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Philosophy of Storytelling & Free Will in BioShock

In my opinion, “BioShock” is one of the best first-person shooters ever created. Far from being just merely an FPS, though, it contains the best gameplay driven story telling I have experienced aside from Valve’s “Half Life” series. Despite it being released in August 2007, I think it’s appropriate to revisit this title and talk about the deep philosophical implications it has to offer.

A bit of background information on the game’s setting and plot will help our discussion.

The player takes control of Jack, a silent protagonist who finds himself the sole survivor of a plan crash over the Atlantic Ocean. After emerging among the floating wreckage of the plane, he makes his way to a solitary island with a lighthouse upon it. The player goes into the lighthouse and discovers a grand statue with a banner stating, “No Gods or Kings. Only Men.” This is our first glimpse of the worldview in play for the game.

The player then enters a Bathysphere (a submarine type of pod that serves as means to travel around the submerged city) and descends under the lighthouse and into the open ocean. We hear the voice of Andrew Ryan, the founder of the underwater city of Rapture the rest of the game takes place in. He says:

“I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No,’ says the man in Washington, ‘it belongs to the poor.’ ‘No,’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘it belongs to God.’ ‘No,’ says the man in Moscow, ‘it belongs to everyone.’ I rejected these answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose … Rapture. 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! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.”


The City of Rapture as seen under water

One hardly needs to point out the Libertarian tendencies in this kind of introduction. Rapture is a city that refuses to succumb to the pressures of society in general. It is a city that will not bow a knee to a Caesar or King, or even give assent to an elected president. It is a city where the individual is free to pursue his/her desires without petty restraints on regulations, censorship and socialistic sensibilities.

This sets the stage for the jarring dissonance the player experiences upon first arriving within the boundaries of Rapture. The Bathysphere comes out of the water and before the player’s eyes there is a vicious looking individual with hooks for hands. This “thing” is a Splicer.

After escaping, the player is introduced to a mysterious character named Atlas. He asks us to kindly (side note: keep this “kindly” in mind as it is important part of our discussion) pick up the radio in the Bathysphere and proceeds to give the player instructions throughout the game.


The destroyed city from within

With this background set, we can discuss the philosophy of the game. The themes here are commonly said to echo Ayn Rand’s philosophy found in her monumental book, “Atlas Shrugged.”

As a Libertarian, she proposes a system of government that takes a laissez-faire­ approach when it comes to governing the people. Despite harsh criticisms from both Conservatives and Liberals, Rand does provide a few good points about the dangers of a socialistic society and, negatively, effects a highly regulating government can have on free trade, the economy, business and prosperity. A discussion of Rand’s philosophy is far beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say she most definitely was an influence in creating the story for “BioShock.”

Since this is a video game, it’s in a unique position when it comes to how the plot is presented to the consumer. When one watches a movie, the intake of information is mostly passive. The film plays and the viewer simply allows the information on the screen to effect them. When one reads a book, other than the physical movements it takes to hold the book, flip the pages, and read the words on the page, the experience is mostly passive in the sense that the reader has no real control over what is going on. It is a bit more involved than watching a movie, since it takes more time and effort to read through a long piece of writing, but the concept is the same. The plot is experienced as a passive thing.

In video games, however, the story is not, or at least it should not, be told passively.

The player has the opportunity to actually be a part of the story. We hold the controller, direct the character’s movements and explore the landscape of the game. Especially in a first-person game like “BioShock,” we see the world through the eyes of the character, essentially making us that character while we play. Thus, a good video game story should be told through the player’s actions.

While a pre-rendered cutscene is sometimes a good thing, I would argue that conveying a story solely through images that the player has no control over diminishes the potential impact the game can have. Of course, there are examples of games with plenty of long cutscenes that still receive high acclaim (i.e., the Metal Gear Solid franchise), but those are few and far between. For the most part, a video game’s story that is told exclusively through cutscenes never has the same impact as one that is told through the actions of the player himself.

There are no cutscenes in “BioShock.” The entire game is shown through the eyes of Jack. We do have a few moments here and there (and they are very important) where the game takes control from the player’s hands. Although, when this happens, it always stays behind Jack’s eyes and we are still the ones experiencing what happens. As a result, the game’s story is always told through the gameplay itself. Each revelation of information, each plot twist, each decision is made by Jack. It is revealed to, and decided by, the player.

We experience the tragedy that befell Rapture by actually walking through the environment. We pick up audio journals left behind by different people and hear what they went through. The once prosperous city of Rapture is in utter ruins and this resulted from scientific experimentation that gave people special powers. What scientists began working on to make life easier, like  the ability to light candles with a flick of fire from their fingers instead of using a match or lighter, was quickly abused by power-hungry individuals who took advantage of the lack of strict laws and restrictions. These individuals are called Splicers and are the current residents of Rapture. In a way, “BioShock” works as a way to show the pitfalls of a pure, Rand-like Libertarian society. The utopia can quickly become a dystopia; Rapture is the epitome of a dystopian society.


An artistic glimpse of Rapture before the Splicer takeover

There is a phrase in movie making which says, “Show, don’t tell.” It means that an event in a film is far more interesting when it is shown rather than merely told as exposition.

A similar phrase exists in the video game industry and it goes, “Do, don’t show.” Essentially it means that having the player actually engage in the plot through their own actions, through the gameplay itself, is the most effective means of telling a compelling story.

“BioShock” does this brilliantly. We aren’t just told that the Splicers are dangerous, the player experiences it when they have to fight off hoards of them throughout the game. We see the destruction that was wrought by the hands of these mutated maniacs.

Not only does “BioShock” do an incredible job storytelling, it actually builds up to a climax that, in my opinion, is one of the best in all of gaming. I will not be discussing the rest of the game past the beginning of the third act, but rest assured that this point is the best place to conclude our discussion.

As I mentioned above, the player is guided throughout Rapture by a man named Atlas. He gives the player instructions and he always says, “Would you kindly …” before telling us what we should do.

This happens numerous times.

“Would you kindly pick up that short wave radio?”

“Careful now… would you kindly lower that weapon for a minute.”

“Would you kindly find a crowbar or something?”

Of course, the player does these things because we think we are doing so of our own free will. It feels natural to get a crowbar to defend ourselves.

Well as it turns out, Atlas has some history with Andrew Ryan and the player is confronted with the prospective  of going into Ryan’s office and killing him. Ryan is supposed to have killed Atlas’ wife and daughter (which we find out is a set up by Atlas himself), so the player actually wants to do this. We feel vindicated in following the instruction, “Now, would you kindly head to Ryan’s office and kill the son of a bitch?”

And here we arrive at the reveal which prompts the philosophical question of the game. Do we, as players, or even as human beings, have a free will or not?

The build up to this point in the article has been to argue that video games offer a completely different way of telling a narrative; the storytelling involves the interaction of the player with what is happening on screen. I have yet to experience any game, before or since, “BioShock” which made me think of my freedom as a player from an existential perspective. In fact, my first reaction was to be offended by how Atlas manipulates the player like a puppet without the slightest bit of suspicion on our part.

When we get to Ryan’s office we see him behind the glass and he is playing golf. We hear Ryan begin a speech. He says:

“The assassin has overcome my final defense and, now, he’s come to murder me. In the end, what separates a man from a slave? Money? Power? No. A man chooses; a slave obeys. You think you have memories: a farm, a family, an airplane, a crash and then this place. Was there really a family? Did that airplane crash, or was it hijacked? Forced down by something less than a man, something bred to sleepwalk through life until activated by a simple phrase from their kindly master? Was a man sent to kill, or a slave? A man chooses; a slave obeys. Enter.”

We enter the office and approach Ryan. He turns to us and says, “Stop, would you kindly?” and we stop moving.

He continues, “Would you kindly? Powerful phrase. Familiar phrase?”

We are shown flashbacks of all the times when Atlas said the words to us and Ryan puts his golf club gently on our shoulder and says, “Sit, would you kindly,” and we sit down.

No longer are we in control. We are simply doing what we are told to do. There is no choice, yet the perspective of the game remains behind the eyes of Jack. It is us who are sitting. The game is not showing this from the third-person or a birds-eye view. Ryan puts his golf club under our chin and gently lifts saying, “Stand, would you kindly?” and we stand.


Andrew Ryan

The realization that every action of the game we have made so far has been controlled by another is staggering and we question our freedom in the most intimate and personal way possible. It is one thing to speak of the metaphysics of freedom and autonomy — it is an entirely other thing to experience the difference between the illusion of free will and actually having free will.

Ryan says, once again, “A man chooses; a slave obeys,” and then hands the golf club over to the player and says, “Kill!” We slam the club over his head and, after several blows, Ryan keels over and dies.

Atlas, of course, reveals himself to be the true villain of the story. He is the one who plotted against Ryan in order to gain power. He is the one who caused the plane crash by manipulated Jack to hijack the pilot’s cabin. He uses you, the player, as a weapon against Andrew Ryan.

Atlas’ voice changes and shows that his real name is Frank Fontaine and his entire motive was to take down Ryan. It turns out that, as Ryan alluded to, Jack was genetically modified so that he always follows orders when asked by the phrase, “Would you kindly?” After this revelation he tells the player, “All right, fun’s fun, kid. But now… go get stepped on by a Big Daddy, would you kindly?”

(Briefly, I will mention that Big Daddies, pictured at the top of this article, are some of the main enemies of the game. The Big Daddies are in charge of taking care of the Little Sisters, a group of children who are charged with gathering the genetic materials necessary for giving the player, and the enemies of the game, their powers. The caretaker of these little girls, a character named Tenenbaum, finds a way to break the genetic mutation that forces Jack to follow prompts that are given with, “would you kindly.)


A Big Daddy and Little Sister

After nothing happens when we are told to get stepped on, because the player is obviously not going to go get killed on purpose, we realize the newfound freedom we have and it is liberating beyond description.

This is the beauty of “BioShock.”

We aren’t simply told through a cutscene, “Hey, this guy was controlling you.” We actually experience it — we play through it. Not only do we see this in Ryan’s office, but we inevitably spend time reflecting on the game up until that point and see all those actions in a completely new light. Jack’s wrists have a short three linked chain tattooed on each one and, since all we see of the main character are his hands, these tattoos serve to give us a visual, yet subtle, representation of his slavery to powers beyond his comprehension.

Do we, as players of a game, have any true freedom of choice? If the storyline of a game is written and presented by the developer, does the player have a way to change anything that happens? Is a video game not a perfect representation of determinism? If the game is determined, then why should we even play them?

These questions can be transferred to our real life experiences. Philosophers throughout history have attempted to answer the question of human freedom.

I would argue that the freedom we have in games is similar to the freedom we have in our actual lives. The game has boundaries and restrictions on what we can or cannot do, so the nature of the character we are playing as determines the choices we can make. There is no such thing as a choice in a vacuum.

The decisions we make always have a context, so in a sense the decision will be determined by something outside of ourselves, even if we ultimately choose A and not B. We are, as human beings, restricted by our natures. There are some decisions we simply cannot make without destroying our being — jumping off a building because we decided that we can fly isn’t going to work.

Regardless of how one answers the questions of autonomy and free will, one cannot deny the impact that “BioShock” can have on the player, as no other game in my experience has forced me to consider this kind of metaphysical question.

One thought on “Philosophy of Storytelling & Free Will in BioShock

  1. Pingback: Power Core – Teaching History in the Digital Age

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