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Bioshock (yeah, the one from 2007)

Posted on December 26 2021

Bioshock Key Art

Sometimes there are little gaps in your knowledge of video games. For example, I'm not a huge fan of From Soft games. I got about 6/8ths through Dark Souls and thought "yeah, this is cool, I see the point but it's not for me" and put it in the bin. Totally fine. But then there are other games out there, heralded as classics where you just... don't? You see all the craze and hubub about it but you're just not all too interested.

The magic of services like Steam is that our time lasts up until the point of our deaths. If you want to play a game from 2007 because you feel like it, then you can go right ahead. It is with this knowledge in combination with me being a big fan of PixelLit's current series on Bioshock that I was able to pick up the game for the price of a Terry's Chocolate Orange and then play it and then have a breakdown about authorial intent and then write words on the internet about it.

As literally all of us know, Bioshock is about Andrew Ryan, who is tired of the government telling him what to do and decides the best course of action is to create a huge city underwater where the idea of the free market can thrive away from the big man in Washington. It's as hilarious in its absurdity now as I'm sure it was back then and does a great job at poking fun and holes in Objectivism. Andrew Ryan and his crew of friends he invited are just the perfect storm of idiots. His ideology is put to the test at virtually every turn where it fails explosively - a city hidden away with no regulations or ethics is one plagued by hypocrisy, inequality and death. It comes to a head when Fontaine, a ruthless conman, takes advantage of Ryan's ideals and starts an underground (underwater?) civil war, plunging the streets of Rapture into chaos.

Much of this is shown through the haunted remnants of the city, but it's also told. The origin of the audio logs that I find in every game I play these days can be traced back to here. And it really shows that everyone since just... didn't quite get it? So many audio logs I find in games these days fill in the gaps in the world with uninteresting exposition and filler, with no logical sense as to why it should be there. Bioshock's logs are essential listening if you want to get anything out of the game at all. Every time I saw an audio log, I was excited, I immediately hit listen. These logs were the game, the characters. You get to peer into their twisted minds and figure out how things went wrong, like watching a ghostly train wreck in slow motion.

The words "ABOVE ALL DO NO HARM - J. Steinman" written on the floor in blood. It gets a bit on the nose at times

The filler in between this is the shooting. It's not great. The pistol is pretty fun to use, especially if you play on easy mode and get headshots. Aside from that, it's there to pad out the length of the game and isn't engaging at all. The plasmids were a neat idea, but something that has been done better with games today and, to be honest, I'm not so sure I'd be a fan in 2007 either. There is so much stuff - so many plasmids to use, tonics to equip, bots to hack. None of it has aged particularly well. I'm glad that I made the decision to play on easy from the very beginning and just shock-wrench my way through the game.

Since this is a game from 2007, we also have Complex Moral Decisions, such as do you kill small children, or do you not? If you decide to kill the small children, you will get a bad ending. If you decide to not kill the small children, you get a good ending. Being the virtuous soul I am, I chose not to kill the small children. I was rewarded for my efforts with in-game goodies at a later date, as opposed to the instant benefit you get from killing the small children. I thought that was the point. Like, you, the player, come into Rapture from an outsider's perspective and see that they kidnapped small children to harvest drugs and think "hmm... that's pretty messed up, I should do something about this." and then you're also rewarded for doing so because it's the right thing to do.

There's a whole thing about Ken Levine getting pushback from not rewarding the player for saving instead of harvesting and honestly? I'm with 2K on this one. It's pretty funny that I interpreted it as artistic intent when it's literally the opposite of what the artist wanted and yet I still think it's better this way. If you're making the decision to kill small children for Things, then that's not exactly a morally great stance to take? That decision should not be a difficult one. I have a feeling if you put something like this in a game today, people would laugh at you.

And then you read some other interviews with Ken Levine and you realise: holy shit, I don't think he gets it either, how is that possible when he wrote the thing?

It's not an attack on Objectivism, it's a fair look at humanity. We screw things up. We're very, very fallible. You have this beautiful, beautiful city, and then what happens when reality meets the ideals? The visual look of the city is the ideals, and the water coming in is reality. It could have been Objectivism, it could have been anything.

From an interview with Shack News

I knew about the twist with Atlas at the end, and the whole Killing of Small Children thing... but I didn't know about this. It's so confusing to me that you can make a city underwater and fill it with people following the ideology of Objectivism, where nothing is regulated, no ethics to stop you from doing whatever you want, have that city turn into a cesspit of a select few people stamping on the poor to do whatever messed up things they want, creating a system where they use small children to harvest drugs and then you look back and say "ehhh, it's not an attack on Objectivism, it could have been anything", it is a little bit concerning. Just a tiny bit. "ahh... you know, humans mess up a little bit, we make small mistakes such as kidnapping children and turning them into zombies, little oopsies here and there"

I could be complete garbage at reading the text, but it seems to me that a lot of people see Fontaine as the thing that brought Rapture to its knees, rather than a symptom of Andrew Ryan's shitty ideals. If you have a free market with no checks, then it will be brought to its logical conclusion by the worst possible people, but you can't blame that person when you were the one that let it happen. In trawling the Reddits and even from Lavine himself, a common sentiment is "At least Andrew Ryan has ideals, compared to Fontaine who has none" motherfucker, it's Ryan's ideals that lets Fontaine get away with it. Please tell me you understand that's the point. I'm up for playing the Death of the Author card on this one. Anyway.

At the very least, it's cool that a game like Bioshock can generate this kind of discussion. I think back at some of the games I've played this year and, don't get me wrong, I've played a lot of excellent games, but very few that take a deep dive into subject matter such as this. It's just a bit concerning that the very creator of the thing doesn't seem to understand it. Hope you had a lovely Christmas!