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October 07, 2007


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Without trying to add anything new to the conversation, and indeed dropping in far later than expected, I did put down the controller at one point and said "Fuck You!" to the screen.

I walked away.

I returned because I needed to finish the game for review but I hated completing the game. The game offered me no choice within the structure so I sought to rectify the injustice by turning off the console myself.

I completely understand the argument (and agree with it to some extent) that the game gives you choice in one area, but takes it away in another, and this limits the effect of the story and the game's intended philosophical ramifications. However, couldn't that be the point? You can THINK you have all the freedom you want, but in the end no one is truly free because as imperfect (i.e. not all-knowing) beings we cannot understand everything at once. It almost seems as if the designers purposely gave you, the human playing the game, some control to think you were entirely in control, and thus this illusion makes the "twist" even more dramatic and shocking. If anything Bioshock seems to be more about the quest for knowledge (or, in some cases, the lack of it).

Very good points, but I don't think you have to make it so black and white.

I'd say my biggest problem with Bioshock is that, if it was supposed to be a critique of objectivism, why then was Rapture's downfall brought on by an outside criminal intent on destroying it rather than by the citizens who presumably followed the objectivist philosophy? And I don't believe for a second that Atlas represented another side of the objectivist coin. Criminality and chaos are not equal to freedom and self-governance.

Have you seen this article?

Maybe this is a stretch, but reading this article and it´s comments, it´s beginning to make me think that the future of gaming only has 2 types of games that will fit into this "serious critique of gaming". One is `the ultimate simulator´, where the choices you can make within the game border on infinite and equally influence gameplay and storytelling. The other type is the `orthodox designed game´ with the usual severe choice contrictions regarding to the story, only to narratively reveal that the central core of the story and deeper meaning involves themes such as fate, inevitability and the free will problem.

Only a game with such themes can justify having a limited palette of choices, to achieve a perfect merging of form and content.

On a sidenote, nice comment about MGS2 ThaYoost. But in my opinion, you left out the most important part: The revelation of the S3 concept, the Solid Snake Simulator. The fact that events were orchestrated to look like the Shadow Moses incident, to create a potential Solid Snake out of Raiden. The way this works on a meta-game level is brilliant, and even changes your perspective on those great days spent playing Snake in MGS1 :D

My point is buried in here somewhere. Please bare with me as I lay some ground work.

Bill Clinton famously responded "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. Now politics and impeachment aside, this raises a good point: Definitions are important.

Clinton was simply saying that 'at present, there is no improper relationship.' 'Is' is a present tense word that many people use improperly as an all encompassing verb regardless of the true tense.

The reason that I bring this up is not in defense of Clinton, but rather to bring to light an alternate view of objectivism, that is typically only understood by Ayn Rand herself. Strictly speaking, Rand spoke of 'selfishness' without the negative connotations that many moral philosophies (most religions) place on it. In her view, the hedonistic "Do what I want at this moment" mentality is fundamentally different, as well as opposed to her idea of "rational self-interest."

Exercising "rational self-interest," a man has to hold life as his highest value. Specifically, his own life. The Hedonist mistakes "that which I mindlessly happen to value" for "that which promotes my life". To him, the question of "is this good for me" never enters into the mind, only "what do I crave in this moment."

Unfortunately for Ms. Rand, philosophy students have taken her ideals and used them to justify being complete asses, and so today, we think of objectivism in this new light. They have seen the word "selfish" and without bothering to define the context or specific meaning of the word as Rand defines it, substituted the Judeo-Christian (being the main source of morality in America) meaning of the word complete with all of the negative connotations; "Benefiting me at the expense of others." Rand did not intend this, however, the modern view of objectivism reflects this distortion.

What's my point? Another definition: When Rand imparts "it is best if I do what is best for me without consideration for others" she does not mean "to the DETRIMENT of others" nor does she mean for the thinking, rational being to completely ignore potential consequences if other people are involved. She means that man has to make up his own mind, disregarding how others feel or think about his decision. In Judeo-christian mythology, we have the 'man and his son on the camel' story.

In brief: A man and his son have a camel. They go through one town walking with the camel, and people look harshly upon them because the boy is making the father walk. A second town sees the father riding and criticizes the man for forcing the boy to walk. The third town criticizes them for forcing the camel to carry the load of goods as well as the people on its back.

Continued... Normally we take from this "you can't please everyone."

Rand does not state that you must dismiss the motivations of others, or the impact that their choices and actions have on your own life. She is not telling people "it's ok to be an ass;" she is saying "rationally consider all of the available data, and do what is best for you." In most cases, what is best for one person is best for the group as well.

To Bioshock: Rand would ask of the players value choices "of value to whom and for what?" If we use this lens to look at BioShock then doing the 'bidding' of Atlas is in the direct interest of the players goal of figuring out 'what the hell is going on here' as well as upholding his highest value which is life; survival in a harsh environment.

The characters choice is either to follow Atlas, a man who is familiar with this underground city, or going it alone/ignoring Atlas in hostile territory. The efficient choice is to do what this man says so long as it doesn't interfere with your highest moral value which is your own life.

My point here is that viewed through Rands actual philosophy, and not the distortion of it, the story and the characters choices are NOT opposed. In just about every instance, the character will do what is in his own best interest.

I think that the genius of the game is that it presents not only options for Rands Objectivism, but also for societies distortion of it. In Harvesting a Little Sister, we get to believe that we are being an "Objectivist." But in reality, LIFE is an objectivists highest value, so RESCUING the little sisters is TRULY the Objectivist Approach! You PRESERVE life, and you also BENEFIT from doing so. Additionally, this is the GREATEST benefit to yourself because of the (in my view) grossly overpowered "Hypnotize Big Daddy" power. Once you have this power, there aren't many enemies in the game that present a challenge; you have preserved your HIGHEST value here, which is your own life, as you are now safer than you would have been without this ability.


Just got here from Gamautra's article ( and I just wanted to say that this is exactly the kind of work I'm talking about when I say we need to start being more critical, analytical and academic in our approach to games.

If anything, you're too forgiving of Bioshock in this article because of your love of it. Developers like 2K should - if they are invested in the artistic worth of their work - embrace criticism, and so we shouldn't fear being negative about it (though I appreciate your hesitance here, given your status in the industry).

As always, Mr. Hocking, you're an inspiration! ;)

I agree with your viewpoint: though the game treated me otherwise, my personal goal while playing was not to defeat Ryan. I simply wanted to escape Rapture and help those I could along the way. Thus, the great revelation near the end of the game didn't hold as much weight with me because I had never made the conscious choice to hunt down and kill Ryan; I simply wanted to get through the game.

You mentioned that the only truly Objectivist option was to not play the game at all. I faced a similar conundrum when playing Shadow of the Colossus. By two thirds of the way through the game I could tell that things were going to end badly (or at the very least, success would be bittersweet). What was interesting was that it was possible, after building up your climbing stamina to sufficient levels, to climb the exterior of the central castle and actually run all the way back across the huge bridge upon which you entered this land. The run took long and was tedious, but I found myself hoping that I had finally found a game that would let me alter my fate when I reached the end of that bridge. I was severely disappointed to find that as I approached the entrance to that land that there was a constant, strong wind pushing me back and preventing my escape. I think the developers missed a wonderful opportunity to let the player say, “No, I changed my mind and don’t want to do this.” Of course, I would still have reloaded my saved game because I wanted to see all of the colossi and the consequences of killing them, but as a player I would have had the satisfaction of declaring my free will in ending the destructive downward spiral of eliminating the colossi, and could have done so without simply shutting the game off (it’s also worth noting that it takes sufficiently long to build up your climbing stamina such that the choice to abandon the quest would have more meaning than when you’re presented with the rescue/harvest choice early in BioShock).

Getting back to BioShock, I chose to play that game in a way that I’ve not heard anyone else talk about. Since I decided to keep my moral choices as realistic as possible, I couldn’t bring myself to kill the Big Daddies because I wasn’t presented enough evidence to justify their murder (they seemed as much victims as the Little Sisters they were protecting). So I killed them only when forced to by the narrative. A part of me was expecting/hoping to find out at the end of the game that destroying the Big Daddies turned out to be the real moral choice, rather than the simple rescue/harvest of the Little Sisters, but that didn’t come to pass.

Since there was a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of saving the Little Sisters, I just want to add that taking the “righteous” path and saving them SHOULD be harder, because that’s life. I’m sure the developers added the gifts from Tenenbaum to make sure players didn’t feel cheated out of plasmids for doing the right thing, but doing so effectively cheated players out of a sense of pride and accomplishment for their sacrifice.

I wrote a few blog posts about these topics (and more). If you’d like to view them, they are here:

On morality and BioShock:

On its lapses of narrative consistency:

On the treatment of the Big Daddies:

Like many others, I did love the game. That’s probably why its faults stand out so much and are truly worth discussing.

Hi there mr hocking, just caught whiff of the article. Something you mentioned caught my eye:

"To be successful, the game would need to not only make me somehow adopt this difficult philosophy, but then put me in a pressure-cooker where the systems and content slowly transform the game landscape until I find myself caught in the aforementioned ‘trap’."

I would think that the game is actually closer to the hotdog stand dilemma than a failure to adopt the player into the objectivist's mindset. When we learn about the twist in the middle of the game, I thought it was actually a brilliant if subtly 4th wall breaking move as it inferred that by just playing the game normally as we would have any game, we had just been willfully manipulated by the 'voice' of the game itself.

When we begin playing the game, we are under the paradigm that the game offers us objectives and we approach and complete them unquestioningly. After all, this has been the norm in many games. It is the cutscene in the middle of the game that reinforces this, prooving that we, the Player, and not the character in the game, have indeed been 'manipulated' by Atlas.

In fact, by mentioning about how you were constrained by not being able to make choices, and yet having continued to play the game. Is that not telling enough that you too have become a 'victim' of atlas's mind control.

I'm not saying that the idea of giving the player a choice is wrong. It is plausible and perhaps with the right execution would be groundbreaking in its own right but Bioshock has implemented this in a way that I find is extremely impacting on a subconscious level.

My only critic about this implementation is that much of the early narrative lacked weight in giving off clues as to the fact that we, the player, had indeed been manipulated to perform tasks in the game unquestioningly.

I only realized this on my second playthrough of the game (when i decided to try harvesting all the sisters). I realized the early dialogues barely contained 'would you kindly' or other cues that could have greatly improved the weight of realization when we finally meet with Ryan.

Having said that, I was bothered by the apparent philosophical smugness of the post-mind-control segments too, given how expressly they remained constrained by the game structure (I'd argue Earthbound chose the "empowering the player" option better in its endgame, and Metal Gear Solid 2 was more honest about the game structure's tendency to subtly disempower and disorient; both were wise to save it for the very end, when they stopped making other demands of the player).

I played Bioshock for the first time last month. I did not think it was that great, and I wonder if other people have felt the same now that it's 3 years later. With a setting and levels that get as repetitive as this does, and the annoying and logically absurd narrative device of the audio diaries (they at least need to be acted better or changed to written), I should hope that this is nowhere close to our Citizen Kane.

I'm not sure if it's fair to say that the game is giving you an Objectivist choice. I'm not intimately familiar with Rand and the philosophy, but is killing [semi] humans cool if it's in your best interest?

Metal Gear Solid 2 was more honest about the game structure's tendency to subtly disempower and disorient; both were wise to save it for the very end, when they stopped making other demands of the player).

I literally could not disagree more. I could not bring myself to bear harvesting the little sisters. I saved them all, and it made me feel quite good. Moreover, I received far better rewards for acting selflessly, in the form of incredible bio-upgrades that are unavailable to those who opted to just get more Adam.

I believe the game, far from being cognitively dissonant, punishes those who act out of short-sighted self-interest by denying them long-term benefits.

I think the fact that you felt compelled to harvest the little sisters says more about your own disturbed psychology than about the game. The game, of course, is meant to be a choice, and clearly the fact that you felt the obvious choice was to ruthlessly harvest, and I felt the obvious choice was to save, means the game was a terrific, almost unbelievably wonderful success.

Hi, I followed a link from IGN to this page. It's a really interesting read and I like the points you've made about the choices; however, I can't agree with your complaints about the lack of choice when it comes to helping Atlas. It's far from an insult that they went with the mind control twist. In fact, it's more like the developers were embracing the player by rationalizing the fact that you can't go against the game developer's will. It was a favor the player that the game and the developers were honest enough about this fact to make it into a compelling narrative device. If you're so concerned with the idea of being able to stay in character, you should praise this for bridging the gap between narrative, player behavior, and character reinforcement. The primary plot line ensured that, regardless of player behavior and choice, the player COULDN'T break character without quitting the game because the character you play as is supposed to be under control. All the dissonance you complain about in relation to Atlas would only be appropriate and make sense AFTER you've broken the mind control. At that point, character choice is as free as player choice. Of course, Fontaine never gives the player a choice of what to do because he makes a strong effort to have you killed and stands in the way of your escape, so whether or not the player wishes to help Tenenbaum and the little sisters or not, it is in the player's and the character's self-interest to remove the threat of Fontaine. I appreciate the thought put into the game, but I feel like you stopped halfway without connecting all the dots.

So you didn't bother to actually try for the "save little sisters" approach, because you just assumed that Tenenbaum was bad and the sisters couldn't be saved, and just wrote this article without having a complete picture of the narrative? That's some thorough work, right there.

Who cares? That's how games work, you get orders and you follow them. If you want to think for yourself and make your own decisions then do something that isn't a game, a FPS game at that.

I've railed against Bioshock for years for the very reasons you're describing. I finally discovered this article and I love the way you've distilled the really bothersome aspects of the narrative and how they fly in the face of the actual mechanics of gameplay which the player is asked to take part in.

I think a really major contributing factor to my frustration with the final game was the fact that it was hyped endlessly by many media outlets as a game that would "redefine the way you think of shooters" - Promises of an open narrative with reactive characters in a living world, evaporated when the game started and I was left with linear corridor 'levels', clunky gunplay, and zombie enemies that run screaming towards the player the moment they notice him - basically the oldest shooter tricks in the book. In spite of the attempts to mask the moment by moment gameplay in a compelling story, the actual GAME part of the game was so bland to me that it just completely prevented me from being immersed. When the supposed 'big reveal' happened, it INFURIATED me. How dare this game pretend to be about freedom and lofty ideas while at the same time forcing me down a linear path, only to then mock me for not displaying the freedom I'd been complaining of being denied by the game system for the ENTIRE time I'd been playing. Cloaking the fact that your shooter gameplay is less original than games which came out in the 90s in some meta narrative zinger about how videogames don't give you freedom of choice DOES NOT WORK when there are truly great open-world first person shooters like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. out there.

Further narrative and gameplay criticisms include:

- The game did not feel very difficult, but at the same time I never felt like I was playing it 'well'. Even on the hardest difficulty, I rarely died, but guns felt sluggish and like they missed often due to enemies with turn-on-a-dime physics, gun turrets around every corner force you to proceed through each of the tiny levels at a snail's pace, ruining any sense of flow, and monster closets spawn enemies behind you, making a methodical tactical approach to clearing areas pointless. Plasmids get very boring when you realize that there aren't really that many creative uses for them when the enemies are so dumb, and after putting up with the crummy, weak feeling guns for far too long, I eventually just resorted to wrench-bashing everything, which is actually *such* an effective strategy that it felt like I was cheating. Seriously, guys, the starting weapon, which is a WRENCH, is the best weapon in a game where you can literally shoot lightning and BEES out of your fingertips. Moment-by-moment gameplay simply felt like a chore, and I actually looked forward to the Pipe-Dreams esque hacking minigame because it was the only part of the game that actually felt well-balanced.

- For a game lauded for its story and immersion, there were a lot of meta-game touches which really bothered me. In addition to the aforementioned 'twist' which almost caused me to stop playing, I found it very odd that at the end of each 'level' it would warn me if I hadn't harvested all the little sisters yet, saying something along the lines of 'the game is going to get very hard if you don't gather enough Adam' - the first time I read that my jaw hit the floor and I realized I was never going to be immersed in the game. On the one hand, this game does everything it can to try and make me experience it like a story, while at the same time continually reminding me to participate in a mechanical gameplay device which seems to fly in the face of that story.

- To extrapolate on the above (and paraphrase the article as well), Bioshock purports to be a story about the dangers of Moral Objectivism - the Randian philosophy wherein personal edification trumps all other goals. However, the narrative contradicts a game system which is designed around the explicit goal of having the player WIN by aggression. There is not soft-power or non-lethal approach to the game, nor is there any significant modification to gameplay or story ending created through the single superficial binary choice that the game creates around the Little Sisters. Therefore, the gameplay weakens the impact of the narrative, and vice versa. Not all games are about winning, but Bioshock's 'game' aspect very clearly IS, so pairing it with a critique of Randian ethics is extremely off-putting.

- After the initial moral choice (to kill or not kill a Little Sister) the player is not really required to make any further choice - merely to revisit the ramifications of the initial one. The game plays it up like its some big deal every time, but after sparing the Little Sister's life the first time, I saw no reason to change my strategy. The fact that Tenenbaum almost immediately begins rewarding the player with additional goodies for saving the Little Sisters further removed any temptation I would have had to kill them, and because of the gradual growth of plasmids and abilities in the game over time, its never really clear how big a deal it is if you're missing a little bit of Adam. The fact that the game never gets too challenging doesn't do anything to help tempt you either. Finally, the finale of the game wherein the Little Sisters swarm Atlas doesn't seem to be affected by whether you saved them or killed them from a gameplay standpoint. Again, the gameplay itself completely refutes what the narrative is working overtime to try and convince us of: the choice of what to do with the Little Sisters is insignificant and does not really matter at all.

- After the big reveal that Atlas has been playing you for the entire and the real reason that the game has been forcing you through linear levels is not at all because of a flaw in the game’s design but rather for an important NARRATIVE reason, which is that Atlas has been mind-controlling you with a code word... you break free, at which point the game becomes a truly open-world experience, perfectly illustrating its narrative thrust through the game mechanics... oh wait, no it doesn’t. For the rest of the game, instead of doing everything that Atlas tells you to do, your newfound freedom is celebrated by doing everything that Tenenbaum tells you to do, again with no say in the matter... again, gameplay and narrative are completely at odds with one another.

- The game very quickly teaches you that you must kill EVERYTHING that moves. All splicers are out to get you. In spite of the fact that the game sort-of pretends to have a living ecosystem when you’re observing it unnoticed, it completely shits itself and falls apart the moment somebody sees you. Splicers scream bloody murder and rush right at you, with no consideration that they’re carrying only a wrench and you may be bristling with guns and plasmids. Again the narrative keeps pretending like there’s some kind of weight and meaning to this setting and to the characters, like the Splicers are tragic figures, drug addicted and slowly losing their sanity in a dying world, mourning the deaths of loved ones that they barely remember anymore and... oh shit there’s the PLAYER - time to turn into a robot zombie and execute my one line of code which says I should run straight towards him brandishing my weapon until I am dead.

So the game basically demands I kill everyone - I very quickly lost any qualms I had about shooting splicers in the back of the head before they saw me on the off chance they might be friendly. Likewise, both the gameplay mechanics and narrative of the game insist that we KILL the Big Daddies, which are designed to protect the helpless Little Sisters and are basically their only friends, and the only thing standing between them and being dismembered by all the nasty splicers in Rapture. Then after slaughtering the Big Daddy in cold blood and watching the Little Sister weeping over his corpse, then and ONLY then does the game consider what I do next to have any basis in right and wrong? It seemed to me that by killing the Big Daddy I was putting the Little Sister in a much worse spot than she was before, if not outright condemning her to death. Again, how can I have any investment in a moral choice system that makes absolutely no sense in the context of the gameplay.

After slaying literally hundreds of people, including the Big Daddies (which I’d argue are totally innocent) in order to survive in a madhouse underwater dystopia while under the influence of mind control, why does the choice to also kill several zombie children change the story outcome between my character becoming a kindly adoptive father figure OR a Hitler-esque maniac bent on taking over the world with the help of nuclear weapons?

TL;DR Whew, I’ve been waiting literally YEARS to get that off my chest. To summarize, I was and still am very critical of Bioshock. I agree wholeheartedly with the article but would go one step further and say that if I were to review Bioshock, I would also give it negative marks for being unoriginal, bland, and somehow frustrating to play while at the same time being far too easy.

Let me see if I have this right...

You begin by complaining that there is a dissonance between gameplay and story. The mechanics of being required to aid Atlas do not fit with the game. However, you complain further when the game's story reveals that, in fact, the need to do as Atlas asked was reflected in both the gameplay AND the mechanics. There was no dissonance here at all. The gameplay perfectly reflects the story in this.

As for the Little Sisters, their aspect is validated too. Acting only in your self interest with them will eventually lead you into a trap. You, the player, will receive a "bad ending". You the character is corrupted and destroyed by his lust for power, and you the player see all your efforts lead to a "the bad guys win" scenario. So, only by acting in a selfless manner do you avoid the trap that acting selfishly creates. There's no dissonance there, either.

In short, you are simply mistaken.

I don't know if you'll ever see this, but something needs to be said about this analysis, because it is entirely wrong.

The message of the-in game story is actually that altruism is good and that Objectivism is bad. This is so obvious, I don't know how you missed it. Every single capitalist is treated as being a horrible person. The story itself is all about how unchecked capitalism ruined the city.

Yes, you are given a choice about the sisters, but one of those choices is wrong. There's a reason why the game rewards you for choosing the other option. The fact that Atlus encourages you to do the bad action is foreshadowing that he's not who he claims he is. He acts like he's for altruism, yet he's pushing selfish survival.

That doesn't mean there's not ludonarrative dissonance, but it's not found in competing messages about right and wrong. It's found solely in that they take so long to reveal your backstory that you build up the fake narrative as true in your mind. And thus it is a big letdown when you find out that everything you know is wrong.

The game isn't mocking you. It's commenting on the inherent difficulties in making a narrative with actual choice. It's commenting on not only the medium but life itself. We think we have choices, but it turns out we don't. We're just following built in orders.

If you wanted to throw down your controller because the story didn't make sense, since Fontaine had no reason to give you fake reasons for doing things when he could just order you, that's fine. If it's because you thought you were helping someone out and you weren't, that's fine. But if you think they were mocking you, it's because you didn't understand the actual message of the game.

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