THIS POST HAS SUPER SPOILERS ABOUT THE BIOSHOCK GAMES
I played the first two Bioshock games this month in the spirit of Bioshock Infinite coming out sometime in the future. I really liked the games, and I don’t have a lot of broad critique for the games. In fact, I just have some things to say about the way the games force you to play them. If you want to get into the deluge that is Bioshock internet commentary, I suggest this Critical Distance “critical compilation” post that really sums up the broad opinions about that game. There really isn’t that kind of thing for Bioshock 2, which makes sense, I guess, and I’ll talk about it below.
I liked both games. The second game gets a bad rap, and I honestly can’t tell you why–it is probably more fun than the first one, and it has a much smarter story. I suppose there’s something lost between the two, especially because Bioshock has the feel of an old school, hardcore game, where the second really doesn’t. With that in mind, I want to talk about the way the games approach their ideologies and how those ideologies become apparent in the way the player is treated in the game. That was an abrupt shift in the writing there, I don’t know what was up with that. Anyway.
Bioshock forces you to play the game in an Objectivist/libertarian way. I know there is a lot of debate about it, but I think that it’s pretty clear that the game forces the player into a world of finite resources and that the player has to take, for herself exclusively, as many of those resources as possible. The idea of the opportunity cost, of the things lost based on the actions taken by the player, becomes a fiction–there is no such thing as opportunity cost in the world of Bioshock. Instead, the player exists as the only possible solution to the world; the effect of playing the game is a kind of “making whole” of the game world itself.
Well, maybe I’m lying a little bit. Opportunity cost does exist in Bioshock. It is player absence or player death. The elimination of the invading player is the only imaginable scenario where the player does not eat all the food in the game world, take all the ammunition, extract all the ADAM. So, by virtue of playing the game, the player is forced into this libertarian horrorshow. That might be the reason that the game was, and is, so well loved. When I spoke about the game being “hard core” above, what I really mean is that the game makes you feel a terror while playing it. During my playthrough, I was constantly assailed by questions of supply–I never had enough health or enough ammunition, and I died many, many times. There were no moments of plenty in the game. Everything was scraping by.
So somewhere between that play experience and the gripping story is the reason that the game was so successful. It generates genuine affect through a combination of panic and fear and the desire to get revenge or escape Rapture. Of course, the twist of the game sort of kills all the theorizing we could do about what happens in the game. As players of the game know, the phrase “would you kindly” is used through the narrative to make the player character do things. It is a genetic mind control device, a clever twist, a whatever piece of game design. The player being a libertarian in order to survive in Rapture is transformed into a narrative about a character forced into being a libertarian through mind control. I think that really ruins the effect of the rhetoric on the gamer, but I’m sure others have covered this, so I’m not going to belabor the point.
Bioshock 2 is interesting because it sets out to do the opposite of what the first game did. From a story perspective, it makes a lot of sense. Where the first game assailed the player with “the self matters most” rhetoric, the second puts the community at the forefront. Lamb, the antagonist of 2, makes it quite plain that the desires of the NPC community of the game are invested into her and a communal understanding of the world. It is not about getting everything for yourself in Bioshock 2, but rather about everyone having enough.
And everyone does have enough, especially the player. The ratio of things that I left in the game world vs the things that I picked up was probably 2:1. There was just too much. Scarcity becomes an impossibility, and maybe that is why the second game didn’t garner the kinds of reactions that Bioshock did. It was too easy, too comforting. Beyond that, the ending of the game is disturbing. The blame for the player’s behavior in the first game can be displaced onto mind control (the narrative); the second game makes sure that they player understands that anything bad that happens is the product of his actions, his agency. The second game gives the player no way out.
Just another quick note: the first game presents the universe (Rapture) as zero sum, a total competition, and the player lives through that. If the player never showed up in Bioshock, the world would probably look the same. Not so in Bioshock 2. In all likelihood, Rapture would have been turned into an organic whole, a utopian paradise. We don’t know that for sure, and the source we have for that information is the antagonist, but the game never comes out and states that she is wrong. The player becomes disruption and interruption, a devil in the code, or in the details, that disrupts Lamb’s utopia. I felt kind of guilty about that.