Bioshock: Getting Choosy with Ayn Rand

So I’m a big fan of the Bioshock games. If you’re familiar with the first game, you’ll probably know about the big twist: you’re running around, doing missions for a voice on the radio, and then it’s revealed that you’re being coerced into these actions with a special phrase that compels you to obey – the infamous ‘Would you kindly’. The classic interpretation is metafictional: as a player, you’re compelled to ‘obey’ the game in order to progress in the same way that the protagonist is compelled to obey. According to that interpretation, the game gets worse after the revelation, because you have to keep obeying – your character is supposedly ‘freed’ from the obligation to obey, but you as a player have to keep plodding away and doing what you’re told. I’d like to offer a second interpretation, drawing on Ayn Rand.

So the game deals quite heavily with Randian philosophy. The main antagonist is a dude called Andrew Ryan (named after Ayn Rand), who built a city under the sea to get away from Washington and Moscow and the church and all these different institutional authorities which, from his perspective, limit people by obliging them to live in bondage to everybody else. Taxes are slavery, etc, people wouldn’t need social welfare if they just fucking pulled their socks up and earned a living. Rand called this ‘rational self-interest’, which is basically a Fuck You to altruism or any other form of socially-minded living. Rapture embodies Rand’s philosophy to the extent that it’s radically individualistic – you don’t owe anybody anything, and the only function of government should be to allow people to go around acting entirely in their own self-interest. It’s an abhorrent little system, but there you go – that’s Ayn Rand.

We already know there are other moments of Randian philosophy introduced into the gameplay – for example, the ‘Little Sisters’. There’s these little girls wandering around Rapture collecting drugs out of dead people (man, it sounds really bad when you say it that way). There’s a gameplay choice regarding them – you can either suck the life out of them, killing them, but getting a buttload of magic power juice, or you can release them from their evil demon form and you don’t get anything immediately. However, if you save enough of them, they’ll turn up eventually with a little present for you – so there’s some benefit.

You can see how this situation is built within the context of Randian self-interest. Rationally, the correct thing to do is to harvest all the little children and leave their dessicated corpses strewn along the way. It just makes strategic sense within the game. Even with the added gift bonuses, you still get more magic power juice if you kill all the Little Sisters. It’s designed to highlight the flaws in Rand’s system – sure, in terms of rational self-interest, it makes more sense to kill them – but also it’s monstrous and what the fuck.

Let’s return to the ‘Would you kindly’ moment. I agree that it’s a metafictional gesture, but my argument here is that it only makes sense in the context of Randian philosophy. If you apply Rand’s philosophy to game design, you can see that it doesn’t make sense. You don’t get to be radically individualistic – there’s a game, and it’s got rules, and you’re bound by those rules. You can’t just do things the way you want – you have to play within the system that’s been created by somebody else. When you actually go to kill Andrew Ryan, you don’t get to kill him yourself – control is taken away from you in that moment, and you’re put into a cutscene. You kill him in that cutscene. Again, you have no choice in the matter.

Before he dies, Ryan (who’s basically a stand-in for Ayn Rand) tells you that you’re a slave, because you don’t make choices. He’s not wrong, but that’s sort of the point of video games – it’s not really your choice. The protagonist might be ‘freed’ from the ‘Would you Kindly’ compulsion, but you’re not freed as a player, because you’re playing a game, and this is how they work. I said at the start that the classic reading of Bioshock is ‘You were compelled, but you’re not any more’. People criticise it based on that reading, because if that was a legitimate reading the game would be stupid. What I’m suggesting is that the game is more saying ‘You’re compelled always, because this is how video games function, and that’s why Ayn Rand’s philosophy doesn’t work here, and that’s why Rapture is a mess’. It’s more about her than it is about you.

Probably the moment of most choice in the game is the decision over how to treat the Little Sisters. You can act ‘rationally’, and murder them for their magic power juice, or you can act ethically, and save them (to your own disadvantage). This is interesting, because it suggests that the greatest choice we do have in a game is over the ethics of our actions. We have to act within the bounds of the system, but we don’t have to act according to the most ludically advantageous strategy. That is, when the gameplay is set up so that an immoral act (murdering little children) is strategically advantageous, we can go beyond the scope of the strict game mechanics and say “No, fuck you, I’m not murdering that little girl because that’s fucked up.” We play the game, but we’re not bound to the game. Andrew Ryan is both correct and incorrect: we choose, and we do not choose.

As a quick coda, this is the interesting difference with something like Thomas Was Alone, which I’ve written about before. I won’t give any background – you can read the other article, if you like – but basically the complaint levelled against this sort of puzzle game is that while it does have a really interesting way of developing character, the puzzle-aspect makes it sort of like a strategic straitjacket. It doesn’t allow for the sort of counterbalance of strategy and ethics that you find in something like Bioshock. Some theorists argue that games like Thomas Was Alone don’t allow for ‘play’, defining play as the freedom and latitude that characterises games like Bioshock. It’s an interesting debate.

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