Game review: "Bioshock", by 2K Games

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Bioshock is a first-person shooter game, released in 2007.

The plot follows plane crash survivor Jack, as he enters and explores the underwater city of Rapture, the goal being survival and finding a way out of the city. The game looks and feels like a morality-based Doom, of sorts, but the story has surprising and fascinating connections which are not obvious at first sight.

Briefly, here's the plot background:

In 1946, business magnate Andrew Ryan creates Rapture, an underwater city on the Atlantic seabed. The ultimate libertarian, Ryan despises any form of government control - Rapture is a place for those who want to live free and be subjects to no political or religious authority.

"I am Andrew Ryan and I am here to ask you a question:
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?

No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor.
No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God.
No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone.

I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something
different. I chose the impossible. I chose...

Ryan intends Rapture to be a vehicle to a terrestrial (actually, submarine) Eden, another incarnation of Utopia with a slight Ayn Rand-esque flavor, hoping to cure all problems of the human society through radical social engineering and isolation from the rest of humanity which is seen as corrupt and irredeemable. The initial population was what Ryan deemed the best of mankind, and Rapture manages to number a few thousand inhabitants in the 1950s.
At that point, research led by Dr. Bridgette Tennenbaum produces ADAM - stem cells created from a species of sea slug. ADAM is a universal cure, really a highly sophisticated genetic engineering tool, that does everything from curing male pattern baldness to awakening supernormal powers such as telekinesis. Some of the powers activated by ADAM require an enhancing serum called EVE. In order to increase the production of ADAM, research creates the "Little Sisters" - little girls, each with a slug embedded in their body.

Rapture grows and is prosperous for a number of years. Andrew Ryan passes a single law - any contact with the surface is prohibited. And this is the beginning of the end. The prohibition produces a profitable black market, which is soon controlled by Frank Fontaine, a former mobster. Fontaine wants control, and challenges Ryan. Apparently, Fontaine dies and Ryan is the prime suspect. Another man, Atlas, takes Fontaine's place as the leader of the opposition. During the civil war that ensues, Ryan abandons his ideals and uses torture and mind control to crush the opposition.
At this point, the Little Sisters are mentally conditioned to extract ADAM from the dead, and are given protectors, the "Big Daddies" - highly enhanced and heavily armored fighters who defend the Little Sisters as they do their work.

And this is, some time during the 1960s, when a plane crashes into the Atlantic, and survivor Jack enters Rapture. The city is almost void of normal human beings - "splicers" (ADAM junkies with their brains fried by abuse) roam everywhere, occasionally meeting the dreadful Little Sister / Big Daddy pairs who kill pretty much everyone in sight. To survive, Jack has to trust a man named Atlas who guides him via radio through the city, avoid or fight the Little Sisters and the heavy weapons of their companions, and get involved in the final phase of the civil war in Rapture.

The atmosphere is dark, very similar to games such as the Doom series, but without the mark of "evil" - Rapture's signature is more one of decay and insanity. The city is thoroughly destroyed, with vital support systems barely functioning. Rapture is no vehicle to Eden, it's more like Hell on Earth. And this is where and why I become less than comfortable with the plot.

The metaphysical overtones of the story are obvious. In the Christian eschatology, the Rapture is a series of events at the end of time when Jesus Christ descends from Heaven, accompanied by the spirits of all the saints, and all Christians (or, all worthy Christians) on Earth are transported to meet the Lord, transformed into immortal bodies like Jesus'. So, in other words, it is a vehicle for a select few to ascend from a normal state to an exalted one - this choice of a name in the context of Andrew Ryan's utopian (and, ultimately, dystopian) project has a very obvious meaning. Rapture's citizens are the "chosen ones" who will leave behind the imperfect state of humanity - even a sort of immortality can be envisaged through the promises of genetic engineering and scientific progress.

Except - it fails, miserably. And this is precisely the point which I thoroughly disagree with.

After all, Bioshock is just one more story in a very long line of failed Utopias. Gilgamesh sets out to obtain the secret of immortality, and fails, and is actually reprimanded and ridiculed "because fighting the fate of humans is futile and ruins the joy in life". Prometheus steals the secret of fire, and is tied to a rock and tortured by a bird of prey for all of eternity.

In modern times, Darren Aronofski's The Fountain is one of the deepest, most meaningful and complex and moving example of the same myth, the quest for immortality, the quest for surpassing the miserable limitations of the current human blueprint - and where's the immortality? Where is the illimited life of this particular body, not the metaphorical immortality as a mythical Tree of Life?

Even Star Trek, supposed to be the paramount of philosophical optimism and trust in the boundless expansion and progress of humanity towards the outer space in the cosmos and towards the inner space of knowledge and discovery, even Star Trek seems to wallow in some sort of muddy humanism and rejects the notion of radical evolution - I wrote about that before on this blog, see here.

But those are humanity's old dreams - or, rather, nightmares. The times are changing, and so are our dreams. Today, for the first time in all of history, we dream that we can, in fact, win the game. We dream that a little boy from a distant planet is invested with superhuman powers once transported to Earth - and, when he grows up to be a man, he's more than that, he's a super-man. We dream that people can fly, we dream that the old blueprint is being changed and new versions are being benchmarked - people who can heal their wounds very fast, or who can read minds, or who can manipulate magnetic fields, or manipulate the weather - do those myths sound familiar? We dream that we have power over shadows and break through the illusion and see the Reality, and there's no need for our prophets to die anymore, either on a cross or in a cataclysmic conflict with the Machines - which is why the first movie in the Matrix trilogy was a huge success, while the third one not so much.

The times are changing, and so are our dreams. Only "Bioshock" seems to cling to the old dark nightmares. Maybe it takes time to wake up, or at least to switch from one metaphor to another. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the gameplay, I was amazed by the realistic water effects, I smiled with appreciation to the complexity of metaphysical references in the game, but I thoroughly disagreed with the premise. Clever game, but a disappointment on a higher level.

Till next time...