How BioShock Mocked Video-Game Morality

A remastered edition of the 2007 landmark title and its sequels lay bare just how revolutionary the original was.

Irrational Games

Near the beginning of the groundbreaking video game BioShock, the player is forced to make what seems like a crucial moral decision: You liberate a monstrous-looking child who has been tormenting the local populace, and are told you can either kill it for a huge reward, or let it go free, but gain far less in the process. BioShock is filled with these moments—life-or-death choices that seemingly add to a larger ethical experience for the user in a departure from the usually consequence-free nature of playing video games.

Upon its 2007 release, BioShock felt like a revolution, or at least the start of one. The complexity of its decision-making approach was basic to say the least; the game only branched into two endings. Nine years after its initial release, BioShock is now available in a remastered, high-definition edition with its sequels—three games in total that proclaimed to allow players to examine their own values as they ventured through dark, fantastic worlds. The idea of multiple moral paths to a player’s story became a fad that video games are still struggling to incorporate, and BioShock: The Collection shows both the appeal, and the necessary limitations, of the ideas the original game generated.

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.

Two sequels, also included in BioShock: The Collection, were largely regarded as disappointments. BioShock 2 (2010), which Levin didn’t design, revisited the world of Rapture and put the player in the skin of one of its coolest monsters: the Big Daddy, a drill-toting behemoth clad in a deep-sea diving suit. Though the game embellished on some of the most appealing design elements of the first BioShock, it had much less to offer in terms of original storytelling. BioShock Infinite (2013), a “spiritual sequel” from Levine set in the new dystopia of a steampunk city in the sky, was far more ambitious.

Infinite retained the moral nuance of BioShock, often presenting its users with small crises to resolve in multiple ways. But this time it had no impact on the overall ending, which was much a more convoluted, fully scripted affair involving time-travel. After the release of BioShock, open-ended storytelling was briefly the biggest fad in gaming, with games like Dishonored and Deus Ex: Human Revolution making it the backbone of their advertising. But designers largely struggled to integrate such choices in an interesting way. The acclaimed sci-fi series Mass Effect let its protagonist behave as a morally upright hero or a rude, selfish renegade, which could affect whether other characters lived or died as the game went on. But that series’ ending was widely criticized for being unable to close the circle: For all the supposed free will a player could exercise, there was really only one way for the game to end.

Now, there’s a sub-genre of games geared toward “decision trees,” many of them produced by the innovative studio Telltale Games. This slightly soapier genre strips away much of the adventure of a BioShock-type first-person game. Telltale’s series based on The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones play like Choose Your Own Adventure books, and are essentially living graphic novels that present the user with tough decisions, rather than oncoming enemies or interactive puzzles. It’s a specific genre that has a growing fan base, but it lacks the immersive feel of a bigger, more complex gaming experience.

Near the end of BioShock, before confronting  Atlas, the player is led before Andrew Ryan, the supposed antagonist who created Rapture and saw it spin out of his control. In one of gaming’s most iconic scenes, Ryan uses the player’s trigger phrase against him, to prove some grand philosophical point: “A man chooses; a slave obeys,” he barks, ordering the player to kill him. At this point, the game takes over, turning off the controls and forcing the player to do as Ryan says. Video gaming has made titanic strides in storytelling since its earliest days; since the release of BioShock, the medium’s horizons have only broadened further. But nine years after its release, the most revolutionary thing about the game was how cleverly it admitted that, in some ways, it wasn’t revolutionary at all.