Would you kindly return to Rapture? With the release of Bioshock: The Collection, it’s time to remind ourselves that the trilogy was so much more than just a simple shooter.
With its high-art pretensions, this trilogy could seriously be considered literary, with themes and characters and storytelling capable of being dissected in the same way films and books can be. Literary elements and thought experiments pepper all the Bioshock games – it’s what gives it its edge. And that all starts with author and political ideologue, Ayn Rand.
This is the story of how the original Bioshock skewered her. And, obviously, beware, here be spoilers.
Bioshock and Ayn Rand
So you probably know that Bioshock was strongly influenced by the political ramblings of Ayn Rand. Here’s how Irrational Games beautifully brought the author’s politics to life.
Actually, it’s not fair to say the game was just influenced by Rand; Bioshock completely savaged her politics, in the same way that Rand savaged Communism. The core theme of Rand’s work, particularly her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, is that people should be free to choose whatever path they wish. This is writ large in her dystopia, Anthem, with the line: ‘What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and impotent, are my masters? What is my life, if I am but to bow, to agree and to obey?’
In a nut-shell, Rand reckons that ‘The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest.’ That philosophy of selfishness, according to AynRand.org, can be boiled to…
Follow reason, not whims or faith.
Work hard to achieve a life of purpose and productiveness.
Earn genuine self-esteem.
Pursue your own happiness as your highest moral aim
Prosper by treating others as individuals, trading value for value.
The game subverts that simple concept of individual liberty, becoming, as John Perich noted, ‘not simply a critique on Rand’s ideal society of pure reason. It’s a critique of any ideal, “planned” society.’ The underwater city of Rapture tells ‘the story of John Galt’s paradise run amok.’
And then what happens? Irrational Games chucks you into a world that literally forces you to confront Rand’s political theory of Objectivism – the natural conclusion of the aggressive pursuit for individualism, where reason rules what the author described as ‘a noble vision of man’s nature and of life’s potential.’ Every man, woman and child for themselves, in a playground rooted in what university lecturer Roxanne Fand called ‘the instinct for survival in all living entities’.
Boom. There you are, learning to survive in the underwater world of Rapture, a world of anarchic self-destruction inhabited by narcissistic nutcases who went off their trolley in the search for absolute perfection. You can blame the founder, Andrew Ryan for that. Ryan, the hell-spawn of Jim Jones and James Bond villain Carl Stromberg, seeking to create a better world built on
Ayn Rand’s his own values. Ryan, the visionary leader. Ryan, the personification of Rand’s ‘ideal man,’ described by Roxanne Fand as someone who ‘deflects and inevitably triumphs over the slings and arrows of a fallen world of lost integrity.’
It’s dangerous work, crafting utopias. A lot of folks always seem to wind up dead. So it’s with bitter irony that ‘the city of Rapture becomes just like the cities they fled: a detached elite waging war on an anarchic underclass.’
And what about you, lost in a literal sea of madness? You’re Irrational Games’ John Galt, the apparent Yossarian, the everyman cornered by devotees of a dangerous ideology. You carve your own path through the game, as Rand’s heroes believe they do, a free man making choices of your own agency – or as Rand put it in The Fountainhead, ‘To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.’ After all, games, as Sid Meier once said, are a series of interesting choices.
Would You Kindly…
Only, you ain’t in control of jack. Your actions, your mind is not your own, as it turns out you’ve been subliminally controlled by the now iconic phrase, ‘Would you kindly…?’, in the same way ‘Listen to me…’ is used as a trigger for assassinations in The Ipcress File. That’s the moment when you realise that, far from determining your own destiny, the only true moral choice you had was to either save or harvest the antagonistic Little Sisters.
In a heartbeat, Bioshock offers up an interactive narrative critique that twists the knife into Rand’s individualistic capitalism; a brand which ‘ignores how her own ideology of self-interest and free markets is cynically abused by opportunists who dupe the unwary into thinking that they are fulfilling their own ends and that the market is free, when it is fulfilling only the corrupted self-interest of exploiters who have rigged it.’
Before you even realise what’s happening, you’ve immersed yourself in the logical end-point of Rand’s philosophy, where the ‘virtue of selfishness’ consumes the noble right of freedom, and you’re forced to question those Objectivist politics, its twisted virtues and its warped flaws.
Weaving Gameplay and Narrative
Its literary-inspired narrative gameplay is Bioshock’s true strength.
Through it, Bioshock warns players about the ‘consumer narcissism prevailing in today’s corporate-driven culture.’ (As Fand put it). And Rapture’s citizens are formed of pure narcissism, with their desired goal to achieve perfection through material wealth and cosmetic enhancements, to believe they’re the best – or better – without any hard evidence. Narcissism is also strongly linked to psychopathy, which would kind of explain all those blades swinging in your direction.
Sure, a book can capture a world like Rapture, acting as an analogous satire. A film can effortlessly show it. But Bioshock allows you to explore this nuanced world in order to discover the true nature of this world, these politics without being prescriptive (unlike films and books). By immersing yourself in the game, the illusion of objectivity vanishes; you’re forced by your experiences to feel subjectively about it and draw your own conclusions.
Roland Barthes, the lit critic chap with the perpetual cigarette, once said a book ‘consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue… there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author… but the reader.’ And that’s just as true of video games like Bioshock, as rather than the developers dictating their views (as it would do in a book or film), you gradually interpret your world. As you project yourself onto the player character, Rapture becomes the product of your own individual impressions.
So on that score, at least, maybe Rand would be proud of Bioshock’s true and total evisceration of her Objectivist politics.