“Shot Through the Heart” is a weekly segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week we discuss one of the wildest video games ever released – Ken Levine’s 2007 release Bioshock.
I’m not great at video games, ask anyone who has every played me in Marvel vs. Capcom or Street Fighter. I’m absolutely terrible at the versus games, unable to do much more than button mash (and don’t get me wrong, that’s definitely a technique) because I just don’t have the capacity for that. It’s not where I put my priorities. I do, however, have a deep-seated love of the stories that come out of some things. I’ve been a Nintendo fan for decades now, enjoying each and every thing that came of Mario or Zelda and, to a lesser point, Metroid.
But holy sweet hell nothing gets to me like Bioshock’s story.
The best sci-fi stories are ones that can elegantly mix social commentary into a compelling idea, a plot that can trick you and entice you into buying into the fantasy. Each time I stumble across something like this I get hooked because so often stories can fall into selling us on a romantic plot (not that I don’t enjoy those), a story about brotherhood, a story about family. This is all of those in a way, but it so much more in that it is simpler and yet so overly-complicated. This is a story about an entire worldview and also a story about a person that is manipulated into participating in actions that are ultimately harmful to them. It’s about the player themselves.
Bioshock is the story of a man that doesn’t know what is happening. You’re dropped into a world you don’t understand, after it has already gone to shit, and you’re forced to figure it out as it goes along and the scariest part is that you can choose not to understand, to ignore what it is and what has come before, and make the same mistakes as that world. In our current lives can we choose to ignore this? Turns out that yes, we can definitely ignore it, but we probably shouldn’t.
Andrew Ryan is a tyrant, a petty king that never enjoyed living in the world he was born in. He saw destruction in his homeland and traveled to America, becoming an entrepreneur and a materials magnate (I believe it was oil or wood, can’t remember which…might be both). A tale as old as the country itself, he is “manifest destiny” personified – expansion into industry and power via sheer will. This forms him, forms the destiny of hundreds if not thousands of people, and ultimately leads to the ultimate form of destruction. Right from the introduction to the world we’re greeted by a large statue of him, eerily bannered by a sign that reads “No Gods or Kings, Only Man” in a lighthouse as you descend into the seas. This is a man who wants to be a god. He doesn’t want to deal with people’s comfort, believing that if you are unable to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and become a success alone like he did that you are not valuable. He calls these people “parasites,” these people that need help or assistance. Religion, social programs, and poverty are for the weak in his eyes.
It’s from this nestled egg of an idea that a reality is formed. A city is constructed beneath the sea, complete with luxuries and comforts beyond imagination for a lot of the population, and together with what he believes is kindred spirit Bill McDonagh he escapes into the depths to await what he believes will be a coming nuclear apocalypse. This world is very much a reaction to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, born out of the terror that mankind has created. Despite this one of the key ideas is freedom of discovery, no morality in scientific advancement as long as it is useful and profitable.
“I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No!’ says the man in Washington, ‘It belongs to the poor.’ ‘No!’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘It belongs to God.’ ‘No!’ says the man in Moscow, ‘It belongs to everyone.’ I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture, a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, Where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.” – Bioshock, 2007
And it’s in Rapture, in the idea of blissful release, that everything goes to hell. Genetic enhancements created by scientists without control lead to mutations, to a collapse of both the mind and the city in an act of rebellion against the system. The world you are dropped into has no voice left, no meaning outside of being a cautionary tale. Its inhabitants are dead to the world and trapped beneath the sea as the structures, without maintenance, begin to crumble. Ryan himself is locked in his quarters, using his science and his stolen achievements to control what is left of his kingdom. A demon dictator controlling his subjects through fear and aggression.
We dropped into this world and we inhabit a faceless individual. He has no voice, no personality, because we’re meant to step into his shoes. We’re greeted with kindness, a man in desperation to save his family, and he asks us “Would you kindly grab that radio over there.” Control is a the main point of this story and the illusion of it is a hurdle to surpass. “Would you kindly” is a powerful phrase, one so polite and enticing that appeals to the altruistic nature in humanity. Give of your time, you resources, and your kindness to those that need it. Ryan stands against altruism, in his own words at one point, and sees it as a weakness and as slavery. His mutated subjects lash out at us, unable to control their own actions, and we see the devastation he has wrought as we rebel against him. But we were, all of us, deceived.
The moment of reveal, of the power that the phrase “would you kindly” has over us, is so simple and yet so elegantly revealed. The manipulation through a trigger phrase is walked out in a spotlight as our nemesis bleeds on his own expensive rug. He grips us, forces our hand, and shouts out a rather simple truth – something that bleeds through his idea of control. “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” A simple concept, but one that was denied to many of his subjects. In this moment, after we’ve learned all about Ryan’s control of his mutilated constituency, we see that he can perceive a truth that he can never fully embrace himself. We’re forced to violence by something so simple as a polite request.
And yet we’re allowed a measure of self-control in our journey. In-game power-ups are a standard that can never be left by the wayside, it’s too intrinsic to the experience. But with them the creators decided to force our hand into a choice, a decision to be made that takes a lot out of you depending on how invested you get in the plot and the character (so basically how invested you are in your own beliefs). The power-ups are harvested from little girls, genetically altered to produce and store a chemical that grants ability to the user. Once you’ve downed their protectors you are allowed a choice. You can murder them, yanking the source of progress out of their adorable little guts, or you can save them and harvest less of the stuff. This choice is granted to you by Dr. Tenenbaum, a woman that created the science behind their very existence. She’s had a change of heart and doesn’t want them to suffer further, pleading with you to save their lives instead. Choices affecting the outcome of the game are not a new phenomenon, but these little moments of humanity are different because you do not get to just click a button and have it happen quickly. You’re forced to watch them struggle in fear as you decide and let me tell you, if you decide to murder them it can be fairly brutal.
These moments are the ones that force you to retain some humanity, if you choose to save the girls, and actually make the moment of the reveal that much more difficult to stomach. Your small control can change lives, but you’ve been without much for so long that it results in a cathartic release when you finally get fully awakened to the situation. That’s the whole point of this game. It skewers the capitalist society, the idea of a dictator masquerading as the leader of a free society, and the idea that morality is a dead concept, but in the end it is merely about how each of us struggle to control our own lives.
And isn’t life about control? Whether struggling for larger control of just power over your own life, we’re all looking to feel like we’re in charge over our decisions and that no outside force controls them. Yet it always does, and we even acknowledge it. Tribalism and religion control American reality at the moment and I’ll be damned if it hasn’t infected every aspect of our lives, seeping into things so thoroughly that I can’t even kick back and watch a kids’ movie without wondering what kind of statement it’s trying to make about the bleak reality I live in. But Bioshock asks for something different. This story asks me to participate; it’s asking you to get your hands dirty and cede control to trigger words, to the idea of black and white morality and the grey in-between, and ask yourself what the right thing really is. Don’t allow yourself to be servant to an idea or to another human being, but instead seize control for yourself.
All we’re saying is that, “a man chooses, a slave obeys.”