In the introduction to BioShock, we are introduced to a society supposedly built on radical ideas of personal and economic freedom—Rapture is minimally regulated, built upon Randian principles of a laissez-faire free market. “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” Andrew Ryan, the city’s founder, asks. The theme of free choice recurs throughout the gameplay, as when the player is given the opportunity to either kill a Little Sister to extract the valuable parasite within her, or to save her from the parasite’s grip, extracting less but sparing her life in the process.
The medium of the video game is useful to exploring the subject of free will. BioShock, as most other video games, requires the player to complete a series of tasks in order to progress through the game and its storyline. It is revealed at the end of the game that the first-person character through which the player experiences the game has been completing these tasks because he is hypnotically compelled to do so—Atlas, a supposedly benevolent character who has been guiding the player through the game over a radio, is able to compel the character to do anything he wants be prefacing the order with the phrase “would you kindly.” This lack of free will mirrors the player’s own in many ways—the player must progress through the game according to its prescribed rules, and even when the player is offered a choice it is still inherently constrained by the medium and will still ultimately lead to the same (or at a least very similar) outcome at the game’s end. Any choice offered by the video game medium is illusory, just as is choice in the supposedly unconstrained, laissez-faire city of Rapture. BioShock draws attention to the illusory nature of choice in the player’s own life, invisibly constrained by the parameters of the system in which they live just as choice is constrained in the video game environment.
The player is not the only one in the game to experience a lack of agency. The laissez-faire system in Rapture results in the enslavement of innumerable children for the purposes of production. The war that breaks out in Rapture leaves thousands of workers so dependent on the chemical substance ADAM that they are willing to kill to get their hands on it. It is clear that this laissez-faire society, espoused as the pinnacle of human freedom, is in fact burdensome and constrictive to many if not most of its residents.
How can parallels be drawn to our current social arrangement? Certainly the capitalist system we live in is a mere shadow of the Ayn Randian free market that Andrew Ryan sought to replicate in Rapture. However, we can see how the nature of the market, described in liberatory terms by Ryan and Rand, provides the illusion of choice while in fact serving to constrain. Consumptive choices are limited by income, except for the very wealthy—the grocery store may be shelved with a million different brands, but those choices are no good to somebody without the money. Does an electoral system that offers its people choice between Democrats and Republicans offer them much choice at all? The choice of what job to take is a luxury afforded only to a select few with skills in demand, and even this choice is hopelessly constrained in the present day—a worker may have the option to choose which sort of wage labor they want to fill most of their waking hours, but they have no option to opt out of the wage labor system entirely. In manufacturing the illusion of choice, BioShock, and the video game medium in general, may not be all that different from our present reality.
The video game is a medium uniquely suited to exploring questions of freedom, free will, and choice. BioShock set a precedent for the medium in exploring the subject in greater depth, drawing deep connections to the present day. The game, in highlighting how the medium deprives its player of agency while simultaneously manufacturing the appearance of choice, highlights such dynamics in the player’s own life and society.
BioShock. 2K Games, 2007. Video game.