Game Theory: On BioShock, violence, Potempkin and propaganda

29 mins read

Feature by Harvard L.

This is a long-form essay covering the three BioShock games in the lens of art criticism. Spoilers abound. And, also, the focus on art criticism means there will be little assessment of how well the games are made or how fun they are to play, there is the review to look at for those opinions.

People familiar with film criticism might be familiar with Battleship Potemkin. It’s a 1925 silent propaganda movie directed by Sergei Eisenstein which depicts several episodes of Russian history in an attempt to stir up national identity and glorify revolutionary acts of violence. The director pioneered a variety of filmmaking techniques that persist in film theory to this day in order to ensure that the audience loved one side of the conflict and hated the other. Watching it today, it’s still possible to feel the impact. It’s violent, but in a shocking way; its scenes are stitched together with purpose, and it’s so carefully choreographed to elicit feeling. It’s a film which obsesses over what the audience feels at any given second – which is not something which can be said of modern filmmaking most of the time.

Battleship Potemkin’s power did not go unnoticed. Prominent members of the Nazi Party in Germany noted its effectiveness as propaganda and mused about the lessons they could learn from Eisenstein’s filmmaking. For the longest time Potempkin was banned, or at least censored. And yet today, it’s very easily accessible, a winner of retroactive awards, and a regular feature on countless “best films ever” lists. It would be because Battleship Potemkin would go on to influence countless non-Nazi filmmakers, including Orson Welles, who very visibly uses the emotionally impactful techniques which Eisenstein pioneered in his own work, including Citizen Kane, the film which constantly tops those same “best films ever” lists.

People joke about finding gaming’s equivalent of Citizen Kane constantly – the game that will forever stand the test of time as the masterpiece, and which everyone that’s a “real gamer” needs to play to completion. The measuring stick by which newer games squaring themselves up as an artistic work need to surpass, or at least stand toe to toe with. Some people say it’s Super Mario Bros, some say Final Fantasy 6/7, some say Silent Hill 2, some very cool people say it’s the Quintet Tetralogy, and then some people point to BioShock. BioShock is a hugely influential video game. It still currently sits at a Metascore of 96 on PC, and is available on just about any platform out there. Its construction has spawned countless game design theories and best-practices: it’s the game which put environmental storytelling on the map, it’s hugely changed the way we consider player agency within the game narrative, and it’s spawned the useful but maligned term “ludonarrative dissonance”. Love it or hate it, all roads lead to BioShock. And since the series has now become available on Switch as a collection, I thought it would be interesting to take a new critical look at this game so many people insist is art, and ask: is this gaming’s Citizen Kane?

Propaganda is a great line of thinking to start a critique on BioShock – its intro cutscene is dripping in it. Imagine a city or a nation-state, where, upon entry of it you had to internalise a video-manifesto on why the city was founded? The Andrew Ryan monologue at the game’s opening where he rhetorically asks the player “is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” firmly sets up the lofty ideas that BioShock will tackle. Its take on Randian Objectivism is barely veiled. Before the player can even enter the underwater city, they are greeted to a giant golden statue of its founder with the phrase “no god, no kings, only man.”

Ryan’s monologue isn’t deconstructed in the game’s opening; it’s played straight. He is eloquent, charismatic and rather persuasive, aided by the absolutely jaw-dropping first scene where the player’s Bathysphere travels between the 1960’s Art-Deco style buildings coexisting with coral, octopi and a blue whale. The illusion is only broken when the Bathysphere docks, the player meets their first Splicer, and are then introduced to the game’s primary motif – violence.

Just like Battleship Potemkin, BioShock is a gruesomely violent game. The various guns and Plasmid powers give players full control over how they would like their victims to die – whether by gunshot or explosion or electricity or fire or bees. Killing things is really the only way the player can interact with the world around them; it’s easier to count the buttons on the controller which aren’t mapped to some sort of violence-based interaction and that’s movement, looking around, jumping and examining/eating. There’s a conspicuous lack of pacifism in this game, there are barely any characters who can be talked to or levelled with,

All this violence goes hand in hand with the game’s insistence that the victims are human. Whereas zombies, mutants and aliens are a commonly seen defamiliarizing tool used by game developers to absolve players the guilt of killing, BioShock – perhaps in its insistence to be considered as art with real-world relevance – saturates its world with references to the humanity of its enemies. Splicers are functionally the same as, say, Left 4 Dead’s zombies, and yet the game frequently lets you listen to their semi-human barks before they fight you. There’s even a mechanic (perhaps the only non-violent one in the game, too) which lets players take photographs of splicers to study them. The line between human and monster is blurred – if they speak English, look humanoid and have been addled by DNA alteration, can they be cured? Or are they beyond help?

Similarly, the series’ iconic enemies, the Big Daddies, are described as humans who are welded to their diving suits and psychologically rewired to be motivated by nothing other than protecting their Little Sister. Their behaviours are designed to seem sentient – they are ambivalent to the player’s presence and respond to Rapture’s stimuli such as opportunistic Splicers or the built environment. Killing Big Daddies is one of the most conventionally fun things to do in BioShock for this very reason: they’re intelligent and they have enormous health bars, they require the player to formulate a plan and adapt to expected or unexpected outcomes, while making use of their surroundings such as gun turrets or splicers. To use a violent metaphor, if killing Splicers is like shooting ducks, Big Daddies are like hunting wild boar. And just like the wild boars of history, Big Daddies and their Little Sisters drop the biggest reward upon death – ADAM, which is the game’s RPG progression system, the most tangible way of making your character stronger. Recontextualised, this sends the message that killing every Big Daddy (remember, they’re human, and not hostile before attacked) is the proper way to play the game.

How do games convince the player that virtual murder is a necessary part of moving forward? As mentioned before, dehumanising the enemy is a good method, but it’s perhaps best suited towards a zany looter-shooter. For a blockbuster game purporting to be art, enemies are commonly ideologically errant humans (see also: Metro 2033, The Last of Us). They attack the player first, so the player’s violence is rather disproportionate self-defence. Another tactic is to say the protagonist is also not a hero: they’re a morally conflicted individual, and in a world drenched in grey morality the protagonist is just a little bit less evil than everyone they kill.

You could theoretically make that argument with BioShock – the game does have its unsubtle morality mechanic after all. Upon killing a Big Daddy (which again you didn’t even need to do), the protagonist is presented with a choice to either “rescue” the Little Sister by purging the DNA altering sea-slug from them, or “harvest” the Little Sister and destroy every part of the girl except for the sea-slug, which they then assimilate(?) for a higher amount of ADAM. It’s reminiscent of BioWare’s Paragon/Renegade morality system from Mass Effect – either you’re role-playing a good person or you’re role playing a bad one, and the player gets the appropriate one of two endings as a result. The problem with BioShock’s implementation is that it sets the bar for “good” to be improbably low, and doesn’t judge the player’s morality on anything other than this one binary decision. I had a hard time interpreting the game’s stance on morality because of this reason – statements about altruism and self-interest don’t reflect themselves with much intentional nuance when the game assesses the player solely based on whether or not they killed Little Sisters for their own benefit. Add to the mix the fact that the player kills everything else with impunity for the rest of the game, what is there left to interpret?

I’ve refrained from talking about BioShock’s Randian critiques too much because I feel like they’re window dressing for the game’s guns-and-magic-powers gameplay. Yes, Ryan’s city is phenomenal and the environmental design is a masterpiece, but for every moment of stopping to smell the roses in Arcadia or chuckling at an abstract sculpture in Fort Frolic, there’s a dozen subtle details lost because I was distracted with setting enemies on fire before shooting them. The actually-interesting parts of BioShock’s philosophy rarely manifest within the gameplay: radio logs are non-interactive, environmental design is backgrounded and the ideological conflict between Atlas and Ryan largely happens in backstory. Consider the question your friend might ask when you recommend them this as an art-game . “What do you do in BioShock?” Who would say “look at the environment” rather than “shoot things”?

BioShock’s good storytelling even happens outside the game itself – in supplementary material and director interviews you find that the Jewish Dr. Steinman had a familial conflict by becoming a plastic surgeon in Rapture, when the Torah strictly forbids body modification. His decision to come to the city Ryan prefaces as “no gods, no kings, only man” is beautifully rendered in this act. Yet when you meet him in the game he’s driven insane by ADAM, painted vague lines about beauty in blood onto all the walls of the Medical Pavilion, and he has a key which you need to advance to the next area of the game. So you kill him, and feel no remorse. You don’t interact with Dr. Steinman the philosophical quandary, you interact with Dr. Steinman the regular enemy with slightly more health.

The exception to this is that one cutscene that everyone remembers, which provides a Big Recontextualising Incident to the story – the player was being controlled the entire time by a secret code, and thus never had any free will to begin with. Ryan, who was touted as the game’s grand villain by any trope-recognising player, dies at the player’s hands, by commanding them to do the deed. It’s one of the rare moments of nuance the game has and it’s rightfully what lingers in the heads of players – it destabilises our assumptions and forces deeper thought, providing no easy answer to whether Ryan or the player had any real control. In short, the scene did what good art does. Even though it was a cutscene, the player-controlled gameplay leading up to this moment was required to create a false sense of security before the Big Recontextualising Incident rips it away. So, while I had my problems, I can accept that the choices made were necessary. What happens after, on the other hand… At the end of the first game, the player goes to confront Frank Fontaine – Machiavellian extraordinaire who started from the bottom and crime-d his way to the top. You’d think there would be some kind of dialogue, some kind of story beat, maybe an epic cutscene, to show just what the man who had been manipulating your entire playthrough was now going to do. The very same game pulled it off so well by hyping up a boss fight with Andrew Ryan and having him die unceremoniously, and yet.

In the final moments of BioShock, Frank Fontaine roids himself up. Then he fights you. Then you kill him. Then the game is over. When you boot the game up for the first time, almost everyone in Rapture is dead (pour one out for Johnny Bathysphere in the intro cutscene, by the way). By the end, everyone in Rapture is dead; except for the small handful of characters the game insists are Not Awful, namely a bunch of Little Sisters and one Brigid Tenenbaum.

BioShock is where the dreaded term “ludonarrative dissonance” came from after all, and in the 2007 essay designer Clint Hocking identified how the narrative of BioShock, which is anti-Randian and speaks against objectivist self-interest, clashes with the gameplay of BioShock, which is all about exerting power over enemies in whatever creative way the player sees fit. In a sense, the player is rewarded in gameplay bonuses for committing the same philosophical faux pas which lead to Ryan and Fontaine’s downfalls in the cutscenes.

Let’s reframe the problem though – BioShock isn’t a game trying to thread the needle of “a thinking man’s shooter”, it isn’t having a hard time trying to tell a story and present engaging gameplay at the same time. Let’s think about a good story as one which has consequences, changes and enduring human values. Characters dynamically change and grow dimensions due to the repercussions of their actions. Meanwhile, let’s think of BioShock’s gameplay as a power fantasy. The player gets guns in their right hand and magic powers in their left – and they have the consequence-less freedom to enact their power however they like. BioShock isn’t merely a masterpiece with a little flaw in its ludonarrative dissonance: it is at its core, chasing an impossibility. It can’t punish self-interest and power accumulation through story in the left hand while incentivising self-interest and power accumulation through gameplay in the right. And it’s clear that the final product leans more towards the gameplay than the narrative – it is a commercial game, it is a shooter, it has to sell. That’s why everything artistic about BioShock is in the margins – to say that playing BioShock is experiencing art is akin to playing Laser Tag in a museum. The art is wallpaper.

A brief addendum on BioShock Infinite – I did consider making this critique about all three games, but I had ended up making most of my points after talking about the first, and there wasn’t much point in talking about the second. I think it would be hard to argue after suggesting that BioShock’s guns-and-ammo gameplay detracted from its artistry that BioShock Infinite, a game with much more guns and ammo, would be any better as an art piece. But, a few thoughts are warranted, nonetheless. BioShock Infinite looks nice. I mean, really, really nice. The graphics have aged incredibly well, as have the environments, which are spacious, detailed and have just the right architectural flair to evoke wonder. This is a game which perfects walking down a hallway – while the environmental design of the original BioShock could occasionally be ignored in its dark grimy corridors and actual-city-sensibilities, BioShock Infinite feels properly utopian. I can’t think of many modern-day blockbusters who surpass Infinite in not graphical fidelity, but pure art direction.

And enough has been written about Infinite’s hyperviolence and the relative senselessness of that violence in peaceful Columbia compared to the civil-war-ravaged chaos of Rapture. Booker is a protagonist who can only interact with the world with violence, especially since so many of BioShock’s mechanics (hacking, photography) are removed to focus more on gunplay: just like the original BioShock, Infinite is far more about the fun of killing than it is about its touted theme of American Exceptionalism. A telling moment of this is early on, before even meeting Elizabeth, when Booker happens upon a regiment of Columbian soldiers just as a giant face of Comstock appears projected to give a 1984-style Big Brother lecture. The soldiers all kneel, even when they see the “false shepherd” protagonist Booker, because their religious fanaticism teaches to listen to and obey Comstock as #1 and kill the false shepherd as #2. This moment floored me. I must have spent thirty seconds just walking around these kneeling soldiers, waiting for Comstock’s speech to end, and even then they didn’t aggro. All the while my reticule was red; I could have killed them. I even imagine the game orchestrated this scene to clump soldiers together, so players could be taught how to use Vigors as an AOE attack. But the unintentional effect of this scene was clear – I didn’t have to kill these soldiers; and yet the rest of the game’s soldiers I did have to kill, because otherwise the game wouldn’t advance.

Again, it’s violence treated as a double standard. The player can commit as much as they want and not get called out on it (except by Elizabeth occasionally, but over the course of the game she learns to live with it) whereas any violence committed by NPC’s like Comstock or Daisy Fitzroy is full justification for Booker to murder them and all their supporters. In Infinite, the player can use the Possession Vigor to convert an enemy soldier to the player’s side, where they’ll fight their own comrades for a few seconds before donning a terrified expression while turning the gun on themselves. It’s shock value but it’s also utilitarian; I wonder whether the developers considered alternative animations for the ending of the Possession effect. Maybe the soldier drops their gun and runs away? Did test players shoot them in the back? Either way, there’s the dissonance of violence being a heinous thing, and yet also fun for the player to inflict. In BioShock 2, the same use of the Possession power to make the player shoot themselves is the very first cutscene, and the inciting incident for the protagonist to enact revenge on the person who did it. In BioShock Infinite it’s the first Vigor the player gets.

This is the problem faced by any developer from the last decade or this one, when they tried to make a shooter/action game with artistic merit. Player empowering violence is, by its very nature, difficult to reconcile with any form of artistic expression. We can see it everywhere: games jumping through hoops to justify why the player needs to kill so many people, whether it’s a grimdark world or a virulent infection or the player was an antagonist all along; no matter the excuse, artistry is cheapened. My point isn’t that games should abandon violence altogether – if replaying the three BioShock games have proved nothing else, it’s that violence is both easily systemised and a lot of fun – but it is worth questioning how violence can feature appropriately in a game conceived as art.

On an uplifting note, the DNA of BioShock found its way into games which can unquestionably be considered as art. Developers with credits on the very good Minerva’s Den DLC of BioShock 2 transferred their skills over to found Fulbright Company, developing Gone Home and Tacoma. BioShock’s environmental storytelling works excellently when it’s not a distractor to violence, and designers can do more than simply blood messages on walls. And with all the talk of ludonarrative dissonance, game critics have become far more receptive towards designs that have “ludonarrative resonance”, such as the uplifting success of victory in Pyre, the puzzle-exploration of The Witness, and the spiritual perseverance of Celeste. It’s a wonderful lesson, to stop expecting blockbusters to also be art, and recognise that designers have been making art on the sidelines for decades now.

And as for the original BioShock trilogy? I think the first game is still worth a look today, for its influence on the medium. It’s the Battleship Potemkin of games – a work that established technique and became much more valuable as a springboard for future texts. BioShock 2 is a pretty fun shooter, all things considered. And BioShock Infinite? Perhaps the developers made the right decision not trying to spin this franchise further after that.

– Harvard L. 

This is the bio under which all legacy articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

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