Spoilers for BioShock (computer game franchise, including BioShock 2 and BioShock Infinite, henceforth BS, BS2 and BSI respectively).
The core concept of the Bioshock franchise is that some ideas are bad, a sentiment perhaps at odds with the movement in society which could perhaps be best summarized by that old teachers’ adage, There are no stupid questions. There absolutely are stupid questions, and many of them can be found in the drawer labelled, Why shouldn’t we let the magical lightning slugs determine fiscal policy?
The original BioShock was an instant hit, exemplified by its bizarre and fascinating opening sequence, in which the protagonist’s aeroplane crashes into the sea, forcing him to take refuge in a lighthouse, in which is concealed the entrance to the underwater city of Rapture, a libertarian’s paradise made real in art deco style. Wandering its halls, the player is confronted with, essentially, a thought experiment: what if a society were actually run along the lines which Ayn Rand posits? The sequel, BioShock 2, generally regarded as the weakest of the three games, explores the same sort of space, but interrogates collectivism instead. Finally, Bioshock Infinite explores the floating paradise of Columbia and explores American exceptionalism and what happens when a young woman learns how to manipulate the fabric of time and space. It gets one of those ideas right.
A head in the Clouds
On any given day, somewhere on the Web, someone is complaining about games being “too political” nowadays, like some sort of Bizarro Jack Thompson. The reality, of course, is that computer games have been political for a long time, and none of these neo-moralizers thought anything of it until they touched on issues about which they are sensitive/started slaughtering their sacred cows/forced them to look within at the horrid, gaping emptiness which lurks within.
Although healthy debate is a good way to wrestle with ideas, it has a tendency to drift into dry and lifeless minutiae, or become emotionally charged: the former can make discussion into a game played with semantics by academics, and the latter into an emotional minefield. Games provide a way to engage with ideas on various levels whilst avoiding the excesses of both these tendencies. Crucially, done well, a game can more easily avoid accusations of building a strawman or attempting a slippery slope fallacy, because the game itself can distract from those fallacies when they are being deployed, or contain enough nuance to avoid falling into them in the first place (which is obviously preferable).
The focus on writing stories and creating worlds around What if…? is one of the defining features of so-called speculative fiction. We see it most often in science-fiction, in which the questions tend to be, in their most basic form What if aliens? or What if capitalism? At the other, more sophisticated end of the spectrum, we have questions like What if our governments never protect us from the predations of the market? or What if the next scientific revolution did allow for an autocratic collective to conquer the solar system? or What if current trends relating to climate change continue unabated? The secret to dystopian fiction lies in the speculations’ ability to draw upon phenomena which we see in our own time: Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, Altered Carbon, Horizon: Zero Dawn even The Hunger Games, all are formed in the anxieties of the author’s time and place in history: Are emerging scientific fields developing too quickly? What does growing religious extremism mean for me and my body? What happens when technology makes the government/corporations too powerful? What will we do when the planet can no longer sustain life? And so on.
BioShock, therefore, addresses 20th and 21st Century political philosophies, but makes them acceptable to a modern audience (intentionally or not) who might otherwise be put off by distancing them from reality, a technique common in satire throughout history. Criticizing the Tea Party movement overtly might alienate players, but couching the criticism of libertarianism in the thought experiment which is Rapture not only maximizes sales (kerching!) but might even provoke some thoughtfulness and reflection in the player. It is true that people play games for fun, but our media also increasingly exert influence on our mental and emotional development: Victorians read for pleasure, but through such reading they were exposed to moral instruction, meditations on the social goods and ills of the day, and so on. In that respect, games making criticisms of ideologies are nothing new. JRPGs and Souls-likes are practically litanies of cynicism directed at authority, large institutions, organized religions, and governments. Similarly, Bronies often state that, through their hobby, they learn about the importance of love and friendship in ways which they do not through other media.
BioShock therefore demonstrates the deep veins of potential inherent in building a fictional world, even if only a small, city-sized one, in order to explore a philosophical point, or a series of related philosophical positions. These positions can be as lofty as What are the ramifications for free will in the context of a multiverse whose branches demonstrate different dependencies upon the human capacity for agency? and as simple as Racism bad.* It is often easier to do this in science-fiction, but a fantasy story based upon asserting some metaphysical proposition as true would itself make for an interesting tale: In this universe, all ideas exist originally and independently apart from minds. What kind of reality would that be? What stories could be explored in a world in which an idea does not need a mind to hold it?
Fathom the canon
BioShock also raises itself an interesting philosophical question, though: what counts as canon? By canon, I refer to the collection of stories associated with an intellectual product, from which an “official” or “definitive” timeline of events is conceived. For example, the The Legend of Zelda games for the Philips CD-i have been, effectively, abandoned by Nintendo in official timelines. The historical fact of the games, like other crimes against humanity, cannot be denied, but as far as the canon of The Legend of Zelda is concerned, Link has never expressed a desire to smash any dodongos.
BS2, for various reasons, is generally regarded as the weakest entry in the BioShock franchise, and it is not uncommon to see reviewers and fans of the series alike pretend that they have never heard of it. To what extent individuals and communities, rather than creators or owners of a story, get to decide what is canon – essentially, what is part of the world-building – is an interesting and wide-ranging discussion which generally hinges on a few key points, one of which is To what extent does the author, rather than the reader, determine what the story is? There are strong philosophical arguments on both sides, but given how many IPs are controlled by litigious international corporations, the effective answer is generally that the owner is the one who controls what can be, for want of a better phrase, consumed by the audience.
But people can, and do, reject canon all the time. The creator of the .gif format famously pronounces it with a soft g as in germ, even though the g stands for graphics, which has a hard g, a particularly memetic nonsense with which the denizens of the Web have had great fun for years now. So, can a game be meaningfully dropped from canon because it is bad? And if not, why not? Nintendo did it. Can fans not do the same because they foolishly decided not to be born as a corporate behemoth with an army of lawyers and giant pit of money? And in such a case, what do we do about Burial at Sea?
BSI is, as a game, complete in itself. The Burial at Sea (BaS) expansion was not universally accepted as a result, because it looked suspiciously like a cash-grab based on nostalgia and an attempt to shoe-horn BSI into the story of the original BS for no discernible reason. Some, therefore, chose to ignore it entirely, which is a shame because in many ways it is very strong: the film noir vibe coupled to the opportunity to see Rapture at its height, yet knowing what lurked behind the scenes, was all very satisfying. What was rather less satisfying was the way in which Elizabeth – effectively a reality-warping, time-manipulating goddess at this point – suffers the narratively unsatisfying Death by Spinny Pointy Thing in the process, which not only makes a mockery of her character arc, but is yet another example in the Great Big Pile of Examples of women in media dying in order to further the stories of men. This is not to say that stories of women making heroic sacrifices should not be done, the problem is that these sacrifices are overwhelmingly made a) by women, b) for men. As an extra kick in the shins, these women are often flat as characters or, conversely, much more interesting than the protagonists they die to assist. In Elizabeth’s case, the ridiculously contrived trip to rescue Sally peters out in order to lead into the “setup” for the original Bioshock. She is doomed for setting up DeWitt/Comstock, and, in the course of ceasing to be, dies to set the stage of Jack rescuing Rapture. Her story becomes all quite pointless, detracting from, rather than adding to, the other stories with which it interacts.
I consequently found it rather unsatisfying, but a few days later, I realized that just because something is canon does not mean I have to let it spoil a good story. As a simple ‘This is Elizabeth’s fate’, Burial at Sea is not very good, but as a thought experiment – What if all the BioShock stories were tied together somehow? How would Elizabeth be involved and why? – it is actually quite good. In the version of the BioShock story which lives in my head, Elizabeth goes out to explore the multiverse, unfettered by the futile scheming which kept her caged as a young woman, and which damaged so many lives. The stories of Rapture and Columbia, if ever they drifted close together, continue on their separate courses, and ne’er shall the twain meet. Yet, if for whatever reason I felt the urge to tie it all together meaningfully – if, theoretically, the stories needed to overlap – I am not sure I could do much better than BaS.
Games provide an opportunity to examine philosophical questions in ways that are easy to digest, which allow real speculation in speculative fiction, ranging from real-world dilemmas to more abstract problems regarding the ownership of ideas or the reality of stories. This requires the would-be author to do some reading – some real reading – of the topic, and possibly even to come to some conclusions, or, failing that, at least to find an argument to put forward. World-building is not just about dragons and elves and magic systems and unobtanium deposits, it is about stretching our intellectual horizons and engaging with what is simultaneously the loftiest and basest aspect of our inner lives: our ideas.
*For the avoidance of all doubt, let me stress that racism is indeed bad, and it is profoundly depressing that in AD 2021 this still has to be pointed out to some people.