Bioshock: Ayn Rand Was Right!... wait hold on

So last time, I talked about the two world/stories problem with Bioshock. This time, I talk about...

Ayn Rand Was Wrong!... maybe

Once Bioshock transitions to the Objectivist dystopia, there's a very clear authorial intent that we're meant to view Rapture as collapsing in on itself because Objectivism is a life philosophy that doesn't hold up if you actually apply it to an entire society.

Yet, strangely consistently, the story constructs itself so that logically speaking it's validating Objectivism.

First and most obvious is the city of Rapture itself: a bunch of Objectivists decide they're going to make a city underwater, and they not only succeed but it's a city that randomly has super-science well ahead of its time thrown in. I'm not talking about the Plasmids here: I'm talking about the flying robots that have fully functioning IFF, which the story never attempts to suggest are somehow a product of Plasmid technology. I'm talking about the automated turrets that know the difference between you and everyone else all on their own. I'm talking about the general architecture of Rapture, which is retrofuturistic ("zeerust") to the max, still with no attempt to suggest Plasmids are why.

Stripped to the essentials, you have a story in which a basically-magical level of technology is achieved by a bunch of Objectivists on no deeper basis than the fact that they are an Objectivist society. That's about as blunt a validation of a philosophy as a story can make; the philosophy just makes its practitioners better than everyone else.

This is particularly striking since the story does have Plasmids. It would be so easy to instead construct the narrative so that Andrew Ryan stumbled on Plasmid technology back on the surface world, then hoarded the secret, sharing it only with those he felt shared his ideology and they collectively all leveraged their magical superpowers to raise an underwater city successfully. At that point, the nature of the narrative wouldn't be Objectivists Are Better At Science Than You, but rather would be These Particular Objectivists Got Lucky And If Anyone Had Gotten This Secret And Tried To Build An Underwater City They'd Have Succeeded Just Fine Too. Boom, validation of Objectivism successfully avoided.

Even so, if it was just this one thing, I wouldn't be devoting an entire post the topic. It would be a note in some other post, an amusing oddity I'd write off as an understandable consequence of the needs of the story and gameplay. An isolated underwater city is simply too convenient for both ends that any difficulties in justifying it or arising from trying to justify it would be acceptable casualties.

But it keeps happening.

The next most prominent example, though placed much later in the game, is the issue of Frank Fontaine. Throughout the game Andrew Ryan rants and raves for the player's benefit about 'Parasites' -which he uses to refer, essentially, to anyone who doesn't agree with his Objectivist vision- and how destructive they are to a healthy society. He melodramatically tells us that Rapture as an underwater city wasn't impossible, but rather that was the only way it was possible, because the 'Parasites' of the surface world would inevitably drag Rapture down if they knew about its existence and interacted with it at all. Andrew Ryan's message is clear and straightforward: the Objectivist paradise requires everyone be an equal participant in the vision, or else it will collapse for everyone.

(This is where I ignore the previously-covered problems with slave-caste mutants and treat this aspect of the story as if it occurred in isolation from the first world/story of Bioshock)

Now, the proper way to take this whole thing and collapse Rapture would be to make Andrew Ryan successful as far as cult leader status, and then illustrate how his ideals fail even when everyone is on board with them. In that scenario, Bioshock would show us how a society of perfectly selfish people who all agree with the Objectivist vision of Rapture is actually deeply dysfunctional. We'd see how the market would be undermined by insider trading -since, after all, the perfectly selfish thing is to ignore inconvenient laws cutting into your personal profit- and we'd see the city running into problems whose existing solutions exist for a reason. Why should a perfectly selfish person pay taxes? If nobody is paying taxes, where does the city get its money from? If the city can't get money, how do essential public services even exist? Perfectly selfish people aren't going to pay for public toilets that benefit others, but at that point nobody has public toilets at all. And so on.

That's not what happens, though, and in fact the game conspicuously fails to address how the city of Rapture could possibly fund itself. That the city works is something we're expected to accept without explanation.

No, instead what kills the city is exactly what Andrew Ryan spends a good chunk of time forewarning people of: a Parasite gets their hooks into the city, undermines the vision, and ruins it for everyone.

Now, an argument can be made that Frank Fontaine isn't a Parasite, but rather is an attempt to refute the Objectivist opinion by basically saying 'this is what a real perfectly selfish individual looks like', but this is a weak argument. That's essentially quibbling over details, saying Objectivists don't cleave to their own stated philosophy in full and therefore their entire philosophy is bunk, while ignoring that the story is presenting things so that everything worked better than literally the entire rest of the world up until someone who didn't believe in the vision came along and ruined it for everyone. It's a bit immaterial at that point whether Andrew Ryan's Objectivism is something you personally agree qualifies as 'perfect' selfishness or think it fails to qualify for such a definition. This would be a bit like if someone gave me a definition of capitalism, and I looked at real life and declared that real-life implementation of capitalism deviates in some minor way from the definition they gave, therefore capitalism doesn't function in reality. ie an utterly ridiculous argument.

So when it gets down to it, the fact that Frank Fontaine ruins Rapture for everyone because, exactly as Andrew Ryan predicted, he's someone who doesn't buy into Rapture's philosophy... is the narrative validating Andrew Ryan/Objectivism.

Okay, but this only happens twice, right, surely it doing it just twice is excusable-

-ah, but then we get into how Andrew Ryan's philosophy vis-a-vis "Are you a MAN or a SLAVE" gets dramatically invoked at a key moment in the plot, where this is objectively a key question your character is dealing with. The sequence itself is deeply, deeply stupid for reasons I'll be getting into later, but the point is it's another way in which the Objectivist philosophy is treated as valid and that cleaving to it is superior. ie another way the story validates Objectivism instead of acting as a refutation of it, as it seems to intend to be doing.

If I really wanted, I could continue in this vein for a long time. The late game is peppered with audio logs and minor plot moments that feed into the validation-not-refutation dynamic. These are just the three biggest examples.

However, this isn't meant to be a definitive list of all the examples of the game doing this: the core point is the narrative seems to have one goal ("Ayn Rand Was Wrong, Here's How"), and persistently comports itself in the exact opposite manner. ("Ayn Ran Was Totes Right And Life Would Be Better For Everyone If We All Cleaved To Her Philosophy") More specifically, there's such a persistent accumulation of such contrariness that it's genuinely difficult to imagine how it could happen on accident. A one-time or two-time inconsistency isn't necessarily meaningful.

A strongly consistent pattern across so many data points, though?...


It makes one wonder.


Next time, we get into The Twist. Because Bioshock has a dramatic twist, and the twist is basically one giant mistake.

See you then.


Popular Posts