Father Knows Best – Bioshock

NB: This post is going to contain ending spoilers for the first Bioshock. It’s also really nerdy.

Let’s get one thing straight here – I’m not here to weigh in on the big weighty question sweeping big weighty nerds all across the internet, as they band together to tell a cancer patient that he’s stupid and wrong. Are video games art? I don’t really care. I think the whole debate undercuts the medium it’s trying to uplift. You can explain to someone who’s never picked up a controller why the death of one of your tow-headed moppets in Final Fantasy 7 gave you honest tears. (For the record, I was much sadder about the supposed death of the cat riding a big stuffed animal.) You can discuss how only capital-A Art could provoke so emotional a response from you, a man who’s watched WikiLeaks videos of soldiers blowing up civilians without batting an eye.

After that, they’re going to link you to this video from recent release and critical darling Bayonetta, featuring two impossibly built and over-sexed women contorting around like strippers in heat.

Look out, Ebert. I'm coming for you. And when I'm finished, all they'll find are Cheeto fingerprints.

My point is, who cares if video games are art? The whole argument sounds like people grasping at making their hobby/obsession Mainstream Credible. If Ebert were to give up and declare video games art, his opponents reason, then all of a sudden they’ll be seen as the same as film buffs who watch and discuss movies or literature lovers who dissect books. This completely ignores that there are plenty of people who watch movies and read books that are just as dumb, greasy, and obese as the current common conception of video gamers. It’s a silly argument and I don’t want to add more words to the pile.

Well, more words than I already did.

Let’s move on.

Bioshock is called the “spiritual successor” to System Shock 2, the sequel to (yep) System Shock. In a way, this means that Bioshock is System Shock 3. In another, more accurate way, that’s dumb as hell and wrong.

The Bioshock series is set in the ruined Randian world of Rapture, sort of an underwater Galt’s Gulch. Some big capitalist got mad that governments were taking his money, so he and a bunch of geniuses went underwater. There they discovered some sort of magical sea slug whose excretions (called ADAM) allowed them to rewrite their genetic code through so-called Plasmids. Everyone in Rapture then used this scientific breakthrough to light people on fire with their fingers or shoot lightning bolts at each other or whatever else the developers thought up. To the player, ADAM figures as an extremely necessary and limited currency used to buy new powers and abilities.

The lightning shooting from the welder's fingertips represents the power of unfettered capitalism and also that it's really cool to zap people.

ADAM, once deployed into a person’s body by means of a really big syringe, can only be reclaimed by, well, sucking it out with a much smaller syringe. These little syringes are carried in the little hands of the much-ballyhooed Little Sisters, who are protected by the Big Daddies.

Before Bioshock was released, the developers hyped up the supposed “moral choices” – in order to get your hands on precious ADAM, you’re going to have to deal with the Little Sister somehow. And here’s your conundrum: you have two buttons. If you press the left one, you “save” the Little Sister by bathing her in some glowing white light, and then she gives you a little bit of ADAM. Or you can “harvest” her by ripping out the ADAM making sea slug inside of her, killing the child but giving you a lot more ADAM. At first, it can seem like a difficult choice. Do you do what’s right and handicap yourself with fewer resources, or get as much ADAM as you can?

The impact is lessened once you realize that for every three girls you “save”, you earn rewards of additional ADAM and powers that cannot be obtained in any other way. Also, by saving all the girls, you achieve the Good Ending, where you all return to the surface and they become Good Girls and you act as their father figure and wow everything’s all flowers and sunshine. If you “harvest” more than one girl, though… well, you are obviously an evil monster whose only goal is death and destruction. The Evil Ending comes out to play when you kill almost all (or all) of the girls, and features you and an army of the genetically modified citizens of Rapture taking over the world (even though you just spent the entire game killing these same freaks with a wrench). The only shade of gray is if you save most but kill a few – you get the same ending video as the Good Ending, but with a different voice over. Basically, you’re either Good, Evil, or Kinda Good.

That’s dumb. And I think that the developers realized this when it came time to create a sequel. Because Bioshock 2 (which we’ll get to in a later post) plays to an actual moral issue that was glossed over in a lot of the reviews and postmortems and pithy forum posts about the original: the Big Daddies.

What a couple of happy campers. Pity that one of them contains a magic sea slug and the other one has to die. Video games, folks.

Earlier, I mentioned that each Little Sis is protected by a Big Daddy, a hulking metal monstrosity in a diving suit. He could be carrying a rivet gun, a grenade launcher or he has a big fucking drill for an arm. He’s better armored, more dangerous and bigger than anything else you face down in the depths. And he will protect his Little Sister with his life, and she fucking loves him. As she wanders around the area, poking corpses with her needle gun, she’ll sing songs and talk to her Daddy. She’ll call him Mr. Bubbles,  ask him if he sees the angels (corpses), and act like a young girl excited to be taking a walk with her father. Sure, she’s a creepy little thing with sallow skin and yellow eyes  in a dirty sundress and he’s a big metal monstrosity, but, hey, it’s kinda cute.

And then all of a sudden, here comes John Q. Protaganist, shooting lighting bolts and blasting the Big Daddy with a shotgun. Suddenly the Little Sister’s playtime antics turn into rallying cheers for her father (“Get him, Mr. B!”) and the roar of the Big Daddy fills the area. Of course, the player triumphs (given the fact that it is impossible to actually lose Bioshock due to features built right into the game – a discussion for another time) and the monster slumps to the floor, defeated.

And the Little Sister starts crying. Weeping for the death of her father. The father you killed. Sure, you did it for the “right reasons” (sweet, sweet ADAM), but it’s on your hands. When you’re playing Bioshock for the first time, it might not even register, because you’re still high on adrenaline, ready to claim that reward. But, on reflection, it’s not many games that demand you murder a young girl’s father in order to progress, and then give you the option to finish the job by murdering the girl herself.

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