Welcome to Rapture
Today, I want to analyze two interrelated themes found in 2007’s first-person-shooter BioShock. BioShock is hands-down one of the best games (and certainly one of the best FPSs) of the last four or five years, and if you have not already experienced it, I would suggest remedying this with some measure of haste. The game has its flaws (and its detractors) but few would argue that its characters, concepts, and atmosphere are anything short of superb.
It’s the sort of game that has already had a fair amount written about it, especially its mid-game plot twist, which is important not only to the story of the game, but calls into question the player’s psychology as he or she plays any linear game. (It culminates in a cutscene with a brilliant use of “distance,” as discussed by Matt in his first column, but that’s a conversation for another time.) That and the fact that it serves partly as a rebuttal to a Randian notion of utopia have fueled the discussions of BioShock for some time.
But I’m not particularly going to focus on either of those things today, though they will both undoubtedly come up. Instead, I wish to discuss two particular themes: that of freedom, and that of failure, by looking at three of the characters in BioShock: Dr. J.S. Steinman, Sander Cohen, and Andrew Ryan himself.
I have not played BioShock 2 or read any of the supplementary material. Thus, if I say something that contradicts something said in one of those sources, don’t point it out to me, because I don’t care.
Let’s Get This Paper Started
Ryan declares, in his opening monologue, that he built Rapture to be a city “where the great would not be constrained by the small.” His purpose is to build a city far away from the “vultures” in Washington, Moscow, and the Vatican, a place where true geniuses in art, science and industry would not be constrained by “the censor” or “petty morality.” (Andrew Ryan, “Welcome to Rapture.”)
But in so doing, he has already become self-defeating, for the great do not need to run away from the real world. Rapture does not attract those who are actually great, but rather those who think they could become great, if only they could escape whatever is holding them back in the world on land. As Sartre would say, one is not a great novelist until one has written a great novel, and I would posit that no one who has written a great novel is likely to run away from his or her success to an isolated utopia beneath the sea.
In this way, Rapture attracts those who have experienced failure in the regular world, and desire Rapture for its freedom, under the mistaken impression that freedom will inevitably lead to success. If only they can escape the government, or their families, or religion, or their economic structures, or the fallout from the Second World War, then they can come down to Rapture and make names for themselves. Rapture is thus full of failed “poets, artists, and tennis players,” looking to find success in the freedom Rapture offers. (Sullivan, “Smuggling Ring.”)
Each of the three characters I will here discuss embodies different aspects of the themes of failure and freedom, and from them, I believe I can deduce one of the major points that BioShock is trying to communicate, that ultimate freedom breeds only failure.
Dr. J.S. Steinman
Steinman is a (possibly the) plastic surgeon in Rapture, and is one of the first madmen the player encounters. In game terms, he is a minor obstacle, as he owns a key to a locked door Jack needs to get past, but he serves in the game’s greater purpose as an illustration of the sort of person who is attracted to Rapture. He was not particularly important in Rapture’s rise or fall: he is one of the common people of the city.
We never learn exactly what it is that attracts him to Rapture, but it is the combination of ADAM and the freedom offered by Ryan’s philosophy that makes him stay. Steinman rants that before ADAM and Ryan, he had spent his “entire surgical career creating the same tired shapes, over and over again,” and rejoices in the fact that ADAM gives him the means to create new shapes and new modes of beauty in the human form. (Steinman, “Surgery’s Picasso.”) With ADAM “the flesh becomes clay,” and with Ryan’s gift of freedom from “phony ethics,” Steinman can “sculpt, and sculpt, and sculpt, until the job is done.” (Steinman, “Higher Standards,” “ADAM’s Changes.”)
But when faced with this limitless freedom, Steinman finds he cannot measure up to his own aesthetic visions. What he perceives as the unlimited power granted him by ADAM causes his imagination to run wild, giving him visions of perfect, abstract, Picasso-like shapes. Eventually, however, his skill fails him: while ADAM might theoretically allow him to do anything he might imagine, his own failures in skill and unreasonable expectations cause him to rail against his aesthetic imperative (anthropomorphized in the goddess Aphrodite), screaming that his creations (the corpses of women on whom he has operated) are “too fat,” “too tall,” or “too symmetrical.” (Steinman, “Medical Pavilion.”)
Steinman thus represents the fact that perfect freedom does not guarantee perfect results. Before ADAM, Steinman was renowned as an incredibly gifted plastic surgeon, able to “turn a real circus freak into something you can show in the daylight.” (Steinman, “Higher Standards.”) But now, faced with the ability to sculpt human flesh as clay, he comes up against the limits of his own abilities, and goes mad, forever able to see Aphrodite’s promises, but never able to fulfill them.
One of BioShock’s most enduring characters is Sander Cohen, the insane artist who functioned, while Rapture stood, sort of like Ryan’s Goebbels, creating propaganda (most notably the Rapture anthem). Few of the details of Cohen’s life are made known to the player, but it is clear that he thinks of himself as an artist of great talent and importance. He has at least dabbled in musical composition, painting, prose poetry (“I want to take the ears off!”) and playwriting, as well as some truly bizarre “sculptures” (after he has gone insane) consisting of dead splicers covered in plaster.
We don’t know much about Cohen’s life pre-Rapture, but a few things can be deduced from some of his comments. His references to “the Doubters” in “the galleries in SoHo” and “the Lyceum” indicate that he had studied art and attempted to show his work, but was received primarily with skepticism and/or disdain. (Sander Cohen, “The Doubters.”) Furthermore, we may assume that he was not experiencing success in the outside world by the fact that he is in Rapture at all. As mentioned above, a successful artist or musician has little reason to run away from the world in order to become a celebrated artist under the sea. He is seized by an almost paroxysmic fear of “the Doubters,” attributing to them the downfall of Rapture, and ranting, raving and trying to murder Jack when he fears Jack dislikes his ultimate “masterpiece,” a terrifying quadtych composed of more “sculptures” and photographs of corpses.
Cohen’s fear of failure is exemplified in his various “disciples,” ex-students of his whom Jack must hunt down and kill to gain Cohen’s help. The first of these, Kyle Fitzpatrick, is shown playing a composition of Cohen’s on a piano (rather well) in a theater while surrounded by dynamite. While Cohen shouts instructions to him over the radio and grows more and more furious at what he perceives to be Fitzpatrick’s mistakes, Fitzpatrick grows more and more upset until he stops playing and shouts that Cohen has no right to treat him thusly. Cohen responds by detonating the dynamite.
Finally, his fear of failure is shown in the incredibly violent response to the success of others. Another well-reviewed Rapture artist, Anna Culpepper, provokes first a vitriolic letter to the editor calling her “derivative,” “boring,” “obvious,” “dangerous,” and her latest offering a “musical insult.” (Sander Cohen, “Musical Insult.”) Eventually, when her successes grow to be too much for him to bear, he has her murdered through his connections with the Rapture police. Similarly, while Cohen claims to kill Fitzpatrick for his failures, there is nothing obviously wrong with Fitzpatrick’s piano playing. Indeed, if I ever play the piano half so well, I shall consider myself a success. It is thus perhaps true that Cohen kills him not merely for not living up to his ideals, but for being a threat to his own genius: when others succeed, Cohen assumes he fails.
Cohen is so afraid of failure in his own life that he takes it out on himself (see The Wild Bunny), his competition, or his students. In short, Cohen came to Rapture hoping that its lack of censorship or established artistic authorities would allow him to truly blossom into the genius he felt he could be. Instead, he produced propaganda for Rapture’s leader, and a series of mediocre works (every other character who mentions him calls him a fraud or a lunatic) and finally descends into a plasmid-fueled madness.
Last but not least, no discussion of anything in BioShock is complete without a look at Rapture’s founder. At first, it must be said that Ryan does not seem to have been a failure on the surface world: he did, after all, make enough money through his industrial work to have been able to build a city on the bottom of the sea. But clearly something drove him away from the world of the sun.
Some clues may be found in an exchange he has with Jack when the latter comes across Rapture’s underwater forest, Arcadia:
“On the surface, I once bought a forest. The parasites claimed that the land belonged to God, and demanded that I establish a public park there. Why? So the rabble could stand slack-jawed under the canopy and pretend that it was paradise earned. When Congress moved to nationalize my forest, I burnt it to the ground. God did not plant the seeds of this Arcadia– I did.” (Andrew Ryan, “Arcadia.”)
Turning from a world where he was “constrained by the small,” Ryan isolated himself from the rest of the world with a community of what he hoped were like-minded people, in a grand attempt to plant the seeds of Utopia. But it didn’t work. His ideology was flawed, and he clung to it at the worst of times (refusing to regulate plasmids, the ADAM-in-a-can tonics that let people shoot fire from their fingertips) and compromised it when things became too desperate (using mind-controlling plasmids to direct the citizens of Rapture once things got bad.) Ryan hoped that by creating a land of perfect freedom, he would create a land of perfect success, yet in the end, it was characterized only by failure and madness.
It is worth mentioning, however, that Ryan’s life ends with perhaps his greatest triumph: faced with his own annihilation and a man he will not harm (as Jack is sort of his son), he sticks to his principles and chooses the manner of his own death. (If anyone finds a better video of that, please let me know.) As his utopia collapses around him, Andrew Ryan dies like a Man.
BioShock is about many things: fear, government, science, running from large men in diving suits. But one theme which runs through all of its many stories is this relationship between freedom and failure. Steinman found that upon achieving ultimate freedom of power, he could no longer be satisfied with the work his hands could create. Cohen learned that even perfect freedom cannot make up for a lack of talent. And Ryan discovered that perfect freedom without restriction leads only to chaos and death. Though Ryan may have ended on a triumph, it is the kind of perfect, unqualified triumph that only comes with self-destruction.