I finished up Bioshock and it was quite a tour-de-force in game narrative, and deserves the kind of critique usually reserved for film and literature, even from the most ardent anti-“game-as-art” critics (read: Ebert). So I gave it a shot. Here is my effort at deconstructing the meaning of Bioshock.
Read it, would you kindly?
Bioshock Explained: The Horror of Randianism
Inspired by utopian and dystopian literature, Bioshock can be seen as more than the RPG-lite horror shooter that is plays so well as, but also as a scathing critique of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. This article will examine the game’s argument, as well as criticize the ending for being insufficient and anti-climatic, even inconsistent with the theme of the game, which is that free men are free to pursue great evil, even in a world meant to nurture their creativity.
I hope to show that Bioshock is worthy of critical analysis. I also want to show that its great game design and amazing art direction is, ironically, true to the objectivist view of art as a man’s reconstruction of his reality. The reader will need to have played through the game and have a good grasp on the story for me to make this argument.
Andrew Ryan 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 in 1946, a year after WWII ends, to host his utopian vision of a city of elite artists, scientists, and thinkers free from the regulation and social limits of the surface world. At first, all goes well, but a working class slowly materializes in the city such that resentment builds up against a world not as perfect as promised.
Where Andrew Ryan controlled the “aristocracy,” Frank Fontaine, a con man, began to build a business empire to rival Ryan’s grip, especially by providing for the working class. Around this time, sea slugs with amazing regenerative qualities were discovered by an untrained but genius scientist named Tenenbaum. Forming a possibly romantic alliance with Fontaine, they waged economic war by selling an addicting extract of the slugs called ADAM.
ADAM fuels genetic improvement, but also created addiction as those who go without it start to deform. To harvest back the ADAM from dead junkies, Tenenbaum created Little Sisters, protected by Big Daddies, to reclaim and resell their product. Somehow a prostitute named Jasmine Jolene, bearing Ryan’s illegitimate child, sold the fetus to Tenenbaum, who applied new types of genetic and behavioral engineering on young Jack Ryan at her Little Sister creation facility.
Ryan discovers this betrayal, and kills Jolene in anger. Fontaine has Ryan’s son endure experiments and training to become a weapon against Ryan, and in 1957, sends him to the surface world to be hid. By now, Fontaine and his ADAM-addicted army of splicers and Ryan’s faction have gone into full-blown civil war. Desperate, Ryan takes over Fontaine Futuristics, his splicer factory, to arm his own splicers with more powerful plasmids. Fontaine fakes his own death, and creates Atlas, a revolutionary hero. His armies continue to resist Ryan until New Year’s Eve of 1959, when Jack Ryan returns to Rapture. It is here that the game begins.
The Objectivist Ideal
To understand Bioshock as a criticism of objectivism, we require a concise definition of objectivism. Objectivists hold that there is a real set of morals and values in existence that people strive to embrace with our inherently subjective perceptions. There is a true right and wrong out there, we just have to improve our knowledge until we can see it. Ayn Rand believed that, given a world that respected and admired an individual’s duty to improve himself, these individuals’ selfish self-improvement would help pull society towards progress. She held two almost paradoxical views of the inherently fallible man, and the imminently potential man.
Andrew Ryan embodies that belief. His name, made of the transposed letters of Ayn Rand’s name, means “man” + “little king,” An orthodox objectivist, he is their ideal figure, a man who rules by the power of his own agency. It is no accident that Andrew Ryan has a striking resemblance to Charles Foster Kane in the film Citizen Kane, a character whose great individualism and talent led to great power, influence, and eventually ruin.
He creates Rapture, the city’s name interestingly enough meaning “carried away in ecstasy” but comes from the Latin and French root for abduction, and is the same root from which “rape” is derived. More importantly to the game, it is a reference to The Rapture, which in Christian teachings is the name of the event where Jesus Christ, king of kings, will return to take believers to heaven as the world ends. Ryan, the little king, subconsciously fancies himself to be such a savior, a subtle thorn in his anti-religious Randian beliefs.
To objectivists, society can not stand without its creative elite. In Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, the Atlases of the world, the great artists, scientists, and thinkers, are persecuted or exploited. When they “shrug,” they unsettle the world they bear, like the titan Atlas who bore the Earth on his back in Greek mythology. Society, according to them, would crumble and rot if the great men left or boycotted. Ryan explains in the game that “…it is only when we struggle in our own interest that the chain pulls society in the right direction.”
A Systemic Shock
What fallacies to Ayn Rand’s philosophy does Bioshock reveal? Several, but I’ll focus on two important ones. First, the game tells us Rapture could never reach its objectivist ideal state, or sustain such a state for long. Secondly, through story, characters, and gameplay, Bioshock claims that Ayn Rand’s two views of man are not mutually exclusive, and that free will is not necessarily innately good since it is rarely truly free.
The first point: Rapture could never sustain its ideal because the existence of the creative elite is wholly dependent on the backs of what Ayn Rand calls the “unworthy” who have not realized their potential. It is the very struggle against or for the “unworthy” that makes great thinkers great. In fact, the definition of “great” belongs as much to the masses as to the elite, since greatness could not exist in either a vacuum nor in a world of equal men.
In Bioshock, the city is quickly stratified, and many inhabitants become disillusioned as they get recruited to support the upper crust of the creative elite. They end up fixing leaks, growing food, providing services, manual labor, fighting crime, etc. Frank Fontaine exploits their resentment to form a faction of have-nots to Ryan’s haves, and the armies of gene Splicers are formed.
The problem is that this form of greatness became easily achievable in the form of ADAM injections. It is the natural tendency of man to improve himself, yes, but this is true even when improvements are temporary, unethical, or self-destructive. In their ideal world, every man’s selfishness would lead to greatness, and ultimately to the benefit of all society. In reality, junkies hoarding their ADAM, and auteurs like the game’s theatrical boss Sander Cohen, do not supply the reliable productivity upon which stable societies are built. Rapture was doomed by its own brilliance.
Frank Fontaine, whose first name means “free” and last name is both a reference to Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead as well as a popular name of many period actors and voices, took on the identity of Atlas. He was a con man, an actor. His “Randian” potential was literally his ability to manipulate. Given the freedom in Rapture to pursue his personal greatness, he did exactly what was natural, and worst for Rapture, he exploited it. As Atlas, he appealed to the elite by acting the part of the elite; he pretended to be godlike.
Frank gave man the “divine,” unexplained ADAM, the extract of “angels” (what Little Sisters call corpses) in the same way Atlas’ brother, the titan Prometheus, gave man divine fire. In fact, the last battle takes place at Point Prometheus, beyond Olympus Heights, near the surface world. Jack fights Ryan deep in the city’s hellish energy core Haephaestus, named after the god of blacksmithing. Ryan was a man, a builder, wielding with his own fire in the fiery lava flows of the ocean floor. Neither knew reality.
Nature and Nurture
The second point Bioshock makes is that free will, even among a world of idealists, is never unconditionally free. One’s free will is always an extension of another’s, of environment, and of circumstance. Throughout the game, the player assumes the role of Jack Ryan returning by and serving Fontaine unconsciously. To defeat Fontaine, Jack then must become an instrument again for Tenenbaum.
Jack’s name has a couple meanings. The root for “jack”, Jacob, means “He will grace” and “supplanter,” both very telling as to what Jack accomplishes. Jack is graced by God, and by some divine force, which in this game is the ADAM, and he ends up supplanting the power of both Ryan and Fontaine. These meanings of the name can be seen as Jack’s destiny.
However “Jack” in our colloquial English, has a meaning of “mechanical device” found in common expressions like car jack, Lo-jack, etc. He is neutral and wieldable by ambitious characters the same way he wields his wrench. This reflects Jack’s identity in the world as a tool of Fontaine and Tenenbaum to accomplish their goals.
Finally, due to its common usage, “jack” became slang for any fellow, and was used as a generic male personification in words like jackrabbit, jackass, jackhammer, jack-of-all-trades, etc. Jack, like the name John that it’s related to, is the name of an everyman. This is Jack’s identity in the game of Bioshock. This is our identity as we pick up the game and configure the numerous combat and attribute options to play in the way we want. Jack is a tool of the everyman (the player) to supplant the final boss.
As a tool of the characters in the game, the player is given an interesting relationship. Fontaine, it turns out, was using subtle mental manipulation with the phrase “would you kindly” to get you to carry out his bidding. The phrase is one of several programmed into Jack’s being from an early age. Even without this magic phrase, he uses the false identity of Atlas to distort the player’s perception of Andrew Ryan, splicers, and the Little Sisters. The game is showing us how subjective reality is, and why objectivists fail to factor how powerful the right “facts” can change a man’s mind.
Andrew Ryan, believing that his own strength of free will would be genetically represented in you, says the most amazing thing as Jack kills him. Trying to appeal to your free will while under Fontaine’s command, he repeats over and over “A man chooses… a slave obeys!” And yet, the cutscene plays out with Jack repeatedly smashing his face in until he dies. He never tells Jack not to kill him. Instead, he says “would you kindly kill?” using the intransitive “kill,” leaving the who of the command up to Jack. I don’t interpret this as being given a choice: Ryan’s command is for Jack to continue killing through the rest of the game, hopefully reaching Atlas.
What Ryan is saying is that you are a slave (later revealed to be Fontaine’s) because the player is not given choice during the sequence. He is also saying that he is choosing to die by your hand, and that he believes his “first” death, like Fontaine’s, will make you into the “second” and greater Ryan, as Fontaine was reborn as Atlas.
I also want emphasize how important the magic phrase “would you kindly…?” is, which Fontaine uses to control Jack’s actions. In English, “would” indicates the subjunctive mood, used to express a wish or desire relative to a possibly contrary reality. For example, when we say “were he a great man, I would listen to him” but we may not necessarily know if he was a great man or not, or we know he is not and we are saying what if he was.
When Fontaine uses this phrase, it implies that he knows Jack would in fact refuse to “kindly” do it if he knew the truth. Contrast this with “will you kindly” which implies certainty, future. When Jack finds out the truth, he “will” not feel he has done anything kindly for Fontaine, nor will he after. The subjunctive mood, however, hints to us that this request is contrary to reality, and Fontaine is almost presenting Jack a question, not a command. This means that either Jack does have a choice… or Bioshock is telling us that choices (free will) and commands (fate) are often indistinguishable.
Finally, it is very important that the tattoo on Jack’s wrist is that of a chain, which is simultaneously Ryan’s Great Chain of Endeavor and the chains of a slave. I believe this chain to also represent DNA. In the nature vs. nurture argument, what does Ayn Rand have to say about those who empower themselves by improving their very nature? Is this a loophole in her philosophy? Are these elite who cheat really more worthy?
No. In the final fight, Jack willingly (free will) becomes Tenenbaum’s slave. Her name means “fir tree,” commonly known as a Christmas tree. She gives the player gifts via her grateful Little Sisters, whom she protects the innocence of. Donning the gear of the Big Daddy, Jack also assumes the duty of protecting the Little Sisters. Atlas cheats as much as he possibly can, infusing himself with ridiculous amounts of ADAM, only to be defeated by Jack in the end. Was it true free will? Or were Tenenbaum’s ambitions, or some form of residual programming, or just the desire for revenge equally decisive? Why does the player keep playing at this point, knowing the whole story already?
An Artful Conclusion
By now, it should be clear that Bioshock parades the various fallacies of Randian objectivism around for the player to think about. Both types of free, self-empowering men are defeated, the Randian one (Ryan) and the purely capitalistic one (Fontaine). Ryan, “the little king,” is the hypocrite who becomes the very system he detests, and foretells his own dethroning with the very first banner you see entering Rapture: “There are no Gods or Kings… only Man.” Fontaine is the unethical man, selfishness gone amok. Both commit the inevitable objectivist sin; those who think they know the objective right and wrong ultimately feel they have the right to subjectively judge the rest. Elitism, for noble or selfish causes, is never a good thing.
Bioshock does a superb job of putting us in that very position of pseudo-choice. We act on what we know, but what we know is fed to us by those with agendas. So we think we act freely. But how can we Randians act on what they call “rational egoism” when all knowledge is only true or false relative to a subjective being, either ourselves or others? How can rational egoists say that pursuing happiness you don’t deserve is irrational when we rationalize what we deserve? Or in the case of some characters, it’s rationalized for us.
The beautiful irony presented in this game is that the game itself is an objectivist work of art. Objectivists believe art is one’s perception of reality made into something real and physical so that everyone can see and participate in your conscious mind. Bioshock does just that. Ken Levine and his team have made what is their “perception” of what a place like Rapture would be like in reality, based on our own reality. Rapture, in a world with the values and people we know, ends up the way we expect. In other words, the creators of this game has made an objectivist work of art pointing out the reality that objectivism is not realistic.
The game for me was absolutely wonderful, but its ending was disappointing in how little it left to ambiguity. It departed from its discussion of the complex self-destructiveness of freedom. I would say it cheesed out, especially leaving the fate of Tenenbaum mostly unresolved. I propose a better ending.
As Atlas lies defeated before Jack, you are given a minute to choose to kill him or save him while he utters the last words “Would you kindly save me?” Failing to choose and he dies. Choosing to let him to die carries out revenge fantasies for “the good guys.” Choosing to save him means doing his bidding. Which choice you consider to be truly free will always be subjective. Here, I would turn off the game, and start playing this wonderful tale all over again.