BioShock and Philosophy

A funny thing happened in 2015: people began reading this blog. More specifically, people began reading this blog and sending me free books in response to what I’d scribbled here. The result by year’s end was a pillar on my desk which in gratitude I feel some obligation to read and discuss. Here’s the first.

BioShock and PhilosophyBioShock and Philosophy
Luke Cuddy, ed.
Wiley Blackwell (180 pp, $17.95, June 2015)

My relationship status with Ayn Rand is It’s Complicated. On one hand, I’ve never been able to progress deeply into, let alone finish, any of her books; her heavy and mechanical prose is what a robotic arm on a Detroit assembly line would write upon gaining sentience. Her ideas, which she believed novel, were better articulated by others. For example, Rand criticized progressive taxation as punishing success and innovation, and believed it was motivated by envy of the rich rather than logic. I agree. But these weren’t new ideas: a century beforehand, Frederic Bastiat concluded that tax policy is less about paying for roads and bridges and more about the political class rewarding its friends and punishing its enemies, while Nietzsche observed that under Judeo-Christian slave morality, poverty and the hatred of wealth is virtuous (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24). You would never know these two existed if you listened to Rand or her followers — to them, these thoughts sprang like Athena from her head alone; I might have more respect for Rand if she had occasionally included some footnotes and a bibliography. There is also the sneaking suspicion that Rand was a manipulative so-and-so who used rhetoric to rationalize her bad behavior, and that the main draw for Objectivists today is simply to justify theirs.

On the other hand, I can’t deny Rand’s influence on 20th-century political thought. This one time, at Ithaca College? A classmate mentioned Rand and our professor — who was the chair of the philosophy department — rolled his eyes and dismissed her. It’s amazing that I was awarded a four-year degree in philosophy and yet that incident is the entirety of my formal exposure to Rand. Love her or hate her, for good or bad, Rand’s name is thrown around too often today to be rejected with a shruggie.

It may be a little surprising to learn that a book titled BioShock and Philosophy isn’t cover-to-cover Ayn Rand. Instead, editor Luke Cuddy presents 16 essays that use the BioShock games for a variety of philosophical entrances, from Oliver Laas’s exploration of the characters’ free will to Simon Ledder’s introduction to transhumanism through plasmids and vigors. In fact the closest we get to an Objectivist tour of Rapture occurs via Rand’s aesthetics on art, whereby author Jason Rose concludes that Objectivists — who generally don’t like the game — should feel redeemed by it because Andrew Ryan is a bad Objectivist (to be fair, Cuddy may have approached hardline Objectivists for contributions but was probably rebuked with insults, accusations of irrationalism, and demands to sleep with Cuddy’s wife).

For me the strongest appeal of the BioShock games was their theme of utopianism, and because of that I have to thank Rick Elmore for my introduction to Carl Schmitt’s theory of political foundation. Schmitt believed that nations or political communities are founded in opposition to some other assemblage, that group identity coalesces through hostility to another group — it’s us versus them. It’s sort of like Nixon’s quip,¬†only writ large, that voters vote against the candidates they hate, not for those they like. Elmore uses Schmitt’s theory to explain the utopian experiments of Andrew Ryan and Zachary Comstock. Both create new societies that are antagonistic to others: for Ryan, it is parasites and socialism, while for Comstock it’s sinfulness and a disturbing lack of faith in white supremacy. This idea is relevant today and explains a great deal why nations inflate threats (America’s fear of Muslim terrorism) or constantly vilify other countries (the pathological obsession the Iranian and North Korean governments have with the US). The flames must be stoked long after the inciting spark has burned out, and defining group identity as being at war with another does exactly that. Schmitt also happened to be an unrepentant Nazi who used his theory to substantiate the Third Reich — which is again appropriate here, considering Hitler’s dream of utopia collapsed as surely and completely as Ryan’s and Comstock’s.

BioShock and Philosophy is not without some misses. A repetitive, vapid essay on Marxism and the Vox Populi revolution — written by two Ithaca College grads, natch — rehashes the game to make no-shit-Sherlock conclusions; the ink would have been better spilled on, say, analyzing Columbia through the lens of Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialism, or a Marxist/leftish critique of the Fraternal Order of the Raven and real-world Lincoln demonization (particularly by paleolibertarians). Absence of a thing is not a valid criticism of that thing, but along those lines I was surprised that neither BioShock 2 nor the Burial at Sea DLCs are mentioned much; BioShock 2 reimagines Rand’s feud with BF Skinner, while Burial at Sea apparently negates the ending of Infinite (something that would undoubtedly intrigue Scott Squires and James McBain, who didn’t care for Infinite‘s deterministic universe). Including that content would have provided richer interpretations to some of the essays.

CC BY Omarukai
CC BY Omarukai

The fact that I have invested waaaay too much time and thought into the BioShock games is a testament to how immersive they are. I never played the games in order; I was first sucked into BioShock Infinite primarily on the basis of a trailer, and immediately became absorbed by its mashup of steampunk with Colonial Revival architecture, quantum physics and all its implications, themes of American Exceptionalism and evangelical millennialism, and its leitmotif of guilt, penance, and absolution. Also, there were the parts where I could swing around on skylines and blow up zeppelins. Later I became intrigued by the setting (and not so much the game itself) of the original BioShock, and I only wish I could have submitted an essay to Cuddy on the historical utopianism of man-made islands and undersea habitats (because from Jules Verne to the Neolithic crannogs of Britain and Ireland, the idea of a better society has very often been wedded to water). No doubt contributor Laszlo Kajtar feels me. As he points out, it is not the book that matters so much as the reading of it; it is not the painting but rather our viewing of the painting that affects us. Like all art, games are necessarily subjective — it is our experience with them that provokes and seduces. And some of them, like a syringe full of EVE, get under the skin.

Bard’s Tale 3 @ 25

Sit right back and you'll hear a tale.

Twenty-five years ago Electronic Arts released the best video game I ever played.

Picking up right after the original The Bard’s Tale — and completely ignoring the tedious sequel, BT2: The Destiny Knight, which was designed under the theory that if the first game was good, the same game a thousand times longer is great — the CRPG Bard’s Tale III: The Thief of Fate offered a number of innovations, including better graphics, automapping, advanced character classes (meaning you had to reach a certain level before you could unlock them), and most of all, an incredible story.

The first BT ended with the destruction of the evil wizard Mangar, servant of the Mad God Tarjan and scourge of the city of Skara Brae. BT3 opened with Skara Brae atomized by Mangar’s vengeful deity. Gone were the shops and taverns; home base became a campsite among the ruins. After conquering the starter dungeon (you could import characters from previous BT games or start with a fresh crew, in which case the starter dungeon would bring them up to speed — I chose a middle road, importing my BT2 team but replacing weak links) and its boss, the Tarjan lackey Brilhasti ap Tarj, you launched across the dimensions in a quest for the assorted mystical thingamajigs necessary to take down the Mad God.

It immediately became clear, however, that your band wasn’t just traveling across space but time as well, and like the Doctor and River Song, you ended up crossing chronologies by encountering total strangers who had met you before or landing in places long after key events had occurred. Upon escaping his magical prison, Tarjan went on a rage bender across the universe slaughtering the gods who had shackled him, and gradually you pieced together the events that led to Tarjan’s release. Spoiler: one of the gods broke a celestial law against creating new life. Double spoiler: it was a blacksmith god who inadvertently made a robot. The robot — who, IIRC, was depicted as a cross between The Thinker and Hamlet, sitting in Alas-Poor-Yorick contemplation of a skull — was hunted by the gods and their minions to rectify this crime of existence but, being more human than human, ultimately helped you on your mission. There was a forest world and an ice world and even a war world, which was actually a schizophrenic tour through besieged Troy, World War II Berlin, and other earthly hellholes. And if you persevered and killed Tarjan, your party ascended to divinity, becoming a new pantheon to replace the corpses you spent all game stepping over.

But this twisty narrative with its unexpected commentary on mankind’s condition was only half the experience.

Bard's Tale III cover.The summer of 1988 was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. Usually I hated summertime; my friends went away to relatively glamorous lifeguarding or sandwich-joint jobs down the shore while I was stuck working in the back of the local grocery store or toiling with my old man on the weekends. Unlike, I think, many people who turned misty-eyed at graduation, I chafed at the bit to start life. My hometown was like a waiting room in some municipal building: empty, bland, offering little excitement beyond a few worn and outdated magazines laying on a shaky end table. It was the summer at the boarding gate: still waiting like I had waited every other summer — for friends to return, for a thunderstorm to break the heat, for anything — but knowing that a big change in environment was about to occur. Dumb, cocksure, naive, I had no idea of where I was going or what was needed to arrive there. But it was the first summer I remember where things were beginning to happen.

My besties, Bart and Chris, didn’t disappear that summer. They were also Bard’s Tale fans and when the third title was released, we hit the stores. Bart bought it for his Apple while Chris and I, both Commodore-64 players, pooled our funds to purchase a copy, which Chris ripped for me (the game came with no write-protection, supposedly to make it run faster, but was instead packaged with a special code wheel needed to answer prompts during gameplay; said wheel was immediately dismantled, photocopied, and reassembled). Soon a race developed where the three of us, playing on our own between shifts at various minimum-wage jobs, would meet in the woods at the end of my street, today as flattened as Skara Brae. There we would smoke cigarettes and discuss our individual progressions, offering our theories on the story, trying to unriddle the convoluted timey-wimey plot. What do you think about this? Can you believe that? Got a light?

I don’t recall who finished the game first and certainly I know none of us cared. But I remember that feeling as we each dungeoneered and puzzled our way to Tarjan’s stronghold, the excitement mounting as we stood on the edge, the planes of the multiverse unfolding before us.