Between 2007 and 2014, Irrational Studios and 2K Games told a story. This single story had five acts: BioShock (2007), BioShock 2 (early 2010), Minerva’s Den (late 2010), BioShock Infinite (2013), and Burial at Sea (2013-2014). Since episodic presentation encourages isolated judgment, it wasn’t always easy to see the unity of these fragments as they were marketed and released. But the legacy of the BioShock series is marked by rigid and often irrational schisms: between expectations and reality, themes and mechanics, rabid fans and equally rabid detractors.
Now that 2K has kindly assembled all these narrative segments in BioShock: The Collection, we can bracket the question of the individual games’ authorship and look at the object itself. We see that the object is a circle. Episode two of Burial at Sea, the beautifully nihilistic conclusion to the series, ends right where BioShock begins. In the twisted chronology of the game, this means that the series both begins and ends with formidably gifted women (Eleanor Lamb and Elizabeth Comstock) making history-altering decisions. We see that the BioShock galaxy is, in fact, filled with brilliant, talented, complex women—Elizabeth, Eleanor, Brigid Tenenbaum, Sofia Lamb, Grace Holloway, Rosalind Lutece—and a host of snarling, unraveling men at the desperate extremes of their power. We see the precise point where ambition becomes hubris.
We also see a very large amount of entrails. It must be said that the entrails look exceptional in these remastered editions. The color schemes and textures in the first game seem to have been retouched from the bottom up, so that you notice whole new layers of intestine and artery when you inspect the crucified experiments of deranged plastic surgeon Dr. Steinman. The infiltration of the seabed into Rapture in BioShock 2 is newly rendered in bright purple and orange, which provides a pleasant distraction between episodes of drilling into people’s faces. If these are the pleasures you seek, then these new editions will serve you very nicely. For those who object to BioShock’s violence in principle, on the other hand, the remasters simply exacerbate the problem.
I suspect that most of us are caught somewhere in between. We care about the principles as well as the practice, and feel the dissonance between them. In a post-Gone Home (2013) world, we wonder if these portraits of Rapture and Columbia might look better without so much red. But the BioShock games are not violent by accident. One of the reasons they received such sustained attention in the first place was that few shooters have so incisively explored the motivations and consequences of violence—and none have done so with BioShock’s self-awareness. Without discarding the reasons for the shift in critical opinion against the games, it is worth considering whether having Irrational’s dystopias all in one piece might still help us understand the growing violence and discord of what is rapidly becoming our own.
Suppose you had never read a word about BioShock. You don’t know who Ayn Rand is; you don’t know what art deco means. Ken Levine is a non-entity. It is, I submit, unlikely that you would come away from playing the game thinking about the ethical ramifications of rational individualism. You would probably not harbor strong feelings about ludonarrative dissonance.
If someone asked you what the game was about, you might say that it was about killing deformed people in an underwater city. Here the conversation can go two ways. They might ask you how it was, and you say, it was okay. It was pretty fun shooting all those mutants. Alternately, suppose your discerning interlocutor hears your description of the situation, furrows their adorable brow, and asks, “Why?”
BioShock remains a great game because this question turns out to be extremely hard to answer. If someone asks why you jump on the goomba, you can answer that you’re trying to save the princess. You’re shooting those Nazis in Call of Duty (2003) because Nazis are bad and you have orders. In a way, these are meta-explanations, artifices of the narrative that substitute for the fact that you’re shooting Nazis because it gives you pleasure (and you’re not really shooting anyone). But within the reality of the game, where you don’t exist, those explanations are what must carry validity.
For the first third of BioShock, you’re killing people because a voice on the other side of a shortwave radio begs you to save its family. Seems reasonable. After that, this unseen voice, Atlas, convinces you that Andrew Ryan, the brilliant but ruthless founder of this failing utopia, was the one who murdered his family. But when you kill Ryan, you learn that you weren’t choosing to do those things at all, because Atlas had you brainwashed from the beginning. If he was able to make you do anything, however, why did he bother with the story about his family? This emotional appeal circumvents the exigencies of your avatar and speaks to you, the player, directly—which is to say, it’s a dirty trick. Those seven or eight hours where you lack free will just wouldn’t be as fun if you know you lacked it, even though this lack of agency would acquit you of the slaughter.
But let’s stay within the game. Before you kill Andrew Ryan, you learn that he is your biological father. You, Jack Ryan, were purchased as a fetus by bad guys and engineered to become a living, killing automaton triggered by a certain phrase. Naturally, dad is disappointed. Yet Atlas’s lies about his family implied a nascent self-awareness within young Jack, who is eager but unable to find ethical justification for his instinctive slaughter. This tension reaches its peak in the fatal encounter with Dad Ryan, where the noble patriarch triumphs over the bovine gaze of your determinism by giving you the kill order himself. In making explicit the distance between action and awareness, this sacrificial moment represents the genesis of self-consciousness in Jack Ryan, and through him, in the game.
However, the game doesn’t end there. After a sojourn with Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum, who is the closest thing Rapture has to a guardian angel, you proceed to free yourself from the mind control. For this last third of the game, the new and autonomous you could hypothetically do anything it wanted—catch another plane, see an opera, hit the fairway. Instead, you do exactly what you have been genetically, behaviorally, and environmentally conditioned to do: you kill more people.
Here we come to the dark heart of the BioShock series, which was never about anything other than cycles of violence. In a hundred different pre-recorded voices these games speak the same sentence: blood begets blood. The flimsy choices occasionally served up to the player—most famously, the decision to save or harvest Rapture’s victimized Little Sisters—are ruses in the same way Atlas’s family was a ruse. They flatter self-consciousness to disguise the tortuous circle of determinism: consciousness is a product of its biology, biology is a vehicle for consciousness, and both are shaped by their environment. If you are bred for death and your body is infused with weapons, you will become one yourself, regardless of your feelings on the matter. It is folly to think that we can break out of the circle by choosing to press square or triangle, because the choice will already have been made by our past experiences.
The idea that cruelty and oppression perpetuate themselves is clearest in BioShock 2, which builds on the domestic themes of the first game. BioShock introduced the Little Sisters—young girls who are nightmarishly transformed into walking steroids—and the beefy Big Daddies that protect them. BioShock 2 makes you a Daddy and gives you the opportunity to lovingly raise your favorite Little Sis, Eleanor Lamb. If you harvest the other Sisters and kill a series of semi-innocent bystanders, Eleanor becomes a bloodthirsty super-person poised to take over the world. If you spare the Sisters and bystanders, she does pretty much the same thing, but smiles more. But if you choose to protect the Little Sisters, you also have to stand watch and mow down addicts while narco-Sis feasts on the local corpses. In the end, the choice to save or devour these children is simply a choice between two kinds of slaughter.
BioShock 2 has enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity recently, and it is not hard to see why. It gathers all the series’ themes and presents them on a smaller scale, and with a grace that is lacking from the other games. It is a quieter, more contemplative experience, a shooter that is constantly giving you opportunities to do things besides shooting, like the lonely strolls along the seafloor that substitute for the original’s invisible Bathysphere rides. I’m happy to agree that it is the best BioShock game, if these are the standards we’re interested in. But it is also the safest BioShock. It works entirely within the template of the original, inverting the ideology and the gender of its antagonist but maintaining the same power structure, the same artificial either/ors, and the same gratuitous bloodshed. I love it, but set alongside the feverish inventiveness and jarring contortions of its younger and older sisters, it dims.
BioShock 2 was followed by BioShock Infinite, which has more in common with its predecessor than is generally acknowledged. Eleanor Lamb is reimagined as Elizabeth Comstock (née Anna DeWitt), who shares her Big Sister’s supernatural gifts and patricidal tendencies but has the advantage of being an actual human being. Early in the game your protagonist, Booker DeWitt, frees Elizabeth from an angel-shaped tower in which her father imprisoned her. Much of the joy of playing Infinite after this point is simply watching her experience the game’s marvelous floating city of Columbia. Unlike all of the ghosts chattering in your ear throughout the first two games, Elizabeth is right there beside you. She dances; she sings; she dreams of Paris. And after just a few hours in Booker’s presence, she learns to kill.
While both BioShock 2 and BioShock Infinite analyze the perpetuation of violence at the domestic level, Infinite takes the bolder step of analyzing historical cycles of oppression. Comstock’s Columbia is portrayed as a cartoonishly bigoted, authoritarian state that gathers together all the worst currents of early 20th century American ideology—phrenology, social darwinism, revivalism, and old fashioned racism—and submerges them under an idyllic, bourgeois surface. The main plot of the game follows Booker and Elizabeth as they give aid to the Vox Populi, a multicultural underground movement fighting for the poor and exploited. Your goal is basically to find them a big pile of guns, and when you do, they start their revolution—which turns out to be its own reign of terror.
This particular plot point has been a matter of considerable controversy since the game was released, but the violent uprising of the Vox is exactly what we would expect from the historical logic of these games. Andrew Ryan was a Jewish victim of Bolshevik intolerance who transforms his own suffering into an ideologically repressive state. Eleanor Lamb, exploited by her mother Sofia, learns a lot of bad lessons from her big daddy and becomes the most deadly being in Rapture. Elizabeth is eventually recaptured and tortured by Comstock, ending up as the apocalyptic messiah he wanted her to be. And the Vox Populi, demonized and oppressed, take on something of a demonic aspect themselves.
It is, of course, no defense of the idea that oppression perpetuates itself to say that it is persistent across the series. But it is not a thesis we can just laugh away either. It may be worth considering that BioShock Infinite is a precise illustration of Karl Marx’s proclamation in The Communist Manifesto (1848) that “not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class—the proletarians.” Marx wasn’t using metaphors here: he knew that the revolt of the proletariat would be a violent one, and he thought this was as historically inevitable as the rest of the process. It wasn’t politics or ethics; it was simple causality. Since BioShock Infinite never lets us see what kind of government the Vox Populi sets up for Columbia, we really don’t know what their politics are. But it seems disingenuous to be shocked that their rebellion against Comstock’s insidious regime would be a violent one, or appalled that they might take some righteous pleasure in that violence. After all, don’t we?
I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t problems with the way BioShock Infinite handles all of these issues. These problems have been exhaustively and enthusiastically documented by critics online, and given the generally adulatory disposition of most game criticism, one can only take this kind of analysis as a healthy sign. In particular, it must be noted that Infinite’s treatment of racial issues is clumsy at best and abhorrent at worst. Of all the (false) decisions that the creators could have offered you, it is ludicrous that they decided to give you a baseball and a bound biracial couple for a target. And the caricatures of Chinese people and Native Americans in the Hall of Heroes are vile things that make an already pointless chapter of the game more distasteful. These moments deserve to be excoriated.
At the same time, Infinite’s core invocation of historical materialism adds a new dimension to the determinism that all of the games explored at some level, and poses a fresh challenge for anyone who considers themselves a political descendent of Marx. Contemporary leftists have a tendency towards the the absolutization of ahistorical values—equality, inclusion, identity—but we have yet to reconcile this tendency with the historical and cultural perspectivism that seems appropriate to a post-global society. We believe in freedom, but only to the extent that it lets us affirm what we already are. Not unlike Ayn Rand, we want to live and think without gods, kings, or other patriarchs; unlike Rand, we haven’t been all that concerned with the vacuum of ethical legitimacy this abdication leaves behind. Columbia and Rapture are nothing more than illustrations of what happens when the vacuum isn’t filled.
There is a second cycle running through BioShock Infinite. We have followed the circle of determinist damnation in its many guises, but there is also a circle of redemption. This circle moves from death to life and back again. It was anticipated by the immortal Jack Ryan in BioShock, whose perpetual in-game resurrection (via the conveniently located Vita-Chambers) so nicely dovetailed with videogame conventions that it was easy to miss how audacious it actually was. Infinite’s Booker DeWitt is also a subject of the eternal return; we learn late in the game that the whole narrative of BioShock Infinite has already happened hundreds of times, and every time, Booker fails to save Elizabeth. The game, and the universe of the game, only comes to an end when Booker recognizes that the problem is himself: he is Comstock, and Elizabeth is his daughter. So Booker’s final and only truly heroic act is to surrender himself to being drowned in the baptismal waters.
But the BioShock story doesn’t end with Infinite. Elizabeth DeWitt’s drowning of her father should have put a permanent end to the story, but the game brings him back for one final tour of Rapture in Burial At Sea. It makes no sense, but it’s worth it to see Booker interact with the new, more assertive incarnation of Elizabeth. She has very little patience this time around for the emotional distress caused by your role as ex-pater familias, and isn’t afraid to sneer a little when you drink 10 bottles of whiskey on the pretense of “refilling your health bar.” Ultimately, neo-Elizabeth uses one of the Little Sisters to bait you into being killed by a Big Daddy, so that justice can be served yet again. Despite the new look for you and your companion, things start to feel a little familiar by the end of Burial’s first episode.
The beginning of episode two resets everything. You now inhabit Elizabeth, who seems to have finally made her way to Paris. But this is a Disney Paris, where artists from different centuries line up to paint the Eiffel Tower and bluebirds perch on your finger to tweet “La vie en rose.” This bizarre opening chapter doubles down on the deliberate cartoonishness of Infinite’s Columbia in order to emphasize the impossibility of genuine escape from one’s past; it is the too-bright light before the familiar darkness. And things do get dark once you go back to Rapture: episode two culminates with our old friend Atlas performing most of a transorbital lobotomy on Elizabeth, which you experience in visceral first person. Shortly after, with full awareness of her fate, she walks into a room and lets him smash her skull with a wrench. So ends the tale of Columbia’s first daughter; not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Elizabeth’s death isn’t any less meaningful than Andrew Ryan’s own self-sacrifice, but it does have a different meaning. Ryan wanted to uphold the value of choice: “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” Elizabeth is neither a man nor a slave; she has seen the consequences of powerful men deciding how the world should be, and recognizes that their murderous instincts have been passed down to her. She does what she came to do: she saves Sally, the Little Sister she hurt to bait Comstock—and for all its futility, it feels like a real decision at last. Then she follows the example set by her father, and submits to the waters of redemption. When everything you do and everything you are is corrupt, the game suggests at last, the march into an inglorious death can be the highest form of redemption.
Or maybe BioShock hasn’t given us the final word. As she submits to her burial at sea, Elizabeth gives Atlas the key phrase he needs to bring down Jack Ryan’s plane, initiating the sequence of events in Rapture that will eventually—after all the seismic shifts of power in the first two games—lead to the ascent of Eleanor Lamb into the world above. The rest is hazy; we are told in BioShock 2’s final moments only that the world is going to change. If the series does continue, perhaps we will get to stay on the surface and see its transformation. We could follow Eleanor Lamb as she continues to learn from her fellow humans, and see how she deals with the fact that she is something a little more than human. She will decide whether she wants to harvest us, or save us; she will be the Big Sister that Orwell never saw coming, or the angel from below that takes us to a higher plane. She has only to transcend a history of violence—to throw off the weight of a family’s legacy, and a city’s, and an entire world’s. Then, at last, the circle might be broken.