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.

There's no mistaking the indictment of Ryan's philosophy in the first game: He orders the death and disappearance of people who "annoy" others in his ruling clique. As Ryan stops "winning" in the free market, he bans "contraband" from the surface, outlaws religion and "nationalizes" Fontaine Futuristics. He engineers the plasmids he's selling so that anyone who uses them will ultimately answer to him. He justifies all of this -- "A few stretched necks are a small price to pay for our ideals!" -- but at that point it's clear Ryan doesn't believe in free will. Instead, he believes in winning. And as long as he's winning, he's fine with there not being any "rules" -- by creating a set of circumstances that ensure his ultimate victory no matter what, he makes explicit rules unnecessary. "Freedom" is a mere pretext for ensuring his own superiority, it exists to reflect the glory of Andrew Ryan, and as soon as it ceases doing this, it is forfeit. This is clear when you reflect on stepping into the lighthouse in the first game, and you're confronted with a giant bust of Ryan above a banner reading: "No Gods or Kings. Only Man." Except, for of course, Andrew Ryan, god-king of Rapture.

What's interesting about Bioshock 2's plot is still the villain from the first game. Lamb isn't interesting--what's interesting is that Ryan is so much like Lamb, despite being diametrically opposed.

In the first game, as Ryan realizes that Fontaine has engineered his death at the hands of his own son, he issues a defiant boast: "My strength is not in steel and fire, that is what the parasites will never understand." Just like CNBC on-air editor Rick Santelli raving about "losers" who are getting their homes taken away, Ryan cannot imagine himself the victim of his own philosophy, he can't see that Fontaine is the kind of man that thrives in a society with no rules. He can't possibly imagine being the loser, the "parasite" -- which is both what makes his philosophy so appealing to people, and so easy to exploit its adherents. If you can't imagine yourself being a loser, you can't imagine yourself needing something like universal health insurance, mortgage modification for people losing their homes, or even unemployment benefits for people who have lost their jobs. These things are for parasites.

That's what makes Fontaine's aside about Rapture towards the end of the first game so devastating: "Guys who thought they knew it all. Dames who thought they'd SEEN it all. Give me a smart mark over a dumb one every time." And when I look at Obama's first year, and the difficulty he's had getting his health care reform passed because of the self-made Übermenschen who want the government to keep its hands off their Medicare, that probably has a lot to do with why I think Ryan is a much more effective villain than Lamb: A lot of people, in this country at least, still believe in the kinds of things he says.

For the most part, the only people who wear Che t-shirts these days are teenagers and hipsters grasping for irony. Lamb's extremist collectivism has already been discredited in reality. Ryan's right-wing extremism however, hasn't -- as you can tell by all the childish threats from conservatives to "go Galt" last year. You don't see Democratic Congressmen passing out Das Kapital to their policy aides the way elected Republicans have taken to Atlas Shrugged.