The ruined metropolitan city of Rapture in the game Bioshock (2007) is a microcosmic incarnation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. The first cut scene of the game introduces to the player the idea that Rapture was intended to be a haven for intellectual advancement free from moral constructs, but the player arrives after the city has fallen into disrepair. While navigating the ruined city, the player is presented with an array of monstrous former citizens, including splicers, deranged scientists, and Little Sisters. The Little Sisters present the player with the options of saving them for small gain or killing them for great gain. This moral quandary singlehandedly determines the narrative outcome of the game and has an impact on the ease with which the player moves through the game. When following the path where the player chooses to sacrifice morals for increased survival and ease of play, a causal relationship can be seen between the ideological structure of Rapture and the evolution of the main character. This relationship posits monstrosity as the logical conclusion of the unrestrained individualism and obsession with progress that the game derives from Rand’s Objectivism.
The player’s first 20 minutes of actual gameplay is a series of mandatory tasks that introduces your avatar, Jack, to the foundations of survival in Rapture. Jack is instructed to pick up a wrench upon exit of the bathysphere; this is Jack’s first weapon of the game, and he immediately uses it to brutally protect himself from an attacker. Jack’s second weapon of the game involves a cut scene and another instance of the lack of choice on the part of the player – the first injection of ADAM. The administration of the ADAM alters Jack’s DNA, allowing him to use plasmids but making him susceptible to the mental and physical deterioration that is seen in the splicers of the same cut scene. Joseph Packer’s article The Battle for Galt’s Gulch: Bioshock as Critique of Objectivism includes a line that re-emphasizes the irony in this aspect of the game: “…To succeed in an Objectivist world she or he needs to behave like the Objectivists in the game.” (2010) The journal engages Bioshock as a direct critique of Rand’s philosophy, highlighting the ways that the game demonizes the ideology. In line with this critique, it refers to the enemies and major characters as Objectivists and considers Rapture as a proxy for Galt’s Gulch, the haven city in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Like is said in the journal, the game cannot be completed without some use of the violent plasmids, and rejection of plasmid use significantly increases the difficulty of gameplay. Engaging violently with the splicers is not optional for Jack, as he will die otherwise.
While violence is not one of the tenets of Objectivism, it’s framed as one of the key consequences of the social structure of Objectivism-based Rapture. The plasmids make their users mentally unstable and prone to violence, and their desire for more ADAM demands that they attack more people, continuously pushing the threshold of violence further in order to meet their ends. The same evolution happens for the player. In order to keep himself alive, Jack has to engage in more violence, more body alteration, and more corpse looting. Use of plasmids isn’t just necessary; it’s highly encouraged by Atlas and the game environment. Packer says that “Bioshock makes the argument that the violent Objectivists need not represent morally depraved individuals at root, but rather have succumbed to the necessities of the environment they have created, just as the player must in order to succeed in the game.” (2010) The removal of moral and social hindrances – one of the fixture points of Rand’s ideology – is what created the current Rapture, and Jack’s participation with the ideology and the city’s ecosystem is necessary for narrative movement (which Packer refers to as “procedural rhetoric”) and game survival. The mechanics of the game submerge Jack into the survival politics of Rapture in a way that makes the path to becoming physically abominable an easy one to follow.
Several of the key characters in Bioshock’s story leave behind audio diaries that Jack encounters on his crawl through the city. The diaries for Dr. Steinman in particular give insight into how Rapture’s structure spurred him into becoming the gruesome surgeon that serves as Jack’s first non-Big Daddy boss fight. One of the diaries that give an indication of Steinman’s development goes as follows:
ADAM presents new problems for the professional. As your tools improve, so do your standards. There was a time, I was happy enough to take off a wart or two, or turn a real circus freak into something you can show in the daylight. But that was then, when we took what we got, but with ADAM… the flesh becomes clay. What excuse do we have not to sculpt, and sculpt, and sculpt, until the job is done?
After being brought to Rapture by Andrew Ryan and being given free reign, Steinman spirals out of control. The only limits on his work were technology and ethics, and Ryan removed those two inhibitions through his structuring of Rapture and the provision of ADAM. When Jack encounters Steinman, he’s brutalizing corpses in an attempt to create the “perfect” woman. The player gets the sense from another audio diary that the women weren’t always willing, and that they were victims more than they were patients. The lack of moral, social, and legal restrictions on Steinman’s practice allowed his behaviors to continue to escalate in extremism and depravity. ADAM gave Steinman the tools to do whatever he wanted with people, and the only restrictions became his imagination – even the wills and objections of his patients ceased to be an obstacle, as there was no indication that Steinman was ever punished or impugned for his surgical practices. While it’s impossible to say if this capacity for monstrosity was intrinsic to Steinman, the reaction he has to his environment and resources continues to feed into the idea that Objectivism is the direct facilitator of his behavior. His monstrous behaviors were a direct consequence of his search for perfection through surgery and the mental instability supplied by his use of ADAM, and the depth of his depravity matched the level of physical mutilation seen in his “patients”.
Plasmid use and brutish methods of survival aside, the only aspect of the game that can impact its procedural rhetoric comes in the form of the Little Sisters. The Little Sisters are one of the chief objectives of the game, and the girls as well as their Big Daddies must be dealt with before Jack can move on from each level. The Little Sisters are the result of a shortage of ADAM in Rapture, and the scientist Brigid Tenenbaum is the one responsible for their existence. Keeping in line with Steinman, Ryan, and almost every other character in the game, Tenenbaum came to Rapture to be free from society’s governance and flourished in the amoral environment. She’s present when Jack makes his decision on how to handle the first Little Sister: does he harvest her for her ADAM, killing her in the process and earning Tenenbaum’s ire, or does he save the little girl, returning her to normal and getting a small amount of ADAM and a gift from Tenenbaum? Packer points out in his article that there are no in-game consequences for choosing the route of killing the Little Sister; the only effect is seen in Tenenbaum’s treatment of Jack and the ending of the game. This is another point where game mechanics factor into the decisions of the player. If playing on easy mode, saving the Little Sisters doesn’t end up being a very large detriment. There’s plenty of ammunition, first aid, and money available to the player, so dependency on plasmids is diminished. The game can be won without the large reserves of ADAM that killing the Little Sisters yields. On the hardest difficulty, however, there are more enemies, more obstacles, and fewer free resources available to the player.
Playing on the hardest difficulty places even more strain on the player than is already built into the game. When this method of game play is being used, the question of dealing with the Little Sisters becomes loaded with more than just the morality of the player outside of the game. The ADAM yield of the Little Sisters becomes more of a necessity for Jack on hard mode, and the rejection of the moral imperative to do good becomes a rule of thumb if the player wants to proceed with anything resembling ease. Here we see the Objectivist environment of Rapture and Bioshock’s game mechanics influencing Jack’s behaviors again, ensuring that he places his individualistic need for survival over the lives of the group and over the preservation of his human body. In the positive ending of the game, one where Jack has rescued the large majority of the Little Sisters, they all escape Rapture together and live full lives. Tenenbaum narrates all of the different epilogues, and in the negative ending, she describes a path of development in Jack that reflects his behavior towards the Little Sisters. He progresses along the same vein as Fontaine, violently seeking power and taking control of Rapture after all of the existing players are killed. Jack takes all of the ADAM and goes to the surface, assumedly becoming a physically monstrous megalomaniac like Fontaine after he secures access to all of the body-altering resources in Rapture. Jack and an army of splicers attack the surface world, gaining access to a nuclear warhead and, as Tenenbaum implies, releasing chaos and destruction onto the rest of the world.
Packer’s article makes the claim that “Objectivism is not problematic because of particular individuals, but because it creates a perverse set of standards that encourages evil behaviour” (2010). While the article focuses mainly on Bioshock’s method of delivering its critique on Objectivism, the idea presented in this line reflects the sentiment behind Jack’s character development. The Objectivist ideology of Andrew Ryan and the unstable science behind the plasmids make Rapture the perfect breeding ground for monstrous behaviors and literal monstrosity in the physical forms that these people adopt. The violence necessary to survive in a system of an Objectivist design would inspire further violence and moral degradation as endurance became more difficult, and the presence of survival aids like ADAM and plasmids make the human bodies of the people attempting to survive devolve into the horrific at the same pace as their psyches. When Rand’s vision in Atlas Shrugged is realized, the shakers and movers in the system will seek progress at no expense, not even the sanctity of the human body and mind. Their methods spiral into the horror that is seen in Bioshock and it’s deformed, bloodthirsty inhabitants. Without the establishment of moral parameters in a society full of limitless potential, the denizens of the game resorted to whatever means necessary to accomplish their visions, even sacrificing their humanity, their bodies, and the city of Rapture itself to push themselves over to the next threshold of brutish strength and supernatural power.
- Bioshock. 2k Games. 2007. Video Game.
2. Packer, Joseph. “The Battle for Galt’s Gulch: Bioshock as Critique of Objectivism.” Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 2.3 (2010): 209-24. Web