Friday, February 20, 2009

I Finally Piss Off My Readers

Today, children, I'm going to talk about BioShock. No, it's not a review. I'm talking about Objectivism and its portrayal in the game.

For those of you who don't know, the city of Rapture is meant to be a deconstruction of fictitious places like Galt's Gulch. You know how some people talk about more regulation and point to children being killed by peanut butter? Imagine that multiplied by 1000, as the deregulation of science and industry has lead to most of Rapture's population becoming a cross between the X-Men and the RAGE zombies from "28 Days Later." Some people point to the fall of Rapture as meaning that things could have been utopian if villains hadn't sabotaged everything. I'll discuss why the actions of the villains are a direct result of this Objectivist utopia in due time, but on the more immediate level if you replaced the gene splicing industry with, say, cocaine you'd be seeing the same kind of societal breakdown. Just with less teleportation and lightning fingers. The message I think the developers were going for was that if you get this libertarian style deregulation of industry, most industry moguls are more concerned with making money now than in long term profitability. I have seen, first hand, corporations screw over their own long term profits in favor of immediate returns. So if you let pharmaceutical companies sell people narcotics, chances are they will. And thus you get BioShock's Splicer problem.

Then there are our opposing villains; Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine. One commentator argued that both of them are archetypal Randian heroes. I disagree. To some extent, Ryan is a Randian hero while Fontaine is a classic Randian villain. At the same time, the fact that they both can be mistaken for Rand-style heroes is an intrinsic flaw with all Objectivist fiction. Objectivism, grossly oversimplified, is the philosophy that people should work towards their own "rational self interest" irregardless of the needs and wants of society and other people. Hypothetically, if we all did then society will enter a new golden age of prosperity. Never mind the fact that 2 people seeking their rational self interest could come into conflict, at which point it becomes good ol' fashioned survival-of-the-fittest. Ayn Rand's (and by extension, many Objectivist authors') heroes are all ambitious, ruthless, and amoral. Unfortunately, these are often the traits of a villain. So the hero is often openly ambitious, ruthless, and amoral, while the villain hides these traits behind a facade of charity and communalism. The only difference between the two is that the hero is exploitative while the villain is manipulative. So Andrew Ryan is an oppressive, autocratic corporate overlord, and Frank Fontaine is a gangster who built an army by extending a cynical hand to the poor. Both are megalomaniacs seeking to control the city. If this were The Fountainhead or Anthem, one's the hero and one's the villain. But this is BioShock, and both come across as villains. Yes, Ryan built a city and Fontaine only stole what he could not create. But he did it for himself and he succeeded. By the very tenets of Objectivism, doesn't that vindicate Fontaine? Honestly, by Objectivist standards, how is Fontaine any different from Ryan?

The developers of the game have openly said it's a criticism of Objectivism, but this seems to have gotten lost in internet arguments over whether the game is pro or anti-objectivist. I would simply point to the game's built in karma meter, the little sisters. Let's all be honest with ourselves, "rational self interest" is greed. Greed is usually myopic. So you can kill a little sister and get 160 ADAM, or you can rescue her and get 80, along with a promise that Tenenbaum "will make it worth your while... somehow." As it turns out, Tenenbaum does make it worth your while, and if you crunch the numbers rescuing the little sisters is arguably more profitable in the long run. But if you didn't consult a walkthrough or played through the game at least twice, would you know that? The player only has Tenenbaum's word that saving the girls is a worthwhile endeavor, you only see the results of it for every third little sister you save, and the third one doesn't show up until the second level. So, if the player were acting in his "rational self interest," would he kill the girl for 160 ADAM or save her for 80 ADAM and the knowledge that he did something nice? The Objectivist player is expected to be slaughtering these girls at every opportunity. If that seems morally reprehensible then you're not a very good Objectivist or you would have known that morality gets kicked to the curb in favor of results (or profits). And if THAT seems morally reprehensible then you are not an Objectivist.

The option between saving and murdering children will earn you one of two endings, the depiction of which firmly cements that the game is meant to be anti-objectivist. If the player was a staunch Randroid Objectivist (which, in game terms, means killing children. A little anvilicious, I know) then the player is depicted as the clinical psychopath you played as who sets in motion, what may become, a new dark age for the world. This isn't something that's parsed and analyzed, you declare yourself ruler of Rapture and steal nuclear weapons, all while sinister music plays in the background and Tenenbaum (the former Nazi researcher) calls you a monster. If you go the non-Objectivist route, then all the girls you rescued grow up to lead healthy, happy, productive lives, and you quietly die decades later surrounded by your loved ones. All with bright colors and happy music. Never mind all this pseudo-philosophical analysis of the game, just look at the endings and guess if the designers were in the Ayn Rand fanclub.

I'm sorry to have inflicted this on whoever reads this, and I swear this is the closest to political I will ever get on this blog (because I always have the other one for that).

1 comment:

Matoushin said...

I enjoy reading such commentaries. Inflict away.