How to explain BioShock to a non-gamer

I was recently tasked with writing an article describing a piece of media to a general audience and elaborating on why it’s important. Though video games are becoming a more accepted component of modern media discourse, the average person doesn’t dedicate the time and attention necessary to experience some of the more involved games of this generation. This is my attempt to convey the philosophical and hopefully far-reaching implications of great games today by using the complex example of BioShock in a boiled-down form. I’ve overlooked certain components of the game in order to argue my main point more clearly, and there are a significant amount of spoilers, so don’t read this if you haven’t played the game yet and plan to play at some point in the future. With those caveats and disclaimers aside, here’s How to explain BioShockto a non-gamer.


"We all make choices. But in the end, our choices make us." – Andrew Ryan

In 1972, young teens scrambled from schools to arcades to witness the next generation of interactive media, both representative of a common sport and simultaneously alien in its digital format: Pong. Two white lines deflect a moving circle back and forth to simulate the experience of ping pong, only stationary and with joysticks. Eleven years later, the same teens, now twenty-somethings, hit the "mall-cades" to guide the iconic Italian plumber duo, the Mario Bros., over blocks, spikes, and fireballs in a square representation of New York sewers on the screen of an arcade box.

In 2008, American arcades were all but extinct, grown over by PCs or home consoles and the more sophisticated titles they hosted. Gaming combined the simplicity of its origin — human to digital interaction — and the complexity of the expanding technology to deliver immersive experiences rivaling film in both subject matter and treatment. And during the summer of 2008, 2K Games released a horror shooter that seemed to not only argue with itself but with video games as a practice. That game was BioShock.

I don’t mean to argue that BioShock has bridged the gap between games and other media, as modern gaming requires not only a basic aptitude for the controls but also a much higher level of commitment than other media. BioShock takes around fifteen to twenty hours to complete, almost all of which demand a significant focus. But assuming the time and attention can be paid, BioShock asks the player a question few game developers dare to ask: "Why are you playing?"

bioshock lighthouse

In 1960, an unnamed protagonist smokes his cigarette in an airplane above the Atlantic Ocean moments before the plane dives into the waters below. Surfacing from the wreckage, the protagonist stumbles through an eerily ajar entrance into a darkened lighthouse and is greeted by an imposing golden statue holding a red banner with the words "No Gods or kings. Only man."

The statue resembles an idealist entrepreneur named Andrew Ryan, and the lighthouse leads to his distopian underwater city, Rapture, the setting for BioShock. Game critics have acclaimed BioShock for its sci-fi 1950s art-deco-gone-asunder atmosphere, and the horror element that keeps the player engaged. For instance, while listening to an old ragtime tune and glancing at Rosie the Riveter look-a-like propaganda, the lights will flicker, and footsteps will dash about from behind while water drips from the leaking glass domes blurring the entire surreal scene. It pulls the player in.

The city of Rapture houses a pantheon of dark characters, but while these peripheral personalities may develop the character of the city, only three men occupy the real struggle: Andrew Ryan, Jack Ryan, and Frank Fontaine. Andrew Ryan founded Rapture under the ideals of perfect objectivism (see Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and note the anagram of names), the idea that great men should reap what great seeds they sow, unhindered by the proletariat, what Ryan calls "the parasites." The protagonist, the player’s "avatar" in-game, is his son, Jack Ryan. Frank Fontaine fills the role of malcontent mob boss.

The rest can get complicated and boggy, so I’ll simplify the dynamics as best I can for brevity’s sake. Fontaine (see also Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead) preys on the discontent of the lower class supporting the elites of Rapture and causes revolution using bizarre sci-fi methods of genetic manipulation. Ryan quells the rebellion by betraying his objectivist ideals (though not admittedly) and Fontaine kidnaps his son Jack (This is an oversimplification, but works for the point being made). Fontaine reprograms Jack to respond to Fontaine’s alter ego, Atlas, who leads the player through the majority of the game, none the wiser, until Jack finally confronts Andrew Ryan, who exposes the truth regarding the mind control. It might seem like the plot from a heavy-handed soap opera were it not already so heavy handed with anti-objectivist philosophical sentiments. But trust me, here’s where it gets good.

no gods or kings

Upon reaching Andrew Ryan, the entire goal of the game to this point, he hands the player a nine iron and instructs him to kill, prefaced by the phrase "A man chooses. A slave obeys." The game then gives no option but to kill, brutally beating the dictator until he utters his last word: "Obey!" Given the shocking violence of the moment, it’s easy to miss the message screaming from the bloodied corpse through the controller in the player’s hands. To put it frankly, gaming is slavery.

Put aside the argument about objectivism, though it does apply indirectly. You are a gamer who has just invested fifteen hours of your life towards the artificial goal of killing one virtual man, Andrew Ryan, at the behest of another virtual man, Frank Fontaine, and when the time comes, you are told that your actions, your choices in the game, are not your own. You must bury the club face in the side of his head, despite your newfound knowledge which might suggest a contrary course. You don’t want to be a slave. But you are forced to do it. In essence, you have no choice. And no choice is actually real.

It turns out that in games, you never really have a choice. Choice is the product of free will, exercising one out of an infinite range of possibilities. In a game, you are given the set of possibilities that have been programmed in, like a rat in a maze. Like objectivism, BioShockargues, free will in gaming is unattainable, an apparition teased by the façade of gameplay variation and immersive atmosphere. True choice can never be programmed.

To that logical end, BioShock asks, "Why are you playing?" When you play a video game, you’re only participating in a complex choose-your-own-adventure story — to the end of entertainment value — like where to place your white line in Pong, or when to jump in Mario Bros. Superficial choices do not deepen or expand the player’s perception. Realizing they’re superficial changes perspective entirely.


  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Myspace
  • Google Buzz
  • Reddit
  • Stumnleupon
  • Delicious
  • Digg
  • Technorati
Author: Dan Crabtree View all posts by
Dan is Managing Editor for GamerNode and a freelance gaming writer. His dog is pretty great. Check him out on Twitter @DanRCrabtree.

Leave A Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.