Objectivist Computer Game Reviews: Bioshock

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I have been lusting after Bioshock for 3 years now. I have finished it and now I am going to deliver my verdict.

Bioshock is relevant to me in two ways: firstly, it is a spiritual successor to my favorite game of all time, System Shock 2 (a dark, terrifying FPS/RPG/Survival-Horror Cyberpunk game), and the second is that it is the first computer game to ever by influenced (strongly) by Ayn Rand. Since I am an Objectivist, this influence pulls at my emotional heartstrings, to say the least, and since this is an Objectivist website I might as well get the Objectivism stuff out of the way.

The first question: does Bioshock attack, mistreat or misrepresent Objectivism? My answer is "no." The setting of the game is an Objectivist utopia gone wrong, but it is reasonably obvious that the downfall of this utopia is not due to Objectivism, but people going insane, and good-old-fashioned hypocrisy (motivated by power-lust). Hence, it is not the content of Objectivism that is blamed for the disaster. As such, I am grateful to Ken Levine (the creative director of Bioshock) for treating the ideas of Objectivism with respect. However, one of the reasons Bioshock cannot be accused of strawmanning Objectivism is because fundamentally speaking, Bioshock is not about Objectivism!

Bioshock follows the story of Jack, a man who survives a plane crash over the Atlantic Ocean. The crash site is right next to a very art-deco-styled lighthouse, just popping out of the sea (interesting.....). Jack enters the lighthouse, enters a bathysphere, activates it, and that sends him off to Rapture: an Objectivist paradise under the sea. Once in Rapture, a man named Atlas contacts him and begs for help, asking for Jack to help him rescue his wife and child. From there, Jack hears how people have lost their minds, descended into hideously evil behavior, and how the insanity produced as an unfortunate byproduct of genetic modification has torn Rapture apart. From there, Jack learns that the forces behind the war in Rapture have utterly machiavellian plots and schemes, some of which provide disturbing information about his own past.

Objectivism provides the setting and some elements of the characterization. It does not provide the plot. However, the setting of Rapture is utterly phenomenal. The architecture is so genuinely beautiful and so strongly concretizing of the Objectivist vision of man-as-heroic I can scarcely describe the sense-of-life jollies this game gives me. It is obvious that Ken Levine (the creative director of the game) knows his stuff about Objectivism. The graphics are delicious, the water effects excellent. Sound is excellent, and the voice acting and characterizations are beyond reproach. The atmosphere of the game is extraordinary... the glow of a beautiful idealism, tragically mutated and destroyed, replaced with a world of insanity where children loot the dead of their blood. Although not as terrifying as System Shock 2, Bioshock has moments of pure morbidity that I cannot help but love.

As for the gameplay, I can state this game truly is the successor of System Shock 2. The game mechanics are as complex as any RPG, weapons can be modified and loaded with up to 3 different ammo types, and characters can be grown genetically with plasmids and tonics. The system feels very similar to System Shock 1 and 2, as well as the Deus Ex games. The complex, living world can be manipulated in a multitude of ways and complex interaction between game elements is commonplace.

Any downsides? Both of the game's endings are lacklustre. One is too dark and the other is too sugary. In both cases, the Objectivist ideal is not met (the sugary one tries but its too sugary!). Either way, the game is simply too good to give anything but huge marks. I will officially state that Bioshock is at least System Shock 2's equal and hence the equal best game of all time.

Objectivists should purchase this game. Merely for the chance to walk around Rapture, even if it is a mess. The strategic, intelligent gameplay and dark, developed story, combined with the Objectivist setting, make Bioshock a must-purchase for Objectivists. Anyone that wants to morally condemn this game is fundamentally insane.

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I would like to add;

Another way in which BioShock is surprisingly Objectivist-friendly is in one of its characterizations: specifically the mobster and hoodlum Frank Fontaine. He is one of the most despicable characters in the game, and he is also the one that establishes the "Frank Fontaine House For The Poor." Yep, the man who practices charity is also one of the most monstrous men in the game! Why? Specifically, his charity work is merely another weapon... he does not start his poorhouse to help the poor, rather they are one of his weapons in his campaign against Andrew Ryan. In addition, Fontaine's attitude to the poor is despicably cruel, saying "you dont need to build a city to make people worship you, just make the chumps think they are worth a nickel."

In other words, Fontaine uses charity and pity as a weapon, and he is preoccupied with subjugating people to him and defeating them (in one of his audio logs, he talks about how he loves being able to defraud the smart people, it makes him feel like a big man (!)). As we all know, pity is never motivated by human kindness; one only feels pity in the presence of the worthless and the pathetic.

Fontaine is truly a Rand-worthy character. He really reminds me of a more brutal, less intellectual version of Ellsworth Toohey.

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~ Very good summarizing of the whole relationship 'twixt this game and O-ism. Re the 'plot' aspect, good analysis also (but, a little more could have been mentioned about Ryan, apart from the, by now, over-commented anagram-name allusion); surprised you said nothing about the 'moral decisions' concerns in it though.

~ Yes, back-story-wise, utopia became dystopia when 'greed' was allowed to blindly run over reason for all (including Fontaine [and Ryan?]) in allowing 'addiction' to Adam run each of everyone's lives. Even Galt's Gultch could conceivably find a monkey wrench fouling things up...kinda like America 'of then'-vs-'of now.'



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~ Unfortunately, haven't played it...yet. Found out the day I went to buy it that my PC's not quite up to par (got it 2yrs ago) for it (been thinking about upgrading for a yr now, but...not just for a 'game', that's for sure!) --- Not interested in the XBox360 vers (though my Joey has the system.)

~ I did read the 'guide' though. Yes, Levine created something quite unique here, and, for better or worse, made Rand an official 'name' in the computer/gaming community. --- Wonder how TV-media'll handle this? Ignore the relationship, or, hype it negatively?



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