists, industrialists, artists and philosophers[46] representing the different factions of citizens in Rapture. In Bioshock, Levine uses each member of this group in a “boss battle,”[47] where the player must confront and kill each member before progressing. Levine outlines the symbolic qualities of this game mechanic in his interview given to the game review website IGN:

Every gamer gets excited before a boss battle…the purpose of using the members of Rapture’s best and brightest is so the player literally kills off each individual aspect of Objectivism…whether it’s the glorification of the arts in Sander Cohen or the shallowness of beauty in Steinman,[48] each encounter is the player putting another bolt in the coffin of Rand’s philosophy.[49]

Levine’s purpose of having “Rapture’s Best and Brightest” as the game’s central antagonists, is to illustrate that they did not in fact function as an “impersonal robot”[50] as Rand states but they were instead opportunistic and quickly began to pursue their own devices. Levine uses the example of the decline of Dr Steinman to illustrate this point. Steinman’s Medical Pavilion[51] was once one of the great triumphs of Rapture. Memory sequences, flashbacks as well as images of ghosts provide the player with an insight into the scientific progress made at the pavilion, where posters triumph cheap cosmetic surgery that is available to all, as well as new drugs that can fight off disease and increase life expectancy. Steinman soon tires of the “mundane and tedious service he provides to the unappreciative public”[52] and begins to search for a way to distinguish himself from others. Using the profits made from the Medical Pavilion we learn that Steinman “engages in useless experiments and unorthodox surgical procedures,”[53] where the player is forced to fight against his test subjects, providing some classic moments of gore and horror. 

You promised me pretty Steinman, you promised me pretty! Now look at me! Look at me![54]

We can see how Steinman in his role as part of the governing body of Rapture violated the Objectivist principle of remaining impartial as a member of a governing body. He is just one example of how “Rapture’s Best and Brightest,” “Initiated physical force and coercion as it pleased instead of serving as the instrument of objectivity in human relationships and created a subterranean reign of uncertainty and fear”[55]. Through Steinman and the other members of “Rapture’s Best and Brightest,” Levine shows how Rand’s portrayal of government in Atlas Shrugged is unrealistic when put into practice, as there is no example of a government that adheres to Rand’s principles more than “Rapture’s Best and Brightest.” So with their failure comes the failure of Rand’s “impersonal robot”[56] government ideal.

The city of Rapture itself also provided the perfect environment for an Objectivist society to flourish, yet civil war erupts and the city crumbles in the game. Rapture was isolated from the surface world and its citizens were carefully chosen to eliminate the influence of the “Parasites”.  Levine ensured that Andrew Ryan had the Objectivist ideal firmly in mind when he built the city, as described in one of Ryan’s in-game soliloquies:

 To build a city at the bottom of the sea? Insanity. But where else could we be free from the clutching hand of the Parasites? Where else could we build an economy that they would not try to control, a society that they would not try to destroy? It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea. It was impossible to build it anywhere else.[57]

Isolation is crucial to the Objectivist ideal as the creative elite in an Objectivist society need to be completely removed from the people and the institutions that prevent them from pursuing their “rational self interest” according to Rand. Yet Andrew Ryan attributes the downfall of the city to “the infiltration of the parasites into our beloved Rapture”[58]. Levine is highlighting that despite the isolation of Rapture, the ideals of the parasites were brought down with the citizens themselves, showing how the environment of isolation required by Rand’s concept of an Objectivist Utopia cannot be re-created in a real life situation.

Marxist critical theorist Dennis Prager explains how complete isolation is impossible and thus philosophical ideals can never be completely achieved, “In an increasingly connected world, the promise of a perfect society can cause monstrous evil … forcefully changing individuals to conform to societal images creates unhappiness as the individual will always be aware of other societal systems…it only takes one person to appeal to outside forces for a Utopian vision to crumble”[59]. Bioshock affirms this point of view as the citizens of Rapture were unable to detach themselves from the knowledge of other societal systems that they had gained on the surface, thus they were unable to completely commit to the objectivist ideal. We see this lack of commitment by the citizens through the creation of the “Smuggler’s Hideout”[60] which smuggles “prohibited goods that encourage parasitic thoughts”[61] such as bibles, political propaganda and charity handouts of food and clothing. Bioshock shows that it is impossible to remove a person’s previous experiences of a society, which in turn makes it impossible to create an Objectivist Utopia as the environment will always be affected by one’s previous experiences of other societies.

If the city of Rapture was unable to maintain the Objectivist ideal in the mid 20th century, how would true isolation be possible in today’s society where globalisation has ensured that communication to all parts of the world is possible at any time? Levine makes the comment in one of his interviews that, “Objectivism would never work in a society like ours because communication of new ideas and thoughts make it impossible to achieve conformity”[62]. By illustrating the failure of Objectivism during the fall of Rapture in the mid-20th century, Levine is highlighting that Rapture provided the best conditions for an Objectivist Utopia to flourish due to its isolation, construct of government and the time period it was built in – but it still failed. The criticism of the philosophy is that despite the game simulating these perfect conditions, the society crumbles due to the fact that the environment specified by Rand in Atlas Shrugged only works in the fictional world of her novel and not in real life circumstances.

Game Over:

Bioshock is a game that has completely changed the way we look at video games. The game’s most compelling feature is its exploration of the Objectivist ideal in a way that leaves every player with a different experience and opinion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Some believe that “Bioshock aims its criticisms at the idea of philosophical certainty”[63] rather than at Objectivism. Others believe that “the game’s back-story, characters and historical context act as a condemnation of the Objectivist ideal and its values of Transhumansim”[64]. With so many differing opinions it is important to consider the initial purpose of the game’s designer Ken Levine.

The reason I made Bioshock was so I could find out what happens when real people practice Objectivism…the team had to do a fair bit of research, and the more we did the more we started forming ideas for characters and settings which we could use in the game…the challenge was to criticise Objectivism without condemning it, to be fair but not cruel in a sense.[65]

When we consider Levine’s purpose, it is simply a matter of analysing the critiques inherent within the game, namely how Levine’s exploration of how individuals, circumstances and environments required for Objectivism prove to be unrealistic concepts. After implementing these concepts into the ultimate simulation of Objectivist theory – Levineshows them all to fail. The game mechanics of the “Upgrade”, “Combat” and “Plasmid” systems show how “the player’s goal is to acquire power in order to gain the ability to acquire further power…ultimately showing through the fall of the city that the Objectivist mantra of selfishness does not benefit society”[66]. Bioshock shows that “society is much more complex and dynamic than what Rand portrays in her novels,”[67] and we see the game world of Bioshock act as a more realistic simulation of Objectivist theory than Atlas Shrugged, as the game takes into account human behaviors.

Overall the game’s critique of Objectivism has brought the philosophy into the 21st century, provoking thought and discussion on Rand’s philosophical ideal. Levine has shown the theory to fail in Bioshock, and it is this critique that drives the game and makes for a compelling experience. Levine himself provides a scathing critique of Rand’s theory as he explains “Any vision of Utopia cannot be complete without the values of love and friendship… Objectivism spurns these values and claims to be a successful Utopian ideal in Atlas Shrugged…so Bioshock puts Objectivism to the test, and we see that the Objectivist ideals don’t stack up, and egoism is no substitute for connection with others”[68].

Bioshock has shown how video games are the perfect medium to test philosophical theories. Through the creation of immersive environments, we can live in Levine’s Objectivist Utopia and we can experience firsthand the inherent critiques that result in a failure of the Objectivist ideal. Pick up a controller and dive into the world of Rapture – the critique of Objectivism is just the beginning!



[1] Levine, Ken – Bioshock Developed by Irrational games, designed by Ken Levine (A Quote from Andrew Ryan in the game) (August 2007)

[2] Rand, Ayn – Atlas Shrugged (50th anniversary edition) published by Popular Penguin classics 2007. ISBN 0-452-01187-8 (pg4)

[3] The genre of gaming in which Bioshock is classified. This style of game uses the first person perspective to give the player the impression that they themselves are fighting the enemies, solving the puzzles and carrying out the story of the game.

[4] Levine, Ken – Interview titled “Ken Levine on Bioshock, the spoiler interview” posted on www.shacknews.com in 2008

[5] Galt’s Gulch is the secret society reserved for the creative elite in Atlas Shrugged.

[6] Rand, Ayn – Atlas Shrugged. Op cit. (pg 7)

[8] Bray, Hiawatha “Bioshock lets users take on fanaticism through fantasy” published in the Boston Globe (2007) (pg3)

[9] The founder of the Objectivist Utopia where the game is set.

[10] The environment where the action of the game takes place – an underwater dystopian city.

[11] Levine, Ken – Bioshock Op. cit (Quote from Andrew Ryan)

[12] The “Ayn Rand vs Mike Wallace interview – Why state and economics should remain separate and what the true currency of love is” (1959) sourced from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ukJiBZ8_4k

[13] The substance that allows users to modify their genetic code. Not an acronym but a biblical allusion to Genesis – carries connotations of interfering with the natural world and “playing God.”

[14] A type of vending machine that allows the player to purchase skills, weapons and abilities for the exchange of ADAM.

[15] Genetic tonics that provide the player with superhuman abilities such as mind control and shooting electricity from the tips of one’s fingers.

[16] These abilities are acquired by purchasing the “Winter Blast” and “Incinerate” Plasmids.

[17] The basic enemy type encountered in the game. Splicers attack the player with a range of Plasmids and weapons such as shotguns and pistols.

[18] Crecente, Brian – “No Gods or Kings – Objectivism in Bioshock” (2007) (pg5)

[19] Bioshock OST Composed by Garry Schyman (2007)

[20] The luxury resort of Rapture populated by the aristocracy.

[21] The fishing district and port of Rapture populated by the working class.

[22] Level layout is the basic structure of the level, where the head game developers make the decision as to what the environment looks like, how the inhabitants behave and how these aspects affect the player.

[23] Fontaine is a character who vies for control of the city by leading a faction of splicers in the civil war. He is  also known as “Atlas.”

[24] Livesy, Chris. Founder of www.sociology.org.uk  – “An overview of Marxist critical theory” published on the aforementioned site in 2005.

[25] In game soliloquies have to be found during the game by the player in the form of “Audio Diaries” which provide new insights into the history and context of the game.

[26] Levine, Ken – Bioshock Op. cit (Quote from the character Frank Fontaine)

[27] Rand, Ayn – “Man’s Rights” published in The Objectivist in 1963 (pg6)

[28] Rapture’s finest actor and playwright. Final boss at the end of the Fort Frolic level.

[29] Cohen’s No.7 Scherzo – “Andante con fuoco”

[30] Wang, Lorenzo – “Bioshock Explained” published in 2007 (pg 4)

[31] Rand, Ayn – The virtue of selfishness, A new concept of Egoism published by New American Library (1964 reprint) ISBN 0-451-16393-1 (pg 5)

[32] Wang, Lorenzo – “Bioshock Explained” Op. cit (pg 6)

[33] Rand, Ayn – The virtue of selfishness, A new concept of Egoism  Op. cit (Pg 3)

[34] Rand, Ayn – Atlas Shrugged Op. Cit (pg 356)

[35] Rand, Ayn – The virtue of selfishness, A new concept of Egoism  Op. cit (Pg 12)

[36] Taylor, Kathleen – Brainwashing, the science of thought control (2004) Published by Oxford University Press ISBN 0192804960 (pg 26)

[37] Splicer variant “Toasty” – Bioshock Op. cit

[38] Rapture’s governing body made up of the most brilliant scientists, artists, philosophers and industrialists.

[39] Poster situated in Point Prometheus in Bioshock.

[40] Telecom service announcement first heard at Dandy Dentures in the Medical Pavilion.

[41] Levine, Ken – Bioshock Op. cit (Quote from the character Andrew Ryan)

[42] Rand, Ayn Atlas Shrugged Op. Cit (pg 437)

[43] Nietzsche, Friedrich – Beyond Good and Evil (1886), translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Random House, 1966; reprinted in Vintage Books, and as part of Basic Writings of Nietzsche, New York: Modern Library, 2000 (pg 54)

[44] Rand, Ayn - “The Nature of Government.” 1964 (pg 8)

[45] In the city of Rapture any reference to a political party or the concept of a government was forbidden, thus Levine chooses the phrase “Rapture’s best and brightest” which attracts no attention to the governing body, due to the ironic fact that all the citizens see themselves in this way and so are not concerned with the actions of this group.

[46] Members are Brigid Tenenbaum, Sander Cohen, Gil Alexander, Dr J.S Steinman, Sofia Lamb, Yi Suchong, Frank Fontaine and Andrew Ryan.

[47] The final task the player must complete before progressing to the next level in the game. Usually involves a confrontation with a tough or skilled enemy.

[48] Dr J.S Steinman, plastic surgeon, experimental scientist and boss of the Medical Pavilion level.

[49] “IGN Hot Seat” feature on www.ign.com. Interview title – Hot Seat, Ken Levine Talks Bioshock

[51] The Medical pavilion level is the first level of the game. Home to medical research facilities, clinics, drug trials, and surgeries.

[52] Dr J.S Steinman audio diary found in the Medical Pavilion – Bioshock Op. cit

[53] Brigid Tenenbaum audio diary found in the Medical Pavilion – Bioshock Op. cit

[54] Female splicer shrieking before she attacks the player in the Medical Pavilion – Bioshock Op. cit

[55] Rand, Ayn – “The Nature of Government.” Op. cit (pg 6)

[57] Levine, Ken – Bioshock Op. cit (Quote from the character Andrew Ryan)

[59] Prager, Dennis – Radio talk show excerpt from “The Dennis Prager show.”

[60] Operated and organised by Frank Fontaine. Headquarters for Fontaine’s army of Splicers.

[61] Audio Diary of Peach Wilkins, one of Fontaine’s head smugglers – Bioshock Op. cit.

[62] Levine, Ken – “Ken Levine interview” uploaded to www.gamespot.com 12 August 2010

[65] Levine, Ken – “Bioshock behind the scenes look.” A short interview that the player unlocks at the completion of Bioshock on the “Hard” difficulty setting.

[67] Wang, Lorenzo – “Bioshock explained” Op. cit (pg 3)

[68] Levine, Ken – “Ken Levine interview” uploaded to www.gamespot.com 12 August 2010


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In Charles Onyett’s original review for BioShock — which this month is celebrating its 10-year anniversary — he predicted that the video game was “the benchmark against which games for years to come will, and indeed must, be measured.” Celebrated as a literary achievement on its release, BioShock even appeared in the London Review of Books, where John Lanchester called it “visually striking, verging on intermittently beautiful, also violent, dark, sleep-troubling, and perhaps, to some of its intended audience, thought-provoking.” Although Lanchester recognized the game’s achievement amongst gamers, he remarked that among non-gamers, “I have yet to encounter anyone who has ever heard of it.”

Ten years later, people still point to BioShock as proof that games deserve the same depth of criticism as literature or art. So given the anniversary, it seems the perfect time to re-enter the Bathysphere and see just how lasting some of BioShock’s innovations really are. (Obviously spoilers ahead.)

Discovering Rapture

Film critic Pauline Kael wrote that, “Art is the greatest game, the supreme entertainment, because you discover the game as you play it.” An apt comment when applied to video games. Discovery is key to the unique way that video games tell stories, and BioShock rightly claims some credit for paving the way. In BioShock we discover the city of Rapture; an Art Deco dystopia at the bottom of the sea. Rapture remains a watermark of “environmental storytelling”: a story told through the setting as you encounter it. Few fictional cities in any medium have ever been so lovingly rendered with such immaculate detail and history.

Imagine Rockefeller Center, with its imposing busts and Modernist frescoes, expanded into a glittering metropolis, decorated with flickering neon, and dropped to the ocean floor. The walls creak and moan like a ship’s hull. Aquamarine views greet me through every sweeping bay window and glorious domed glass ceiling. Dreamy light spills in, muted by the crush of water above. Schools of fish flash by. Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” echoes from a distant radio. Debris litters the corridors. Shops have been looted, beds overturned, and the abandoned remains of 1959 New year’s eve party tells me that something here has gone horribly wrong.

Rapture is the site for creative director Ken Levine’s unique critical perspective: a vision of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, taken to hysterical extremes. Rapture’s founder Andrew Ryan — like Rand not just in name — after seceding from the burdens of state and church, established Rapture as the ultimate capitalist experiment, “a city where the artist would not be confined by the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.” Levine describes Ryan as an “amalgamation of characters from Ayn Rand’s books and from Ayn Rand herself; this sort of idealistic person who says that the only way to do this is to separate from the rest of the world.”

Levine needed a reason for Rapture to be cut off from society; the city’s isolation due to the fact that the world of a video game needs borders. Levine and director Shawn Robertson first played with a spaceship setting, similar to that of their previous game System Shock 2 — a spiritual predecessor to BioShock, which established many of the environmental storytelling ideas that BioShock built on. But a spaceship felt too familiar an environment for a video game; an underwater city had a freshness.

The Randian influence was almost a fluke. “I don’t think I was even aware of the political implications of what I was reading,” Levine admitted, “but I had read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and I thought it was an interesting story. I didn’t realize people were sort of basing their political lives around it.” Rand’s Atlas Shrugged may be the more influential, with its vision of a dystopian America where all creative and capital leaders decry collectivism in favor of the individual. Once Rand’s influence made its way into Levine’s plans, the Modernist style of Rand’s fictions fed into the design of Rapture, making for a unique aesthetic that was grounded in story — much imitated but rarely matched.

A Rogue’s Gallery

The player enters BioShock’s disturbed world as Jack — a mute protagonist that I freely inhabit as the player — so the story is really brought to life through its supporting cast. Rapture’s denizens patrol the halls, mad with the hubris of individualism. That, and with superhuman genetic mutations. Ungoverned by law, their experiments with genetic splicing have transfigured them. They throw fire from their hands, teleport across space. If I wait in hiding, I can observe them quarrelling like scorned lovers, or hunting together like pack-animals. A waitress, if left uninterrupted, will continue to serve the frozen corpses in a diner booth. These citizens are crazed, but still human, possessing a surprising depth, given that they are mostly here as gun fodder.

There are also recorded memories from the city’s inhabitants, old Dictaphones that tell stories like a series of spoken diary entries, that can be found strewn amongst the rubble; another environmental storytelling device that BioShock helped establish. These recordings weave together a dense collection of narratives from characters that would otherwise be left in the far background, their voices floating up from the past while you scavenge through the ruins of their present.

Significant characters act as chapter-points, each one a new roadblock on the way to Ryan’s lair. The most iconic would have to be Sander Cohen, a face-painted Dali-esque artiste who enlists your help in completing his macabre masterpiece, with one inventive murder after another. But lesser characters are just as memorable. The creaking medical wing is menaced by the demented Dr. Steinman — more of a cosmetic surgeon than health professional — who denounces the body’s limited symmetry, and goes about making ghastly Picassos of his patients. “With genetic modifications, beauty is no longer a goal, or even a virtue; it is a moral obligation,” muses Steinman. “Do we force the healthy to live with the contagious? Do we mix the criminal with the law-abiding? Then why are the plain allowed to mingle with the fair?” If that posturing speech sounds over-puffed, look to Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and you’ll find it not far off the mark. BioShock works better as a nightmarish satire of Objectivism, rather than an earnest critique.

“A man chooses, a slave obeys.”

Questions of agency are now central to much game criticism, and BioShock is partly to thank. Two experiences run parallel in the player’s explorations: the goal-oriented, A-to-B linearity of jumping the game’s successive hurdles and therefore advancing the plot, and the aimless meandering and discovering, whereby you take in the scenery at your own pace. Both have different rewards. One of the great joys of gaming is this dual reading, absorbing parallel lines of experience at once.

The notion of choice is highlighted most overtly in the decision given to either “harvest” or “rescue” the Little Sisters, the only children in Rapture, protected by their lumbering mechanical protectors, the Big Daddies. (Games are never short of bizarre misogynies.) Killing the Little Sisters gives me more power, while saving them offers the only moment of benevolence in an otherwise hostile environment.

There has been criticism for the lack of consequence over this choice. As the game purports to challenge Randian individualism by offering this moral dilemma, it goes to no lengths to flesh out any meaningful differentiation of experience whether you choose to rescue the Little Sisters or not. The first time I played BioShock, I felt compelled to save every Little Sister. The second time around, I wanted to delve into the murk (quite literally: the screen turns a swampy green whenever you choose to harvest the children.) It turns out, aside from a momentary pang of guilt, the story played out much as it did the first time.

Hence we have one of BioShock’s most significant contributions to game criticism: “ludonarrative dissonance.” The idea refers to a conflict between the story told in the narrative and the story told through gameplay. A frequently-cited example is Uncharted’s Nathan Drake: portrayed as an Indiana Jones-type hero in the story, but one who commits mass-murder in the gameplay. The term was coined by Clint Hocking in 2007, when he confessed frustration about how BioShock seems to “openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all.” Championed by developers like Jonathan Blow, ludonarrative dissonance has since become a vital development in how we understand and critique games, as well as how game developers approach storytelling. But to dismiss BioShock entirely for this discrepancy is overkill. It is, after all, BioShock that sparked the thinking.

Bloody Mayhem

Violence in BioShock is the modus operandi, and while often repellent, it can also be cartoony, playful, and fun. With a spate of weapons in my right hand, my left has been charged with genetic “upgrades” that give me the power to shoot electricity, ice, or even a swarm of bees from my fingers. There is a stupid pleasure in freezing someone where they stand and then shattering their statue-body into frozen dust, or hoisting someone up with my levitation powers and flinging them at a crowd, like a bowling ball to pins. Such macabre virtuosity reaches peak ridiculousness when I am forced to face an onslaught of back-flipping baddies to the rousing strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers.” Every spin, run, smack, shoot, takes on the elegance of a ballet. I feel for a moment that this fantastical murder spree is as accomplished as a live performance.

It’s true that a game can be played well or badly, and some responsibility lies with the player to bring the game to life by playing it well. In BioShock, as I continue to die and respawn over and over again, narrative momentum grinds to a halt, and the Groundhog-Day effect wears on my patience. Where at first I executed my actions with finesse, I later resort to storming through the place haphazardly, just to keep things moving. It is a problem of pacing, something essential to any time-based art. But I have no one to blame but myself.

In one instance I encounter a crying woman, bent over a baby’s pram, her silhouette thrown monstrously onto the weeping walls. I want to pass by unnoticed, but there is no way past without her noticing, and as she flies at me in a rage, my only choice is to bludgeon her with my bloody wrench. One could argue these moments serve to draw attention to my morally bankrupt character. But it’s easy to lose interest in any such nuances; to go on smacking heads with hard metal, then looting those bodies for cash. The game’s motives pull me ever forward, no time to dwell. On one hand, this chain of unfelt violence is a tired video game trope. On the other, it actually serves the game’s greatest coup, given the now-notorious twist that lies ahead.

Game-Changing

Nearing what seems to be the end of the game, I make my way at the instruction of Atlas — both my guide and another gesture towards Rand, who speaks to me through a two-way radio — through Rapture’s maze to Ryan’s office. This encounter should mark the climactic end, the “Boss Battle”. Ryan emerges, dressed in dapper suit, practicing his golf-putting. He laments — his cartoony gesticulations as pompous as the surroundings — that I have been programmed all along to follow these directions by Atlas — the phrase “Would you kindly…” acting as a hypnotic code — so that I might murder Ryan for Atlas’s own diabolical ends. Ryan hands me the golf-club and orders me to kill. “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” Ryan intones, a final test. Now as I watch the action unfold like a movie, control wrested away from me, Jack blindly obeys, and beats Ryan to death with his own golf club, without hesitation. All notions of agency — the freedom of exploration that games herald as their highest creed — are revealed as a grand delusion. Pulled out of the digital world and back into my living room, I sit in the din of the television glow, pressing buttons, following predestined paths, duped into believing that I have some active role to play in this story, when all I can really do is follow the rules of the game. Obey.

It’s certainly the game’s strongest legacy, this encounter with Ryan, and for some it is BioShock’s greatest weakness. The failure is that once the curtain has been drawn and the fallacy of autonomy revealed, the game then resorts back to the same limited directives for the remainder of the game, stripping Ryan’s revelation of any consequence. But while some argue that the reveal pulls the player out of immersion and exposes the flaws in video game narrative, this is why the moment is so crucial. It embeds its critique of video game storytelling within its story. The moment has spawned a whole wave of critical thought because of its complex — if clunky — execution.

Playing a game is not necessarily conducive to reflection. In the moment, the mind is narrowed, intent on progression, strung out on a slight and sustained anxiety. I wonder how many people, right in the moment of playing, took to considering the remarkable collision of story and video game theory in that fateful encounter with Ryan, delivered as it was like a blow to the head, and how many were just impatient to get back to the shooting.

When BioShock was released in 2007, not much — if anything — was expected in the way of innovation for that most stalwart of genres: the first-person shooter. The fact that this shooting-people game offers a critique of political ideology (however heavy-handed) and a meditation on the notion of agency and on gaming itself, that is almost a miracle, however we take it for granted 10 years on. BioShock displays a sophistication and style that has already aged better than its lauded sequel BioShock Infinite, from only four years ago. BioShock lingers, haunts, and what stands out most is the audacity and fecundity of character and place. Rapture feels real in an entirely unreal way, an alternative to reality, a world to discover, even as it reminds us: This is all just a game.

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