Comments on

A Man Chooses

Original entry posted: Thu Aug 7 21:01:49 2008

Matt @ Thu Aug 7 14:15:59 2008 EST

This is exactly why it drives me crazy when people claim (Roger Ebert, I'm looking at you) that video games cannot be art.

Like you said, only a video game can pull off this type of narrative. Watching a film, you're a spectator and you don't question your motives when you see something onscreen — unless it's along the lines of "Why did I pay to see this movie?" That one scene in BioShock changes your perception of everything you have accomplished over the last several hours and makes you question why you did it.

That's an amazing accomplishment for something that isn't considered "art."

That Fuzzy Bastard @ Thu Aug 7 15:19:32 2008 EST

Indeed---it is Ryan who fails his own ideals as much as anyone else in Rapture, which gives his downfall a whole extra layer of poignance. After all, in his attempt to fight back Fontaine Fisheries, Ryan doesn't just employ a bunch of hired goons to carry on like thugs, a time-honored industrialist technique, he commits the ultimate libertarian sin---nationalizing (the fishing) industry!

Part of what's so heartbreaking about Ryan's fate is how consistently disappointed he is in his creations---I think it was Leigh Alexander who wrote a beautiful piece about Ryan's inability to let people, or Rapture, be what they are. That's what makes his death scene so incredibly moving for me---as you head into the room, he tells you that you've always been a disappointing son, and just before he orders you kill him, he wonders if just maybe you do have some of his indomitable will. What Ryan wants is for you to become a man, and stop being a slave, which you can only do if you prove yourself capable of not following orders, including his. And when you fail to do that, he'd rather die than live with the final disappointment.

I agree, too, that in a game that mostly avoids noninteractive cutscenes, bringing one in at the climax---and in such an emotionally and narratively loaded way---is a really canny gesture, especially when it's followed by the mocking return of go-here-do-this. I think you could expand Bioshock's critique of gaming's false freedom into a larger critique of Objectivism---claims of freedom and autonomy are meaningless in a created environment like a video game, just as Objectivist claims of total independence are meaningless in a social world. This casts a very different light on the Little Sisters dilema---it is the game's central choice, but considering that the game ultimately mocks the very idea of choice, the lack of distinction between saving and killing the Sisters may be a thematic feature, not a bug.

Thomas @ Thu Aug 7 23:01:05 2008 EST

The line about disappointment is one of those things that really sticks with you--Shimerman's delivery is phenomenal. But it's almost certainly as much disappointment in himself as it is in Jack. Ryan would like to believe that he can't be controlled. He'd like to think that he would have shaken off the conditioning. But Jack is basically proof that Ryan's genes do not a superman make.

I think it's not just that Fontaine forces Ryan to assume the role of Big Government. It's also that Fontaine out-Ryans him, out-Objectivisms him. Fontaine's the logical conclusion of the Randian philosophy: selfish, driven, capitalistic, unscrupulous, and utterly beyond the law. I emphatically disagree that Fontaine is a nihilist, as Levine asserts. Even Fontaine's use of orphanages and poorhouses is only a technique to exploit society's weaker members, which strikes me as a very Objectivist thing to do.

Ryan can't bring himself to admit that he created his perfect market system only to be outclassed on its terms. He has to reach outside the market in order to save himself--a fact that shames him. I think it also shames him that he can't bring himself to kill his son--a parallel to the classic Randian thought-experiment of a mother outside a burning building with her child inside.

It's not, as Levine claims, that Ryan couldn't live up to Objectivism. It's that he couldn't handle it when someone else did it better. Ryan's disappointed in and ashamed of himself. By forcing Jack to kill him, Ryan regains the illusion of being true to his principles. Effectively he's protesting that sure, he made mistakes, but he's willing to die for his morality--could Fontaine say the same?

"A man chooses" and "a slave obeys" is as much about salving Ryan's own conscience, and asserting his own superiority and independence, as it is about a philosophy.

In some ways, this does position Bioshock as a refutation of Objectivism. First, because even a scumbag like Andrew Ryan can't bring himself to fully embrace the ideals he professes to believe in. And second, now that I think about it, the ending--these Little Sisters that have been altruistically helped (either by the player or, if you chose to be a harvester, by Tannenbaum) swarming the objectivist symbol and stabbing it to death.

Kieron Gillen @ Fri Aug 8 07:17:25 2008 EST

Good stuff, but I think you're overstressing the importance Levine's stated intent. What Levine was trying to do is a different thing from what the game is actually saying - and the game, in its sister-death=evil structure - is saying that it *is* morally wrong.

While I'm not someone who entirely disregards an author's intent, when it's completely at odds with what the game does, you go with the game.

(I haven't read that piece in a while, but I'd be surprised if I said "Ken Levine is trying to say" rather than "Bioshock says". If I did the former, it was definitely a slip)


Thomas @ Fri Aug 8 07:36:47 2008 EST

True: author's intent shouldn't count as much as the game itself, and you were clear about that in the EG piece. Apologies for any imprecision in my wording.

That Fuzzy Bastard @ Mon Aug 11 00:59:51 2008 EST

More in a bit, but just to throw in 2 cents on the subject of author's intent:

I think that Levine, like any interesting artist, feels **conflicted** about Objectivism. No good art, especially not political/philosophical art, ever came from a pure place, and Bioshock is no exception.

Rapture's disaster is presented as inevitable, coded into its DNA from the start. Levine's clearly very interested in the notion that Rapture, and Ryan's whole philosophy, is capital-D Doomed---he's pondering what it means for a society to be fated to collapse because of the very ideas that inspired it.

But it's equally crucial to Bioshock's effect that Rapture is awesome---literally, it's awe-inspiring. Even as you stumble through the wreckage, horrified by what's it's all become, it's hard not to be impressed by the scope and the beauty of Ryan's creation---and Levine's.

2K Games, as far as I know, is not a brutalizing dystopia overrun with murder, so Ken Levine clearly Knows Better than Andrew Ryan. But I suspect that Levine thinks a lot about the the force of will needed to turn a mass of people into an engine serving one man's vision. Brad Bird, another artist who you've called out for Randian sympathies, is also another artist who brings a very singular vision to a very collaborative medium---I think that to do what they do, you kind of have to have a streak of Rand in you, even if you know it's not something that you should build a society on.

So as to the question of whether Bioshock is expressing its author's hatred of Objectivism, or whether the author is a mean ol' Objectivist who accidentally created a scathing crtique of his own beliefs: I think that the answer is: Yes.

As to whether the author's intent settles any questions about the work: Oh hells naw! What would be the fun of that?

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