A character chooses, a player obeys: a Bioshock critique

A character chooses, a player obeys: a Bioshock critique


If you’ve had any interest in games criticism,
analysis, or even game reviews, you might have heard the term “ludonarrative dissonance”.
It refers to a dissonance, a schism or split between what the narrative of a game is telling
you, and what the gameplay is telling you. A popular example is how in the Uncharted
series, the cutscenes and dialogue portray player character Nathan Drake as a lovable
rogue, yet the game has the player murdering hundreds of people. This term was coined by
Farcry 2 director Clint Hocking in a blog post he wrote after playing Bioshock in 2007.
I’m going to use the dissonance Hocking perceived in Bioshock as a jumping off point
for my thoughts on the game after a recent playthrough. Needless to say that if you have
not played Bioshock and you worry about spoilers, please go play the game before watching this
video. If just for the fact that when the player meets Andrew Ryan, not only do I think
it’s the strongest moment in the game, but I think it’s one of the strongest moments
in the entire medium, and I’m going to be talking about it. If you enjoy video games,
you really should experience it for yourself. Here is my understanding of the dissonance
in Bioshock according to Mr. Hocking. The gameplay contract is as follows. Seek power
and you will progress. A common enough gameplay contract, and important because the city of
Rapture is built on an objectivist ideology. This pursuit of progress gives no room for
morality, but the game undercuts this contract with the choice afforded to the player in
their encounters with the Little Sisters. Bioshock gives the player a decision to kill
or free what look like little girls, who contain Adam, a resource that will allow the player
to access more superpowers and thus make the game easier. While this choice undercuts the
gameplay contract, the choice itself is undercut because the player gains even more power by
freeing the girls. Power that the player is told will be lost if they free the Little
Sisters. The dissonance arises when we compare the gameplay contract to the narrative contract.
The narrative contract of Bioshock is following the orders of other people. Listen to Atlas
and you will progress (and it’s Atlas telling the player to harvest the Little Sisters for
Adam). After the meeting with Andrew Ryan, the player is listening to Tenenbaum, who
is the one that asks the player to save the Little Sisters. This late in the game I no
longer felt the need for more power, and I think that’s why Frank Fontaine causes the
player to lose health and eve. To make the player miss the power they had amassed over
the game, returning it to them before the final confrontation, whether their power came
from either following the gameplay or narrative contracts. The meeting of Andrew Ryan signifies a shift
in the narrative contract, listening to Tenanbaum instead of Atlas. Why is this moment so significant?
Well for one, it’s brilliantly written and performed. It’s the one time I bought into
how weird the humans in Bioshock look and move because Ryan himself is so captivating.
He’s more than the sum of his parts. The players find themselves in the presence of a man that
was able to build an underwater city. We’re confronted by the charisma and vision needed
to persuade all those who helped make Rapture a reality. In the end Ryan chooses suicide
because it’s a death on his own terms rather than being murdered by his puppet of a son.
To his last breath he is indignant, sticking to his ideology (even if he had betrayed it
before). The ‘would you kindly’ reveal like most plot twists isn’t as strong on its
own when you know it’s coming, but thematically it makes the whole sequence all the stronger.
A man chooses, a slave obeys. We’ll examine the meta-commentary of this scene as it pertains
to the player later. After his death, Frank Fontaine replaces Ryan
as the game’s antagonist. Fontaine was made for a place like Rapture. I find his conversations
with Jack leading up to the final boss fight touching, if not a little melancholic. Fontaine
considers Jack family, but he can only see people in terms of business transactions,
like when he housed and fed the poor in order to buy loyalty in the most vulnerable of Rapture’s
citizens. He does care for Jack like his own son, but sadly he is one of those fathers
that considers his son his property. That’s a nice division between Ryan and Fontaine.
Ryan wants Jack to be his own man (just as he wants every person to carve their own path
in life, and not feed off the accomplishments of others). Fontaine wants total control,
and the power and prestige that comes along with it. I think both men do what they do
solely for themselves, but their reasoning comes from a different place. It’s like
Andrew Ryan represents the ideals of objectivism, while Fontaine represents its reality. During the grand reveal of Rapture at the
start of the game, Ryan passionately makes the case for Rapture as a city where no one
will be constrained by moral limitation. Like he’s built this wonder for the benefit of
others, but I think Andrew Ryan built Rapture solely for himself. A place to escape the
world and live out an ideological fantasy. Of course even with a fantasy at the core
of such a marvel as Rapture, it took scores of talented people to make it happen. I don’t
think we can do anything great alone. This brings me to why I think Bioshock is a great
story, and why perhaps great stories are so rare in videogames. Great stories are full
of great characters. It is the desires of these characters and the conflict between
such desires that leads to the most compelling tales. Andrew Ryan is a great character. Perhaps
at the expense of the supporting cast. He’s definitely more interesting than Fontaine,
or Suchong, or Tenenbaum. Cohen holds his own. But all these names I mentioned, they
do leave their mark on the player even if Ryan towers over them. Out of the whole cast,
Jack as the player is the least interesting character, and that’s a paradox worth discussing.
The player should be the most important character in a videogame, but they’re often the least
interesting, especially when they’re made silent. A player character is usually a silent
protagonist because the developers think it will further immerse the player in the role
if they’re not hearing a voice unlike their own (although Jack does talk in the game.
Right at the start, and then never again, which is a strange choice). Could the player being the least interesting
character in Bioshock be part of the meta commentary of the Andrew Ryan scene? That
as a player we are slaves to the designer. Just as Jack was conditioned through the phrase
“would you kindly”, the player has been conditioned by playing a lot of videogames. We follow
Atlas not because we trust him (and if you’ve played System Shock 2 you likely never did)
but because that’s what you do in a videogame. You listen to the person that gives you goals.
It allows you to move forward. It allows you to play more of the game. In games with narrative
choices, players will often choose the path that reflects their values (such as not murdering
little girls no matter what the player is told they are), but we’re still making decisions
in our own self interest. What makes us feel good, what will make the game easier, and
what will allow us to play more. All the time we are slaves to the designer. Maybe that’s
why so many feel the game loses steam once Andrew Ryan dies, and Jack is freed from his
mental conditioning. It’s not that being a slave is what made Jack the least interesting
character in the game, but while Jack is now free, the player is not. The player is still
a slave to the designer. Jack still has no choice in following Tenenbaum’s orders,
and if we want to see the end of the game, neither do we as a player. I think another reason that people dislike
the last act of Bioshock is because Rapture ceases to be important. It kind of fades into
the background. Fontaine wants to rule its corpse. In the good ending, Jack and the Little
Sisters escape Rapture and live idyllic lives on the surface. It’s been said that if the
player had actually undergone a full Big Daddy transformation the good ending might have
been more thematically resonant. Selflessness over selfishness. Jack sacrificing who he
is for the good of the Little Sisters. A refutation of the ideals that created Rapture and the
Big Daddys in the first place. I guess this doesn’t work because as we’ve established,
Jack doesn’t really have much of a character, and the player isn’t making a choice of
sacrifice, they’re just following the predetermined game path to its conclusion. The bad ending
is more thematically resonant. Jack leads an army of splicers to the surface to wage
war on other nations. Rapture was built after World War 2 and the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Most of the main players in Rapture are Jewish, as is Ken Levine. There’s a strong theme of
those that have been oppressed becoming oppressors themselves. The fall of Rapture is tied to
many of the great minds that delighted in its morality free approach to progress, often
committing atrocities on others to further this cause. In the bad ending, Jack continues
this cycle. My thoughts on Bioshock were made possible
by reading and watching the thoughts of other writers who had something to say about the
game. Links to these pieces are in the description. Now I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you
think Andrew Ryan failed the ideals that built the city of Rapture, or was its downfall inevitable?
Was the meeting of Andrew Ryan the most powerful moment of the game for you as well? What are
your thoughts on Jack being the least interesting character in the game because he’s controlled
by the player, and how that plays into the meta-commentary of the Andrew Ryan scene?
Please let me know in the comments. If you liked the video, I’d love for you to buy
me a coffee. There’s a link in the description. If you’d like to help me out in other ways,
please give the video a like, share it on your favourite social media sites, or subscribe
if you haven’t already. Until next time, I hope you’re all having, a wonderful day.

2 Comments on "A character chooses, a player obeys: a Bioshock critique"


  1. Very enjoyable critique, Dave. I don't think I'm too qualified to give feedback for this one, because I never even got as far as the Ryan encounter in Bioshock. I couldn't get past the gameplay, which, I'm not ashamed to admit, is simply too advanced for me – I like complex games, but not complex FPS games, at least not any more. I suppose I should go back and try playing it on easy, but I've also long given up making myself promises that "one day" I will play this or that game ;). As for your critique, I do like your angle on it. The "would you kindly" thing and how it relates to the gameplay, of course, has been discussed by many, many different authors. However, this is the first time (as far as I can recall) I've seen anyone latch on to the fact that the game undermines itself by basically being no different after the Ryan encounter. I wonder what they could have done, to ensure that the mechanics truly communicated to the player that he is now free of the conditioning he had been under previously. I suppose nothing short of making the rest of the game an open sandbox (including the possibility of simply leaving Rapture without concluding the story) would really solve the problem. This probably wouldn't have been an option at the time, but it's something they probably should have considered.

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