No Gods or Kings: Objectivism in BioShock

By: Brian Crecente

The sunken city of Rapture, a world of art deco aesthetics, neon sales pitches and looming architecture, is home to more than just murderous splicers and lumbering Big Daddys, it’s also a surprising breeding ground for introspection.

BioShock may have been conceived as a study in nuance, a place for gamers to discover and explore at their own pace, but its dip into the ethical morass of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophies has brought her beliefs back into the mainstream spotlight and even piqued the interest of the Ayn Rand Institute’s president, Yaron Brook.

Brook, a former member of the Israeli Army military intelligence and award-winning finance professor at Santa Clara University, first took notice of the game when he discovered his 18-year-old son playing it. It’s a fact that didn’t bother Brook despite his son’s objectivist beliefs and the game’s not so positive take on the philosophy.

“My son has to find his own way in life,” he said. “There are certain games I wouldn’t want him to play, like Grand Theft Auto, games that celebrate criminality. But a game that might lead him to think and have him challenge his ideas, I’m fine with.

“Luckily for me he doesn’t agree with the game, he still seems to believe in objectivism”

Objectivism as a central theme in BioShock was actually the result of a confluence of ideas and happenstance. The heart of the game started, as do most of Ken Levine’s games, as the answer to a problem.

“How do we make an environment that feels really complete?” Levine said. “That’s where we came up with a space ship for System Shock. In BioShock we said what can we do similarly and simulate fully as we could a space ship.”

The answer was an underwater city, but that simply formed the game’s outline, the walls that kept a player from remembering they were in a confined space.

Levine wondered what sorts of people might live in an underwater city, what would drive someone from the rest of the world.

“I started thinking about utopian civilisations,” he said. “You have these traditional utopian notions. I’ve always been a fan of utopian and dystopian literature.

“The more I started thinking about making a compelling place and compelling villain, someone who had a real concrete set of beliefs made sense.”

Enter Objectivism. Levine said he had been reading Ayn Rand’s books over the past few years and was fascinated with her “intensity and purity of belief.”

“The surety she has in her beliefs was fascinating,” he said. “She almost spoke like a super villain, like Dr Doom.”
And her characters, Levine believed, projected that same intensity.

“I started to wonder, what happens when you stop questioning yourself? It becomes a set of accepted truths, instead of something you’re constantly using in the lab of reality.”

Flaws in logic and character

Where Rand had Fountainhead’s Howard Roark and Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt, Levine had Andrew Ryan, Rapture’s founder.

Levine said he views the game’s chief protagonist as a cross between Howard Hughes and “one of Rand’s characters if he were put in the real world with all of the real problems people have.”

“Rand’s characters are super heroes,” he said. “Great people without flaws. “

But Brook says, that’s not really a fair interpretation of Rand’s beliefs.

“It seems to me that he’s misrepresented what Ayn Rand believes and her ideals beyond objectivism,” he said. “He’s setting it up to fail. He believes , based on what I’ve read, that any system that is absolutist is ultimately going to lead to disastrous effect. Any system of black and white, any system of ultimate morality.

“In many cases that true. But I think what lessens the game is that misinterpretation of objectivism.”

Rand’s characters aren’t flawed because not everyone is, Brook says.

“I think its flawed logic in the sense that he thinks that people have to be flawed,” he said. “I think in many respects (Rand’s) books do put her characters in real life.

“I think there are great people and perfect people and I think we all should strive to be great and perfect.”

That’s how Levine’s Ryan starts out, a “new man”, an incredible individual, but in the end he fails and falls.

Ryan fails, Levine says, because while building the utopia of Rapture he never questions himself, never stopped to think if he had gone astray. And because of that he betrays his own belief system and ends up “wanting his cake and eating it too.”

Despite his failings, Ryan still remains true to his ideals in the end, an important point.

“He brought his end upon himself and didn’t shirk away from it,” Levine said. “He wasn’t a hypocrite. He may have failed, but he really believed what he did and put everything on the line for it.”

The glue that holds the game together

Levine was careful how he presented to his team the idea of injecting philosophy into what was meant to be a mainstream game.

“The game doesn’t lead with objectivism,” he said. “I didn’t pitch it to the team that way. If you pitch it that way to the team you’re going to get the wrong game.”

So initially, the team concentrated on capturing a time period. They studied furniture from the pre and post-war period. Levine went out and took pictures of New York architecture. They brought in Jack Beatty, senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly, to talk about the time period. Levine also brought in a few copies of Rand’s books.

“There was a bit of an education process,” he said. “The artists mostly had to think about the art deco stuff, I wrote about 95 percent of the dialog.”

Late in the development process Levine decided that the game and the underwater city of Rapture needed more propaganda, things like the larger-than-life bust of Andrew Ryan and its slogan: No Gods or Kings. Only Man and the constant barrage of public service announcements.

“I felt the philosophy wasn’t coming across enough, ” Levine said. And objectivism “was the glue that holds the aesthetics together.”

A cautionary tale

Levine says he didn’t set out to torpedo objectivism with BioShock.

“I think I’m more sympathetic to it,” he said. “I find a lot of positive in it. I find her notion of selfishness is very interesting, not living for the abrogation of others, believing in the individual man as the central powerful force in the world rather than a government or a supreme being, the reintegration in belief of man/woman.

“We live in a country where atheists are distrusted, but you can be proudly religious and proudly political, but to reject those things and be proud of it I think that’s a very brave woman.

“But I’m not a person who buys anything hook, line and sinker. I view life more as a buffet style.
“When I look at anything in my life one of my saving graces is the ability to step back and examine things. It’s very easy to get mired in ideology.”

Levine said he actually wrote the story of BioShock as a fan of Ayn Rand’s precepts.

“I’m probably way more similar to her in my terms of how I think about religion and politics than any other philosophers,” he said.

But Levine believes that Rand would reject that take on philosophy, that Rand believed it was “her way or the highway.”

So BioShock wasn’t meant really to be a game about Rand’s beliefs, but more about her intensity.

“I wasn’t setting out to make a game about objectivism, I was setting out to make a game about someone who had a very strong belief in a philosophy that was similar to thi
s philosophy.

“It’s a cautionary tale about wholesale, unquestioning belief in something.”

While Brook cautions he hasn’t played the game, his take on what Levine was trying to do with the story and its use of philosophy is surprisingly similar to what Levine himself says.

“My general sense is that the game’s author is suspicious of any absolute philosophy and clumps objectivism in there,” Brook said. “While he sees certain virtues in it, he thinks anything taken too far ultimately leads to disaster.”

Guns, explosions and philosophy

“Some people just like to blow shit up and some people like to think about the themes and the metaphors,” he said.

And there were plenty of both in BioShock. Take for instance the disturbingly symbiotic relationship between the Little Sisters and the Big Daddys.

“The more you know about objectivism the more interesting the little sisters become,” Levine said. “The little sisters are an examination of the question: Do the means justify the ends”

The weapon dispensers found throughout the game are meant to be another metaphor.

Rand, Levine says, is a believer in a completely free and unfettered market. Rapture and its vending machines were intended to be an illustration of what can happen when intellectual examination of a philosophy or a way of life stops.

“Some people complained about the vending machines and guns and ammunitions in the world, but there would be no restrictions on the market at all, so I could see that happening, especially if there was a civil war on.”

Levine understands that not everyone wants to have a thoughtful experience when they play games, but he believes strongly in providing one for the people who do.

“I think by trying to throw some reflection on it you make people step back from the games they’ve played and think about it a tiny, tiny bit,” he said. “But it has to be an entertaining experience first.

“The game was never intended to be a screed against Rand because I think there is a lot to like there, but if you take anything to its extremes it isn’t good.

While in the end, Brook doesn’t agree with what he believes to be the anti-objectivism tone of the game, he still sees it as a good think for the Ayn Rand Institute and objectivism.

“There have been a lot of people writing about the game and its connection to Ayn Rand,” he said. And that’s a good thing “in a sense, if you believe that any publicity is good publicity because it creates a level of curiosity and sends people to read the books. We probably had more kids going to read the book because of the video game.

“I think there is a certain benefit. Ultimately it doesn’t portray objectivism well, but the mainstreaming of objectivism is important too. And it’s important to see the willingness to debate those ideas even in a video game.”

Video games: The new literature

When BioShock hit, it was met with both high game review scores and a level of intellectual fascination that surprised even Levine.

“We joke that everyone should have known that a game about a pseudo-objectivist dystopia would be a huge hit,” he said. “My initial goal for BioShock was to create an environment that people could buy into and to have a level of detail that you just don’t see in games now. We have an opportunity to have players pull content out of the game rather than to push it at them.”

But in wrapping their world around questions of morality and philosophy, Levine and his team managed to do something else, they managed to spark in some players the desire to, like Levine, step back from their beliefs, their ideologies and study them from afar.

“I like that people walk away with different interpretations,” he said. “We weren’t creating a polemic, we were creating a piece of art that has different meanings to different people.

“We were trying to ask questions more than answer them.”

While the game can certainly be viewed as an attack on objectivism, despite Levine’s intent, Brook says he really doesn’t have a problem with it, or with the idea of the medium of video games taking on the challenge of dealing with an issue as complex as Rand’s philosophy.

“I don’t see a problem with the medium,” he said. “I think it is potentially a very exciting medium with which to introduce people to ideas. I think video games replaces much of literature’s impact. The literature today is dull and boring and video games allow kids to experience the heroism that the books don’t provide them.

“Who knows where the medium is going I think that’s one of the exciting things about video games and technology. I think it will be interesting to see what kind of issues they take on.”

This story original ran on Kotaku on Feb. 16, 2008.

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