American Studies 316
Bioshock changed the game industry with its detailed world, deep backstory, and revolutionary story-telling that no one in the industry had seen before. Because of this, it has won numerous awards and more than 8 years after its release gamers and academics alike continue to analyze the story and its deeper meaning. As many have noted before, Bioshock shares striking similarities to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, from character’s personalities to imagery and setting. Even one of the game’s antagonists, Andrew Ryan, shares initials with the author, and some argue his name is even a partial anagram. Both works examine the role of government in citizens’ lives and free will. Bioshock took themes from a work that was 60 years old at the time of its release and thrust them back into the forefront, forcing gamers and those who have never played them to take a look and reexamine what it means to be free.
The game opens with a powerful quote from Andrew Ryan. “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!’” It is important to note that Ryan mentioned the three great powers during the time in which the game is set: Capitalist America, communist Russia, and the Catholics in the Vatican. All three, he claimed, desired to control their citizens or adherents. Rand brings up a similar concept, only instead of the “sweat of [one’s] brow,” she talks about money. “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other.” (Rand). Here, Rand seems to talk about methods by which men control other men, and that money is the kindest of these ways. Andrew Ryan rejects all of them and desires all men to be free from any control.
Flowing from the game’s discussion of government – and other forms of – control, comes a discussion of free will and what that really means. Players are constantly bombarded with the slogan “A man chooses; a slave obeys.” This is an ironic statement for such a game, because the player has very little choice if they want to progress further into the game. The structure of the game is more linear than open, constantly forcing players forward. Players discover towards the end of the game that they are, indeed, a slave, but not to Ryan. The key phrase “Would you kindly” forces the character to do whatever is asked of them. However, players don’t necessarily carry out those actions. Technically, the player chose to carry them out without question. The game does an excellent job of forcing players to ask what it really means to be free in their actions. Many small details in the setting also add to the atmosphere and the question of what it means to be free. For example, along the walls, next to large doorways, one can see bronze figures of arms, pulling against chains, yet the chains are not broken in what would be expected, given Ryan’s diatribe against men being held back. Another important image in the game is seen early on; a statue of Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, clearly a reference to the work upon which Bioshock is based, but also something deeper. It is not far from this point that players will begin their journey, which will ultimately affect the surface world, depending on certain choices the player is actually allowed to make. Effectively, the player becomes Atlas in a way, the fate of the Rapture and the surface world resting upon their shoulders.
Bioshock was revolutionary in many ways. Not just technologically but also in the way it asked gamers to do something that almost no game that came before it did: to reflect on the experience they just had. Many games have since followed suit, from triple-A games like Assassin’s Creed to lesser-known indie games such as Soma.
“Bioshock.” 2K Games, 2007. Video Game.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957. Electronic.