Friday, April 12, 2013

If You Choose Not to Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice: Bioshock Revisited

at 1:44 PM
I recently completed Bioshock Infinite on 360, but I have too many disorganized thoughts on the plot to warrant a post about it yet. Booker DeWitt's jaunt through the the city of Columbia and a special cameo at the end inspired me to return to the first entry in the series, years after originally playing it, or rather, watching my brother beat it. 

I am not being innovative in saying that the city of Rapture is cool. Its leaks, art deco style, and Circus of Values vending machines are charming, and dare I utter, "atmospheric." Upon "re"playing the game, however, I could not for the life of me understand why the game taking place in the city was important to the narrative. You might be thinking, "No way, Objectivism and Andrew Ryan are important to the plot," or start screaming "IMMERSION!" at the top of your lungs. What purpose did Objectivism serve to telling Levine's story? There was no progression to that theme, it started off as this is objectivism, and its a bit silly, and ended much the same. The city and its philosophy just serve as a backdrop for relating the game's true narrative. Much like the new game, the more finite Bioshock is a commentary on gaming itself. Specifically, it tackles the issue of agency.

Agency is the ability for an individual to act or make choices. The strength of one's agency is often determined (ha!) by the degree to which one can act against the structures imposed on that individual. It is not quite free will, but its similarities will be good enough for our non-graduate-coursework discussion of the subject. One quick note: Objectivism is just the idolization of individualization agency, so the failings of that philosophy that the game points out serves to argue the game's bigger message.

Not that kind of free will. Or is it? You decide! Or don't!

Bioshock argues that all games are an exercise in deceiving the player into thinking they have agency when they are actually on a set path and have little freedom to deviate from it. The phrase, "Would you kindly," embodies this argument. It is in the form of a request, not a command, suggesting that you have the ability to choose whether or not to carry out the request. But in truth, it is an iron fist in a velvet glove. The player is unable to deny Atlas' "requests", as is demonstrated at the very start of the game, where you cannot even exit the Bathysphere until you obey Atlas to pick up the shortwave radio. From the very beginning, the game is structured that you cannot advance until you follow its instructions. Jack eventually begins to fight against the chains of obedience which bind him, but is following the track the game set you on to kill Frank Fontaine any different from the one he set you upon to kill Andrew Ryan? The answer is clearly no. 

Even after the first time that the game reveals that our assumed agency was nonexistent, it tries to convince that we have free will all over again. Such is the way of games, I suppose. Without this deception we would merely be along for the ride, watching a movie, not feeling that our crucial "A" button press was the reason Link defeated Ganon. The biggest moment of Bioshock, i.e. Andrew Ryan taking a golf club to the face a few times, happens in a cut-scene, further stripping the player of his belief in his own agency. "A man chooses and a slave obeys," and we are all secretly slaves who think that we are men. This all making sense, yet? Because this is not even the part that will blow your minds. 

During my playthrough, I recalled the most common complaint about Bioshock when it was being reviewed: the stupid moral choice whether to save the Little Sisters or not. I thought it dumb at first, because it was just trying to be hip and doing what every game of that era did with morality systems. Thank goodness we have moved past that a bit. I now feel that the game's reviewers and myself had a gross misinterpretation of what the game was trying to do by letting us harvest or rescue the Little Sisters. The game presented players with a choice. Hey, you might recall that I spent about 500 words talking about how Bioshock is about players discovering that they do not have the ability to choose what they do, so this might seem antithetical. However, every review's complaint that the choice to be evil or nice to the Little Sister does not matter, validates my argument. 

If you are evil in the game, you get more ADAM, basically money to buy superpowers, from each Little Sister. If you are good, you get less ADAM from each Little Sister but you get a bonus every time you save three, which makes up the difference. So mechanically there are few changes between picking one path or the other. How about plot differences then? Again, only marginal changes. The ending of the main plot stays the same, save for a 15 second clip at the very end that has you dying alone or not after the conclusion of the game's events. Getting the "good" or "bad" endings do not matter significantly to your experience with the game. It is the equivalent of another LOTR where Sam does not marry Rosie at the end. Yeah, its different, but it does not impact the narrative, which is, at its heart, the quest to destroy the ring. 

The morality system is yet another prong of Bioshock's efforts to unveil the lack of agency of players. Its uselessness is a statement on how the good/evil duality systems that games were then imposing on players was a bad way to create a sense of agency. In fact, it might even make games feel more scripted. After every conversation it tells you how many nice guy or bad dude points you got; your choices are numbers, not decisions in that system. The Little Sister moral choice is the biggest decision that the player is able to make in this game, and when your choice does not matter, how can you feel that any of your decisions mattered while venturing through Rapture? Did you even have the ability to make decisions, or was everything already predetermined? The narrative of covering up and then uncovering that the player has no agency fits too nicely with the questions the Little Sister morality system raises to make me think the terribleness of this mechanic was unintentional. You might think that generous of me, to defend, or even praise, the one weakness that everyone ascribes to the game. But considering how genius everything else in the game was, I am going to assume Levine and Co. knew what they were doing, even if we did not.  


  1. While your relation of the Atlas arc to agency is excellent, I have to differ on the matter of Little Sisters. To me the Sisters emphasize the dissonance between mechanical and emotional agency. You've jumped to the conclusion that the only thing running through the player's mind in dealing with a Sister is "how much ADAM will I get?". I think that providing equal material rewards is BioShock's way of saying: you need to make this choice based on how you *feel*, not what you will get out of it. Saying that players lack agency suggests that their experience will be the same whether they save or harvest the Sisters, and the truth of this at a tangible level emphasizes the available divergence (agency) in characterization. While on paper Jack may be the same character at the end of the narrative, whether or not you killed the Sisters determines who he really is.

    Dishonored makes the same dilemma more compelling, by providing characters you may actually *want* to kill; whereas I can't imagine a lot of players decided to harvest Little Sisters because it was the "just" thing to do. As in BioShock, your decisions with the lives of others don't have much effect on the world - they're entirely about the moment and ongoing player-driven definition of the avatar.

    IIRC, I also discussed this issue in our Let's Play of Terranigma. Terranigma, like Golden Sun and a handful of other JRPGs, gives the player seemingly superficial dialogue options that never have any in-game consequence (outside of the immediately subsequent dialogue). They don't affect your stats, your quest, or the ending. What they do is allow the player to characterize Ark, to act not on the practical level of gameplay, but as a co-author of the narrative.

    1. But again, your point about agency stands. Clearly that's the primary theme of BioShock. I just find it to be a little less pessimistic - it decries false reward-based agency while championing narrative impact.

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