Freedom and Failure in BioShock 4

Welcome to Rapture

Today, I want to ana­lyze two inter­re­lat­ed themes found in 2007’s first-person-shooter BioShockBioShock 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 suc­cessIf 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.

Sander Cohen

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.

Andrew Ryan

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!

4 thoughts on “Freedom and Failure in BioShock

  • Anonymous

    The BenignSpy here, a point and a ques­tion.

    As I’ve seen it, Ryan’s goal was to cre­ate a new civ­i­liza­tion. That is some­thing that would need to hap­pen where there is no civ­i­liza­tion, con­sid­er­ing that any suc­cess would be attrib­uted to the first civ­i­liza­tion and not the over­hauled one. It’s still a fail­ure, so this is not a cri­tique on your the­sis. I do how­ev­er take issue with the phrase “self defeat­ing”.

    Both Cohen and Steinman are “artists”, and they fail for the same rea­sons, (Unlimited Freedom). Why did you exam­ine both of them, but leave out Fontaine, or Dr. Tenenbaum?

    That said I quite enjoyed read­ing this.

  • Wombat of Doom

    Thanks for com­ment­ing, mate! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Here’s my respons­es:

    As to the first, I think you’re def­i­nite­ly right in that Ryan’s goal is to cre­ate a new civ­i­liza­tion, rather than an out­growth of an old one. The prob­lem with this plan is that in order to do so, unless he were to some­how vat-grow peo­ple him­self, the peo­ple he is going to use to build this “new” civ­i­liza­tion are nec­es­sar­i­ly going to come from exist­ing civ­i­liza­tions, and, as I posit above, the sorts of folks that want to leave an old civ­i­liza­tion and come to a new one are not the folks who are suc­cess­ful in the first one. That’s why the goal is “self-defeating.” Now, had he sim­ply arti­fi­cial­ly cre­at­ed a whole group of peo­ple and taught them him­self and used them to build his soci­ety, it might not have been self-defeating. Creepy and strange, but not self-defeating.

    As to why I talked about who I did, I want­ed to talk about fail­ure specif­i­cal­ly as it relates to unlim­it­ed free­dom. Fontaine and Tenenbaum’s fail­ures are less obvi­ous­ly relat­ed to unlim­it­ed free­dom, and there­fore fell out­side of the scope of my essay. I may write anoth­er essay at some later point dis­cussing Fontaine and Tenenbaum, their rela­tion­ship with each other and their views about fam­i­ly.

    But that’s anoth­er story.

    And while Cohen and Steinman are both artists of a kind and do fail as a direct result of too much free­dom, I think there are sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ences between the two: Steinman is, actu­al­ly, a tal­ent­ed indi­vid­ual whose fail­ure stems from the removal of phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers to his progress, caus­ing his imag­i­na­tion to out­run rea­son­able pos­si­bil­i­ty, where­as Cohen is not a par­tic­u­lar­ly tal­ent­ed indi­vid­ual, and his unlim­it­ed free­dom refers to the lack of an exist­ing artis­tic estab­lish­ment.

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