Bioshock: A Cautionary Story of Illusions and Choices



Bioshock has always been one of those series that I’ve always heard great things about, but for some reason I never felt compelled to play it (though in my defense my student loans and wallet also played a large role in this). To my surprise I was gifted with The Bioshock Collection so I was able to finish the first game recently. It’s difficult to sum up my opinion, but I think saying that I feel a little horrified at the thought of never getting a chance to play it should suffice.


Bioshock is hands-down the most ambitious first-person shooter game I’ve played, and in general, it’s one of the rare games in that make you genuinely question things. It’s a wonderful example I would use in explaining how video games can be powerful vehicles for learning. As someone that loves questioning the status quo and trying to unravel mysteries, this game was a natural fit for me.




Bioshock’s retro underwater city is well-detailed and incredibly impressive, from the sound to its visuals, and I really like how the game uses the environment as a way of enhancing the story and setting the tone. For example, I never thought the song, ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window,’ could be so ominous prior to playing this game. It’s been 10 years since it came out but you can clearly see the influence it has had on gaming. It’s a testament to its ingenuity that it’s even more progressive than a lot of games released in the past few years when it comes to plot, characterization, diversity and gameplay.




As you will see with my future musings here, it’s often the meaning behind the story and how a game impacts me that truly get me thinking and give me the urge to write. Sure I could wax poetic about the satisfying and very fun style of gameplay that lets players switch between hacking, using some pretty nifty gadgets (hello napalm!) and amazing powers (I have a soft spot for insect swarm). I could also go on about the diversity of characters and how well they are developed, from the incredibly intelligent, mustard-stained Dr. Tenenbaum (a refreshingly progressive female character that still breaks the mold compared to more recent games) to the charismatic/smart-alec Atlas and his chilling, cruel counterpart Fontaine.


Instead, I wanted to touch upon some big ethical political, science and economical issues that the game makes you think about. One thing I especially enjoyed was seeing science as a big source of power and influence in the Bioshock universe. Often times when there is corruption in a story, science is usually not one of the culprits. But in Bioshock I liked that it recognized that things like genetics, psychiatry and medicine are powerful tools that can corrupt and influence society and I like that science is incorporated into the backbone of the story.




Abuse/Misuse of Power

As you progress through the game, it becomes a funny irony to see propaganda strewn around in Rapture with sayings like “No Gods or Kings, Only Man” and “Man Creates, A Parasite Asks Where Is My Share” when you can see powerful characters have become consumed by their creations. Ryan spouts ideals about the individual and achievement free from constraints like regulations, government and religion but for example, ADAM, which he never wanted regulated, ends up contributing to his and Rapture’s downfall. Many characters in a sense end up destroyed by what they create or are consumed by their work which is free of such “constraints” which end up acting like parasites. And in order to create such things, one acts like a God or King.

Dr. Steinman was once a highly respected surgeon that pioneered plastic surgery techniques. He was driven mad by ADAM consumption and his obsession for beauty, and crossed the line of the “do no harm” part of the physician oath. He fell in love with his work, devoting himself to it, and started seeing hallucinations of Aphrodite while he mutilated willing (and later unwilling) patients in striving to achieve physical perfection but he was never satisfied.

Dr. Suchong worked extensively on the Little Sister and Big Daddy project, Fontaine’s project (aka your character Jack’s development) and plasmid research. In his recordings he referred to himself in the third person and saw himself as a God. His demise was ironically being drilled to death by a Big Daddy after he hit a Little Sister that had been annoying him. He finally was able to establish a bond between Sisters and Daddies though.



Dr. Tenenbaum is an exception to the rule though. Prior to Rapture, as a concentration camp prisoner she provided much assistance with Nazi human experimentation and was praised for it, though she didn’t find meaning in it. In Rapture, she became revered and powerful for her creation of ADAM, and along with Suchong, contributed significantly to the Little Sister/Big Daddy project and Jack’s development. She later realized ADAM had negative and addictive consequences but didn’t seem to mind Fontaine exploiting this. However, unlike most of the ‘Rapture’s Best and Brightest,’ she became horrified and hated herself for her work on the Little Sisters, whom she noticed still acted like little girls. She became a recluse, leaving her comfy, cushy apartment and influential scientist position and decided to devote herself to saving the little girls that she had experimented on. She also helps save your life too.  



One of the most fascinating things to me is seeing the parallels between Atlas/Fontaine and Andrew Ryan and the ulterior motives of higher-ups. As you start the game in this unsettling city, the smooth talking, charismatic Atlas is your only ally. Though he does have a family he wants you to help save, he’s still supportive, giving you vital tidbits to help you navigate Rapture and even some comforting words along the way. That’s why it’s horrifying later on when you realize this is just a front to his true persona, the power-hungry, cruel Fontaine who has been enslaving you the whole time you’ve been thinking he’s been helping you. And he’s been gaining power and the trust of Rapture’s citizens by preying on their addiction to ADAM and enslaving them. In your specific case, with his charismatic persona and polite ‘Would You Kindlys’ he’s been creating this illusion of self-control the whole time as you do his bidding. He created you for his own selfish, evil reasons.

Ryan on the other hand, compared to Atlas, is more distant and cold, looking down and watching you from his expensive ivory tower apartment as he does everything he can to impede you. Sure, he does and approves of things that are not good, becoming “King” of Rapture in a sense also on the backs of the city’s citizens, but at least he was always honest about his ideology which he believed in and felt was right. Everything he did was for Rapture’s good. Fontaine on the other hand was a manipulator, opening schools and homes for the poor, but his ulterior motive was personal greed. 



Whether it was a coincidence or not though, I enjoyed the idea of having some degree of free will when it came to certain decisions, such as harvesting or rescuing the little sisters. Sure, one could argue it’s simply a matter of player preference to have an immediate ADAM advantage by harvesting versus some big ethical dilemma. After all it’s just a few girls who have ADAM which will help you battle enemies along the way to safety. However, my interpretation was that conditioning can only go so far, and that a person can still have the power to act of their own will in the end. In a sense, I equate it to brainwashing. People will act based on what they know or are “conditioned” to do but it is powerful when we break this and think for ourself once we figure out the truth, especially when it comes to ethical decision making.

It was a beautiful moment for me every time I was able to rescue a Little Sister, especially when you find out the truth of your own similar origin. Being able to give these little girls a touch of humanity that was denied them and yourself as you’re both essentially slaves is poignant. Despite Rapture’s negativity and horrors, kindness is a powerful commodity that is underestimated. It defeats Fontaine, saved Tanenbaum and it can save you. It’s a powerful message of being careful of what we allow ourselves to care for. 




What does it mean to be human?

Is humanity its own limitation?

Where is the fine line between creation/advancement versus making the most of what we have and in recognizing the individual versus the needs of the many?

I’m still not sure as to my own thoughts about these topics, but the important thing is that Bioshock brings them up. I’m very grateful for that, when a video game challenges not only the world you’re playing in, but the one you really live in as well.