Although there are many interesting elements within the story of Bioshock that deserve attention, my intention for these reviews is to keep them as short as possible. No one wants to read a 20 page paper on the Objectivism of Bioshock, at least not here on a blog. With this in mind, I will visit some of the major themes of the story with an in depth analysis. The idea is to share deeper connections that other fans of the story might not have made and to elicit conversation about the story with other enthusiasts.
So, please do feel free to comment below and discuss these (or other) bits from the story of Bioshock.
Let’s dive in (pun intended).
I want to visit the theme of the protected and the protector and its effect on the audience, as well as investigate the atmospheric visual aspects of this story that place the audience within the philosophy that directs it. Ultimately, these two themes drive what I believe is one of the central ideas of Bioshock – choice and the determination of choice.
One of the omnipresent themes within the story of Bioshock is the elements of darkness and light, a common theme in many stories. Bioshock begins with a dimly lit airplane, a scene of relative comfort and familiarity that is soon dispelled as we are plunged into the ocean amid darkness and fire, a harbinger of the experience lying in wait within Rapture. This is a literary concept known as foreshadowing – the intentional placement of elements that will recur later in the story. The reason for foreshadowing is to allow the audience to better understand the point of the theme, as well as emphasize any lessons the theme may impart. So let’s connect this darkness and light to the story’s later elements to see what we glean from it.
Historically, darkness has signaled danger. In other literature darkness signals either a spiritual or physical evil defined as danger to one’s soul or physical life. Shakespeare writes, “Sable Night, mother of Dread and Fear, / Upon the world dim darkness doth display / and in her vaulty prison stows the Day (The Rape of Lucrece). Both dread and fear are born from Night’s darkness itself, something that we will shortly connect to Bioshock’s use of water and darkness. First, consider Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the use of darkness as a trope (a common literary device) of the suffocating evil in society. This is an easily understood concept: darkness = bad.
Where things get deeper and more interesting for us is the combination with the evils of darkness and the symbolism of water as life. We are almost immediately plunged into the dark ocean. This immersion prompts the necessary observation that the Bioshock: Infinite story similarly begins and ends in baptism (a spiritual rebirth). The atmospheric darkness (and water) continues unabated, and we are aware of its presiding over the events of the story. The effect is immediately and consistently provocative of the awareness that we have been born into a new environment, one that poses danger. The viewer is confronted with associations of danger in both submersion in water and being surrounded by darkness. Yet, upon arrival at the beautifully presented city of Rapture with its bright lights and impressive architecture, the contrast serves to suggest a haven from the dangers of the dark deep waters. We come to realize that while Rapture is safety it is also Ryan’s deliberate choice of safety from the dangers of society, namely compelled altruism (unselfish regard for the welfare of others), religion, and government. The waters then become both protector and threat depending on the player’s perspective on Ryan’s philosophy. Rapture is a testament to Ryan’s guiding philosophic rejection that God and Kings need to direct the basic necessities of a self-made life. Rapture’s atmosphere consistently hovers over the player, presenting the inescapable question: which is the dark danger, the world’s philosophy above or Ryan’s Rapture itself? The question presented by Rapture itself ultimately demands an answer from us and affects the outcome of the story.
Even if we forget that Rapture is underwater (difficult to do with the many leaks the city in crisis has) we are confronted with nautical imagery, underwater trips in our diving suit, and reminders from both Atlas/Frank and Ryan. Moving beyond the danger being submerged in water shares with darkness, consider that water has historically been representative of life. Our bodies are mostly composed of water, and we need to regularly consume water to live. We are born through the expulsion of water (via the womb’s emptying of the fluid in which a baby resides before its birth) and in Bioshock we are placed within the womb waiting to be born into our own philosophies that we take from the story. Ryan buries Rapture in water to birth his utopian society from the suffocating existence of the supposedly normal and natural above world. Bioshock similarly immerses us into the ocean for the duration of our experience. This fetal-existence is alarming for the aware player. Upon realizing we are faced with choices about our own morality, the existence of monster-like splicers, little sisters (remember Atlas calls the little sisters monsters, too), and other denizens of Rapture instills within us the fear of becoming like them. The world seems at once idyllic and dangerous, and the association with Ryan’s philosophy continues to prompt the audience to ask if Ryan’s rejection of the seemingly natural order of things is the cause of the breakdown in his society. Almost the entire experience of Bioshock takes place in the womb of Ryan’s dream, as it were. The life of the fetus-Jack protagonist is similarly mothered by guiding announcements, warning of dangers of infectious agents (parasites), and other parental concerns. We are Ryan’s emerging children merely by stepping foot in his world, and with the eventual return to the air above at the end of the story we, along with the characters, are reborn into the world as we know it having chosen for ourselves our own guiding philosophies and moralities.
It is interesting that the choices we face throughout the story rely heavily on this multi-layered parent/child relationship. Creative director Ken Levine remarked in an interview that the idea of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters came to him from a show that depicted animal-parent relationships, in which the predators threatening young animal life were driven away by their mothers. The parental bond the Big Daddies have with their Little Sisters is both grotesque and charming, and this concept of duality in the dangerous but life-giving water and parental connections it shares is experienced throughout the story, to its credit. It would be very easy to craft a story that asserted one way of living life is better than the other, but Bioshock leaves that question unanswered. It is the audience that must determine if Ryan’s society has been infected by the parasites and the world above or if Ryan’s philosophy is the root of an existence more terrible than the world above. But the parental bond evokes a natural and perhaps more deeper response in our social and biological drives. For many younger audience members who have not yet had the experience of having a child, stepping into the shoes of a protector (or destroyer; more choices!) is a revelation, foreshadowing the emerging choices we may (or do) face as humans. The Little Sisters’ dialogue, childish behavior and appearance, and interaction with the player deepens this pseudo-parental connection, and we are left wondering if this attachment is similarly crafted by Levine as it was crafted in Rapture or if it merely taps into our biological response to protecting children. Yet despite the possible artificiality of the connection it is pleasurable and eagerly anticipated, and possibly one of the major reasons Bioshock receives such critical and popular acclaim.
The darkness of the baptismal and birthing waters of Rapture reveals one of the central philosophies of Bioshock, the choices that we all must make to find our own rapturous existence. A similar thematic concern is increasingly being used in other game-stories, such as The Last of Us where the themes of protector/dependent and a dangerous environment symbolize our real life relationships and provides us with insight as to our choices that arrange and direct our lives. Stories like these are powerful, not only because they tap into deeply emotional situations that provoke a response from us but also because the choices are left to us. In early literature, morality plays (popular around the 15th century) would place the audience within one morality, one choice only. Literature has evolved since then, giving the choice of morality within the fiction that our society does not. So from stories like Bioshock we take away the idea that within these stories at least we are free to become Ryan or not. In this freedom, ambiguous morality, and complexity of ideas lies the brilliance and appreciation of these stories.
What do you think about the relationships and atmosphere of Bioshock? Were there any elements that I did not address that you feel I should have? Did the story elicit a parental response in you or not?
Thanks for reading!