All narratives have a dual nature. While nothing exists in a vacuum, the work in question should be taken to have its own inherence, a dignity all its own and measured on the merits of how well it succeeds in the goals it sets out for itself. But the other side of the coin is that all narratives interact with the works that surround them, spatially, chronologically, thematically or ideologically.
On one hand, that’s just a spick-and-span way of accounting for various marketing trends on a level slightly more academic than “creators see what sells, so they make stuff similar to it” (which in itself I would not agree with in all instances – maybe I’ll get around to talking about just how much of a wild card the whole ‘success’ business is soon).
There are whole University courses devoted to discussing how literature talks to its paperback peers, like how James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison’s texts interact with other black authors during the American civil rights struggle. They’re called ‘talking books’ for this reason. But you don’t often hear ‘talking games’ discussed, at least not in this context.
But if you’re a contemporary gamer, then statistically it’s likely you’ve laid hands on Bioshock.
This isn’t just a ‘talking text’; it’s a ‘screaming text’, so overt in its discussion of other texts that if it were a book, then literature professors would be clamoring over one another in a mad dogpile to teach a lecture on its merits as a talking text.
The plot is this, and stop me if things start to seem familiar. After a plane crash plummets the player character in the ocean, he makes his waterlogged way to the deep-sea utopia of Rapture. (buzz) The city, which conforms aesthetically to many 1950s tropes considering the era in which it takes place, was built on the notion that all people must work by the sweat of their brow and the great should not be constrained by the small (buzz). It was founded by a man named Andrew Ryan (BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ).
Yeah, yeah, I hear you. So let’s unpack what we’ve got so far.
Well, with utopia narratives, there’s always something brewing just under the surface, isn’t there? Funny how often Brave New World gets called ‘Utopia fiction’, when in fact it’s a horrifying tale of societal control gone wrong. Also funny just how often the line blurs between utopia and dystopia fiction…only difference between Orwell and a lot of utopian narratives is that Orwell makes no effort to disguise how broken a society must be before it accepts these changes. So we already know on some level what we’re getting into with a society that defines itself as utopian.
And here’s where Bioshock really comes into its own as a talking book, even if it does get pretty, shall we say, “anvilicious” in how it lets us know. Andrew Ryan? The superior man rightfully dominating the weak? All notions of selflessness and charity being frowned upon?
That’s right, Bioshock is one big-budget, game-sized response to Atlas Shrugged and the theory of Objectivism (which essentially says that the only way to view life is with absolute empiricism and that absolute self-reliance at the expense of others is the only rational way to go through life). Remember when authors would just respond to each other’s themes with essays? Yeah, well, you can’t kill zombies in an essay, now can you?
And on that note, it’s time to get to Bioshock’s meat-and-potatoes. This is a first person shooter, so it stands to reason they’d have some stuff for you to shoot. Things at Rapture, see…they went south. Really south.
While most video-game societies treat genetic modification as the launching-pad of all kinds of garish nightmares, the inhabitants of Rapture are downing that (bleep!) like freaking Red Bull. Modifying your genetic code to better serve your own self-interests was just a day in the life of the average Rapturian…until it started to drive them mad. Their greed for excess turned their utopia into an undersea wasteland. I imagine the message of Rand’s
paperback rant novel would have been decidedly different if this was how it ended.
I kid, but I’m serious: Bioshock’s message to Ayn Rand is, “Here is a fictional society that tried it your way, and it brought about their destruction.” It is a cut-and-dry message that reacts to Rand’s text in a decidedly critical manner.
I’m actively trying to avoid spouting off spoilers with these articles, for any narrative form, unless it’s something that we all should know by now (He’s Luke’s father and it’s his sled. Let’s try to move on, if we can). But something happens late in the game that, I think, really drives home the Objectivism criticisms if we go ahead and close-read it a little.
Without actually spoiling the specifics of the twist, the protagonist has been played like a fool throughout the course of the game. The signs were right in front of his (YOU, the player’s) eyes, and it actually becomes quite clear in hindsight, but throughout the course of the game you had just accepted it. Only to realize now that you’ve been played the whole time as you were led through the broken corridors of this Objectivist “utopia”.
So let’s pick at this…being led blindly without realizing it? Having been played for a fool by a higher force who was just using you for its own ends? Sounds an awful lot to me like it parallels the fate of the people of Rapture, who were led in by promises of self-reliance and excellence, only to go mad from the excess and watch their paradise crumble around them, if they still had enough higher cognition remaining for it to matter.
And both of those sound like they parallel potential criticisms of Rand’s political theory. Ooh, we’re onto something now.
A major character actually kills himself while repeating the increasingly-slurred mantra, “A man chooses…a slave obeys”. He’s literally following his Objectivist mantra to the death. About as subtle as a nuclear blast, but duly effective.
It probably goes without saying that there are absolutely no bones made about the fact that it is in direct response to Atlas Shrugged, though it is curious how they chose a name like Rapture, with all its religious connotations, for a Randian society, with all its secular implications.
But think about it for a moment – the rapture: a time when, so goes the belief, the worthy will be spared and the unworthy will be left behind to suffer. Sounds like something Ayn Rand would have loved, no? Besides, those with ambitions of power have always co-opted myth to bolster their abnormal image: Hitler chose to invoke Norse imagery of Valkyries and epic Wagnerian musical strains, after all.
Surely, Bioshock’s point of view is not a unique one, nor is Ayn Rand’s Objectivism typically considered beyond reproach, as this seething article points out. An anonymous commentator I heard recently described Objectivism as “the promotion of sociopathy”, and at the risk of showing my bias, that…sounds about right to me.
But that, nor 2K Games’ very un-subtle approach to their text’s interactivity, shouldn’t diminish Bioshock’s value as a talking text. Perhaps that’s something to think about the next time your professor asks you to analyze a text that directly responds to a famous 20th century narrative.
Of course, Bioshock is hardly the only video game that responds directly to prominent texts and creates inter-medium discourse, but to my mind it’s the most prominent and overt. But I want to hear what you’ve got: is there another game, or game series, that directly tackles another narrative text’s theme to such an extent, either as an attack like Bioshock, or as an affirmation? You’re one comment box away from making this article’s sequel that much more awesome!
But what about video games that talk and respond to other video games? That might be a better bar exam of video games’ worth as a talking medium. The debate of Objectivism was already in place well before this shooter made a smash on the market. But could numerous video games create a self-sustained ideological or thematic debate without relying on other mediums such as paper literature to do so?
I think so, and it should be interesting to see what connections we can draw with it. But that deserves its own article in the future. (And hopefully that one won’t be pounded out in half an hour like this baby.)