Robert Tiemstra ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Let’s talk for a moment about silent protagonists. They are so ubiquitous in first-person shooters these days that oftentimes it doesn’t even register that we are playing as a character; for all the player cares, the “player character” is a pair of disembodied arms hovering in midair in front of a floating GoPro. And when games weave the silent protagonist into the narrative as an actual character, things get even more awkward, as you are forced to play as the most socially inept character created by fiction, just wandering slack-jawed from scene to scene, doing what other people insist you want to do, no matter what complaints your character has no doubt resentfully buried deep inside themselves long ago.
Truth be told, there are a lot of things to be impressed with in Bioshock, the first in Ken Levine’s trilogy of high-concept action games that concluded in 2014 with Bioshock Infinite and Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea (for the purposes of this article, Bioshock 2 does not exist). This game has a unique world, horrific suspense, and an organic plot that unfolds as you play, but its treatment of its silent protagonist is the hook on which it hangs everything else. The protagonist’s name is Jack, a name so shamelessly generic that you’re forgiven for not even registering it (in fact, it may not appear in a single line of dialogue). The other characters, from the enigmatic refugee Atlas to the insane artist Sander Cohen, are drawn so well that Jack himself becomes a nonentity within his own story (or is it a he? We have no way of knowing…). And therein lies the structural genius of it all – by making us not treat Jack as a character, we don’t register both the “amnesiac hero syndrome” (which is explored visually rather than in clunky “who am I?” dialogue), and the inevitable third-act twist.
And this is all essentially to say that Bioshock is a great game because it hides all its card tricks by presenting its narrative through pure visual storytelling instead of clunky exposition. You (or rather, Jack) are thrust into the middle of a brave new world (which features a daringly claustrophobic aquatic aesthetic called “biopunk”), and you are forced to explore a ruined former utopia, and put the pieces together as you go along. The city of Rapture is a delicious environment – rich with creative production values, and positively dripping with atmosphere – and the state of its society is a veritable master’s thesis worth of objectivist criticism, with the eventual outcome of a utopian society founded on objectivist views (lest we forget, the founder of Rapture’s name is Andrew Ryan, which is an anagram of “We R Ayn Rand”) being a decrepit city that is 99 percent manic psychopaths, and 1 percent oblivious visionaries.
This is not to shortchange the gameplay aspect, because Bioshock is as thrilling as a horror-action game can be without stifling the thrills that can be mined from re-enacting that famous scene from The Wicker Man, engulfing hordes of splicers in swarms of bees. The iconic Big Daddies still retain their terrifying status to this day, and the ominous aquatic rumblings that signal their coming are likely to send a chill down any hardened player’s spine.
And yes, despite this game holding up in superb form in the eight years since its initial release, it is not perfect. The ending features a vicious moral choice that a player can screw up extremely early if they are not aware. While in most RPGs a “good” and a “bad” ending can be part of the draw, the unfortunate aspect in Bioshock’s writing is that they fail to drop any clues that choosing to harvest one Little Sister will give you a much weaker ending in which Doctor Tenenbaum talks down at you in scathing voiceover. Ken Levine clearly wants to punish players who sacrifice little girls for their own gain, but can’t he just give us a free one or two? Or at least warn us before dropping the hammer of judgment on us. Never has any game ending ever felt so much like a lecture for breaking a rule you didn’t know existed… but that’s the problem with gamer morality – we don’t adapt our own moral standards to a game, we accept the standards the game presents us with. When you give us a choice to sacrifice a creepy child or not, we have no way of knowing what is the right thing to do, because we are playing by your rules, Mr. Levine!
Flaws and all, BioShock holds up well as a unique example of what auteur-driven AAA gaming can be – if you look at the cover, you see a generic action/horror game, but when you play it, you discover a deeply imaginative and sparsely written masterwork that takes elements of Jules Verne, George Orwell, and Ayn Rand, blending them together while subverting the silent protagonist trope in the simplest and most effective way possible. Now, if you have not played this game… go out and buy it, would you kindly?