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BioShock's fascinating but inescapable failure

Beware major plot spoilers.

We're not kidding about plot spoilers. This article discusses the plot of the first BioShock game in full and right from the first line. You have been warned!

The death of Andrew Ryan is one of the most celebrated examples of statement-through-design ever committed to a disc, and the funny thing there is that it's also an admission of complete and total failure. Would you kindly bear with me, while I recap BioShock's plot?

The game (re-released this week in a new, remastered collection of the BioShock series) casts you as Jack, an anomalous chap who finds his way down to the rotten underwater metropolis of Rapture following a suspiciously well-aimed plane crash. On arrival, you're contacted over the radio by Atlas, a rough-and-ready man of the commons, who steers you toward the guns and quasi-magical "plasmids" you need to make headway against a population of one-percenters who have genetically engineered themselves into a state of screeching predation.

There are hints throughout this initial deep dive of some diabolical overarching strategy - the chains mysteriously tattooed across your character's wrists, for one thing, the velvety black water pressing down on Rapture's hull for another. BioShock's ocean is both an all-pervading threat, insidious and mesmerising in a way the interplanetary void of System Shock could never be, and a continual reminder that every inch of Rapture is a wicked, unsustainable fiction. As the city's founder and tyrant, Ryan may be the game's principal overweening visionary, dreaming of a society touched by Ayn Rand's Objectivism, in which great souls are suffered to wallow in their own greatness without paying fealty to the state, the church or the plebs. But the broader suggestion is that fantasies of every sort are presumptuous, whether wrought from glass and steel or brought to sparkling life by the Unreal Engine - and in the groan of brass pipes and the buckling of cyclopean doors, you sense reality's hunger to fill in the gap, dragging the whole glittering edifice of video game design back into itself.

This is a world, in other words, that is very obviously gearing up to deliver a kick in the teeth. But the decisive blow, when it comes, takes the form not of a rip in the hull but a phrase. Having disposed of various addled underlings and disciples, all empowered and subsequently unhinged by Rapture's anything-goes ethos, you're asked by Atlas to confront Ryan in his office and avert the city's self-destruction. It is at this point that Ryan announces you to be his own offspring, abducted and hypnotically conditioned by the crime lord Fontaine (who has been posing as Atlas) to obey any order that accompanies the magic words, "would you kindly". You are, it transpires, little more than a drone without past or purpose, summoned to do the bidding of Rapture's warring despots while labouring under the delusion that you're an agent of change.

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This overlaps with the realisation that all you're doing in linear yet "choice-driven" games like BioShock is going where a designer tells you to go - a designer who generously permits you the fantasy that you're an equal partner in the endeavour, collaborating in the shaping of the world, in order to lull you into carrying out that world's essential destiny. Because after all, the real cruelty of "would you kindly" is that it's so very unnecessary. There was never any doubt that the player would obey Fontaine's orders - there's only one path to the endgame, for all the many exotic ways you might dispose of your enemies, and a fundamental expectation of a game like BioShock, in any case, is that the script always has the player's best interests at heart.

In hindsight, Atlas's advice "remember, the one-two punch" about using melee and plasmids together is as much BioShock's defining line as "would you kindly". It puts across both the chemical possibilities and constraints of the game's ostensibly "choice-driven" framework in a heartbeat, and hours later, you'll hear it echo as you summon target dummies to wrongfoot Splicers, lining them up for a headshot, or hypnotise a Big Daddy from the shadows before cutting loose with your rocket launcher. These might be combinations you engineer spontaneously, but you have no say on the mechanical logic that allows them, or where that logic takes you. Ditto the game's trumpeted moral dilemma about whether to save or harvest the cute yet corrupted Little Sisters who accrue genetic material from the dead - a dilemma that is rendered toothless not just by the negligible sacrifice you're asked to make if you walk the higher path, but by its centrality to a narrative that is designed to reveal choice for a sham.

Atlas doesn't even bother to deploy "would you kindly", half the time: promises of escape, retribution or simply the thought of another fungal, luminous art deco locale are motivation enough. When he does, he often buries it in the middle of a sentence. Ryan, by contrast, treats it as a punchline, dragging out the syllables maliciously as he barks commands at the player. "Kindly" is an apt choice of trigger word, being a term with a sinister underbelly. It can be read to imply either benevolence or "after your kind" - "kind" as familial descent, and more broadly as the innate and irreducible quality that marks you as part of a group.

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The phrase is thus a clue as to Jack's parentage, a reference to the shared DNA that allows him to break through Ryan's security, and also a sly judgement on the player as a categorisable entity, a distinct kind of thing that can be contained and manipulated, that will always act in accordance with its nature. Ryan tethers this to the game's preoccupation with the freedom of the individual within society, branding you a "slave", sleepwalking through life. Then, he hammers the point home by inviting you very kindly to kill him, denying you of the ability to consciously perform the only action in BioShock that you have some degree of control over. In the process, Ryan is revealed as the only individual in the game who ever achieves a measure of resolution - in articulating the bankruptcy of the choice mechanisms, he is able to cease to exist on his own terms, as a man who chooses to succumb, while forcing the player to carry on.

The game's eventual, absurd clash with a souped-up, buck-naked Fontaine has been criticised as a retreat from all this, and going by various accounts of an exceedingly troubled development, I doubt it was crafted for the sake of anything other than ticking a box labelled "thrilling crescendo". But one thing the notorious sequence does accomplish is rubbing your nose in the implications of Ryan's suicide. Having exposed the whole premise of a game like BioShock for a farce - in the unsightly form of a cutscene, to boot - it then obliges you to participate in that most hackneyed and abused of video game climatic devices, a boss battle. That this may not actually have been the developer's intention only contributes to the bleakness of it all - it suggests that Irrational is as much a slave to BioShock's self-negating fable, its insistence that you go through the motions when you know them to be mere gestures, as the player.

Ryan's death continues to haunt us. Not least, it's the sea anchor dangling from the heavenly foundations of BioShock Infinite, which offers much the same feedback loop of unknowing complicity and profound futility, merely padding the revelations out with bits of Marxist theory and nods to the claustrophobic existential theatre of Tom Stoppard. In a despairing acknowledgement of its own superfluity, the game allows the inventors and entrepreneurs of airborne Columbia to plagiarise the work of Rapture's scientists (along with certain other things) using dimensional portals.

I can't help but wonder if BioShock's is the essential tragedy of any video game that positions the player as narrative catalyst. Certainly, it's a cycle other creators have felt compelled to revisit in various ways. PlayDead's Limbo and Inside, for example, make a mockery of the assumption in a platform game that progress, growth and closure are always just a little further to the right. The Stanley Parable, meanwhile, turns the characterisation of the designer as a malicious god into a source of comedy, stolidly narrating your every effort to misbehave.

How to escape this cycle of failure - assuming you actually want to, the immediate and best objection to all this being that it doesn't matter where the journey takes you, as long as getting there is fun? Well, perhaps the solution is to somehow remove the concept of a protagonist from the equation - efface the valorised persona at the story's heart that is destined only to be frustrated by the limitations of the frame. A BioShock game that invites you merely to pay witness, to savour the artistry of each period interior, eavesdrop upon the wretchedness of its denizens, toy with its AI ecosystems unproductively, could be a BioShock game that finally achieves some kind of peace.

Perhaps the real problem with Rapture isn't that it's a bogus and degrading chimera - the fruits of both Ryan's hubris, and Ken Levine's - but that you're required to save it.

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