I was intending for BioShock to be one of the first games I played on my 360 but, well, one thing after another came up, and it took me a couple of years to get around to the game. In the mean time, it has garnered some amount of discussion, so I’m fairly sure I won’t have anything particularly novel to say on the subject, but that’s never stopped me before…
At any rate, as soon as I stepped into the entry area to Rapture and heard a slightly scratchy rendition of Beyond the Sea, I was hooked. The musical selections really are wonderful—I was going to write that it’s the game I own whose soundtrack overlaps the most with my iPod, until I realized that was patently false, but it’s right up there, and it’s definitely the game I own whose soundtrack overlaps most with the music sitting on top of my piano. And the music is just one aspect of the wonderfully nostalgic world they’ve created: I love the industrial design, the signs and artifacts that are sprinkled about. My only quibble is that the sequences of rooms often didn’t seem to fit together as a coherent three-dimensional chunk, but I can’t think of a first-person shooter that’s handled that better.
Very nice gameplay, too: I don’t like FPSes in general, and I was a bit worried that I’d be paralyzed by the choice of different plasmids; the latter didn’t happen, though, and I rather enjoyed some of the alternative gameplay mechanisms. (I’m a sucker for picture taking as a game mechanism, and the hacking minigame was pleasant enough.) And I appreciated some of the thoughtful choices the game made, e.g. not allowing me to waste my film taking pictures of enemies whose research I’d already maxed out, instead of treating film as an ammo like any other.
I could go into more detail about all of that, but, as with so many other people, all I really want to talk about is the Little Sisters. When I first heard about them and saw pictures of them in the prerelease coverage of the game (back when I actually paid attention to prerelease coverage of games!), they freaked me out enough that I wasn’t sure I would be able to play the game at all. I’m largely inured to video game violence, but for whatever reason (perhaps because I have a daughter myself, who was 7 or 8 years old at the time), those pictures really hit home, and I was not at all looking forward to playing through a game with such imagery in it.
I eventually came around, and I’m glad I did. But, with that as my initial impression of the game, the thought of harvesting Little Sisters never crossed my mind. In general, I’m not very good at appreciating “moral dilemmas” in video games (sorry, BioWare), because, given a choice, I can rarely imagine following one of the options. And this game would be an example, except that there’s a third, covert choice here.
Consider: I’ve been thrust into an extremely dangerous and extremely strange world. Almost everybody I meet seems to want to kill me; there’s a voice on the radio acting nice enough, but those I encounter in the flesh are rather less pleasant. And, in the middle of all of this, there are these strange little girls, with “Big Daddies” hulking nearby; neither of them wants to hurt me, the Big Daddies protect the girls, and the girls are evidently quite fond of the Big Daddies. (Or of “Mr. Bubbles”, as they call them.)
Given this, what kind of person would kill the Big Daddies? The main answer, I think, is a psychopath: either somebody who is so amoral as not to care, or so afflicted with a sort of white man’s burden megalomania as to think they can march in and set things to right. (Without doing any of the real work that is actually involved in looking after young children in even a normal environment, let alone a murderous one.) But somehow, in this game, killing their protectors and leaving the girls with nobody to guard and care for them in a place like Rapture is supposed to be the good choice?
I assume that the game designers had some uncomfortable thoughts along the same lines, because of the way they structured the first Little Sister encounter. In that one, the Big Daddy is already dead, and you have to save the Little Sister from a splicer yourself. After which, you meet Tenenbaum for the first time; she makes a case that “rescuing” the little sisters is good for them, but does so in a context that paints her as an unreliable narrator.
Given this, using the magic device Tenenbaum has given you that is supposed to cure the Little Sisters is horrifically irresponsible at best; and, even if you’re tempted to do so, not stopping when the girl cries out in horror is, well, beyond my powers to describe. I felt intensely uncomfortable, but of course the game doesn’t give you a chance to stop when she complains. (Incidentally, when rescuing Little Sisters here and over the course of the game, l Iearned something about how I act when I’m uncomfortable: every single time I rescued a Little Sister and heard those protests, I raised my left arm and scratched the back of my head. What a bizarre tic, I’m not sure I wanted to learn of its existence.) Stopping when confronted with the choice would have been conceivable, but I’m almost positive that the game wouldn’t have let me continue without doing something to the first Little Sister. (And, in the extremely unlikely case that it would have let me proceed, I’m also sure it wouldn’t have let me actually look after her.)
And, once you’ve rescued the first Little Sister, she thanks you, setting you on the slope to further evil: the next time you meet one, she’s with her Big Daddy, but you can rationalize (given all the other murder you’re committing in the game) killing her protector, because the end result is for her own good, right? (It is, of course, for your own good, but we’ll have to construct some sort of rationalization that goes beyond that.) Which I dutifully did because the game expected that of me—given that I wasn’t going to stop playing the game, I decided to go along with its design—but doing so broke my heart every time. (As did seeing a Big Daddy alone later on in that same level—in retrospect, watching a video, it wasn’t the Big Daddy protecting the first Little Sister I’d rescued, but that’s how I interpreted it at the time. Even if you accept that rescuing the Little Sisters is best for them, how can you justify killing their surrogate fathers while doing so?) Unlike with the first Little Sister I assume that it is possible to avoid killing any of the later Big Daddies; if I were more given to alternative playthrough styles, trying the game that way would be very high on my list.
A powerful game, and a very good one. Though also, in its own way a very depressing one: it’s one of the pinnacles of our art form, but it devotes most of its art to exploring adolescent Randian power fantasies instead of, say, exploring a topic like what it means to be a parent. (And that final movie shows just how paint-by-numbers the game designers’ basic approach in that area seems to be.) Sigh. Maybe I should come around to Chris Hyde’s point of view and turn more of my attention elsewhere.
This post has not been revised since publication.