BioShock wasn’t the first of its kind to offer users an array plot outcomes, based on how they behaved while playing. Advanced role-playing games like BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, set in the Star Wars universe, would categorize the player as being on good or evil depending on how they behaved, though that only really affected the character’s appearance. But, of course, video games had largely functioned on rails for the entirety of their existence: A player’s job was to rescue the princess, to get the treasure, to destroy the bad guy, and everything in the game existed to push the player in a single direction.
In BioShock, the main moral conundrum is a simple one, and revolves around the game’s Little Sisters, young girls who walk around tormenting the citizens of the underwater city of Rapture. If you “Harvest” them, their life force helps power your own magic weapons; if you instead heal them and send them on their merry way, you get less power, but the satisfaction of doing the right thing. Behave one way, and you get a “happy” video played at the end of the game, assuring you that your character lived a good life; behave another, and the Sisters take brutal revenge on you, tearing you apart. The only huge difference was the ending cut-scene.
What made BioShock truly interesting was that while it allowed players to exercise their ethical judgment, it also cleverly acknowledged the larger reality of gaming: that players actually don’t have much choice at all (spoilers for the first game’s ending follow). As BioShock’s protagonist wanders through Rapture’s surreal underwater world, battling the crazed survivors of mass human experimentation, he’s guided by a helpful voice calling himself “Atlas.” Atlas is a supposed rebel that’s looking to bring down Andrew Ryan, the tyrannical leader of Rapture, an Art Deco nightmare that he founded based on the principles of objectivism and the philosophies of Ayn Rand.
In the end, Atlas is revealed to be the game’s true villain, a gangster trying to seize power in Rapture; the player is his sleeper agent, who’s unwittingly forced to do Atlas’s bidding any time he utters the phrase “would you kindly” (which he does, often). It was a brilliant twist and the game’s way of ultimately mocking the illusion of choice it supposedly offered. Yes, there were moments along the way where you could approach situations from various angles. But BioShock understood that the medium of video games is always going to be goal-oriented, and the designed worlds still exist for one player to navigate a very specific story toward pre-written endings.
Play BioShock again with the twist in mind, and you catch every utterance of “would you kindly.” It always comes when there’s no choice at all: You have to move on to the next level, or pick up that weapon, or kill whatever big boss Atlas is pointing you at next. Yes, he leaves the decision about the Little Sisters to you, but that’s just one small element in an otherwise scripted story. It was subversively self-aware for the time—in 2007, BioShock was actively experimenting with the medium and the small choices it could offer the user. But its designer, Ken Levine, also wanted to make it clear that there was only so much he could do within the constraints of the medium.