Anyone who has played the Bioshock will know these words. “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” Despite this moment being two-thirds of the way the game, the powerful, dying words of Andrew Ryan are the pinnacle of most players’ experience. They spring to mind involuntarily as soon as someone mentions the game. “A man chooses, a slave obeys.”
For many, this monologue was an astounding piece of story-telling that made them stop and question their actions. For others, it was a gratifying moment confirming what they already suspected. For me, looking back now and realizing that I never knew the protagonist even had a name – Jack – it’s a fantastic piece of social commentary. The immortal words of Andrew Ryan showed me that we, as gamers, are as much a slave as Jack ever was.
It’s well-documented that Andrew Ryan and the Bioshock universe are based on Ayn Rand and her book Atlas Shrugged. Bioshock takes us to a world where Rand’s philosophies on Objectivism are allowed to run rampant. The game starts with Jack surviving a plane crash out at sea. A bathysphere arrives to deliver him into the murky depths of Rapture, the city beneath the sea, created by Andrew Ryan in a bid to escape the world above. We all hate doing our taxes; but none of us hate them as much as Andrew Ryan; A man of many monologues, we are greeted with his objectivist philosophy as we enter his city.
“I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m 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 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.”
Objectivism, in a nutshell, is the idea that everything you do should be for your own personal gain and never for somebody else. Our first sights of Rapture are of placards saying “You don’t own us” and “Rapture is dead”. We move through the game examining the aftermath of this truly Objectivist society; one with no taxation, no civil protection, and no help when your competitors undercut you, leaving your family to starve in the streets.
Your character, Jack, is Ryan’s son, and a child of Rapture. Experimented on from an early age, Jack is removed from the city as a child, implanted with false memories and has his wrists tattooed with chains to symbolize his life of servitude. As an adult you are called back to Rapture to help Frank Fontaine finally end the civil war, and wrestle Rapture from its creator. Moving through the game you discover that scientists in Rapture have discovered how to imbue humans with superpowers though the miraculous use of plasmids, powered by a substance known as Adam. The citizens spliced these plasmids in and out of their genome, quickly becoming addicted to the substance. Society fell apart and life for the survivors became hell. In the Objectivist city of Rapture, with the Splicers trying to kill you for your Adam, your self-preservation is your problem, and yours alone.
Fontaine spends the game sending you on fetch quests to further his needs, using only a gentle “would you kindly” to control your actions. At first, these orders are simple things: “would you kindly pick up that shortwave radio”; the player doesn’t question this because in their quest for success a radio would come in handy. When Frank asks you to kindly kill the Splicers, you do so without a second thought.
When Andrew Ryan orders you to kill him, you realize that have no choice.
A man chooses. A slave obeys.
It’s here that the game makes us ask ourselves whether we are men or slaves. There is, however, a third option. We are Splicers. Years of gaming have conditioned us to the point where the words “power up” have the same effect on us as “would you kindly” has on Jack. When you pick up your first plasmid, Frank does not kindly ask us to use it. The words “power up” were all we needed, and we were firing off electricity left right and center.
As gamers we often stop and see a large enemy guarding a treasure. We’ll do an ammo count and realize we don’t have the bullets to take down a foe. Do we let it live, or do we scour the level for a few more bullets because we’re close to getting an upgraded ability? In Bioshock you’re supposed to be a slave to the game, so you take on a Big Daddy. You kill it and you take the Adam, because what other choice do you have?
“A man chooses. A slave obeys.”
I didn’t want to kill Andrew Ryan. He’s a psychopath and refuses to admit that his plan failed. This not only cost Rapture dearly: ultimately, it cost him his life.
I wanted Ryan to atone for his sins, but whether you want to kill him or not is irrelevant; this is a win-win situation for him. If you kill him it’s because you’re a slave. If you break free of your chains to prove a point, it’s because you’re self-centered. You are a man and by the theory he has lived his entire life by, man is selfish. He forces you to kill him to prove himself right, allowing him to die with a clear conscience and completely validated. Ryan thinks that Rapture is his. If he dies, Rapture dies. If he lives, he takes Rapture back. Selfish to the dying breath, this man is the very embodiment of Objectivism at this point.
Since this game was released we have seen many games try to draw this same level of self-awareness out of players, to varying degrees of success. Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 asks us to blindly kill civilians in a Moscow airport during an early mission, No Russian. It is entirely optional, and you do not fail the mission if you spare the civilians. Dishonored gives you the choice to either take the easy path and kill everyone you cross, or to struggle immensely by killing only those who deserve to die. Both are equally valid and the characters in the game will treat you very differently based on how you act. Spec Ops: The Line takes a much less subtle approach and makes you live through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after forcing you to commit atrocities, posing the idea that anyone who plays an FPS and blindly shoots without questioning orders is as much a slave as anyone else.
Bioshock was the first game which really opened my eyes to this, and while it is very easy to be blindly led down the path of shoot first and never question why, it always serves to remember what Andrew Ryan died to tell us.
“A man chooses. A slave obeys.”