Welcome To Rapture

[A. Serwer]

This is going to be my post on the awesomeness that is the Ayn Rand-inspired Xbox game BioShock and its sequel. I'll put most of it under the fold so that the folks who don't want spoilers can easily avoid them.

In case you haven't played BioShock, I'll summarize: In 1960, a plane crashes into the ocean, and you are the only survivor. You swim to a nearby lighthouse. Inside, there's a submarine-like device called a "bathysphere" that brings you to the bottom of the ocean, where an Ayn Rand-inspired billionaire named Andrew Ryan has constructed an underwater libertarian metropolis called Rapture, where millions of people have "gone Galt." Unrestrained by any kind of government regulation, the people of Rapture develop a method of genetically modifying themselves ("splicing") that drives all of them insane, and the entire city collapses into civil war. You arrive at the city in the aftermath, and it is almost completely destroyed--although hints of its lost grandeur and beauty remain. It's also populated by quasi-human monsters called Splicers who all want to kill you and lumbering metallic monsters called "Big Daddys" who protect possessed little girls known as "Little Sisters" who run around recycling the limited amount of genetic material necessary for splicing, which is called ADAM. End Summary.

I'm not a fan of shooters, because I'm just generally not very good at them. Most of them are built for a multiplayer experience, and I tired of getting my butt kicked by my prepubescent cousins and better coordinated friends shortly after Halo came out. But the first Bioshock game was something different--it was a shooter, but with the thematic complexity and consistency approaching that of literature. It's not that BioShock tries to be a movie or a book--it's that it utilizes the limitations of the video game form as plot devices the same way a poet wields rhyme and meter in a sonnet.

From the moment you step out of the bathysphere in the first level, everything about the fall of Rapture reinforces the folly and tragedy of Andrew Ryan's Randian-inspired extremism (although to be fair, Ryan is more Catholic than the Pope here). A city built on the ideals of free will and commerce has collapsed under the suffocating pressure of unrestrained short-term self-interest and greed--even the ammo-filled vending machines are the creation of someone whose eye for the market transcends their survival instinct. Virtually every existence--from the ADAM-addicted, pheromone-influenced Splicers, to the Big Daddys valiantly protecting demonic Little Sisters, even that of the protagonist himself--is defined by an explicit lack of free will.

The Second BioShock is far more streamlined. The gameplay is better; the actual plot is tighter; and there's really no beating the morbid joy of bisecting a Splicer with your arm drill or nailing one to the wall with a spear gun. The relationship between the Big Daddys and the Little Sisters is twisted, but the affection between them is the only thing resembling nobility in Rapture despite the fact that neither party has a choice in the matter. It makes perfect sense then, that the sequel places you at the center of that relationship.

But I'm just not sure how you could enjoy the second game if you haven't played the first. Sophia Lamb works as a replacement antagonist in the sequel, but her fall from doting mother to radical collectivist is less interesting than Ryan's because her particular brand of evil is so recognizable. The collectivist cult of personality Lamb creates in the aftermath of Rapture's destruction is so clearly inspired by real-life monsters responsible for the death of millions (i.e. Stalin, Mao) that there's little payoff. It's not hard to imagine how Lamb's dream got twisted. 

Ryan's fall is more interesting because we've never actually seen a society completely based on extreme libertarian ideals, so the reimagined sci-fi "Galt's Gulch" is fascinating. BioShock imagines a kind of society that hasn't had a real world proxy, and that's what makes it so engrossing. 

The most potent details in BioShock 2 are still the ones that explore the death of Ryan's dream --or more accurately, the way Ryan destroyed his own dream. The absence of a welfare state prepares the people of Rapture to accept his nemesis Frank Fontaine's charity, Fontaine's alias Atlas' underclass revolution, and Lamb's collectivist "rebirth." We hear about the bank runs, and the descents into religious bigotry. And in the final level of the game, we are presented with the ultimate perversion of Ryan's ideal of "freedom:" the deep sea gulag Persephone, where Ryan spirited away ideological dissidents who dared to challenge him. The wretches are then forced to be guinea pigs for Ryan Industries' grotesque genetic modification experiments. Ryan founded Rapture because he believed government was an impediment to freedom--but the absence of a competent government that can intervene on the side of the downtrodden proves just as fatal to society.

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Adam Serwer is a staff writer for The American Prospect.

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