News of developer Irrational Games’ essentially closing its doors, and the dismissal of all but 15 of its employees who will continue to develop games under a new name, is no longer gracing the front page of gaming news sites. However, the impact and what it all means moving forward are still very much settling in for me. As the company announced its massive consolidation in what seems to be a shift into the booming indie market, I sat teary eyed at my computer on a sunny afternoon. This is because Bioshock, the developers’ most acclaimed creation, is no ordinary franchise, and I am no ordinary fan of it.
I am, in half of my mind, ecstatic that Ken Levine and what remains of Irrational Games have broken free from a game that everyone has an established set of standards and expectations for, and I am one hundred percent satisfied with the resounding lessons that the franchise’s final notes left me with. The other, sadder half knows I must face the fact that the love, brutality, and insight the franchise has shared with me are coming to a well-deserved close. That latter, sadder half is in desperate need of closure, and I hope this article grants it.
The first entry in the series enlightened me by challenging what I had believed to be true about human tendency, politics, science, religion, censorship, restriction, freedom, ethics, philosophy, and the meaning of art. Bioshock: Infinite, the latest and final chapter in the franchise from Irrational Games, somehow managed to revolutionize my insight on these building blocks of society once again.
Bioshock changed my life, and I would not make such a nauseatingly cliché claim if I didn’t have the drive and passion to back it up. The game’s unmatched level of detail when creating an intricate world constructed from philosophies almost as old as mankind shifted the perspective of the lens through which I view the world. Even as a 20-year-old hardcore gamer who has been going at it since my childish hands could wrap around a controller, I consider myself lucky to have had that type of connection with any message delivered through any medium, nonetheless the one that still struggles to receive true artistic recognition.
Even now, after the credits have rolled and I know the book has shut, I find myself able to relate the insight of daily consumerist life to the lessons I learned during my time in both Rapture and Columbia. I could spend the rest of my days at GameKoop conveying the depth of all that Bioshock has taught me, but I will limit the remainder of your time to the five greatest realizations Irrational Games and the Bioshock franchise has brought me to.
Number One: No matter the distance man places himself from God, his tendencies remain the same
The two radical societies the protagonist finds himself in throughout the franchise, Rapture and Columbia, are polar opposites of each other when you look at them on paper. Rapture, founded by an entrepreneur who feared the greedy grasp of communist Russia and oppressive governmental restriction, was placed as far away from God as possible; at the bottom of the sea. Likewise, the city served promises of freedom from religion, among other things. Columbia, founded by a man who was reborn and cleansed of his sins through religious acquisition, was placed as close to God as possible; hovering high in the sky. Likewise, the city served as a way to be reborn and discover freedom through religion. Both philosophies allowed the cities to initially flourish, but both ultimately suffered the same fate; a bloody uprising against the man who originally sought to free them. Man will never consider himself truly free, and can never be in complete compliance with structure, no matter its intentions. Whether the governing man threatens deviance with physical or spiritual consequence, it will be challenged, and it will be overtaken.
Number Two: Obsession with a vision will lead man to become what he sought to escape
Andrew Ryan, founder of Rapture, was not an inherently evil man, or even one with absurd intentions. Rapture was founded to be a utopia where man would be free to create art, push the boundaries of science, and capitalize on a truly free market without a governmental body to creatively, socially, and economically restrict him. Only the best and brightest minds were allowed access to the secret underwater city, and were forced to commit to never resurfacing once they were granted citizenship. Rapture’s society thrived for an era, but all too soon the freedoms granted to all began to cripple and horrify many. The unregulated market made some citizens absurdly rich, but others were driven into brutal poverty with no hope of aid, resorting to violent measures to get by. Ethic-free science explorations helped create amazing superhuman consumables available to the public, but without agencies to ensure the products were safe, the population found themselves fiendishly addicted to them. Free from governmental censorship, some artists began to push the meaning of art, creating works that involved mutilating corpses into grotesque “masterpieces.”
Andrew Ryan was forced to intervene and create consequences for the extremists in order to maintain Rapture’s societal stability, but once he had broken one of his rules he had unknowingly broken them all. Rapture began to crumble, and Andrew Ryan transformed into a dictator more hellbent on power than the system he once sought escape from. Governance is a part of humanity, and it will emerge in any society wearing one mask or another.
Number Three: Humanity is stuck in a loop. The appearances of man’s actions change, but the meanings behind them do not
Bioshock: Infinite did more than throw its audience a massive plot twist at the game’s conclusion (which I will not spoil); it shed light on how basic human desires dictated the fates of both Rapture and Columbia, which can in turn be related to human societies throughout history and today. Human urges to justify one’s actions, acquire or maintain power, leave behind a legacy, be respected, and convince oneself of reward after death control this world. Whether you look at an ancient king or a present-day terrorist, both are unable to break away from the urges that command us like puppets. No matter what shape their actions take, humans will ultimately have only themselves in the back of their minds. It is an unavoidable truth of our existence. We will repeat our mistakes, and we will claim we learned a lesson that will help us save ourselves the next time we find ourselves at war with ourselves.
Number Four: “The subject will desperately create memories where none exist.”
A quote from Rosalind Lutece in Infinite, the statement refers to a character’s dependency to justify where life has taken them by piecing together fragments of truth in their life. In the game, it is used as a way for the character to justify being somewhere they didn’t intend on being. Applying it to real life, it can explain the human habit to justify unfavorable actions and life choices by correlating them to scenarios that they know have a happy ending.
For example, a woman in an abusive relationship may justify her position by relating her situation to Beauty and the Beast- a love story about a woman who has to break through the violent exterior of a man to reveal his inner gentile nature. She knows that her abusive spouse has a soft side, so to reach that happy ending she must stick around to get through to him. A teen experimenting with drugs may justify their use by telling themselves that many famous artists have used drugs and went on to become famous, and they feel their own creativity has expanded since they started using. An adult with a dying parent may inappropriately rationalize not spending a lot of time with them, creating memories of the parent rejecting their attempt to be close to them.
Humans are always aware when they have made an unethical decision or are not where they should be in life. What they are not aware of is how quickly the brain disguises the misstep to trick the conscience into rerouting blame.
Number Five: Every object has a story
The Bioshock franchise did not share so much with me through a direct narrative or direct exchanges between characters. If I’m being completely honest, I felt the narrative of the first game was weak and the narrative of Infinite was far from perfect. Instead, some of the most meaningful bits I have taken away from the series are those that I have pieced together myself through environmental exploration. The franchise’s ability to merge storytelling between narration and context is, in my opinion, unmatched in the gaming industry. The homes, stores, diaries, and antics of almost every character provide meaning and insight to their purpose in the game, and no artifact you discover is to be brushed aside.
It’s one thing to be told that a certain character became addicted to ADAM and went insane. It’s another thing to discover an advertisement for new plasmids with one circled in red in an apartment covered in black rabbit posters, and then encountering a drugged out woman stalking the halls of Rapture sporting a mask crafted from the carcass of a black rabbit. The intricacies of the cities in Bioshock are as subtle or in-depth as you care to explore them, and it’s a concept I have yet to see be matched in any other game. It’s what’s made me want to play through the entire series again and again; you never know when you’ll uncover the tragic tale of someone new.
I don’t yet know exactly what’s going to become of the remaining members of Irrational Games, but I do know that wherever they end up I will happily be supporting the next pinnacle of storytelling they present to the world; there’s always a man, there’s always a city, there’s always a lighthouse.