Remembering The Philosophy of Bioshock

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An attempt to break the hold Hearthstone and Overwatch have on my soul

Bioshock: The Collection has just released here in the UK and I’m finding the critical consensus regarding these games to be somewhat sniffier than I remember. It seems people are finding the narratives shallow, with Bioshock: Infinite getting particular flak for it’s gameplay and lack of narrative journey. This surprises me as I consider Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite as the absolute pinnacle of art design, world building and storytelling within video games.

This has given me an interesting idea: In this post, I will be discussing exactly why I hold these games in such high regard through a discussion of their narratives as I remember them. I’ll then go play through the collection, as comprehensive as I can, and then return to these ideas and see whether these three games are as brilliant as I remember or whether I was just looking back through rose tinted goggles.

[obviously, spoilers for the entire series after this point]

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“There’s always a man. Always a city. Always a lighthouse.”

The reason I love the Bioshock series so much is because they are one of the few video games that deals with the medium on a meta-textual level. These aren’t three blockbuster movies that you play through but rather narratives that work within the confines of the disconnect between player and character.

Bioshock starts with the player-character, Jack, stumbling upon the failed utopia of Rapture after a plane crash. An objectivist, underwater hell, the city finds itself at the tail end of a particularly bitter civil war: the player then straddles the line between the two opposing sides – Atlas and (Ayn Rand look-a-like) Andrew Ryan. In many ways the opening of Bioshock falls within the confines of a conventional shooter, albeit in a fantastical setting. The player is a faceless everyman, who blindly follows the instruction of a quest giver (Atlas) to further the games storyline. At no point does the player question the nature of the game in it’s early stages as it conforms with the expectations of first person shooters as a whole.

The moment Bioshock truly becomes brilliant is when it forces the player to question how the game is actually working. Atlas proposes all his instructions with the qualifying phrase “would you kindly…”. This is later revealed to be a trigger to control Jack when Andrew Ryan commands you to kill him; Ryan’s suicide a symbolic representation of his mantra, “a man chooses, a slave obeys”. The inherent nature of video games compared to other narrative forms suggests a degree of agency. You can’t control a film or fail a book, but a game requires an active participation that can account for both of those factors. But Bioshock completely undercuts this with the reveal that Jack, and by extension the player, was nothing but a slave. How agent is the player when the narrative is completely out of their control? There are many brilliant texts about the illusion of free will, but by exploring this theme through the medium of video games Bioshock presents a brilliant irony – the nature of gaming eludes to freedom whilst simultaneously restricting the player to a preordained path.

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“Lives, Lived, Will Live. Dies, Died, Will Die.”

This brings us onto Bioshock: Infinite. In a couple of the reviews of the collection that I’ve read, the reviewer has suggested that games one and three tell fundamentally the same story. I disagree with this on several levels: Bioshock is about the illusion of free will through the lack of choice, whereas Bioshock: Infinite is a game that explores the illusion of choice as a whole.

These two themes seem similar, but they are in fact vastly different. For one, Bioshock: Infinite actually supposes that the player and the player-character, Booker DeWitt, do have free will. Beginning with the simple, yet vague, instruction of “bring us the girl, wipe away the debt”  – Booker is sent to the floating state of Columbia to complete this task. Unlike Bioshock where the player and Jack blindly follow the instruction of Atlas (and later Ryan) without question, Bioshock: Infinite gives the player multiple forks in the road and makes them pick a path to further the narrative. Do you protect the interracial couple or hand them over to a racist mob? Do you buy Elizabeth the cameo necklace with the bird or the cage? It is important that most of the time these choices have a clear moral answer, a “right” answer as it were, that the player is supposed to pick. The player assumes that they should help the couple, that they should let Elizabeth fly rather than symbolically cage her, etc.

But at no point do these choices actually affect the narrative. Morality, and the “right” path, is ultimately no different from the “wrong” one. Bioshock: Infinite doesn’t question whether we have the option to choose, but whether our choices actually matter in the first place. What if everything was predetermined outside of Bookers, and therefore the players, interaction within the world? What if all paths lead to the same door? This question is made literal at the very end of the game. Once Elizabeth transcends the limitations of time and space, she takes the player on a journey through a series of doors. As the two of you walk through these doors, you see other Bookers and Elizabeths walking similar paths through other doorways. At this points, the players own interaction within the world becomes insignificant; your journey through Columbia to rescue the Elizabeth is just one of many, failed attempts to “bring us the girl, [and] wipe away the debt”. Each attempt different, perhaps the other choices were made, but they all ultimately end in the same place.

Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite are similar in that they use the medium of video games to explore themes concerning choice, but that doesn’t mean the narratives they tell are the same. Bioshock is a narrative that gives the player the illusion of agency only to reveal at the very end that they were just a slave all along. But Bioshock: Infinite is different in that it offers genuine chances to interact with, and therefore change, the narrative world. But the agency they are given is an illusion in of itself – the events were all predetermined before the player ever picked up a controller.

This is why I consider the Bioshock series to be exemplary video games. Like many other games they form interesting, compelling narratives that engross the player. But what elevates these games into a higher form of art, in my opinion, is the unique way the approach the relationship between the medium and the player for brilliant meta-textual narrative effect. As I previously said, there’s a lot of phenomenal texts about the illusion of choice and/or free will but it’s so much more effective in game form when it is your own agency being questioned.

I hope I still feel this way once I play through all three again!

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