Bioshock and the Illusion of Choice in Gaming
Choice in video games is not a new concept. Many games produced these days offer nonlinear storylines which allow the player to make a moral choice for his or her character during gameplay. Will you restore order or wreak havoc? Will you seek vengeance or promote justice? Will you follow the path of good or the path of evil?
Of course, when it comes to choice in video games, it is not always an A-or-B decision. Games like Fallout 3 offer the player the opportunity to choose many options in conversation that can improve or decimate relationships with non-playable characters (NPCs), and in turn affect gameplay in the moment or in the near future. The Infamous franchise distinguishes between “Good Karma” and “Bad Karma,” allowing players to take the high road or create chaos, leading ultimately to a “good” or “bad” ending. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic offers choice in conversations and actions that increase or decrease the player’s Light/Dark Side meter.
But the truth of the matter is that choice does not truly exist in video games. Choice is merely an illusion which we as players believe creates a unique gameplay experience for every individual. Though some games do offer quite different experiences for every player based on the choices made, the outcome and ending are never unique. A game may have one, two, or several possible endings, but that is all players will ever encounter regardless of the choices he has made in the game. To understand this argument, it helps to first examine the differences between linear gameplay and nonlinear gameplay. (Note: Spoilers will follow. Read at your own risk!)
Games with a fixed storyline and outcome are considered linear. Some of the most popular franchises of linear gameplay include the Call of Duty series, the Halo series, and the Assassin’s Creed series, to name a few. These games do not offer the player any choice. Instead, the player follows a set path, encountering the same battles, cutscenes, and ending as every other player in the world. These experiences are not unique, and sometimes that is a good thing. So why might a player prefer linear gameplay over nonlinear, choice-based gameplay?
Linear gameplay eliminates the stress of forcing the player to make his or her own decision. It also allows the player to focus on the story created by the developers, which in turn allows him to enjoy the ride rather than plot a unique course. Additionally, linear gameplay creates a movie-quality game for players to enjoy, something that has become increasingly popular nowadays. Games like Uncharted and Tomb Raider seamlessly integrate gameplay with cutscenes to immerse the player in a life-like experience.
Some of the most widely acclaimed games are linear. Take The Last of Us, for example. Even prior to its release in 2013, The Last of Us has consistently been winning awards. Everything about this game, from the moment the player picks up the controller to the final confrontation in the hospital, is part of a set path, yet players consider this game to be one of the greatest in the modern gaming industry, specifically for its story and characters. If ever the argument arose that nonlinear gameplay is preferred over linear, The Last of Us could instantly shut down that discussion on its own.
Nonlinear, Choice-Based Gameplay
While some players love linear gameplay for its lack of choice, others love nonlinear gameplay for the opportunity to retain control and to create their own experiences.
Back in 2003, Core Design attempted to deviate from the linear gameplay it had always created in its Tomb Raider franchise by introducing choice-based gameplay in Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. Over ten years ago, choice-based gameplay was less common than it is now, so the very concept was revolutionary at the time. Choice in Angel of Darkness did, in fact, have lasting repercussions. For example, if the player ordered Lara to mouth off to the French mob boss, Louis Bouchard, he shot her point-blank, and the game restarted from the last save point.
Although Angel of Darkness received mostly negative criticism and was released unfinished due to internal conflicts between publisher and producer, it was a step in a new direction in the gaming industry. It created a different kind of immersive experience for players that they were not accustomed to in the Tomb Raider franchise. While Angel of Darkness was not the first game to introduce choice-based gameplay, it was among the few that had begun to explore a new paradigm.
But these choices—though they did have an effect on the gameplay—were merely illusions. The introduction of choice in gaming was incredibly alluring when it first became popular because it created a unique experience that made players feel like they actually had some control. However, these choices are limited to a number of options. Games are coded to react to certain choices, so that if the player chooses X, the remaining “not-X” options are then removed from the gaming experience. In essence, choice-based gaming is a technological puzzle which eliminates opposite choices when choice X is made.
If every nonlinear game thus only has a limited number of true choices, what does that say about choice-based gaming? If all choices are different but the outcome is always the same, how does that truly create a unique experience for the player? Some might argue that choice-based gaming is a joke, and they might be right. Two particular games put this into perspective, changing the way players view nonlinear gameplay.
And Then Came Bioshock
Released in 2007, Bioshock received critical acclaim for its creative story, its horrific setting, and its mind-blowing plot twist. Bioshock calls into question all that we think about choice-based gaming, and even life itself beyond that. The player is given few specific choices to make throughout the game, but it is exactly this that proves the point of Bioshock: we are never in control.
The only true choice the player makes in the game is whether or not to save the Little Sisters. The player controls Jack, a man trapped in the underwater city of Rapture, a city in complete shambles crawling with murderous lunatics called splicers. During his journey to escape, he encounters young girls with glowing eyes and massive syringe guns, extracting a substance called ADAM from corpses they find in the city. To survive, Jack needs ADAM, which he can only get by saving or harvesting the Little Sisters after defeating their behemoth guardian, the Big Daddy. This presents the player with the moral choice of the game. If Jack harvests a Little Sister, he receives significantly more ADAM than if he saves her, and this reward is instantaneous.
The choice here is a weighty one. Jack needs ADAM, but at what cost will he earn it? Indeed, the player’s decision does affect the outcome of the game, but there are only two possible endings even so. The ending the player receives is dependent upon how many Little Sisters he saves. That being said, the game does not allow for any moral gray area. The player will only receive the “good ending” if he harvests no more than one Little Sister. Any more than that and he receives the “bad ending.” The game immediately eliminates the good ending by the difference of one Little Sister, thus proving that the ending will never be unique.
But Bioshock is so much more than that. Saving or harvesting the Little Sisters is the only way the game employs choice—and that is exactly the point. The player eventually learns that Jack did not end up in Rapture by mistake, and that the plane crash that brought him there was no accident. Instead, Jack is the result of a science experiment arranged by someone named Frank Fontaine, who seeks to overthrow the founder of Rapture, Andrew Ryan. Posing as a man named Atlas, Fontaine assists and guides Jack through Rapture with the promise of escape, but Fontaine is really leading him straight to Ryan, utilizing the trigger command, “Would you kindly?” to force Jack to do his bidding. Brainwashed to respond to this command, Jack is forced to follow any given order if this phrase precedes it.
From as far back as Jack can remember, he has unknowingly been a slave to Fontaine, a pawn in the war against Ryan. For every command preceded by “Would you kindly?”, Jack can do nothing except obey. He is physically limited in his ability to act. When ordered to pick up the wrench, lower his weapon, or open a door, Jack cannot proceed until he follows the command. Every choice he has made thus far—even ones as small as picking up the radio when Atlas pages—has not been a legitimate choice at all. Jack simply obeyed, unable to do anything else.
Jack and the player do not learn about the trigger command, his role in Rapture, and Fontaine’s true identity until just prior to the encounter with Andrew Ryan. After being guided through Rapture by Atlas, Jack finds Ryan playing golf in his office, and Ryan seems to be expecting him. “In the end, what separates a man from a slave?” Ryan asks. “A man chooses—a slave obeys. Was a man sent to kill, or a slave?” Ryan, knowing exactly who and what Jack is, hands him the golf club and orders Jack to kill him using the trigger command. Between blows, Ryan continues to scream his mantra: “A man chooses—a slave obeys!” Jack ultimately kills him, putting an end to Ryan’s legacy and essentially handing the keys of the city over to Fontaine.
Andrew Ryan is nothing but a complex character. Unlike his illegitimate son, Jack, Ryan is able to make choices. In fact, he is a self-made man in his entirety who does not take no for an answer: “It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea. It was impossible to build it anywhere else.”
Being who he is, Ryan naturally detests a man who cannot think for himself. His order for Jack to kill him is his final attempt to free Jack from Fontaine’s control, but Jack could not escape. The chain tattoos on his wrists symbolize his enslaved existence. Jack lives his life as a slave from the very first moment we see him until Doctor Tenenbaum removes his programming, thus nullifying the effect of the “WYK” trigger. In fact, the opening scene of the plane crash—the first time we see Jack—is the first of many instances of manipulation. Aboard the plane, Jack reads a note given to him with a gift that requests he kindly not open until 63° 2’N and 29° 55’W, an action which in turn brings down the plane to Rapture’s exact location. Every single moment of his life has been arranged, premeditated, and manipulated to fit someone else’s agenda.
Through Jack, Bioshock makes a bold statement about choice-based gaming. The game satirizes the very idea of it, proving to us that we are never in control of our character, his actions, or his choices. Andrew Ryan, on the other hand, is arguably the most rebellious character in the game, and therefore the most interesting. His order for Jack to kill him is an attempt to override Jack’s programming, to encourage Jack to choose to kill him—not to do it because he is ordered to.
Ryan is a man with larger-than-life dreams and ideals who lives according to the notion of independence and man’s ability to forge his own future by his choosing. Ryan created Rapture during World War II to escape the oppressing fears of war and the puppet masters of bureaucracy. He despises the idea of a greater being in control of man’s fate, hence the banner Jack finds in the lighthouse prior to his departure for Rapture, which reads, “No gods or kings. Only man.” Instead, Ryan believes that man should live in absolute freedom, exactly as he desires. He expresses his philosophy for life in Rapture in a pre-recorded speech delivered to new arrivals:
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?
“No,” says the man in Washington, “it belongs to the poor.”
“No,” says the man in the Vatican, “it belongs to God.”
“No,” says the man in Moscow, “it belongs to everyone.”
I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small. And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.
Andrew Ryan is an incredible idealist who sees free enterprise and capitalism as pure on their basest level. He believes that man can attain anything with enough effort, and that we must all maximize our abilities and opportunities to become great. He is a severe social Darwinist who believes that people, creatures, and civilizations rise and fall because of their own strength or lack thereof. Ryan is a man who believes any means of getting ahead is acceptable even if it is criminal or immoral. His attempt to break the mold and defy the preconceived idea that we are under the control of a higher power is what makes him the most unique character in Bioshock.
Whether or not Ryan succeeds at breaking this mold is a matter of opinion. His laissez-faire approach to managing Rapture is what leads the city to its ruin, as Ryan does not believe anything should interfere with man’s efforts to get ahead, even if it harms another person. But in a dog-eat-dog world, is anyone truly free? Rapture’s collapse does not necessarily mean that Ryan failed, especially since he takes his personal philosophy to the grave with him: a man chooses—a slave obeys. Ryan would rather die a free man than live as a doting slave.
Bioshock presented choice-based gaming in a different light than players had ever seen before. Although Bioshock 2 followed in 2010, fans of the series consider Bioshock: Infinite to be the true sequel to Bioshock. Infinite took the idea behind choice-based gaming a step further—a huge step, in fact.
Bioshock: Infinite and the Multiverse Theory
When Bioshock: Infinite was first announced, fans went crazy. It was not just the prospect of a new game in the series that blew them away, but the game itself and how drastically different it was from its predecessor. Rapture is no longer present, and Jack, Ryan, and Fontaine seem to be nothing more than memories. Infinite instead takes place in a city in the clouds called Columbia. The player now controls Booker Dewitt, a man ordered to find a young woman named Elizabeth in Columbia. He arrives in the beautiful, steampunk-style city and finds it to be picturesque and perfect—too perfect, actually. Racism, religious zeal, and secrets upon secrets hide just under the surface of Columbia’s facade.
Initially, fans pondered whether or not Infinite had anything to do with its predecessor. At first look, the two games are completely unrelated. Everything in Infinite contrasts with Bioshock: Rapture is underwater and Columbia is above the clouds; Rapture is dark and Columbia is light; Rapture is more of a horror setting whereas Columbia, even in its darker moments, is more adventure- and drama-based. But players of the first game can easily pick up on subtle nuances and references to Bioshock. When Jack first arrives in Rapture, a splicer asks, “Is it someone new?” The priest who baptizes Booker asks the same question. Big Daddies are no longer present, but Elizabeth’s mechanical guardian, Songbird, functions identically. From the small similarities to the bigger ones, players of Bioshock will catch the clues if they pay close attention. Of course, by the ending, the player has figured out how Bioshock and Infinite—and Rapture and Columbia—are related: the universe in which Rapture exists is just another reality which Elizabeth can interact with.
But the unique thing that Infinite does is question choice on a much larger scale than its predecessor—that is, the series goes from questioning choice in gaming to questioning choice in reality. Infinite tackled the multiverse theory, a concept which argues that for every choice we make, at least one opposite choice creates a new universe elsewhere, operating in a parallel existence that we will never encounter (Elizabeth, of course, can encounter these because of her ability to open tears, aka portals). Thus, every choice we don’t make is still being made for us somewhere and someplace else. The frightening truth behind this is that we are never in control.
In Infinite, these alternate realities are represented by the lighthouses. Elizabeth tells Booker that the lighthouse is one of the constants in every reality within the Bioshock universe: “There’s always a man. There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a city.” On the other hand, the variables are the events, relationships, and objects that the characters react to, thus influencing the choices they make.
Booker is quite unlike Jack in many ways. He is able to make small choices that influence gameplay at the moment, yet still have no effect on the story’s outcome. Choosing to rob a store clerk will create trouble for Booker and Elizabeth in the moment, but it has no lasting effect. Choosing the bird pendant over the cage pendant or vise-versa does not alter gameplay. But what separates Booker from Jack runs much deeper than his ability to make minimal choices. For example, Booker speaks, and he speaks often. Jack speaks only once in Bioshock, just prior to the plane crash. One could argue that this was simply a developmental oversight, but that is far too simple of an explanation. Booker speaks to Elizabeth, to other NPCs, and even aloud to himself. Unlike Jack, he is physically capable of acting on his own free will. That being said, Jack’s few words in the opening scene of Bioshock could be nothing more than a thought he expresses which we can hear. Does Jack even speak at all?
Also unlike Jack, Booker has true, legitimate memories of his past. He recalls his infant daughter, Anna, who was taken away from him as a form of payment for his debt. These memories propel him forward in his quest to find and protect Elizabeth. Jack, on the other hand, has only fabricated memories implanted by Fontaine. Without any true memories of his own, he is nothing more than a robot, completely different from Booker who is a unique individual with a past.
Despite all this, Booker is similar to Jack in one specific way: he, too, is being controlled by a higher power, and here, that power is the multiverse. Booker is required to bring back the girl (Elizabeth) to wipe away his debt. To be free, he must complete this task. Ultimately, the person pulling these strings is Zachary Comstock, the antagonist of the game and an alternate version of Booker. The universe controls Booker through Comstock, taking him dangerously close to that slave-like existence Jack has known his whole life. It is not until Booker smothers Comstock at the cradle of his life that Booker and Elizabeth are free from Comstock’s tyranny. To set things right for Anna (that is, before she could ever become Elizabeth, the daughter of Comstock), Booker must erase Comstock, which thereby erases several other realities and the events of Infinite itself. Like Jack, Booker eventually frees himself from control, but it is at a heavy cost.
Again, the argument that Bioshock and Infinite make is that choice is an illusion and that the ultimate consequences of our actions are beyond our control. Infinite might argue that while we may believe our experiences are unique to us (and while that may be true to an extent), the outcome is always the same. The constants in our lives are birth and death—the variables are the events that shape how we live in between these two events.
Indeed, Bioshock and Infinite satirize the notion of choice, which in turn reveals the terrifying truth that our actions are meaningless and ineffectual. It is no coincidence that Ken Levine, the creative director of the Bioshock series (except for Bioshock 2), drew inspiration from George Orwell’s 1984 and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in the making of these games. 1984 suggests that a “Big Brother” is watching our every move, whereas Atlas Shrugged, as stated by Rand herself, is about the “role of the mind in man’s existence” (Mayhew, 219). Choice and how we operate through our existence play a significant part in all four of these masterpieces.
Will a True Choice-Based Game Ever Exist?
The future of choice-based gaming is essentially open for any possibility. There will always be new ways in which producers can develop a choice-based experience, but to say that a game will exist where the outcome is unique to every player is merely speculation. Technological innovations in the future of gaming have much to say about how our experiences with games will change, and since the future is limitless, anything is possible.
But something can obviously be said about games like Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite that put not only our gaming experience to the test, but also our outlook on life. What makes these two games so original is their courage to challenge our presumptions about choice, to boldly profess that no experience is unique and that we are all puppets to some man or machine in control. Whether we believe this or not, these games make these arguments incredibly well. The Bioshock series is very much ahead of its time.
So will a true choice-based game ever exist? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Until then, producers must find new ways to create innovative experiences for gamers, experiences that are unlike those of the standard game, either linear or nonlinear. Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite are a step in that direction.
Bioshock. Irrational Games, 2007. Video game.
Bioshock: Infinite. Irrational Games, 2013. Video game.
Mayhew, R. Essay on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Lexington Books, 2009. 219. Print.
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