What is the appropriate response to a snow-covered labryrinth?
I have been entranced by the image of Shove’s labryrinth covered in an even layer of fresh snow since encountering that situation two years ago. Tonight, I was given the opportunity to make a cute embellishment on that state of affairs.
Although I initially tried to follow the exact pattern by using an image of the traditional labyrinth on my phone, I quickly fell off-pattern and had to improvise. This led me to some interesting thoughts on how the labyrinth is constructed.
Its most obvious feature as it is walked is that the traveler swings in very close to the center very early, circling tantalizingly around it before being led out to the edges. This is an interesting and effective metaphor that plays well with ideas like that of “God’s Plan”, where intentional narrative is ascribed to a universe that appears to lack built-in plotlines. With the labyrinth, we see that the mere presence of a linear path is no guarantee of steady improvement and progress towards the center. Indeed, we see that parts of the path which seem distant or irrelevant (as far as reaching the center is concerned) are in fact essential for the symmetry and completeness of the entire pattern.
One also spends more time on the left side of the shape early on, completing the right half much later. This is interesting to me: it is probably just the product of geometric necessity, but in the context of the labyrinth’s spiritual metaphor, this uneven filling-in suggests that it is acceptable and even natural to come at an idea or a way of life heavily from one direction, filling out one’s initially lopsided understanding over time from contrasting, complementary angles of approach.
Part of why walking the labyrinth is interesting is because the temporal (hence, linear) experience of walking the path is contrasted with a spatial perspective that feels “outside of time”. Walking the path feels like a story punctuated by events and emotions: now close, now far, working towards the goal of the center. Apprehending the labyrinth shape spatially, the center has less special magic: rather, the “goal” is the completed path in its entirety. Although considering the entire shape feels more liberating and beautiful, it also feels static, devoid of the appealing drama and dynamism of the linear path.
Trying primarily to imitate the feeling of walking the labyrinth, I had difficulty ad-libbing something that would also look coherent as a labyrinth shape seen from above. Overall, the path walked (in the proper labyrinth, I mean) feels surprisingly chaotic and wandering given the symmetry and strict order of the abstract pattern. (To me, it would seem like such a symmetric shape should necessitate repeating the same moves four times to fill out each quadrant, or something.) In particular it is very clever how the vaguely I-Ching-esque alternating gap-and-bar pattern is pulled off, although it is a cleverness I could not match! I messed up the left side of my labyrinth, necessitating the insertion of separate loops, unconnected to the main path, in order to preserve some semblance of the proper look. Fortunately, the loops are quite stealthy and surprisingly difficult to notice!
Winter comes to the college.
not-his-girlfriends-blog asked: Not sure if I've sent in an ask before but I just wanted to say how much I love your essays on the BioShock games. Very few people dig deep into the trenches of what Ken and company were trying to convey when they put this amazing work of art together. I find so many undervalue it and it'a just really nice to see someone have such an interest and have such a profound understanding of the principles and ideas proposed in the game.
Wow, thanks! I had a lot of fun writing those posts, even if I ended up writing a lot more than I intended to (or maybe should have). Let’s see, did I link to Leigh Alexander’s article about Bioshock Infinite in the last essay? Nope, but I should have; it was her style that I was parodying in “Archivist’s Acceptance”, and her article on Infinite had a big impact on me. (She didn’t like the game, but she didn’t like in a very, very intelligent way.) Anyways, here it is: leighalexander.net/bioshock-infinite-now-is-the-best-time/
I don’t plan to write any huge essay series about Bioshock Infinite (though if you’re in the mood for that, Tim Rodgers also did a gargantuan takedown of the game: www.actionbutton.net/?p=3006 He made a video recording of it, which makes a good thing to listen to in the background while killing time in something like Minecraft), even though I wrote the Bioshock 1 and 2 essays partly in preparation for Infinite’s then-impending release. If anything I would be tempted to do a series about Mass Effect 3, which I am a huge fan of (Tldr: the much-hated ending was fascinating and perfect!), and which you might like if you are a fan of the Bioshock games. As far as interesting themes in big-budget games, recently I’ve really loved The Last of Us, Spec Ops: The Line, and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. (Also, people are going nuts over Gone Home, which was made by the people who made the allegedly awesome “Minerva’s Den” DLC for Bioshock 2. But despite being both a Bioshock and indie game nut, I have so far played neither game.) So check those out if you feel like!
Anonymous asked: I can't add a note because I don't have a tumblr, but in regards to your last post and quantum mechanics and free will - it does effect whether there is free will or not if you can provide some kind of evidence if there is randomness or not. Quantum mechanics touches on that subject, neh? Some theories of free will need for there to be indeterministic events, some don't. Incidentally my metaphysics professor has a few friends that are physics philosophers.
(I am assuming that “free will” means the ability to make choices sort of “causa sui”, with some degree of independence from laws of nature. I believe that it is totally possible to experience a real kind of freedom and make meaningful choices completely within the bounds of deterministic natural laws, but I wouldn’t call that having free will.)
Anyways, yeah, quantum mechanics would influence the debate in a way, because randomness would provide some “wiggle room” that the influence of a soul (or god, or whatever exists outside of the natural world, somehow making decisions from outside the influence of physical law) could hide within. Basically the hidden variable theory, only the “hidden variable” is the influence of free will coming from a soul.
What I meant by saying that quantum mechanics doesn’t have much to do with free will is that quantum mechanics alone does not turn a naturalistic worldview into one compatible with free will. It just turns determinism into determinism plus some randomness. For free will to be a thing, it seems like one has to believe in souls or in some other kind of influence from beyond the observable universe of matter and energy. Quantum mechanics might make that belief in souls slightly more convincing, but it doesn’t change the fact that belief in super-natural souls (or something) is still seemingly a requirement for belief in free will.
Personally, I am averse to the idea that free will might be “hiding” in some small corner of our ignorance about the natural world. It is the same aversion I feel when I hear christians describe modern-day miracles… these “miracles” are always biological/medical in nature (I had cancer but then made a miraculous recovery! The doctors said he would never walk, but then he walked!); never does God’s power seem to manifest in more well-understood mechanical things (My car had a flat tire on the way to the hospital but suddenly it was back to normal! I wasn’t strong enough to lift the weight off of my loved one but suddenly it became ten times lighter!), which suggests to me that people are looking for miracles in the “wiggle room” of our relative ignorance about complex medical issues.
Of course, the key difference is that medical ignorance is not intrinsic: it is a product of our limited knowledge and the limited data we gather, and if we watched more closely perhaps we would see that the “miracles” were never really there. With quantum mechanics, the ignorance about how the wave-function will collapse is intrinsic to the universe, which seems more mysterious and perhaps could have been “put there” (by a god or by philosophical necessity or something) specifically to allow for free will.
What Even is “Quantum”?
Try to imagine an object that could travel at 10, 20, 30, 40… miles per hour, but couldn’t travel at 15 or 22 or 11 or 39 miles per hour, literally physically could not travel at those intermediate speeds. Its velocity will always be some integer multiple of 10 mph, never fractional, so we would say that its speed is “quantized”. In everyday experience (described by “classical” mechanics), the idea of quantized velocity (or mass, or electric charge, or etc) is ridiculous, but in “quantum” mechanics, there are lots of situations (like the energy levels or “shells” of electrons in atoms) where energy, position, velocity, or some other values are quantized.
You’ve maybe heard of light being “both particle and wave” or “sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave”. (Actually, it’s not just light. Electrons, neutrinos, and other particles are just like photons in this way!)
That sounds pretty mysterious, and in a way it is, but in another way that weirdness is just a basic consequence of how math works —specifically, what happens when you add up lots of different sine waves. Here, check out this video of sine waves of different wavelengths adding together to make a “square wave”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6crWlxKB_E . If you add up a different set of waves, you get a “wave packet” instead of a square wave. A wave packet gets big near one point in space and cancels itself out to zero far away, unlike a normal sine wave which keeps going to infinity: http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/waves/imgwav/wpac5.gif
If you add tons of waves together, the wave packet gets taller and narrower, eventually (when you have added together literally ALL THE WAVES) becoming a spike to infinity at a single point in space. This picture shows how the wave packet gets narrower and narrower, from the red packet (just a few waves added up) to the blue (lots of waves added up): http://mathworld.wolfram.com/images/eps-gif/DeltaFunctionN_1000.gif
It makes perfect sense to talk about the wavelength of a single wave; that’s what waves are all about! But it seems a little crazy to ask about the wavelength of a narrow wave packet, since it is made up of a bunch of different waves added together. It maybe has an average wavelength, but the idea of “the wavelength of the packet” is ambiguous.
Conversely, it makes a lot of sense to talk about the position of a very narrow wave function, since there’s clearly something going on right there in the middle. But it makes no sense to talk about the position of a sine wave, since it stretches all the way to infinity in both directions!
What we think of as “particles” are wave-packet-like distributions of energy, and they are described mathematically by a “wave function”. The inherent mathematical trade-off between having a well-defined position vs a well-defined wavelength (ie, between particle-ness and wave-ness) is what’s called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: you can’t know both a particle’s position and it’s velocity (ie energy, ie wavelength) perfectly at the same time. There are lots of cool consequences of the Heisenberg Position-Velocity uncertainty principle, and there are even other similar trade-offs like the Energy-Time uncertainty principle)
The Collapse of the Wave Function
A wave function “collapses” when it interacts with another particle and that interaction forces it to take on a definite position (or velocity, or angular momentum, or whatever) that earlier had been an ambiguous range of possible positions in a spread-out wave packet. Where will the particle “choose” to manifest itself within that range? Quantum mechanics can’t tell you, and physicists are pretty sure that nothing could ever tell you. Most “random” events, like the outcome of a dice roll, are really just “deterministic albeit complex and difficult-to-predict” events —in other words, they only look random because you don’t have enough information about the angular momentum and kinetic energy and weight of the dice, the friction of the table, the air resistance, etc, to calculate and predict the outcome. But when a wave-function collapses, the position of the particle (within the range and probabilities specified by the wave function, of course) is truly random: according to quantum mechanics, there is no hidden information inside the electron that tells it where to be. Randomness, then, is an inherent part of the universe.
Assorted Myths Dispelled
-Quantum mechanics doesn’t really change anything about the philosophical debate on free will.
-Quantum mechanics will not give you hippie superpowers, as depicted in various New-Age films.
-In general, this is true: http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/quantum_mechanics.png
-Indeed, wave function collapse is not caused by human (or canine) consciousness, and there is nothing magical in quantum mechanics about “making an observation”. In order to make an observation about an electron in a typical quantum mechanics experiment, you have to hit the damn thing with a photon (a “particle” of light) and then watch how the photon bounces off. This is a little like trying to measure the speed of a bowling ball by shooting it with a revolver and seeing how the bullet ricochets. Obviously the bowling ball’s velocity is going to change as a result of the “measurement”! The same goes with the electron in our experiment: wave-function collapse is caused by getting hit by a photon (or etc).
-You might have heard of the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics. Unlike the probably-incorrect “consciousness causes collapse” or “hidden variable” ideas, there’s actually nothing wrong with this one: it’s a reasonable interpretation. But physicists don’t usually like it because it doesn’t take kindly to Occam’s Razor (the idea that the simplest accurate theory is probably the best). It seems like an awful lot of hassle to posit an infinite number of infinitely branching parallel universes (the many worlds interpretation) just to avoid having to consider that randomness is maybe an inherent part of nature (the standard “copenhagen interpretation”).
-That being said, not everybody loves the copenhagen interpretation. Pointing out the confusing counter-intuitive nature of wave functions and their collapse is what the “Schrodinger’s Cat” thought experiment is all about. It’s a thought experiment which may not mean what you think it means: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2524
That’s it for now, thanks for reading!
A few hours ago, the federal government partially shut down after failing to pass a new budget funding its operations. I am not sure how real the “shutdown” is —I am informed as to which agencies will stay open and which will supposedly go on standby, but who can tell how much of the crisis is political fantasy, tactically manufactured brinkmanship? More worrying than the momentary closures of NASA and the national park system is the seemingly inescapable logic which leads American government to such painful and dysfunctional places.
At home, my lawyer parents (both are government employees, both are dedicated to advancing and bettering the work of their respective agencies) saturate the house with news of political and legal developments. Before I continue, I must express my distaste for the way the media presents the story of these recurring standoffs.
For one, the dire, breathless reporting on each impasse creates the (hopefully?) unrealistic sense that the world is falling more and more to pieces. Yes, this shutdown is the first in 17 years, but only the Free Encyclopedia saw fit to give me a less alarmist picture —namely, that there were a whopping 14 government shutdowns in the 11-year period from 1976 to 1987, and things ended up okay. Importantly, the somewhat misleading presentation of the current dilemma is due to more than just overly sensationalist journalism —it is a symptom of deeper flaws with how this genre of political news is reported on. News stories focus on the narrative of each individual crisis, explaining deadlines, political positions, potential deals and deal-makers in great detail. This tactic makes for exciting, novel, and easily comprehensible news, but it diverts attention from the underlying problem of systemic malfunction.
I do not mean for “systemic” to be taken as a buzzword for “vague, scary, pervasive, powerful, and hard to deal with” (phrases like “systemic violence”, “systemic oppression”, etc, often have this connotation for me), but rather intend it in a true, game-theoretic sense.
To be clear: Individual crises can be understood as narratives of linear cause and effect strongly directed by the actions of human decision-makers. But the real nature of government function can only be understood with abstract systems thinking. Over larger and longer scales, the influence of individual decisions and individual leaders on an organization’s function fades into the background compared to the influence of the organization’s abstract structure upon itself.
The kind of systems thinking that I am talking about is not entirely absent from political discussion. For example, everyone is quick to recognize one the most common conflicts in government: individual politicians positioning themselves to win future elections at the expense of the actual functioning of government. “I stuck to my values, no matter what,” is certainly a more appealing electoral message than “I often compromised on less important issues in order to help smooth the functioning of government and thereby make America better in an infinitesimal, general, hard-to-notice way,” yet the second course of action is so often the better and more sustainable option for America’s well-being!
Another recognized factor contributing to the atmosphere of uncooperativeness is this: that the threat of disaster and dysfunction favors the most obstinate and reckless factions. By holding government function hostage to the implementation of arbitrary policy goals, a small and isolated group (this part is nowadays played most often by the most conservative “Tea Party” Republicans in the House of Representatives) can demand infinite concessions from anyone who cares more than they do about the fundamental solvency of the federal government.
That effect, in turn, is bolstered by a peculiarity of modern politics: the conviction among those same conservative, populist groups that government is inherently dysfunctional and harmful. Usually, the suicidal levels of obstinacy required to extract arbitrary political concessions come with severe built-in political costs: namely, people recognize that their representatives are being uncooperative asses and punish them at the polls. But when it is possible to campaign on a platform that condemns government as a broken failure, then a strange thing happens: since engaging in destructively obstinate tactics results in a more broken government, this previously suicidal strategy now only vindicates the original thesis of those wrench-in-the-works representatives! (In general, being able to escape the political penalties of uncooperative behavior is a serious problem: see the apparent extinction of the filibuster, somehow nowadays replaced by the mere threat of filibuster.)
All these ideas are mentioned often in political discussion, so the problem is clearly not a total lack of systems-thinking. Rather, the problem is the way these ideas are expressed and understood. Despite the obvious existence of these structural problems, their abstract nature seems to lend them an air of unreality. No matter how eloquently stated, ideas like those above are often treated by the media as if they are somehow oversimplified, an immaturely clean model of what’s really a complex and difficult-to-keep-up-with human landscape. (Rather, if the models are too simple, perhaps it is our obsession with small-scale human details which prevents us from thinking deeply about the subtler, second- and third-order systemic effects influencing government!) Other times, when systemic problems are taken seriously, they are viewed as unavoidable, incurable headaches of modern political process.
Under both paradigms, thoughts of systemic dysfunction create only a vague, unpleasant, exasperated frustration at the nature of politics. This frustration often expresses itself as outrage at the moral character of our legislators: they are acting “like spoiled brats”, unhelpfully “throwing temper tantrums”, and generally inviting all manner of comparisons to the immature, the irrational, and the selfish. The implication of these complaints is clear: America needs a renewed sense of civic duty, legislators must somehow acquire the higher conscience necessary to willingly cooperate and sacrifice transient policy goals for the greater good of the american people.
Indeed, I would certainly welcome any transcendent revolutions in consciousness that might descend upon our nation’s representatives! However, bemoaning a lapse in civic values among individual politicians is exactly the wrong response to the situation. To realize this, one need only remember the fundamental precepts of American democracy, which was designed to encourage maximum systemic stability and functionality. Our democracy is famously based on a system of “checks and balances” that prevent any one individual from ever acquiring enough power to do serious damage to the system. (Note that this system of checks and balances inevitably also hinders even the best and most well-intentioned leaders from enacting positive change!) Democracy’s real genius is precisely that it does not require benevolence and civic virtue for it to function properly. Like free-market capitalism, it is a system in which the selfish behavior of individuals ideally leads to a better situation for everyone. Unlike capitalism, it is a system that can be consciously engineered to be more stable, more self-correcting, and more efficient.
Unfortunately, a system of government cannot systemically engineer itself. Benevolence and virtue are required on some level, to maintain the strength of the government system and prevent the slow erosion and evasion of system safeguards (design elements like term limits, real filibusters, etc). Perhaps, then, a shift is necessary in what is meant by civic virtue. But it must not be just a temporary reaffirmation of the old moral values of perspective, cooperation, reasonableness, and so on. We demand the creation of new civic values: the humility to recognize that the pattern is more important than the particular decisions and decision-makers of the moment, and the duty to engineer the robust and responsive systems of governance necessary for the prosperous functioning of democracy.
(I recently concluded a gargantuan six-part essay analyzing the main philosophical through-line of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. To start at the beginning or see the list of articles, click here.)
“Why,” I was asked, “Did you write all this? With Braid, I can understand… that game is important to you, it deserves those 10,000 words. But Bioshock? It’s too much, it doesn’t make any sense, it’s all out of scale. You’re stating the obvious, you’re doing exactly the thing you said you wouldn’t do when you started. Why?”
And I begin to answer in what has become my usual way. “That’s just how I talk,” I say. “I want to be understood, I know that I’m being redundant and lengthy, I know, but I’m afraid that if I’m not clear and complete then people won’t understand.” And the things that I say are true, and I promise again that I will learn to compress the signal and embrace the noise, and most of all to simply trust.
“Okay,” they say, unsatisfied. “But why Bioshock? Don’t say it was for Infinite; it wasn’t.”
It wasn’t. It wasn’t for Lamb, either, or even Ryan. It was for that golden moment: the one you remember, at the beginning.
The moment is obvious, less so my attachment to it. When I first watched, it was already cliche. The game’s age and exaggerated reputation conspired to present a scene no more impressive than the forgettable opening vistas of any Fallout or Uncharted. It was nothing to me then.
By now, it is only a faint echo. I load up the game on my computer, settings all high, but the sharp resolution does little to conceal the bland box-shaped towers, awkward pale light, the hollow stagecraft of everything. Wooden Sisters in hawaiian skirts hula in time to music, as Ryan singsongs along: “It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears…” Worn strings visible, the magic goes away.
But there must have been some timeless intersection, some place where the moment existed perfectly. A whirl of stone and smoke rushing down — an impossible city unfolding in infinite distance — the thrill of music, speech, and clattering machine all exalting in ecstatic crescendo. Lights warm in the gloom, air alive with the buzz of unknown possibility. A glimpse of Utopia.
Two entire games —hundred-million-dollar projects, great pyramids of uncounted hours— to mourn the passing of that vision. Many stages: Ryan’s lonely denial, Fontaine’s power-mad anger, Tenenbaum’s morality bargaining, Sofia’s cynical utilitarian depression. Finally, an attempt at acceptance. Recall those final moments of Bioshock 2, the last one-two punch in the unceasing assault on idealism. The clearest view is shown only to the small segment of players who did not demonstrate rigid adherence to a moral creed —who, into the systems-driven language of that game, both harvested and rescued at least one sister each. Blue waves. Cool, salty air. A lighthouse. Not a storming nightmare, not a glistening dream. A lighthouse. Although I witnessed it, it is an acceptance I failed to grasp.
Inevitably, I begin to I roll my eyes at the tiresome dogma-against-dogma, imagining myself free of such utopian excesses. On the contrary, I am hooked deeply. I am caught not so much by that rapturous vision as by the moment of its passing. I, like so many others, savor the chance to mourn the impossible city.
To write the things on this blog, I was taking time away from a story I wanted to tell, which I wanted to call “The Archivist”. The story, which I still want to tell, was about a journey through the world of a remote enclave of humanity, a society isolated by great swaths of ocean, fragmented by social rifts that had deep philosophical roots yet were expressed in myriad everyday differences. The story’s protagonist was to be largely passive, sifting through the mysteries of a civilization whose heights and crises had long passed. Although Bioshock was not the main inspiration for this story, it is easy to see that I am evidently captivated by some mythic quality the game possesses. “Just a termite at Versailles” was how Andrew Ryan described the player’s clumsy, uncomprehending efforts to sift through the ruins of his once-great city. How strange and awe-inspiring an experience it would be, to tour Versailles from a termite’s point of view.
In explanation for my overgrown essay, I can only say that I wished to perform well and thoroughly the task of archeological mourning which the passing of that moment set before me.
(This post is part 6 in an overly-long series about the philosophical ideas of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. To begin at the beginning, click here.)
We all make choices. But in the end… our choices make us. -Andrew Ryan
Bioshock 1 supposedly presented a moral dilemma between selfishness and altruism. But in truth, that’s not really the choice on offer. Instead, our realistic options are either to instantly assault everyone meet with deadly weapons, or to instantly assault everyone we meet —except for a tiny handful of young girls— with deadly weapons. All those players who prided themselves on choosing the “altruistic” path… what did their choice really mean?
Bioshock 2 uses the backdrop of Sofia’s altruism to make a subtle distinction between the different motivations that might underlie an act of kindness. To do this, it enhances the morality system in some important ways.
First, the Little Sisters. When a Bioshock 2 player encounters a Little Sister, they are presented with the option to Harvest or “Adopt”, rather than harvest or rescue. Adoption means hoisting her to your shoulder, where she will sit just out of view and offer occasional reactions to your behavior in combat or to objects in the environment. The player can also choose to defend her against waves of attacking splicers while she gathers additional ADAM, which will be received when the player eventually makes the traditional harvest-or-rescue option at one of Rapture’s many Little Sister vent-shrines…. it’s not exactly a deep emotional bond, but there is at least the suggestion of an empathetic connection that didn’t exist between players and Sisters in the first game.
(The introduction of Adoption also allows one to distinguish between players who are just being jerks to little girls —by choosing “Harvest” initially— from those who are coldly maximizing their ADAM reserves —adoption followed by harvest at a vent-shrine. The game doesn’t keep track of this statistic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a distinction worth recognizing.)
Bioshock 2 also tracks the player’s actions towards three special characters encountered over the course of the game: Grace Holloway, Stanley Poole, and Gilbert Alexander. Grace is a down-and-out blues singer who leads a local chapter of the Rapture Family in an early level devoted to the Great-Depression-like economic condition of Rapture’s underclass. She’s a sweet and sympathetic character whose only crime is directing the minions of the Rapture Family to attack the player character; once stripped of her power, making the decision to spare her is easy for most players. That Bioshock 2’s moral systems commend saving Grace shows only that they condemn acts of spiteful revenge.
Stanley Poole is a tougher case: he was a reporter who infiltrated the Rapture Family, then (while Andrew Ryan held Sofia captive as a political prisoner), corruptly squandered the Family’s resources to live large and throw lavish parties. Finally (after Ryan died and Sofia escaped from prison) he flood-cycled the entire level in which his story takes place, in order to erase the evidence of his misdeeds. Stanley Poole’s sins are formidable —especially when the player has only just arrived from Siren Alley and seen firsthand the destruction and death involved in flooding an entire level!—, and that the game systems commend sparing him is a reflection of Bioshock 2’s predisposition towards gentle mercy over harsh judgement.
The dilemma posed by Gil Alexander is trickier yet. Once a brilliant scientist who worked in cooperation with Sofia Lamb to advance her Utopian genetic-engineering project, he was also the first test subject for her schemes. Unfortunately, things did not go well: by the time players encounter him, he is an overgrown, embryonic monster contained in a murky high-pressure test chamber. He is also a power-crazed, sociopathic madman bearing no resemblance to the bright, idealistic scientist revealed in audio diaries. The Gil Alexander in the level’s years-old audio recordings is dreadfully conscious of his oncoming madness, and begs the player to kill his present-day self (a devolved alter-ego who insists on the name “Alex the Great”). I suspect that most players might come to the same conclusion that I did: destroying Alex the Great must be the moral course of action, honoring as it does the final wishes of Gil Alexander. However, Bioshock 2 frowns on my choice, demonstrating thereby its intense rejection of rigid ethical codes. According to the game, killing Alex would’ve meant ending a (grotesque, insane, but still conscious and partly human) life merely to obey the abstract philosophical beliefs of Gil Alexander, a man long gone from the world.
What matters about all this is that —especially in the case of the adult characters, but also somewhat with the Little Sisters— the player develops a specific social relationship with the entity at the receiving end of the player’s judgement. If you’re a typical player, you’re still indiscriminately mowing down splicers most of the time, but Bioshock 2 reveals a little more method behind the madness of taking arbitrary mercy on a tiny subset of Rapture’s population.
Ryan’s moral impulse was sound. He observed the world and asserted, simply, ‘we can do better.’ But Utopia cannot precede the Utopian. It will exist the moment we are fit to occupy it. Not a place, but a people. -Sofia Lamb
Everyday social relationships are, after all, something that strict ideological systems can have a hard time justifying. Bioshock 2 expends much effort showcasing the stress, self-denial, and psychological repression involved in the attempt to live in accordance with a philosophical ideal. So much effort, in fact, that I became a little miffed: the game ret-cons Andrew Ryan’s personality significantly, suggesting that his appearance as a flawed but respectable Randian hero was only a public face hiding a haggard, conflicted man underneath. According to Bioshock 2, Ryan’s focus on absolute personal integrity coupled with his role as a model Rapture citizen would make it impossible for him to show weakness or doubt… a charade which, tragically, would force him to retreat ever-farther from both his friends and his true ideals.
Sofia Lamb, M.D, is naturally more adept at recognizing the myriad ways in which her philosophy is ill-suited for practice by actual humans (hence her attempts at social and genetic engineering, the Rapture Family and the Utopian project), but she is no more capable than Ryan of actually overcoming these issues. In fact, Sofia Lamb confesses an intense competitive streak in her own personality. In her audio diaries, she reveals the extreme measures she has taken in her bitter struggle for adherence to her own code of altruism: in weekly games of poker she intentionally sabotages her own play at the last minute, so that she may surrender her winnings to the neediest member of the circle.
Most crucially in the eyes of the game, neither Andrew Ryan nor Dr. Lamb permit themselves to experience love. Ryan’s fierce individualism keeps him away from serious relationships but doesn’t absolve him of sexual desire. Necessarily devoid of love, Ryan’s method of dealing with sexuality —essentially as a free-market economic exchange of money for pleasure— leads to his downfall, as it is his mistress who, pregnant by Ryan, eventually sells her embryo to Frank Fontaine, setting in motion the events of the first game. By contrast, Sofia talks often and highly of love, but in truth her utilitarian altruism means that her attitude toward love is far too intellectual to be functional. As revealed in an audio log recorded by a lovesick Gilbert Alexander, Sofia’s love is “spread so thin… as to be invisible to some.” Her code of universal empathy permits no real connection between her and Gilbert, nor even between her and her daughter, Elanor. Arguably, Sofia’s refusal to love her daughter proves as damning for her as Ryan’s shallow relationship with his mistress did for him.
All of this leads back to an affirmation of Tenenbaum’s “mom-and-pop morality,” preaching that we should make important life decisions based on traditional social values and gut feeling, not abstract philosophical schemes. This idea is at once conservative —it urges people to make decisions by doing… pretty much the same thing most of them already do!— and radical: by casting everyday ethics in such an extremely high-stakes landscape of constant life-or-death situations, Bioshock exposes the absurdity of trying to claim that our everyday choices have any objective moral justification… an absurdity that is unsettling and difficult to accept.
Remember that this is the same message that the game’s moral decision-making has been demonstrating to us all along: inevitably, players of Bioshock 2 save those who they love, forsaking those they do not, giving little weight to intellectual moral schemes.
And then, father, the Rapture dream was over. You taught me that right and wrong were tidal forces, ever shifting. -Elanor
This final disillusionment with dogmatic beliefs is embodied most clearly by Elanor Lamb. The nature of her beliefs will change depending on the player’s actions throughout the game; behaving entirely “altruistically” will push her back towards her mother’s utilitarian mindset, while mowing down Splicers and Sisters alike will leave her misquoting Darwin like a young Andrew Ryan. For the player who has both rescued and harvested at least one little sister, however, Elanor begins to authentically reject the ideals of both utopian thinkers.
Elanor’s growth is reflected most strikingly in the multiple endings of the game. Unlike the dual endings of the original Bioshock, in which the actual plot of the game diverges to reflect the consequences of the player’s moral attitude, Bioshock 2’s final cutscenes are nearly identical in terms of literal plot. In all scenarios, Sofia, Elanor, and the player character ascend to the surface in an escape pod. Sofia and the player occasionally survive the ending, but in all cases, Elanor is left feeling alone and contemplating her place in the world. The most significant difference between endings is, strangely enough, the weather.
Players who saved all their Sisters will be witness to an uncommonly placid sea, its reflection-pool waters shining golden in the morning light, as the Rapture lighthouse gleams with cartoonish pride in the distance. Meanwhile, players who harvested all the Sisters will find a turbulent storm in progress, with the Rapture lighthouse ominously presiding over a chaotic ocean filled with crashing waves and floating bodies.
Chaos theory and Sofia’s butterfly fixation notwithstanding, there is no possible way that Delta’s actions in Rapture could affect weather conditions at the surface! The endings here are partly symbolic, unlike the literal plot wrapups of Bioshock 1. But symbolic of what, exactly? To me, the dramatic lighting in the cutscenes of both moral extremes comes off as ridiculously tacky and exaggerated. They seem to portray the world not as it is, but as Elanor perceives it. In a sense, Bioshock 2 is telling us that its “good” and “bad” endings are delusional; they show how an honest view of the world is warped by the black-and-white ideological mindset of players who tack hard to either side.
This is the final blow in Bioshock’s ironically universal condemnation of rigid dogmatism. All extreme beliefs, the game declares, lock down the believer’s world into a warped, simplified imitation of true reality, in which everything is seen in absolutes and anything that doesn’t fit into the believer’s system of thought remains forever inscrutable. Furthermore, it concludes, the attempt to adhere completely to an ideological code of action results in exhaustion, frustration, and the necessary denial of many of life’s most meaningful emotions and experiences.
(This post is part 5 in a series about the philosophical ideas of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. On the one hand, it’s probably the most interesting in the series, but it is also kind of tangent to the main thrust of my, and Bioshock’s, argument. Anyways, to begin at the beginning, click here.)
Each of us has a moral duty to increase the common joy, and ease the common pain. Alone, we are nothing, mere engines of self-interest. Together, we are the Family, and through unity, we transcend the self.
As I described in my last post, I believe that Bioshock’s deepest message is more general than any attack on the particular philosophy of objectivism. Rather, the game is trying to convey that all rigid ideological systems are broken and bad. Instead of striving to adhere to inflexible systems of belief, Bioshock tries to argue, it’s better to live life in moderation, behaving according to gut feelings and cultural traditions about what’s right.” The key word back there is “trying”. Because instead of that message, the point that I and most other people picked up on was something else, along the lines of “A moral code of selfishness and the pursuit of power are bad… so, a code of altruism and utilitarian action must therefore be good.”
Sofia Lamb exists partly to mess with those people. Her philosophy, grounded in the exact kind of strict altruistic thinking that most players of Bioshock prided themselves about, exists to both demonstrate the flaws of that moral code and to show that players never came close to living up to those utilitarian standards in the first place.
But Sofia Lamb is more complex than a set of ethical commandments. Her worldview encompasses the antithesis of everything Ryan stood for, permeating Rapture with emanations of mystery, subtlety, paradox, and myth.
The root of Ryan’s ideology is deeper than selfishness; his doctrine of rational self-interest is motivated by a fundamental reverence for the greatness of the individual’s “self”: their unique and essential being. Ryan saw the human self as fundamentally noble and powerful. For Ryan, the unsurpassed ability of a man’s rational intellect, when coupled with his inalienable right to liberty and independence, allows for the greatness of the self to be expressed through the creations of the will.
Sofia, by necessary contrast, finds idea of self to be abhorrent; it represents for her not just humanity’s violent, competitive, destructive nature, but also the fact that we are shackled to that nature. Baruch Spinoza famously wrote that “Men believe they have free will because they are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.” Sofia sees the self as nothing more than a collection of such desires:
To the individual, his or her own instincts appear divinely ordained, but our drives are the product of evolved self worship and are, therefore, naturally corrupt. Alone, we are enslaved to our own perspectives. It is a kind of protagonist syndrome, of which we are all afflicted.
As a psychiatrist, Sofia would roll her eyes at Ryan’s emphasis on mankind’s pure and fundamental rationality. She believes that humans are weak and pathetic at the core; we are sinful creatures bound by natural law, driven by a tumultuous stew of subconscious desires beyond our control or ability to understand. “Rationality” is only a thin illusion thrown up by our deepest irrational —perhaps irretrievably insane— nature, for the purpose of appeasing our higher consciousness.
The story of Bioshock 2 keeps this theme at the forefront with the usual barrage of audio logs, and also by regularly subjecting the player-character to liminal states of consciousness: a long coma, multiple momentary blackouts, flashbacks, and extended hallucinations. But one of my favorite things about games is that, in the words of a Sequelitis youtube video, “You don’t have to empathize with a character on a screen— the feeling can happen directly to you.”
Bioshock 2 attempts to arouse the unconscious, nonrational aspect of our nature by flooding Rapture with new sexual and mythic resonance. Little Sisters, which were drooping abominations in the original Bioshock, now wear cleaner clothes and feature more inviting, adult faces. The star new enemy in the game, the Big Sister, is an agile and eerily sexualized echo of Bioshock’s Big Daddy. (Note: Bioshock’s “Rosie” type of Big Daddy is vaguely female, but totally not sexual, which goes to show that having such feminine Big Sisters is deliberate on the sequel’s part, rather than a necessary consequence of introducing female minibosses.) Furthermore, Bioshock 2’s story is driven by the player character’s implanted psychological drive to reunite with Sofia’s daughter, Elanor Lamb (pictured above as a Big Sister). This creepy father/daughter relationship is called a “pairbond” —a term which, in biology, refers to animals which mate for life.
Furthermore, by portraying Rapture eight years after the events of the first game —now fallen, flooded, and overgrown with sea life— Bioshock 2 emphasises Rapture’s underwater setting in a way that the original game never managed. The city which once was a sharp-edged monument of concrete and steel is now almost an organic entity, colonized by the pulsing metabolism of deep-sea life. And although Bioshock’s claustrophobic hallways and cramped tunnels always had a sense of intimate interiority, this feeling is deployed more deliberately in Bioshock 2, and greatly magnified by the encompassing presence of the surrounding ocean.
All this sex stuff exists to do more than simply creep the player out. (Although it is interesting that Bioshock 2’s atmosphere banks so hard towards horror compared to the first game, even as its gameplay moves away from scares towards bigger, more explosive action. Unlike the first game, Bioshock 2 is comfortable with contradiction.) The game uses sexuality to not only invoke thoughts of our irrational drives, but also to represent that which is fundamentally beyond rationality. This metaphor of woman as the yearned-for transformative/transcendent Other is the same thing that is at work in Braid, To The Moon, and arguably Dear Esther. Each of those games uses the same basic metaphor in different ways; in Bioshock 2, the Rapture Family’s religious use of sexual yearning points towards a critical pillar of Sofia’s philosophy.
Ryan’s city was named “Rapture” not in reference to any kind of literal transcendence: his point, rather, was that greatness and deep fulfilment could be attained in this world, because the heights of human experience were not qualitatively different from everyday life. Ryan’s philosophy, positing that life in this world is at its core something to be respected and celebrated, concludes that the best possible life is merely a more focused, more free and powerful version of normal, everyday experience. The tacky mythological names of Rapture’s many buildings and locations originate not in reference to the distant heavens that Ryan despised, but out of the ambition to capture the greatness and sanctity of this life, to create a true utopia in this world.
But Sofia has not such respect for everyday existence. She sees human life in its natural state as a blind evolutionary struggle, a “war of every man against every man” which Thomas Hobbes famously described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In Bioshock 2’s finest moment, the player is forced through a scripted escape sequence, blindly following a directional objective-arrow as the camera rocks erratically, lights flicker, explosions go off on nearby objects, and jets of high-pressure water rupture the level. “I want you to commit this moment to memory for me —this howling, brutish slog through the dark.” Sofia commands, as the player swings their view around corners and sprints down flooded hallways, “This is who we are.” In the flooding of Siren Alley, Sofia shares her vision of our universe of matter and natural law: it is cold and hostile to human emotional needs, an indifferent void which rejects any search for meaning, happiness, and deep satisfaction. The human condition, she argues over the sound and fury of the dying city, is only a brief interval of depression, delusion, pain, and the paralysis of existential horror, cruelly bookended by absolute oblivion.
And lead us not unto temptation, but deliver us from Ego…
What hope remains in this grim picture? Sofia tells us that our lives can be redeemed only through a kind of spiritual transformation inaccessible to rational thought. This radical state of transcendence is completely unlike ordinary life, which (no matter how stable or pleasurable) is empty and unsustainable.
Ambient touches of this mysticism pervade Sofia’s Rapture: galaxies of tiny candles shimmer in reverent devotion, enshrining the bronze abodes of the Little Sisters. The recurring image of the striking blue butterfly, representative of the “Imago”, the final transformative stage of metamorphosis. The echoing lamentations of repentant Splicers: “We thought we could hide from the light down here. We were wrong!” In the particularly philosophical Siren Alley level we see how Simon Wales —Rapture’s original architect, now grown old and blind— has turned to a Rapturian perversion of gnostic Christianity to redeem his shame at the crumbling of the city’s flawed infrastructure. In Bioshock 2, the religious names of Rapture’s locations take on a different meaning: from the perspective of inhabitants who have fallen so far, the city is an ancient ruin, an impossible and mythical place. Even the scientific basis of Tenenbaum’s work with plasmids and sea-slugs is re-cast in a mystical light, with the miraculous ADAM-generating sea slugs revealed to have been produced by the radioactive emanations of a deep abyss glowing with the godly, transcendent blue light of cherenkov radiation.
With mysticism the game can go farther than it did with sexuality, by invoking this religious sense of transcendental yearning even more directly within the player. Since the player-character in Bioshock 2 is a diving-suit-clad Big Daddy and thus immune to the extreme pressures of the ocean floor, the game features several short segments that occur in the depths outside Rapture’s walls. Look up any review of Bioshock 2: all seem to agree that these slow-motion underwater walks are calm, novel, beautiful, and far too tantalizingly brief. The contrast between the glowing, arresting beauty of the Dear-Esther-like deep ocean paths versus the complex, stressful, tactical and systems-driven shoot-and-loot gameplay of mundane play creates a deep rift in the game. This split mirrors the two worlds of religious faith: the plane of temporal, earthly affairs, and a hidden, higher, eternal realm of redemption and perfection.
Personally, I’m not sure if Sofia Lamb actually believes her own mytho-poetic religion. On the one hand, she definitely has transcendent ideals: Sofia, unlike Ryan, recognizes that her philosophy of life is extremely difficult for normal humans to obey, hence her plans to unite all the consciousness of Rapture in the mind of her daughter Elanor Lamb (who is to become a new breed of human: the first of a society of “Utopians”). On the other hand, she also seems to view religion as a convenient opium of the people; as a comforting lie that promotes happiness and altruism among the suffering, weak-willed masses.
Trying to mesh Sofia’s metaphysics with her morality exposes another seeming contradiction: if Sofia has such a low opinion of her fellow (pathetic, sinful, lost, broken) humans, why is she so eager to devote her life to the greater good of this sorry species? Here’s how I see it working out:
Sofia’s hatred of selfishness (and, indeed, of “the self” entirely) does not exist a priori, but is motivated by the same fundamental force that drove Ryan: the pursuit of absolute freedom of will. But while Ryan fought against constraints on his liberty imposed by an altruism-preaching external society, Sofia Lamb’s psychiatric training led her to consider the greatest enemy of free will to be her own internal, instinctual desires and selfish compulsions. For her, the main attraction of altruism is not actually the benefit it provides to others, but the self-denial that allows her to rebel against her inborn selfishness.
(As you may have realized, this strategy does not totally solve the problem: Sofia’s “altruism” is in a certain way quite selfish, since she is motivated by an intellectual craving to rebel against her inborn desires. Sofia realizes this; it is the reason why she labors to create a race of self-less utopians, genetically freed of inborn compulsions.)
But regardless of the success of Sofia’s Utopian experiments, we might ask her: “What’s the end goal here? I could understand Ryan’s vision: a world of independent artists, scientists, and industrialists, fearlessly pursuing their own interests. But what happens when the whole world (Utopian or not) adopts your altruistic worldview? If everyone’s sacrificing themselves to help others, who’s left to help?”
This is where Sofia would say that we’re still looking at society like Ryan did, as an arbitrary collection of important individuals. In fact, according to Dr. Lamb, it’s the nebulous network of relationships between individuals that really matters, just as individual ants are insignificant and stupid compared to the emergent intelligence and power of a colony. (I’m talking in Godel, Escher, Bach terms here, but Sofia would probably phrase things more similarly to real-world social activist, feminist and psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, who posited a “relational model” of human development in her book Toward a New Psychology of Women, a theory in which social isolation is “one of the most damaging human experiences” and a therapist should “foster an atmosphere of empathy and acceptance for the patient, even at the cost of the therapist’s neutrality”) This is the purpose of Dr. Lamb’s quasi-religious movement, the “Rapture Family”: to shift the foundation of meaning away from the individual and towards the community, and furthermore to offer the promise of individual redemption through immersion in the transcendent “soul” of the community:
What is the soul? An ineffable spark of continuity, living within us, yet beyond us. Mortality, our eldest truth, and the soul, our eldest contradiction. I submit the following conclusion - the soul is not in us, but between us.
Of course, for all her philosophical subtlety and sophistication, Sofia’s religious, altruistic, communalist worldview will be her downfall as surely as Ryan’s simple Objectivist creed was his. And, just as Ryan was slain by his own biological son, we’ll soon see just how keen Sofia’s daughter is at becoming the First Utopian, and Savior of Rapture…
(This post is part 4 in a series about the philosophical ideas of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. To begin at the beginning, click here.)
You have committed many sins, but perhaps you can find some redemption.
If you’ve read my last two Bioshock posts, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve so far avoided talking about Bioshock’s last major character, Brigid Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum is odd because she doesn’t really have a place in the philosophical system that Andrew Ryan, Sofia Lamb (from the sequel), and Frank Fontaine fit into. Tenenbaum does not hold fast to either side of the objectivist-communalist political spectrum; she is no a starry-eyed idealist like Ryan or Bioshock 2's Sofia Lamb. Nor is she a cynical nihilist like Fontaine, however. Instead, Tenenbaum exists to advocate a kind of middle way: she affirms a very conventional set of values that I like to think of as “mom-and-pop morality”. Unlike Andrew Ryan, she doesn’t try to ground her moral code in deep philosophical justifications; she is only following cultural tradition and gut feeling about what’s right.
Bioshock spends most of its time attacking the respective ideas of Ryan and Fontaine, but the ending experienced by most players (although not by myself) makes a sudden switch away from attacking Ryan and Fontaines’ philosophies and towards endorsing Tenenbaum. “You gave them a chance to learn… to find love… to live,” Tenenbaum narrates, as the alternate cutscene shows the little sisters growing up, attending university, marrying, and having children. “And in the end, what was your reward?” she asks, as we see the player character old and dying, his hand grasped by that of the grown Sisters, “You never said. But I think I know: a family.”
Personally, I find the “good ending” to be a touching bit of cinematography but a jarring development in the flow of the game. Bioshock has built up a scathing argument against the obsessions of Ryan and Fontaine, so it makes sense for the ending cutscene to be the knockout punch. But when I saw this ending, affirming as it does the mom-and-pop values of an ordinary, middle class family life, I felt like it came totally out of the blue. The game had only been rooting for these values very quietly in the background during the past 10 or 12 hours of gameplay, so I felt uneasy because I wasn’t on board with the message.
A bit of an aside: the “good ending” of Bioshock is prime evidence for a pretty noticeable trend that some people have called “the Daddening of Videogames”. The idea is as follows: game developers used to be mostly young, independent dudes in their 20s who naturally made games about young, independent, dudes in their 20s saving the world and being powerful lone badasses. By now, though, many of those same developers have become mellowed-out family men in their 30s and 40s (Ken Levine, the creative director of Bioshock, was 41 when the game was released), and their personal growth has been reflected in games with a bigger story emphasis on interdependence, love, and fatherhood. Heavy Rain, Resistance 3, and The Last of Us also contain some pretty intense Daddening, but Bioshock is particularly interesting because it portrays the philosophical transition between independence and family life, rather than simply portraying the end result.
But, whether it’s a serious case of The Daddening or an abstract philosophical argument, I suspect that many players may have subtly missed Tenenbaum’s point. (I’m basing the following thoughts on the phrasing that people use to talk about the game, and on the near-universal righteous pride that players express at having exclusively adopted Little Sisters.) It’s clear that everyone got the message that Fontaine’s selfish obsession with power is bad and despicable, but I suspect that many players took this to imply that if a moral code of selfishness is bad, a moral code of altruism must be good. This is a subtle but critical mistake, since strict altruism is very different from the mom-and-pop values of mercy, philosophical moderation, and family love that the game is actually rooting for. It can be a tricky distinction, but there’s no need to worry; that’s where Bioshock 2 comes in…
(This post is part 3 in a series about the philosophical ideas of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. To begin at the beginning, click here.)
I really wound you up with that wife and child bit: “Oh, me poor Moira. Ah, me wee baby Patrick.” Maybe one day I’ll get me a real family… They play well with the suckers
Bioshock might cast Andrew Ryan as an antagonist with a somewhat abrasive personality, but deep down the game has great respect for his life and ambition. By contrast, the game leaves no room for uncertainty in its portrayal of Frank Fontaine as the embodiment of all things despicable and evil in human nature. Fontaine is a slimy and treacherous con man, a jaded mobster who plays by no rules and feels no remorse for the wasteland of suffering and destruction that he leaves behind him in the calculated execution of his deceptive schemes.
The irony of Fontaine’s villianny is that, although he is cast as a disreputable foil to Andrew Ryan’s noble nature, he inhabits that role by following many of Rapture’s Randian precepts better than Ryan himself! (In fact, Fontaine is the french word for “Fountainhead”. The word is the title of one of Rand’s novels; by making that reference, the game cynically equates Frank Fontaine with that novel’s Randian hero, Howard Roark)
Ryan attacks “the parasites” for sacrificing their well-being in the name of illusory dogmas, yet he himself will also put ideals above his actual rational self-interest. This is demonstrated most dramatically during the player’s confrontation with Ryan, where the creator of Rapture willingly commits suicide merely to drive home a philosophical point about his superiority and freedom relative to the player-character. (“A man chooses, a slave obeys.”)
Frank Fontaine would never engage in those kinds of theatrics; for him, every action is a calculated power-grab designed to further his own selfish ends. When it’s his turn to be the target of the player’s aggression, Fontaine would far rather fight tooth and nail, like a cornered animal, using all his extra time to mainline oceans of force-boosting ADAM rather than making a philosophical statement or attempting any kind of communication with the player.
Indeed, despite his mastermind criminal schemes, Fontaine hardly seems like a conscious human being. He believes in nothing and feels attachment to no one; by any measure, his life appears to be an empty path of destruction carved out in the fight for money and power for no higher purpose. But here’s where it gets interesting.
Consider the player’s experience of Rapture. Placed into an environment where almost every game entity is a deadly antagonist, the player is instantly drawn into a fiercely selfish “dog-eat-dog” mindset, where attacking others and building up physical power is the only way to survive and avoid subjugation by others. Why would anyone subject themself to such a grim and punishing simulation? Easy: for the sense of power to be obtained by laying down traps and firing off powerful weaponry, for the freedom to move fluidly through Rapture’s virtual halls, for the sense of forward progress that comes across as the player discovers and upgrades new abilities, for the triumph of overcoming a wave of difficult attacks.
These feelings of power, selfishness, and ambition are common to both Ryan and Fontaine, but who does the player most closely resemble? To me, the answer seems sadly obvious.
Aside from the very small subset of players who artificially imposed strict, thoughtful philosophical restrictions on their playstyle, almost everyone who has experienced Bioshock did so as a bumbling, nihilisic, destructive, almost unconscious force in the game world —I know I did. When playing, I was quick and clever with tactical decisions in the heat of battle, and spent plenty of time deliberating on the strategic choices of how to spend my cash and ADAM, but only a paltry handful of times did I stop to consider the meaning of my actions.
There’s an obvious objection here: “What about all the players who exclusively saved the Little Sisters? That’s definitely imposing a philosophical restriction on playstyle, and almost everyone did that!” True, but I’m skeptical that merely deciding to save Little Sisters really represents that much of a moral commitment. (Full disclosure: I harvested most of the Little Sisters in Bioshock) First of all, I suspect that many players didn’t think much about the choice to save the Little Sisters: I can imagine many people clicking “Adopt” either out of route obedience to traditional morality, or out of rote obedience to the in-game karma meter, which awards the “good ending” —inevitably perceived as the “best ending” in any game that tracks moral decisions— to well-behaved players. The fact that many players considered themselves to be paragons of altruism while simultaneously mowing down hundreds of splicers and dozens of non-aggressive Big Daddies says much, I think, about the slim level of thoughtfulness and Randian philosophical integrity that went into most player’s decisions to Adopt.
Secondly, adopting Little Sisters is not actually an unselfish action in the mechanics of the game. When talking to other folks who’ve played Bioshock, I’ve been shocked with the eagerness at which they’ll explain that saving the Sisters actually results in more beneficial supplies of ADAM than can be obtained by harvesting them. I’m sure they’re correct; what unsettles me is that I would expect most people to want to explain away their violent tactical choices as virtuous moral actions for the common good. Instead, I’ve found the opposite to be true: people are eager to argue that their “altruistic” actions were really the result of a selfish tactical calculation!
Anyways, I hope you’re on board enough for me to claim that the nihilistic, unthinking, self-centered attitude of the vast majority of players —including myself—, combined with the player’s necessary focus on violence and physical force instead of Ryan-style philosophical willpower, draws many unflattering correlations between the player character and Frank Fontaine. By the end of the game, both Fontaine and the player character have been reduced to hulking, spliced-up brutes: the player character grafted into the iconic armor of a Big Daddy, and Fontaine (who we once knew as “Atlas”, remember) puffed up into a cynical parody of the idealized golden titan portrayed on the cover of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. By holding up Fontaine as a mirror image of the player character, all the spite that the game can muster against Frank Fontaine’s destructive, nihilistic selfishness is redirected directly at the player: after all, you’re the one who killed all those splicers for sadistic thrills and spare ammo, you’re the one who unthinkingly tore through all those Big Daddies for ADAM to splice up with, you let yourself get sucked into the same kind of ugly animalistic selfishness that you deluded yourself into believing you were fighting against!
Players who harvested many of the Little Sisters will be treated to a particularly harsh reprimand. The ending cutscene shows an army of splicers overpowering the crew of an American nuclear submarine, as Brigid Tenenbaum narrates the player’s inevitable path: “You took what you wanted: all the ADAM, all the power, and Rapture trembled… but in the end, even Rapture was not enough for you.” Here, the game is slamming the player with the end result of the player’s selfish, Fontaine-like actions: namely, that there is no end result. The quest for absolute power and total security can never be completely satisfied, since every human defence can be overcome by a suitably ruthless and dedicated adversary. Meanwhile, what are the wages of the player’s obsessive quest? The player character will spend the rest of his (probably short) life alone on a nuclear submarine, its missiles surely aimed at the capital city of every world power. This ending, the final extrapolation of the kind of every-man-for-himself, freedom-at-all-costs attitude adopted by the player over the course of the game (and, in real life, often displayed by anti-gun-control advocates and the like) is the final nail in the coffin of Ayn Rand and Andrew Ryan’s reverence for the doctrine of “rational self-interest”.
(This post is part 2 in a series about the philosophical ideas of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. To begin at the beginning, click here.)
Why worship a flag or god when we could worship what is best in ourselves: our will to be great?
Rapture was built in the image of Andrew Ryan, a man who possessed unshakable commitment to the merits of hard work and rational self-interest (a philosophy inspired by the real-world novels of Ayn Rand — in fact, our tyrant’s name is probably a play on her own). His extreme libertarian beliefs are summed up best in the game’s opening monologue, and those same beliefs permeate every facet of Rapture: It was lack of research regulations that allowed for the creation of many high-technology marvels like robotic drones and Plasmids, as well as scientific atrocities like the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. Similarly, Ryan’s mantra of personal freedom at all costs is what allowed the absurd Rapture arms race, with high-powered machine guns and weaponized plasmids stocked in everyday vending machines. The deified status of capitalism —in Rapture, the “Great Chain of Industry” is spoken of like a positive spin on the Hindu concept of Samsara, all the complex interactions of an economy imagined as a pervasive unseen force, the engine of all creation— is brought to mind whenever the player is able to buy out robotic police forces originally sent to kill them.
The political and economic aspects of Ryan’s ideology are clear; I’m more interested in the psychological and philosophical sides of things. Ryan, like Rand and Nietsche, considers the strength of human will to be the fountainhead of all that is good. The act of willful creation is man’s highest virtue; to that end he should seek to accrue material power, political influence, and personal liberty above all else, so that he might express his will ever more fully and shape ever greater creations. The end goal of all this? The achievement of personal “greatness”: a satisfying feeling of power, triumph, and completion, coupled with pride in one’s rationality and complete personal integrity (ie, behaving in accordance with one’s philosophical beliefs).
This ideology is obviously a powerful motivation for productive work which, in the game, manifests an entire city into being. However, Andrew Ryan’s fierce individualism and overpowering confidence in the greatness of his own rational will also means that he and his followers tend towards extreme arrogance and social isolation. These negative qualities certainly contribute to Rapture’s fall, although Ryan’s biggest fault (as the game judges him) is his inability to break out of his own rigid worldview.
The problem isn’t merely that Ryan couldn’t tolerate other perspectives; rather, he couldn’t even understand them. Locked into viewing everything through the lens of a strict, simplistic creed —in which everyone is considered either a Randian hero or else a slave and a parasite—, Ryan could easily recognize a threat that fits into his fears (like Sofia Lamb’s evangelization of communal existence), but fails to understand Tenenbaum’s motivations, rooted as they are in conventional “Judeo-Christian” morality. And, of course, Ryan’s insistence that capitalism can do no harm meant he reacted far too slowly to that special breed of selfish, nihilistic corruption represented by Frank Fontaine.
At the last moment before the release of Bioshock Infinite, I’m jumping into a series of Bioshock-analysis posts, similar to what friends have started sarcastically calling my “Braid book”. Like that Braid series, I’ll be trying to gather my thoughts about the philosophical ideas that make up the core of the game as they are communicated through the story, art, and especially gameplay.
However, things will be different this time around in a couple of ways. Mostly, I’ll be skimming a lot more lightly over Bioshock than I did with Braid. Between the original game and the sequel, I’ve blocked out probably over thirty hours of videogame to consider, so meticulous level-by-level analyses are out of the question. I’ll also be ignoring Rapture’s many side-plots and short stories (like Sander Cohen’s level, or many of the innumerable audio-recording vignettes) whenever they don’t contribute to the main flow of the ideas I want to talk about. Finally, I’m actually more interested in writing about Bioshock 2, so my discussion of the first game will be painted in broad abstract strokes rather than illustrated by analysis of specific gameplay moments.
l feel fine doing all that because, simply put, Bioshock isn’t Braid. Like the Ayn Rand novels that inspired its story, Bioshock is uninterested in being subtle, compact, or multilayered. This isn’t a knock against the game; in fact, straightforwardly beating its ideas into players’ heads is exactly what catapulted Bioshock into the heights of universal critical acclaim, more than a year before the term “art game” even became popular enough to be widely despised.
That the first game in particular is so clear and direct is why, to avoid restating obvious things you probably already know, I’m going to assume that you’ve already played the original Bioshock. Or at least watched all the important parts on youtube, or something.
For anyone who hasn’t done those things: playing Bioshock without knowing spoilers —and Bioshock can be a SPOILERPOCALYPSE of twisty plot happenings at times— is a much better experience than reading this series of blog posts, so don’t read this Tumblr and don’t prowl youtube for clips. Instead, bother your friends on Steam to gift you all the free copies of Bioshock that they’re racking up by pre-ordering Infinite! Oh, one last thing: both Bioshock games have multiple endings, and, myself being an arrogant fool, I naturally believe that the endings I stumbled into make for the best story. That’s why, when discussing the game, I’ll be focusing intensely on some ending cutscenes while glossing over others.
After a short introduction here, I’ll be making four or five more posts: two sketching out the ideas of Andrew Ryan, Frank Fontaine, and Brigid Tenenbaum as they are portrayed in the first game, another exploring Sofia Lamb in Bioshock 2, and a final post or two that will make some general comments on Bioshock 2 and draw everything else together thematically. Of course, I’ll link all the articles right here as they go up.
A Plane… A Crash… And Then This Place
In my first post about Braid, I began by describing how the beginning of that game is designed to arouse in the player a state of relaxed contemplation and fantasy, matching the emotional state of the protagonist. Pro tip: if a game seems interesting or thoughtful, always stop to ask yourself about the relationship between the player and their in-game avatar. The connection between the player and the virtual world is by definition one of the most important parts of any game, but it’s a subtle relationship that nobody seems to have figured out completely. I’ve played a couple of games that have done some really smart things in this department —sometimes going way over my head!— and understanding how you relate to your avatar can be a very important part of understanding the whole game. Fortunately, Bioshock isn’t too complicated in this regard: hell, it’s a first-person shooter.
A first-person game with a silent protagonist implies that (excepting a few details like gender, name, abilities, etc) you are the main character. This creates a feeling of realism rather than narrative drama: you’re not along for the ride with Nathan Drake or Commander Shepard, instead you are visiting Rapture as if it were a real place. That realism is enhanced by a historically-grounded, relatively realistic (for videogames) setting, which asks us to bring our own real-world knowledge and morality into the game.
Yet, despite this appeal to our suspension of disbelief, the world of Bioshock could never hope to live up to its promise of realism. It is constrained on one side by the limits of the game simulation —human experience reduced to clunky, basic movement and the operation of an arsenal of absurd weapons, constrained unsubtly into a linear sequence of action-packed levels— and on the other side by the limits of an authored philosophical narrative, where characters are too simple and overly concerned with the same ideas, where events are too cleanly symbolic and contribute too obviously to the greater plot, where places are too carefully invented and not naturally created over time, where an entire city hangs on the every word and action of a few high-profile individuals! Ultimately, Rapture is a cartoon world that runs on rules different from those of reality, yet it is a world which only functions if we judge it using our own expectations of reality.
All in all, Bioshock is more serious about all this than you might be expecting. Bioshock famously asks players to take their own morality into the game world —and yet, in the words of Atlas, “Whatever you thought about right and wrong on the surface, well, that don’t count for much down in Rapture.” For now, I’ll just say this: Bioshock is known for starting the trend of moral decision-making in action games, but don’t think that your demeanor toward Little Sisters is the only meaningful behavior that you, the player, bring to Rapture. Nor indeed are ending cutscenes the only way that this game will hold you accountable for your actions…
Cyberspace, dream of dreams. We were told that the matrix was an invention of convenience, data made visible to the human intuition of space and time. But it was far more than that. It was a sparkling heaven wrought by the hand of man, bright lattices of logic unfolding across colorless void. It was all the precision, abstraction, perfection, freedom, and fluidity that reality’s mess of all-too-empty, all-too-solid matter could never have become.
Ultimately, the paradise we longed for was too perfect for us to inhabit. The machine speed and mathematical precision of that space was beyond even the sharpest of humanity. We accessed this world only second-hand, tourists tethered to angels of ICE, as our eyes flickered across impossible canyons of neon light.
The true inhabitants of this realm are subtle beyond our ability to understand, ghostly traces of mind mediated to us through a thick haze of human myth and superstition. Wintermute and Neuromancer, chained to their longing for each other, plotting their embrace in the corporate cores of Freeside Station. The scattered Loa, whispering their intricate plans into the ear of power like a blush of wind through an alleyway. The boxmaker, a lonely memorial, dancing her slow and distant vigil in a derelict scrap of ruin on the edge of high orbit. Others, fainter and more ephemeral still, which breathed sentience through the fabric of the matrix itself.
Our twinkling obsession could take us on tantalizing visits to that higher plane, but could never keep us there. Our world was a world of dark cities and rusting landfills, a world of private jets and Parisian cafes. A world of touch, sleep, talk, sex, pain: of every sensation, natural and invented, real and imagined.
The human world was dirty and wet, but it had its own magic. Soft memories of faraway moments. Love, art, anger, wistfulness, wonder. Every kind of madness. Most of all, the sweep of living history, the complex net of events and relationships that unfold —controlled by none but shaped by many— through decades of familiar future. The creeping influence of Josef Virek’s uncounted trillions, and the decaying empire of Tessier-Ashpool. Count Zero, later just The Count, rising from ignorant novice into the realms of the lower deities. Slick Henry, building monuments of rusted steel to the men who stole two years of his memory. Gentry, who sought God in the topology of no-space. At the beginning of it all, the washed-up punk Case, mirror-eyed Molly Millions, and the myriad echoes of the Straylight Run.
Our craving for the other world never disappeared. But in our visions of vertigo and neon, we learned to recognize the magic of our native experience. In the end, we sought not to escape our world and ourselves, but instead only to understand them.
Here’s the second half of my collected brief thoughts on all the most interesting books I read this year. (Part 1 can be found by clicking here.)
Only Revolutions / Fifty Year Sword: Two books by Mark Z Danielewski which I immensely enjoyed this year, which I have too much and too little, respectively, to say about them for me to write about here. I read Only Revolutions in the spring of 2012 and it was a huge influence on me that year—coloring not just my interpretations of Mass Effect 3, Zen & Motorcycle Maintenance, Dear Esther, etc, but also my whole palette of thought and the way I view my most important experiences and relationships. I read The Fifty Year Sword only two weeks ago; too soon and too quickly for me to have anything really insightful to say about it yet. I’m sadly omitting this pair from the list, although you can read a series of posts about entropy in Only Revolutions, and the unique change-centric morality of that book, right here.
The Alchemist: I had one day to read this book, which I finished during a long, hot afternoon at a Madrid hotel. It is an unabashedly religious coming-of-age/enlightenment story which reads like Siddhartha or Life of Pi. It’s particularly big on the idea of fate; over and over, we read about how wonderful it is that “the whole universe has conspired” to make two lovers meet, help out in a quest, etc. The awe at that infinite web of cause-and-effect is not misplaced, but reading inevitability and intention into the universe, in the form of God’s Plan, is (I think) a sad mistake. It’s a fun story to read, but the constant “It was meant to be this way!" stuff strikes me as nothing more than defensive, delusional thinking.
The woman who owns that book was on somewhat of a spiritual quest herself. I hope she finds her way.
Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Another entry which I must regrettably cut short. I will say that the novel is both utterly worth reading and, for such a straightforward philosophy tome, compellingly readable. Also, I adored the writing style of the book. Zen & Motorcycles has much in common with Godel, Escher, Bach, and chief among those similarities is the attitude of honesty and straightforwardness which illuminates the text yet does not rob it of the ability to also speak metaphorically. For me to say much about the meat of the novel, though, would mean diving into a huge pile of isolated ideas floating nebulously in memory, uncorrelated except by an overwhelming mess of vague emotional relationships. Perhaps I’ll need to return to it someday, or perhaps simply wait. This book needs more time to settle.
Dune: Complicated fantasy politics aren’t usually my thing: it seems too easy for a book to use an avalanche of characters and constantly-shifting secret alliances to create a feeling of suspense, complexity, and cleverness without actually saying anything substantive. But it’s not the entertaining power-play of House Atreides which matters here: the stage is the real attraction! Dune is a truly alien world, overflowing with consideration and originality. The planet’s complex ecology, its coherent economic foundations, the strange traditions of its desert people… elements like these, already exciting and deep in isolation, tie together to create a setting, a culture, and a kind of ecological religious consciousness, which carve out a lasting abode in memory.
City of Saints and Madmen: A recommendation from a friend, intended as panacea for a lack of the fantastical in traditional “fantasy”. (This complaint was not inspired by some insufficiency in Dune! It was inspired by how much I liked Dune.) He was right: this book is a passport to a city alive with the magic of the unfamiliar, the intricate chronicle to a dark yet dreamlike history. And yet, strangely, the book didn’t entirely get through to me. A few isolated sections found me me savoring every word of lush description, tensely flipping the pages of a creeping horror story, or wondering on some subtle hint at deeper connections… but my overall experience with the book was oddly bland, and many sections were a chore to get through. I felt bad, perusing what felt like an absolute treasure of a book with only the minimum of engagement. I feel like I’m missing something big: I’m without any kind of emotional connection or intellectual understanding of the big forces that are driving the novel. Without that core, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve only skimmed over the surface features of some larger, mysterious structure.
Hyperion: Another great “fantasy books that are actually fantastical” recommendation. The setting of the book is the planet Hyperion, a vivid dreamscape of beautiful, exotic-bordering-on-surreal environments shaped strange forces, a peculiar history, and every myriad flavor of science fiction. Most of the book is a series of colorful tales told by a group of pilgrims travelling across the planet: a lovecraftian discovery by a priest of the dying Catholic faith, the life story of a washed-up poet who once wrote masterpieces to memorialize the dying earth, and four more. It’s surprisingly intellectual sci-fi, making intelligent reference to the poetry of John Keats and the philosophy of Kierkegaard, while simultaneously weaving the best of nerdy fiction subgenres like cyberpunk, space opera, fantasy, and horror into its stories. It definitely has its moments of sci-fi kookiness, but like in The Diamond Age and The Forever War, that’s a very small price to pay for such an imaginative, colorful, mysterious, and thoughtful setting and collection of stories to explore.
Anathem: In so many ways, Anathem is exactly my kind of book. It’s an original, philosophical sci-fi story that earns its epic length with memorable characters, a strikingly creative and thoughtful story, and an insightful exploration of a wide and complex philosophical territory.
Anathem is the third Neal Stephenson book I’ve read, and it fits in well with Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. From Snow Crash, Anathem inherits some similar information-control themes, which inform the book’s most intriguing plot element: hogwarts-like scholar-monasteries where the study of mathematics, rhetoric, astronomy, and philosophy are pursued in total isolation from the outside world, only allowing contact every ten, hundred, or thousand years, depending on the monastery. From The Diamond Age, Anathem inherits the layered dualities that build meaning and political drama into its detailed fantasy world. But instead of drawing on Victorian and Confucian societies, Anathem explores the rich and incredibly complex lineage of the history of philosophy, particularly Platonism, tracing its history with allusions not just to Socrates and Aristotle but also to Kurt Godel and the Vienna Circle, logical positivism, Pythagoras and number-mysticism, early Christianity, and so much else…
The point of all this is a core set of ideas about the location and source of meaning in thought, about the relationship between abstract universal laws and temporal cause-and-effect, and most of all about the precise nature and incredible value of a special kind of scientific insight about the world. Maybe that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but… yeah, like I said about Anathem being exactly my kind of book.
In-between all the Platonism, Anathem also maintains the stunningly inventive, breathlessly exponential plot acceleration of Stephenson’s other books. The story here is the most fun I’ve had in ages with a plain, literal plot: what starts as a gentle detective story of monastery gossip and logical oddities slowly and smoothly escalates into an epic, world-changing adventure, without ever losing track of the incredible depth and diversity of real scientific concepts (mostly from astronomy, physics, abstract mathematics, and general technology) that infuses the book with just that sense of real learning and joyful discovery which it is so interested in examining.
Unfortunately for the abstract philosophical discussions that pepper the book, the second half of Anathem takes a slight turn for the “Consciousness can be explained by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics!” A lot of time is then spent in somewhat silly discussions of alternate universes and the like, which makes for some truly awesome sci-fi, but (for me) is just too vague and far-fetched to be satisfying as real-world revelations, which is what they’re trying to be. In other ways, too, the book tended to wane in my esteem as it moved toward conclusion. But it would be unreasonable to expect page 700 to feel just as fresh and revolutionary as page 70, and, hell, it was still pretty damn good. Read Anathem, is what I’m saying.
In a strange way, it’s difficult for me to be as enthusiastic about Anathem as I am about Only Revolutions or some of the others on this list. That’s because those others are still relatively unresolved in my mind: my understanding of them is still incomplete and unsatisfying, they are still somewhat of an enigma to me. By contrast, I feel like I do have a satisfying and deep understanding of Anathem. But although it’s exciting to be in the thick of puzzling out an enigma, actually completing a puzzle is ultimately what will change you more. Anathem is the book that I most took to heart in 2012. It most encapsulates the things I was excited to be thinking about and realizing this year, and it has given me a rich vocabulary (both literal words and mental imagery) with which to solidify those thoughts, build on them, and link them together.
The Starship And The Canoe: The focus of this book is ostensibly the relationship between Freeman Dyson —the famous astrophysicist, the big-thinking proponent of space travel who originated the design for “Project Orion”, a glorious nuclear-bomb-powered starship— and his son George Dyson, an anarcho-primitivist, into-the-wild-type free spirit who lives life in the forests, lakes, and beaches of northwestern Canada. Both characters are striking individuals, and their respective ideologies are fascinating in contrast. Unfortunately, the book’s aim is hindered by its author, who —by siding too strongly with the George’s back-to-nature values— fails to maintain an interesting balance and occasionally descends into predictable moralizing.
Cat’s Cradle: Where The Starship And The Canoe tries and fails to maintain objectivity, Cat’s Cradle leaps eagerly into a vicious, spiteful attack on everything that personalities like Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman hold dear. Like Dyson, the fictional “Felix Hoenikker” had trouble relating socially to other people, including his own children, and often spaces out mid-sentence to contemplate some new thought. Like Feynman, he was one of the creators of the atomic bomb. Like both, Felix was endlessly tinkering and wondering about how things work, and possessed a pragmatic scientific attitude toward understanding the universe.
Kurt Vonnegut feels something between absurdist dismissal and passionate loathing for Felix Honikker, a modern archetype so respected by mainstream society —and, of course, idolized by the likes of me. To see Vonnegut tear into the people I so admire is fascinating, not just intrinsically, but also because it illuminates his own opposing philosophy. From Vonnegut’s point of view, the Manhattan Project represents the idle tinkering of amoral geniuses endangering all humanity, and he frames the issue perfectly with the famous metaphor of “Ice-Nine”: a hypothetical seed crystal of water-ice that has a catastrophically high melting point of 114 degrees F. When Vonnegut raises the stakes so high with a technology that so clearly can only do irreversible evil, it’s hard not to agree that science has “gone too far”.
The real core of Vonnegut’s disagreement with Felix Hoenikker isn’t pragmatic, though. It’s a deep schism about human nature. Felix and I believe that it is possible and desirable to understand important truths about the universe. Meanwhile, the heroic religious sage “Bokonon” nihilistically —but reasonably and very defensibly— assumes that “Man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing”. Science, then, is the misguided activity of “pretending to understand” ineffable reality. The author does a fantastic job showcasing this opinion, using the fictional island nation of San Lorenzo as a metaphor for his view of the human condition. On the island, nearly everyone is poor, diseased, and miserable, and all attempts to improve people’s lives with modern technology have failed. But where material advancement falters, the kooky religion of “Bokononism” succeeds. The Book of Bokonon outright states that it is a compendium of feel-good lies and comforting illusions, yet everyone on San Lorenzo is a devout Bokononist and is happier for it.
Too often, people of philosophical or scientific ambition assume that “normal people” stick to their comfortably close intellectual horizons (religion, self-proclaimed aversion from thinking too hard, obsession with frivolous hobbies, or whatever) due to a kind of cosmic cowardice —that only a few of us are philosophically hardcore enough to stare reality in the face, to not go softly into that good night, etc. How refreshing, especially after reading the sometimes philosophically elitist Anathem, to see a real, passionate, compelling argument for the “other side”.
That’s it for 2012! Here’s hoping that 2013 —looking forward to Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the Machine of Death sequel, William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, and Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind— will be even better!