Bioshock and Moral Narrative in Games (Part 2 of 2)
Leap forward a year or more after my brief encounter with Bioshock. I can’t remember exactly how much time passed, but by this point Bioshock 2 had been released as a free download on the PS3 for people with a Playstation “Plus” account. It had been long enough since I’d finished the original Bioshock demo that I didn’t remember whatever spoilers I might’ve read in the meantime. What I did remember was a constant, panicky “help! help!” sensation. I remembered loving the environment and wanting very much to experience the whole story, but I also remembered resenting the fact that I’d have to slog through hours of pointless, carbon-copy shoot-’em-ups to do so.
Please be advised that this post contains descriptions of scenes from “M”-rated games, and so it includes what some might consider to be graphic depictions of cruelty and violence.
Also, while I avoid discussing details of the games’ endings, I freely discuss various other aspects of Bioshock, Bioshock 2, and—oddly enough—Shadow of the Colossus. Some of this material falls well into spoiler territory. You’ve been warned.
I was taking a rare break from work, though, and desperately needed something to draw my thoughts and attention away from my habitual, daily grind. My need for diversion and a strong, lingering curiosity about the undersea dystopia of Rapture won out. I downloaded the game and dove in.
Like its predecessor, Bioshock 2 kicks things off with brutal violence and disturbing images. This time around, you play the part of a ‘big daddy”, one of the hulking figures in diving suits that protect the strange and macabre little sisters. In the first few minutes of the opening cut scene, you watch as your avatar fends off a gang of splicers, one of whom you kill using an enormous drill, plowing it through his chest. Shortly after, you are forced, under the effects of some kind of hypnotic gas, to kneel and shoot yourself in the head while the little girl you’ve been protecting—the one who has been calling you “Daddy”—watches on in wide-eyed horror.
Never mind that this same little girl was chugging blood from a syringe just a few minutes earlier. Beneath my feelings of revulsion, I had a sense that she was entirely unaware of just how ghoulish she looked and behaved (this is confirmed much later in the game). She was just a kid, albeit a kid with disturbing dietary habits and a distinctly unsettling idea of “fun”.
Those first, nascent feelings of compassion took root at the end of the intro when I saw the look of mixed confusion, disbelief, and terror on her face and heard her cry out as I was chemically cajoled into killing myself. Gruesome appetites aside, she was a child, and she just watched her “Daddy” commit suicide.
Your avatar wakes up ten years later, still lying in the same spot where he fell, and the game passes control to you. At that point, I was more or less hooked. On top of my lingering curiosity about Rapture and its story, I had other mysteries to solve: Who was the woman who forced me to kill myself? Why did she do it? How, after killing myself, did I suddenly “wake up” ten years later?
There was also something deeper than these questions: a sense of gross injustice to be righted, or at least resolved somehow.
Again, this isn’t unique to Bioshock, not in the least. How many other games try to compel their protagonists forward under the guise of fighting injustice, righting wrongs? Bioshock’s key distinction here is excellence in execution. The story isn’t some schlocky, mix-and-match patchwork of tired memes: “Avenge the (abuse | murder | imprisonment) of your dearly beloved (mother | father | buddy | girlfriend) at the hands of (your old partner | a past lover | your boss | some random, interdimensional schmuck)!” The stories in Bioshock games provoke mixed emotions, and they ultimately grab you.
But Bioshock is also flawed. However deep and interesting the story might have been, it wasn’t always easy to see beneath the thick rouge and smeared lipstick of absurd and excessive violence. The next two or three chapters were standard FPS fare, and I started asking myself again whether I really wanted to slog through hours of forced combat just to get to the end of a story. Wouldn’t it be easier and faster to hit the internet, read the synopsis, and save myself the pointless effort? Maybe find some better way to spend my precious downtime?
I’m glad I kept playing.
Around chapter three, I met a little sister and her big daddy as they roamed the city together, except now there was no wall separating us, and this time the voice on the intercom (a different character in Bioshock 2) didn’t hesitate or stutter as he told me to kill the big daddy.
During the fight, the little sister stayed on the sidelines, cheering her champion on. Then, when the battle was over and her guardian was groaning his last, she stood next to his body and cried.
The acting and animation were as stiff and mechanical as any game I’ve played, hardly an Oscar-worthy performance, but I still felt it: I wondered, had I done the right thing? Did I really have to proceed like this? Had I even bothered to look for some other way?
It was an odd feeling. The closest experience I could recall was the doubt I felt while playing Shadow of the Colossus. The singular objective in that game is to find each colossus, one after another, and destroy them. Yet when each giant fell and the same, sad music played, I couldn’t help but feel I had destroyed something ancient and unique. I was caught up between the game and the story, pinned between the compulsion to find the ending on one side and nagging suspicions about the protagonist’s methods and motives on the other.
Shadow’s story was interesting in itself, but games tell stories like no other medium: If I wanted to reach the end, I would have to do more than turn the page. I would have to command the protagonist, compel him to swing the sword—or pull the trigger, as the case may be.
Involving the audience to this degree, requiring their deep, active participation in the telling of stories—and morally complicated stories in particular—raises many questions, and more than a few concerns. I can see at least two ways to view things:
- On the one hand, you could say that actions taken in games bear some degree of parity with actions in the physical world. In playing a violent game, you might not be killing a real person, but you are acting it out. To some people, that feels wrong, and understandably so.
- Or, you might consider that by borrowing the will of the player, by requiring their active participation in moving a story forward, games have the potential to convey the true weight and depth of actions and their consequences—moral, ethical, philosophical, spiritual, and otherwise. Doing so doesn’t require any kind of complicated, nonlinear story. If the choice at hand is meaningful, asking the audience to push a button will have a gravity and significance all its own.
This isn’t to say that all games are good, or that every story told in games has anything to say that is meaningful, worthwhile, relevant, or even interesting. By my experience, most do not. But the potential is there.
Which brings me to the main reason I played all the way through Bioshock 2, and then the original Bioshock shortly after.
Having murdered the little girl’s protector, I walked up to where she stood crying. A jarringly short moment later her tears were gone. She looked up at me, smiled, and called me “Daddy”. I hoisted her onto my shoulder and we set off together.
This pattern repeated itself throughout the game. In each case, the next order of business after defeating a big daddy would be to escort the little sister around the level. Omitting the gory details, the objective was to help her find “angels” (that is, corpses) so she could extract their “adam” using her oversized syringe. Splicers are hopelessly addicted to adam, so this operation naturally attracted them in frantic, gibbering hordes.
The key to keeping the little sisters safe while they went to work was to check all the possible entrances and set up a defense perimeter consisting of various traps. It was an interesting element of the game. For me, at least, putting the player in the role of protector this way was a brilliant set-up for what invariably followed.
After the first little sister finished her work, the game prompted me to take her to one of the many vents found throughout Rapture. These vents (or “hidey holes” as the girls called them) led to tunnels in the walls that provided the little sisters safe passage throughout the city, concealing their presence from the violent, adam-addicted splicers and anyone else who might be inclined to abuse them. I approached the vent opening and was presented with a simple, unambiguous choice: Harvest the girl, or rescue her.
- “Harvesting” meant the forcible removal of a rare sea slug implanted in the girl’s stomach. I would receive a large quantity of adam, a scarce and valuable resource that would help me on my way. The girl would die slowly.
- “Rescuing” meant applying a cure of sorts. The girl would live and would return to normal, at least in part. Doing so would destroy most of the adam she had collected. There was no other material benefit to me.
This decision was a Rubicon moment. Nothing I had encountered in this game or any other had forced me to choose so irrevocably who the protagonist would be, or how I would approach the game’s overall experience. Had I tried to dismiss this choice as meaningless or trivial solely on the basis that it was “just a game”, I would’ve been lying to myself. The game is just a package; the ideas are the thing, and ideas matter.
I knew without hesitation what I would choose. I don’t remember ever being quite so careful, so intentional in making an in-game selection. I checked and re-checked the options to make sure I pressed the correct button: “Rescue”.
That simple choice lit a neurological fuse to my psyche. As the synaptic sparks reached the payload, something deep in my subconscious lit up like a magnesium flare and screamed, “Go! Find the next one, save her!”
Now I simply could not leave the game alone. I was already engrossed in the one story, but now there were several different stories that could be told. I knew exactly which version I wanted to tell, and I wanted very much to tell it, to make it happen.
I was thrilled to find that Bioshock doesn’t just offer you this choice, it respects your response. The story accommodates you, and its world becomes, even if only in small, simple ways, what you make of it.
I can’t say much more without stepping into heavy spoiler territory, but it was ultimately this dimension of the game that compelled me to finish Bioshock 2 and then, quickly as I could, to play through the original Bioshock. It’s what made each ending so deeply satisfying.
So in the end, Bioshock is an interesting story, well-told, and with a key distinction: it makes excellent use of its medium.
You could probably tell the story of Rapture another way, such as a novel or a film, but it would be fundamentally altered. It would lose something vital. Games are among the first means by which stories can be told particularly well in the 2nd person (or something like it). Bioshock lets you speak through the game. Even if the narrative is linear at large scales, you can influence it’s details, nudge it this way and that. The number of possible endings in Bioshock is finite and very limited, but each is well-written and directly connected to your choices and actions.
But what about the violence? What does it say when something meant to entertain can make a person ignore revulsion and look past what offends them over and over again?
There’s a voice in my head, a nagging voice, that warns me about “desensitization” and “moral compromise”. “Why do you play that if it’s so horrible?” The voice implies that in playing these games I’m eating away at my moral foundation, degenerating, somehow becoming a “bad person” by small degrees.
Is that a real possibility? After all, that same voice is echoed by multitudes and the media whenever senseless, violent tragedy strikes and the instigator is deemed to be a “gamer”.
When disturbed individuals lash out and innocents are injured or worse, any games the perpetrator might have played are put to blame. But were these games cause or effect?
The people who commit these crimes often leave behind evidence of their decline: journals, drawings, recordings. People generally understand that these things are effect. They did not cause the person’s mental instability; rather, they’re a sign of its presence. This idea is readily understood simply because all these things are created, not consumed.
It’s not as easy to see that the music they listened to and, yes, the games they played, were just as much an outward expression of internal misery, hatred, and despair. Put another way, it does not seem to me that they did terrible things because they played violent games, but that they played these games to express the terrible things inside them. From the outside, you can’t tell what’s really happening until consistent patterns emerge. Too often those patterns are ignored or seen too late.
I can’t help but think that my nagging, internal voice speaks nonsense. Video games, like every creative medium before them, can only present a context. The audience alone chooses what to do with it. In that way, games can be powerful, effective instruments of individual expression: aesthetic, social, ludic, and—as in the case of Bioshock—moral.
But if you’re making a vehicle for individual moral expression, you have to accommodate and depict a full range of moral options. That includes the dark ones, choices some would find distasteful or repugnant. The world in which those choices exist is likely to be grim, dark, bleak, and, very often, violent. Omit this, and you sacrifice the story, its meaning, and its relevance.
Ironically, most so-called “Christian” games I’ve seen look like boring schlock precisely because they fail in this respect. The player so often has no choice but to be good. “This game is safe,” they seem to say. “You can only do good, nice things here.” Maybe bad things can happen to you, but you’re always striving for the good. If you don’t, gameplay becomes pointless and you can’t proceed.
But morals without choice aren’t really morals, are they?
Quoting Andrew Ryan (or is it Ayn Rand?):
“A man chooses. A slave obeys.”
Like most people, there are limits on what I’ll expose myself to, and those limits usually lie pretty close to the “tame” side of things. I make no apologies for that. It pays to be careful. In games, as in other media, there will always be those who try to push limits not because it makes for better results, but because they see intrinsic value in the pushing. They see any resetting of boundaries as “progress”.
Bioshock is not that game, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. I have to admit, I’d like it even more if it opened up other paths, allowed me to project myself into the game with greater fidelity. In many scenes it seems like it’s trying so hard to be shocking or offensive. But Bioshock’s core is honest. It has integrity. Save the girls, or don’t. The choice and its consequences are truly up to you.