Choice in Bioshock

Warning: There are significant spoilers ahead. Now, you should totally read this article, so rather than telling you not to read it if you want to play Bioshock and haven’t yet, I’ll tell you to come back and read it when you’re done. Because, you know, that’s the point of throwing words down at a page like this.

Bioshock is a rather unique, first person “shooter” with some RPG elements (namely, an enthralling narrative, and a unique protagonist) which throws you into an underwater city full of hints towards the philosophies of Ayn Rand. I could talk all day and night about this game, but nobody would read it, so I’m going to look at how the game forces the player to question what it means to have free will. You see, all throughout the game, the player is presented with a slew of “decisions” which must be made in order to progress. Yet, after a certain point, you find that the man who has been aiding you over the intercom all along was, in fact, leading you along as part of his own evil plan. In fact, you are genetically engineered, and programmed to respond to the key words “Would you kindly…” with such powerful impetus that you cannot refuse commands featuring this combination of words in this order. Throughout the entire game, he (Atlas, that is), subtly exploits this fact, such that on your first play-through you likely don’t notice what has been happening until the game reveals it to you during what you thought was going to be an epic boss fight, but what is, in fact, a prolonged cut scene in which you beat a man to death with a golf club while he repeats the words: “A man chooses… a slave obeys.” Eventually you break free of this code and go off to kill the Big Bad, with the other choices you have made during the game determining the ending you receive.

Inside of all of this grim and dark storytelling rests a deep ethical and philosophical issue: what does it mean to be truly free? In a very real sense, the game gets the player thinking about this issue within its own context. But I would wager that I was not the only one who began musing on this outside of the context of the game, in a sort of meta-philosophical thought train. I’ll explain what I mean: as players, are we free? Do we really make the choices we want to in a game? Well, no, no matter how procedurally generated the content or how complex the player interactions, there are always limits to the things we can do, even with modding. Let’s bump it up another level. At what point are we really free, as players? I mean here, that at any point we could get up and stop playing the game. We have that power, yet, we don’t. We choose to continue playing, for however long. Yet within the scope of the game, we are limited, and within the scope of a particular character we are often all but put on rails. So how is it, then, that games are seen as a form of escapism, when they so blatantly limit our freedom? Sure, you can do outlandish things in a game and be someone you never could outside of it. But that person will be severely limited compared to you. The same is true of literature, and music, and television.

So, you see, games like Bioshock can provide us with difficult questions, without giving us answers. They force us to dig, and to create our own deeper understanding of the games we play and the world in which we play them. I can only hope that this becomes a trend in game design.

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