Your name is Jack. It’s 1960, and you’re on a plane flying somewhere over the Mid-Atlantic. You say to yourself; “they told me, ‘son, you’re special. You were born to do great things.’ You know what? They were right.” Then, suddenly, the plane crashes.
When you wake up, you are underwater. You see various items from the plane floating around you. A purse floats by here, a pearl necklace there. You swim for the surface, and when you reach it, you see that you’re surrounded by a wall of flames on top of the water. Off to your left you see your plane sinking into the ocean, but you also see a gap in the flames.
As you swim through the gap you see a lighthouse nearby. It appears to be on a small island or something. But it’s the only thing nearby, so you swim towards it.
After you reach the lighthouse you climb a set of stairs and go through a door into a dark room. Suddenly the lights come on and some old timey music starts playing from somewhere in the distance. In front of you is a giant gold statue of a man you’ve never seen, nor heard of before. His name is Andrew Ryan. Over the statue is a red velvet banner that reads, “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.”
You follow the music and the lights as you descend more stairs, climbing deeper into the building. When you look back you can see the lights going out as you move forward. Finally at the bottom, you find what appears to be a transportation device of some kind. It looks as if it will take you down into the ocean. The door is open. Inside are a radio, and a lever. You try the radio, but it doesn’t work. With nowhere else to go, you climb inside, and pull the lever.
Thus begins your descent into Rapture, and the video game, Bioshock.
Many people think that a videogame cannot provide the same level of storytelling as films, television, and literature. Bioshock proves that when done right, a videogame story, while vastly different, can be just as compelling as anything found in those other forms of storytelling.
Bioshock is a first-person shooter. The entire game takes place from the perspective of Jack’s eyes. The protagonist remains mostly mute, aside from the opening monologue, allowing players to project themselves into his role; to be Jack.
After pulling the lever in the transportation device, called a bathysphere, the player descends into Rapture. There are many fascinating, and compelling characters found throughout the game, but the city Rapture is the real star of the show.
A dystopian city under the sea that draws upon the architectural motifs and cultural themes of the 1930s and ‘40s in America, Rapture is a beautiful and scary place. It was built by a man named Andrew Ryan.
As the bathysphere begins its descent to the ocean floor, a screen comes down in front of you, and an orientation film of sorts begins playing, narrated by the man himself.
I am Andrew Ryan, and I am here to ask you a question. 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 these 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.
This line of thinking goes hand in hand with the thinking behind Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand, a Russian-American philosopher and novelist, fictionalized her philosophical idea, objectivism. Objectivism holds that reality exists independent of consciousness, and that man has direct contact with reality through sense perception, meaning that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and logic. Objectivism also holds that one’s only moral purpose in life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness. In other words, the sweat of my brow belongs to me. And through everyone’s individual sweat, and of course raw capitalism, society will prosper. (Rand)
As Ryan delivers his moving, and emotionally driven speech, the screen lifts, and the player is treated to the beautiful sight of Rapture. Rising from the ocean floor is an actual city, complete with high-rise buildings, and florescent lighting. The art deco facades and the classic 50’s Hollywood America themes are truly breath taking.
After the bathysphere docks, the radio suddenly comes to life. On the other end is an Irishman named Atlas. He asks Jack, “would you kindly pick up the radio?” He tells him that Rapture has gone bad. That it has been ravaged by a civil war between Ryan and a man named Frank Fontaine. He uses the radio to guide Jack to safety. Ryan, believing Jack to be an agent of a surface government, uses Rapture’s auto-mated systems and some pheromone controlled splicers (genetically mutated humans that serve as the players main enemy throughout the game) to try to kill him.
Throughout the game Atlas is there. He serves as the player’s principle source of information in the game world, often disseminating scenes before or after they happen, and providing tips along the way. He says that his wife and children are hiding in a submarine somewhere in the city, and he wants you to help him rescue them.
Atlas is a distortion. Through scenes later in the game, it is revealed that Atlas is actually Frank Fontaine, and that Jack is actually Ryan’s illegitimate son, born two years ago and genetically modified to mature rapidly.
Due to the moral center Ryan had established in Rapture, when Jack’s mother became pregnant she had the embryo surgically removed, and sold it to the highest bidder. That bidder was Frank Fontaine.
Fontaine not only had the embryo genetically modified to mature within two years, he also designed it to obey orders that were preceded by the specific phrase “would you kindly.” Then he implanted false memories into the resulting child, and sent it to the surface to return two years later.
The Atlas character is what’s known as an unreliable narrator. First introduced by Wayne C. Booth in 1961, the unreliable narrator is a staple of modern fiction. Booth's definition of the unreliable narrator has survived to this day: "I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author's norms), unreliable when he does not." (qtd. In Zerweck)
By being first on point upon Jack’s arrival in a strange place, and by posing as a simple family man trying to save his wife and children, Fontaine was able to manipulate the player by proxy of Jack to further his own agenda. He leads the player where he wants them to go through the deceit of Atlas, and gets them to do what he wants with the trigger phrase “would you kindly”. This last point is brought home in the revelatory scene where Andrew Ryan uses the trigger phrase to excise his life on his own terms; forcing the player to kill him with a golf club after the player has begun to sympathize with the man they now recognizes as their father. This is the only time the game wrests control from the player, as it’s the only time the phrase was used to get the player to do something that did not seem otherwise logical, given the perceived situation.
Along the way, the player meets many interesting characters, and encounters several challenging enemies. Most of them filled with murderous rage; crazed out of their minds from all the genetic modification that has been taking place un-checked and balanced by morality. Everybody in Rapture wanted it, and they never stopped to ask if they should.
The fiction of this game is deep. As deep and well fleshed out as any found in literature, television, or film. It is just told differently due to its media. By utilizing the unique properties of the medium within the constructs of the plot itself, rather than some plot device constructed outside of the interactive nature of the medium, Bioshock has created a timeless story. One that presents a fiction as deep as its clear influence, Atlas Shrugged, and that uses the complex plot device of the unreliable narrator, both not just within its means, but as a representation of its means. While it may not be as great as the greatest tales found in the other media’s, it is a one of a kind story experience that should stand alongside them.