Bioshock: In which we reflect on human nature and video games as art

Can video games be art? Notable film critic Roger Ebert, in his words, “was a fool” for declaring that video games can never be so. He hasn’t changed his opinion so much as realized that he shouldn’t have commented at all. Roger Ebert wields a far more eloquent pen than I do, and his comments have been debated back and forth since at least 2005 [But for highlights of the juicy gossip, check out the oldest reference I could find (27 Novemeber 2005), a recap (16 April 2010), Ebert’s caveat (1 July 2010) and more via the Wikipedia page on “Video Games as an Art Form“] so I’m not particularly interested in writing a polemic against what he freely admits is an opinion, nor in debating the nature or definition of art (which will never be agreed upon). I’m interested in talking about Bioshock.

As video games go, Bioshock isn’t exactly old, nor is it particularly new. In an industry constantly obsessing over the next big thing, Bioshock is the middle child— it was a really cute kid, but we’ve kind of forgotten about it in our enthusing over the newest darling baby. I played it again recently and found myself transported, dare I say, “enraptured,” in ways few games have been able to achieve. It is typically categorized as a First-Person Shooter (FPS), which it certainly is. But it transcends the genre is ways the Call of Duty franchise never has. The former, I submit, is art; the latter, entertainment. These two need not be mutually exclusive (art-ertainment? ent-art-tainment?). Video games developers gotta eat too.

Bioshock is not easily explained, as evidenced by a quick Google search of “How to Explain Bioshock.” But I can tell you that it has probably exposed more young people to deep philosophical thought on society, politics, art, free will, and human nature than books will. It’s sad, but in all likelihood, true. What’s more, these young people are so moved by these ideas that they turn to the internet to find out more about what they just experienced, why it moved them, and if others shared a similar experience. They are producing fan fiction, and pages devoted to Bioshock-inspired art. (Of course, this begs the question, “Is it art?” but that’s a recursive discussion.)

The game amalgamates numerous influences: sc-fi horror, Ayn Rand’s objectivism, Art Deco, Cole Porter. When the game was released in 2007, it fueled and added new dimensions to my interest in the history, popular music, technologies, and philosophies of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, a lot of the “punk” sub-genres (steampunk, dieselpunk, gearpunk, atompunk, etc.) have this effect on their participants. In many ways, it draws on into the spirit of the era, if not the actual historical facts. Bioshock straddles the grittier dieselpunk and shiny decopunk sub-genres.

To be sure, the game is creepy. Really creepy. I couldn’t play it at night. So why did I play it at all? Especially since I already knew about the mid-plot twist and the ending? My brain answers that it’s because it was a richly intellectually experience, and that’s true. But my heart answers that it was a catharsis, and I suppose that is also true. Isn’t that what art does? Ebert’s own criteria for what art should do seems like affirmation to me: “[T]he real question is, do we as consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them? Something may be excellent as itself, and yet be ultimately worthless.” (Source)

“ALL GOOD THINGS OF THIS EARTH FLOW INTO THE CITY”

Here is the set-up. In 1919 a young man, soon to be known as Andrew Ryan, flees Russia, realizing that his people have merely traded the lies of the Czar for the lies of the Bolsheviks. He emigrates to the United States, following so many others in the hope that a free society would let him prosper. America was better, but Ryan saw in the New Deal programs of the 30s a threat to that freedom. He came to despise any form of socialism for its parasitic effects. Further disillusion came from the government’s attempts to nationalize some of his land, as well as its use of atomic weapons to end WWII.

Ryan, fearing atomic war and government interference, poured his wealth into the building of a secret utopia he called Rapture (which as one reviewer has noticed can have multiple, telling nuances: in modern usage “a feeling of intense pleasure or joy,” but in a more archaic sense “seizing and carrying off,” from which the word rape comes). Rapture is a city beneath the waves, built on the sea bed of the Atlantic, “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!” With such promises, Ryan lures the cream of the world’s crop to his underwater city (rapturing them, as it were).

Ryan’s vision is one free from government interference and religious morality. Consequently, artistic expression becomes increasingly sadistic, creating tableaux vivants by casting living people in plaster. The scientific community, free from the constraints of ethics, experiment on living humans. They create plasmids, elixirs that splice the human genome, giving users the ability to cast ice, electricity, and other forces from their hands.

This genetic manipulation is made possible by the discovery of a secretion of sea slugs dubbed ADAM (the catalyst that activates it is called EVE). But Adam is addictive. And it has some other minor side effects—like excrescent growths and insanity. Anything in the name of science, right? The denizens of Rapture keep on, believing they can perfect the formulae and evolve beyond the defects. No one stopped to consider that that might not b the real problem. As Brigid Tenenbaum, one of Rapture’s few sane survivors, says:

ADAM improved every aspect of man, except his character.

“NO GODS OR KINGS. ONLY MAN”: humanism

You will have notice the eye-popping visuals that rely heavily on the art deco movement, with its incorporation of a noble and heroic take on the human form that seems almost Hellenistic in scope. Let’s compare some of Bioshock‘s statuary with some real-world, Art-Deco counterparts:

Real: Oscar statuette

Bioshock: Descent in the Bathysphere.

Real: Statues at the Hoover Dam, designed, I believe, by Oskar J.W. Hansen.

Bioshock: Welcome to Rapture. Opportunity Awaits.

Real: Central train station, Helsinki, Finland

Bioshock: bust of Andrew Ryan

Real: The famous likeness of the titan Atlas at Rockefeller Plaza

Bioshock: Atlas holds up the world.

Oskar J.W. Hansen was the sculptor responsible for the statuary and and bas relief sculptures at the Hoover Dam. He wanted his work to express “the immutable calm of intellectual resolution, and the enormous power of trained physical strength, equally enthroned in placid triumph of scientific accomplishment.” (Source) Sound familiar? This echoes the first words of Andrew Ryan we see in the game: “No gods or kings. Only man.”

After disembarking from the bathysphere shown in the clip above, what the player discovers is neither a utopia nor even a haven for mankind. I’ve seen sci-fi explore the science-gone-amuck angle before, but I’ve never experienced it so viscerally. The player is thrust into a horrifying environment in which self-inflilcted genetic mutation has driven the world’s once best and brightest to madness or death. At every glance, irony stares back. You may have noticed Django Reinhardt’s 1949 rendition of “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” in that last video. Here’s the whole thing.

If nothing else, this game has introduced or reignited a younger generation’s interest in music from the era. A quick iTunes search reveals that this particular version of the song has become immensely popular, with downloads funneled through searches for Bioshock’s music. The licensed music used in the game certainly serves to place Rapture in an historical context, but it also serves a narrative function, poignantly providing ironic commentary on the location or information just received. It’s use is summed up well by William Gibbons.

“SOMEBODY’S GOTTA SCRUB THE TOILETS”: class inequality

So why did Ryan’s utopian vision end in madness? The short answer is greed, hubris, and hypocrisy. How do you keep a construction project the size of a city at the bottom of the ocean a secret? You take all the manual laborers who built it and you forbid them from leaving once they’re done working. Ryan’s vision for a society of brilliant visionaries, thinkers, was like any society. As antagonist Frank Fontaine says, These sad saps. They come to Rapture thinking they’re gonna be captains of industry, but they all forget that somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets.” Consequently, Fontaine manipulates the disenfranchised to undermine Ryan’s authority, instigating a civil war unknown to anyone on the surface.

A key, yet silent, narrative element of Bioshock is the experience the player has first of the sprawling, luxurious Olympus Heights apartments that housed elite citizens (the veritable “gods” of the Rapture), followed soon after by wretched, cramped, lower-class accommodations in the Artemis Suites. (For more on the used of Greek mythology, read on.)

Here’s a fan-made video depicting some of the events leading up to the 1958 New Year’s Eve Riots that became the death knell for Rapture.

“IT IS ONLY WHEN WE STRUGGLE IN OUR OWN INTEREST THAT THE CHAIN PULLS SOCIETY IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION”: philosophy

Ayn Rand’s objectivism holds up human reason and self-interest as necessary and virtuous in the pursuit of human progress. Andrew Ryan, in his audio logs found throughout the game, echoes this philosophy: “I believe in no God, no invisible man in the sky. But there is something more powerful than each of us, a combination of our efforts, a Great Chain of industry that unites us. But it is only when we struggle in our own interest that the chain pulls society in the right direction. The chain is too powerful and too mysterious for any government to guide. Any man who tells you different either has his hand in your pocket, or a pistol to your neck.”

Unless I’m much mistaken, the developers intended to show the fallacies of this philosophy by looking at what a society becomes when there are no checks and balances on one’s selfish ambition. Almost everything I’ve read about Bioshock mentions Ayn Rand’s didactic novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957), which forms the philosophical inspiration for the game. The game probably sparked curiosity in the book, as it did me. But Bioshock came out in 2007. In 2008, the United States (and the world) experienced a severe economic downturn. Spawning a January 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Atlas Shrugged: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years.” But the recent films have also contributed to renewed interest in Rand’s ideas. Regardless of the side of the aisle one happens to prefer, the fact remains that Bioshock, almost presciently, brought objectivism to the attention of a wider audience before it seemed to matter to so many people.

“APHRODITE IS WALKING THE HALLS”: mythology

Bioshock is rife with allusions to Greek mythology, often dripping with hidden meaning and irony.

The airplane flight that begins the game is Apollo Air Flight DF-0301, named for the god typically associated with the sun, but interestingly was also the god of music, poetic inspiration, prophecy, medicine, and pastoral life. The plane crash in some ways foreshadows the wreckage Rapture’s inspiring purpose has become.

One of Rapture’s economic centers, Poseidon Plaza, named after the god of the sea (and earthquakes).

Artemis Suites, a working-class residence attached to Apollo Square, named after the goddess of the hunt and, ironically, protector of young girls.

Arcadia is an undersea park and oxygen generator, named after a mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. In poetic fantasy it represents a pastoral paradise, and in Greek mythology it is the home of Pan. This area of the game features the Saturnine cult, named after Saturn (Cronus), who ate his own children. Very telling.

Rapture’s power production facility,Hephaestus, named for the crippled god of fire and of craftsmen.

This in-game protest poster sports Atlas, “defender of the people,” the pseudonym of taken on by Andrew Ryan’s opposition during the Rapture Civil War. It is, of course, obliquely referring to Ayn Rand’s “Who is John Galt?” from Atlas Shrugged.

Hestia Chambers houses Fontaine’s Home for the Poor and the Little Sisters Orphanage, ironically named for the goddess of hearth, home, and family.

Mercury Suites, the most affluent homes in Olympus Heights, are named after the god who was patron of both merchants and thieves. Hmm.

Point Prometheus houses the facilities where plasmids were developed. Like their namesake, the scientists here though they were bring mankind the very power of the gods. And for their meddling, they were punished.

Other references include: the cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Steinman, and his obsession with Aphrodite, goddess of beauty; Neptune‘s Bounty, Rapture’s fishery; Siren Alley, Rapture’s red-light district, named after the mythological mermaids whose singing lured sailors to their deaths; Plaza Hedone, a subsection of Siren Alley rife with old, illicit plasmid facilities; Persephone, Rapture’s “correctional facility” that is suspended over a chasm, named for the woman carried off by Hades and made queen of the underworld;

Of course, the over-arching symbolism of Atlantis is not lost on me. A city of paradise beneath the waves, brought to its knees by cataclysm. Indeed, Atlantis has historically been linked to the idea of utopia, such as in Francis Bacon‘s New Atlantis and Thomas More‘s Utopia. In 1882 Ignatius L. Donnelly published Atlantis: the Antediluvian World, in which he confessed to believe that the Garden of Eden was in Atlantis (remember ADAM and EVE?). It, along with Atlantis, he said, were destroyed by the Great Flood of Genesis chs. 6–9, linking the ideas of Atlantis’ destruction with retribution for sin.

“THE END IS NIGH”

So, this turned out to be a much longer post than I had envisioned. I began working on it 21 February, and have intermittently worked on it until now, so I will end here. I will say, though, that the visual and audio elements are so important to the experience of Bioshock. You can visit the Rapture City Archives for images of posters, sighs, banners, and more. Garry Schyman’s moody scores for Bioshock and Bioshock 2 can be heard at his website. The licensed songs from the 30s, 40s, and 50s can be found on iTunes or via YouTube. I look forward to the release of Bioshock: Infinite on 26 March.

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4 thoughts on “Bioshock: In which we reflect on human nature and video games as art

  1. Very thoughtful & well-executed post, as I would expect 🙂

    You’ve probably already done this, but go ahead & take a listen to the licensed music for Infinite: http://rd.io/x/QVsawCJ4nUc — some fascinating choices in there.

    • Thanks. As I mentioned to you the other day, I have listened to clips of the licensed music for Infinite. Like William Gibbons, I’m interested in how the songs might be used to perform a story-telling function (probably an ironic one). But I’m also interested to hear Garry Schymann’s doubtlessly excellent score.

  2. […] a previous post, I reflected on the intellectual impact that playing the 2007 video game Bioshock had on me. Today […]

  3. […] [N.B. I know I planned to write about music in Bioshock Infinite, and I still expect that to happen. I submitted a paper proposal on this very subject to the North American Conference on Video Game Music, so we'll see if it is accepted. The problem is not in finding something to say about it, but in how to narrow down what could be said. Still waiting for the vultures to strike on this one, but you can read my thoughts on the game's use of theology and story and on the original Bioshock.] […]

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