Bioshock: Fractured World
This is going to be the first in a series of posts about Bioshock 1's storytelling. The game is deeply riven when it comes to the narrative, and it deserves talking about. (In no small part because Bioshock is one of those games people consistently point to as having praise-worthy storytelling) Notably, Bioshock has the unusual quality that it is kind of successful in certain important regards, if only it wasn't for the major caveats that come with those successes. It in some sense should have had a good story, where so many of the games I make posts like this for might've had potential but fell far short of any possibility of quality.
This particular post is about one of Bioshock's most fundamental problems: that it is not one world, with one story attached to that world, the two operating in synchronicity to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is two worlds, and two stories, each of which are more-or-less functional in their own right, but which suffer the vital failure that they are crammed together into one game attempting to pretend they are one world and one story, never mind that the two worlds and two stories are irreconcilable in their fundamental nature with each other.
Let's start by explaining what each of these worlds/stories is.
What Has Science Wrought?
The first of Bioshock's worlds/stories is the one that dominates the beginning of the game. It is a world in which the citizens of Rapture discovered the ability to change the human form to a radical extent, and embraced all the possibility therein so completely the result is horrifying and inhuman.
The early audio logs touch on this almost constantly, as does the local propaganda. With the human form malleable, there are people insisting beauty is a moral imperative, that a good person will of course submit themselves to magical plastic surgery so as to avoid subjecting the people around them to a less-than-beautiful visage, a monstrous parody of high-society pursuit of eg plastic surgery. One audio log involves someone marveling at the newfound ability to change not only general attractiveness but even transform one's sex and race. In turn, there's the realization that even the general body plan of the human form, a symmetrical shape with two arms and two legs of roughly equal lengths is now optional...
So too does the more active elements of the story touch on it directly. One of the early horror moments is stumbling on a Splicer (The human enemies of the game, so named because they've modified their genes heavily. Not that there's any suggestion gene splicing is involved, but whatever) who you find surrounded by corpses he's apparently been insistently trying to mold into his idea of perfection -never mind that they're dead, he's still cutting and shaping.
And then there's the most iconic elements of the game: the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. In a world where the human form can be reshaped and remolded, of course the counterpart to the upper classes obsessively pursuing ever more insane ideas of beauty and whatnot is the lower classes being warped into monstrous slave-race castes. Little Sisters are child exploitation in the extreme, transforming someone who doesn't understand what is being done to them and certainly didn't consent to it into a disturbing harvester of the dead. After all, somebody has to collect the magical genetic resources in the human body, and the upper classes certainly aren't going to dirty their hands. Big Daddies are both maintenance workers (Though, unfortunately, we never directly see a Big Daddy performing any maintenance) and guardians for the Little Sisters to ensure nobody tries to steal the resources they collect. (The incidental result that a child is being protected is of no consequence to the characters within the story, and in fact Little Sisters are basically impossible to kill. Since nobody cares about their suffering, this really is just about making sure nobody steals a valuable resource)
This all works quite well, and ties naturally into the game's totally-not-magic mechanic (Plasmids) and furthermore ties readily into the rotting state of the city of Rapture: in recklessly changing themselves, the people of Rapture have gone from being normal people with somewhat unsettling values to being completely unhinged. This is reflected quite well in the dialogue Splicers rattle off as you find them or listen in to them, with many Splicers seeming half-aware of their environment, still guided by older impulses without quite recognizing they no longer fit the way the world has changed around them. Some Splicers babble as if you're a home invader they're driving off in justified self-defense, apparently oblivious to the fact that they're squatting in what used to be a public space and now is just a mess. Other Splicers charge you with violent intent and then can't seem to quite grasp why you started hurting them. Still others interpret you as a lower-class individual who needs to be 'put in their place', and don't seem to realize the way they're going about that will kill you instead of teaching any kind of lesson at all.
And, of course, a first-time player can readily imagine how the game can leverage what they're seeing so far to increase enemy variety down the line and explore new psychoses and themes while allowing the crazy people to be legitimate physical threats, thus making them gameplay-relevant. Surely you'll soon find yourself fighting arachnid monsters that were once human beings, or hulking four-armed beast-people who can barely fit through Rapture's doors, or winged monsters that must at one time been people who just wanted to experience the joy of flight. Surely there will be boss fights where some insane individual's personal psychoses are explored in detail leading up to it and delved a bit more during the fight, their unhinged nature not preventing them from being a threat because they've become some room-devouring monstrosity with three HP meters and exotic attacks.
... but that's not what happens.
Ayn Rand Was Wrong!... maybe.
Instead, once you're two or three hours into the game, those elements fall away. Not that they cease to exist -your enemies are still insane Splicers, Big Daddies still stomp about, Little Sisters continue to gather Adam from corpses, etc- but there's a massive shift in the focus. You stop finding audio logs about people obsessed with biological perfection. You stop finding audio logs laying out Splicer descent into insanity. You never run into mutant monsters abandoning any semblance of a human form. Novel Splicer dialogue shifts in tone and focus, and Andrew Ryan steps into the forefront of the story, calling you over the radio with increasing frequency, audio logs by or about him becoming much more frequent, etc.
Suddenly, Bioshock is about how Rapture was an Objectivist paradise that has since crumbled into the ruin you're running through right now.
Now, it's not that splicing up inevitably drove people to madness because that's just what happens when people of questionable mental health engage in a spiral of self-modification, but rather that Frank Fontaine -an individual who fails to believe in Andrew Ryan's grand vision- used the lure of Plasmids to bring people to his side and undermine The Vision. We never again hear about a crazy plastic surgeon pursuing 'perfection'. It's all about the Objectivism.
Now, while there's issues with how the Objectivist stuff is handled in its own right I'll be getting into in a later post, for the most part this is a perfectly valid and very unique story angle, and also one that's actually executed pretty darn well... if you ignore that it hasn't shed the What Has Science Wrought world/story in its entirety. Which is pretty hard to ignore, particularly as the latter portion of the story brings to the forefront its 'moral choice' system of how you've been treating the Little Sisters.
So let's talk about Little Sisters and Big Daddies, because they're one of the better examples of how the two stories/worlds collide in a problematic way. A major part of Objectivism -a part of it that Andrew Ryan repeatedly and explicitly spells out to the player- is the notion that individual pursuit of selfish goals is a moral imperative that produces the greatest possible collective society. If we're all perfectly selfish, then everybody is better off, with people who engage in altruism and whatnot being not merely foolish suckers who deserve what they get (As is more typical for a cynical philosophy to assert) but in fact are actively undermining society as whole and thus are evil.
"But what does that have to do with the slave-caste mutant monsters," you might ask.
And I'd say that the slave-cast mutant monsters are fundamentally irreconcilable with the philosophy, that's how.
You can't insist everyone be a self-made (wo)man who never does anything for free or out of the goodness of their heart or anything of the sort and then turn around and expect an essential part of your society to be a bunch of slaves. You certainly can't do so while making the slaves involuntary, as is the case with all Little Sisters (If only in the sense that they wouldn't understand what they're signing up for, but really the evidence is nobody explains it to them in the first place) and some indeterminate portion of the Big Daddies. (It's suggested some of them are genuinely volunteers, but we also know they include criminals and other sorts who were converted precisely because the people in charge wanted to get rid of them)
Bioshock conspicuously dodges this obvious inconsistency, not even attempting to justify it. One rather gets the sense the writer(s) noticed the issue, and decided the best thing to do was to ignore it and hope nobody else noticed it.
The sad thing is, Big Daddies in particular actually could have been made to fit into the Objectivist philosophy by pulling a page from cyberpunk, which you'd think would be an easy leap to make given the Bioshock team had substantial overlap with the System Shock 2 team. It's quite normal in cyberpunk for people to selfishly pursue ever greater personal advantage with cybernetic augmentations, in the process becoming less and less human. Big Daddies could have been spun as essentially the same idea, and while the final result would still end up being a slave-caste it would be one Andrew Ryan could believably excuse to himself as internally consistent with his philosophy: these individuals did selfishly pursue their own gains, and it's not his fault that in the end becoming a stronger, better, tougher worker also made them increasingly less able to communicate and think independently.
Pulling back to the larger picture, a more pervasive issue is that Plasmids and Splicers and all the other biologically focused screwball elements of the first world don't fit to this second world. Bioshock is clearly shooting for a utopia-that's-actually-a-dystopia as an Ayn Rand Was Wrong illustration of what a society might look like if you successfully implemented Objectivism into a society, where the answer is: "A horrific mess." Plasmids distract from this, adding in magical superpowers and other complicating aspects: is the issue really that perfect pursuit of selfish desires leads to the collapse of society, or is it that superpowers changing the rules leads to the collapse of society?
Related to that is the straight-up performing retcons. I talked just earlier in this post about the spiral of self-modification and how this is why Splicers are all nuts and out to get you; early in the game, Andrew Ryan additionally promises a bounty of money to whoever kills you (Which, mind, is a nonsensical promise for several reasons but I have a point here), to further leverage these crazy people who obviously have no intent to listen to the apparently-legitimate governing body of their city. Later in the game, the plot awkwardly tacks on the notion that Andrew Ryan compromised his ideals by taking advantage of magic genetic nonsense that would make anyone obey him, which is clearly inconsistent with issuing a bounty on you (If they're mindslaves, he doesn't need to provide an incentive, and he should know that), and worse raises all kinds of other problems like 'so why is the city a collapsing hellhole littered with insane Splicers looting and destroying everything aimlessly?' It's pretty obvious that it's a late addition intended to justify hordes of ostensibly-Objectivist people throwing themselves at you to die even though that's contrary to the philosophy of never doing anything that isn't purely selfish.
It's unfortunately also very obvious that it doesn't work.
So that's the first, biggest problem with Bioshock 1: the game starts out aiming for one thing, then transitions to aiming for a completely different thing, but keeps in many of the elements of the first thing even though they actively interfere with the new thing.
It's far from the only problem, though.
It's far from the only problem, though.
Next time, we'll get to talking about the Objectivist aspect of the plot in a bit more isolation, as there's one very strange misstep even when you discount the above problems and imagine a version of Bioshock that was always constructed as an Objectivist dystopia story.