June 22, 2018

The Bioshock moments that exemplify Irrational Games’ legacy

I’ve been trying to come to terms with the closure of Bioshock developer Irrational Games. Creator Ken Levine has a different vision moving forward and doesn’t see a future for the developer, which has made only a handful of games in seventeen years, albeit classics that will certainly last the test of time.

My introduction to Irrational Games came with Bioshock in 2007, and it wasn’t until System Shock 2 hit Steam early last year that I visited the studio’s developing debut. It’s certainly come a long way from that first sci-fi epic — “The polito is dead, insect” is a moment that will stick with me for a long, long time — but I think it’s wonderful that the developer will be best remembered for two of last generation’s best games, BioShock and its indirect sequel, BioShock Infinite.

BioShock has a lasting affect on me because it introduced me to Ayn Rand and her controversial philosophy, Objectivism. The game acts as a rather stunning critique of her interpretation of society and morality — that every man is an end in himself, and that in a nutshell every man has a right to pursue their own happiness and interests without a care for others.

I appreciate Rand’s approach to certain elements of freedom and liberty, particularly laissez-faire capitalism, but her often confronting disregard for humility is equally as dysfunctional an application of morality as certain strings of altruism (particularly that of involuntary applications of taxation for the “common good”).

Rapture is essentially the most damning element of Bioshock’s critique of Rand’s philosophy: it has gone to hell, crippled by the dictatorship of an ironically self-proclaimed libertarian in Andrew Ryan, a man that denounces left-wing politics — namely socialism and communism — fuelled by ruthless, egotistical desires to control production on his own accord.

The irony of his eventual demise is that his city would crumble under the effects of inflation, a common threat to the stability of totalitarian socialist states, further propelled by a collectivist revolutionary named Sophia Lamb, rightly frustrated at the corruption and greed ruining Rapture.

What I loved most about BioShock is how it never treads a straight line in its fine critique: it denounces, but also praises, the rational self-interest that Ayn Rand proposes, while also demonstrating the frustrations of far-right politics, and the instability and uncertainty that follows far-left revolutions.

Take this opening monologue from Ryan:

“I am Andrew Ryan and I am 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 those 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. -Andrew Ryan”

It’s a truly breathtaking piece of social commentary, one equally as tragic as it is confronting and thought-provoking. Is what Ryan proposes all that immoral? Is what he dreams of — a city of men free from God, free from government, free from power of any kind — really all that bad? It isn’t, but unfortunately, Ryan becomes the polar-opposite of the philosophy he peddles, instead demonstrating the natural, unhinged tendencies of the at-times irrational (woah…), selfish human being.

Ryan challenges things like taxation through fear of consequence, morality through fear from God.

”A man chooses. A slave obeys.” – Andrew Ryan

BioShock Infinite will have less of a lasting legacy on me — I think Ryan set a pretty high standard — but the city of Columbia is a truly confronting place. Buried in the idea of “American Exceptionalism”, which is in itself a fascinating critique of religious extremism, it is a city with solid foundations of liberty and democracy: soon we realise the two cannot coexist, which raises deep and profound critiques of freedom, imprisonment, society and racism.

There are many different themes in Bioshock Infinite — I feel it isn’t as clear-cut as the first game — but it offers a fascinating social critique and, as with its predecessor, demonstrates the confronting, but perhaps necessary, consequences of revolution.

The city in the sky: Sunny, clean. Quite far removed from the damp setting of both the game’s introduction and, obviously, the underwater city of Rapture. Booker DeWitt’s perceived free will doesn’t exist at all — he is essentially forced to visit Columbia — and here he is, without a way to escape, thrust into the city in the sky. And, like Elizabeth, is now a prisoner.

No wonder the two ended up getting along so well.

And with that, I must thank Irrational Games for two wonderful experiences, not to disregard classics like System Shock 2 and Freedom Fighters. It’s just that, with such powerful themes and fascinating social critiques, the team’s Bioshock games will have a lasting place among my favourite games of all time.

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