"Is a man not entitled to the sweat off his own brow? 'No!' says the man in Washington, 'It belongs to the poor.' 'No!' says the man in the Vatican, 'It belongs to God.' 'No!' says the man in Moscow, 'It belongs to everyone.' I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose... Rapture, a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, Where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well."
-Andrew Ryan, founder of 'Rapture'
Let's just face it already; most teenagers will never read "Atlas Shrugged." You'll always have the oddly prescient, horn-rimmed and girlfriendless product of locker-reamings and enough hazings to create a few major-league smog warnings who may peruse the hefty tome while considering how effective it might be as a bludgeon against bigger, gap-toothed, dull-eyed cronies. So 2K Games just spared us all the trouble, and gave us a game which gives us the epitaph of Galt's Gulch; 2007's "Bioshock."
Most of "Bioshock" takes place in the subaqueous city of Rapture. Rapture is a metropolis falling somewhere between the Atlantis of ancient times and the Galt's Gulch of "Atlas Shrugged" infamy in terms of overall LULz. The game takes place in the 1950s, several years after Rapture was founded by billionaire savant Andrew Ryan. Ryan intended the city as a haven for Earth's best and brightest, a utopia where such polymaths could exist in collegial accord without the monkey-on-the-back burden of us hapless mortals whinging about tax hikes and long work days and irradiated babies.
Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, the inhabitants of Rapture outwiled themselves when Holocaust survivor Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum creating something called ADAM in concert with malcontent Frank Fontaine. ADAM were genetic enhancements which allowed people to manipulate elemental psychic powers like fire, wind, and water, known colloquially as 'plasmids.' Fontaine mass-produced ADAM by implanting sea slugs (from which ADAM was derived) in the stomachs of five orphaned girls, known subsequently as 'Little Sisters' (basically Little Girl Zombies, known to proliferate cases of Serious Fucking Willies). These Little Sisters pretty much get to spend their lives scampering around from corpse to corpse harvesting lots of ADAM. They're protected by "Big Daddies," plasmid-enhanced humans in chemical-retardant suits whose sole raison d'etre is clomping around after the Little Sisters and zapping anything that tries to hurt them.
Which includes you, the player. See, the Little Sisters have been working overtime recently, excoriating lots of corpses, so the Big Daddies get royally pissed off and continually call the social services offices of all three countries which Ryan denounced, which the joke's on them because their vocabulators all sound like that guy with the really deep voice from "Jesus Christ Superstar" with a hangover. All three nations are broke by this point because of Ryan's abdication, but eventually scrounge up enough money to send a social worker down by making Stephen Harper impersonate a hamster for Bill Gates. Just kidding. They actually send down a plasmid-enhanced ex-Marine beauty school dropout named Whappo to shut the Big Daddies up and save money on the phone bill.
Close enough. You play as a man named Jack, a marooned traveler whose plane crashes over the smouldering ruins of Rapture. Looks like we're in deep shit, and no, the Little Sisters haven't even hit puberty yet.
As it turns out, ADAM is addictive. Addictive, like, in a way which makes cigarettes look like the height of independent and healthy living. ADAM distorts human DNA in a way that turns users nanners, transforming them into zombie ingrates called Splicers, all of whom want to chase you down and pump you for ADAM to feed their rapacious habit. So now the Little Sisters have well-rounded role models to look up to. Everyone goes home happy, right? Not exactly, because Jack's still got no ride out, and he must fight his way through a splicer-infested dystopia peppered with metabolistically-enhanced bionic people brandishing little undead zombie gals at him.
The reason that the Little Sisters have been working overtime is because Fontaine (think Sylvester Stallone meets Rambo with a penchant for diving) launched an insurrection against Ryan, leaving one half of Rapture dead (including Fontaine himself) and the other half ADAM-dependent, deleterious husks of their formerly super-smart selves. Lots of corpses means lots of happy Little Sisters, who get to harvest their daily quotas of ADAM many times over. Christmas has come early for the poor little things.
I'm not focusing on Bioshock because of the graphics, or the sound, or the gameplay, all of which were superb and well worth the game's purchase price in of themselves. No, I'm rhapsodizing about this particular game because it's the first title since "Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty" to really use the gaming medium as a way to make people think. I actually know people who played through this game, then spent a month reading "Atlas Shrugged" to learn more about Rand's philosophy. Most of "Bioshock" is an ostentatious tribute to Rand and her dystopian contemporaries, like Orwell and Huxley.
The basic premise of “Atlas Shrugged” was that a group of lucrative tycoons and entrepreneurs, tired of the all-pervasive “People’s State” maxims which pervaded the outside world, created a small city and went on ‘strike’ from their former lives. “Bioshock” shows us the cumulative outcome of this choice. The game is part enigma, part conventional shooter. It’s ultimately the gamer’s task to piece together what happened to this fallen city, how such a halcyon of industry could have become a haven of rapine drug addicts.
“Bioshock” brings Rand down to Earth in the sense that the founder of Rapture, Andrew Ryan (whose name is a semi-anagram of Rand’s) has a clearly definable hubris, whereas the John Galts and Francesco A’Anconias of “Atlas Shrugged” did not Ironically, a lot of people miss just how supportive of the ‘common man’ Rand really was. Many critics of objectivism postulate that Rand had a literary fetish for capitalist ‘supermen,’ people inexplicably above the rest of us. But this was a literary device, not a literal prognostication. The people who make these inferences are the same people who once said that the reason God hates black people is because one of Noah’s sons saw his father naked.
Rand was, in her own view, trying to supplant over 2000 years of ‘Platonic’ philosophy prating the inexplicable. She believed in the integrity of human industry, in the importance and potential of human endeavour. Every other niche in human ethics has its own ‘superhero.’ It’s best to think of the Howard Roarkes and Hank Rearden as just that; Platonic Forms, superheros, brought down to Earth. Rand believed that people loved hearing about extraordinary people in very ordinary circumstances, as opposed to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. In “Atlas Shrugged,” though, it’s unclear just what happens at the end, whether the ‘strikers’ return to the world or not.
In “Bioshock,” they fail, just as everyone always predicted they would. It’s like watching a superhero movie where the superhero dies at the end. Its message is cryptic and ambivalent, somehow disjointed when seen with the totality of Objectivism
Andrew Ryan becomes a universal character, ironically, as a martyr, because he literally becomes a man with the weight of the ocean on his shoulders. Alone at the bottom of the sea, with the revenant pioneers of a jeering world chasing their tails and munching on ADAM around him, one gets the sense of Alexander of Macedon on his deathbed, or Genghis Khan perishing in his tent, El Cid shot by one of Yusuf’s archers on the field of battle, or Hitler dying in the Fuhrerbunker. We see a leader perishing among his extinct ideal. We see a parent watching his child convulse on the ground and die in front of him, we see an atheist pray, we see a man gain everything he ever wanted, lose it, and then attain freedom through his chains. We see a Raskolnikov. We envision someone who imagined himself a great man, but turned out to be a false prophet. We see the captain of Titanic, over 100 years ago today, going down with his ship. Unfortunately, in this case, he doesn’t go easily, but gives you one hell of a boss battle and tries to make you Big Daddy chow throughout the game. There is nothing quite like being pummelled by a colossal juggernaut and then crooned over by a zombie little girl who calls her hulking behemoth “Mr. Bubbles” to make you appreciate the small things in life.
If you visit Rapture, bring me back a t-shirt. I’ll need something to sell off my back if Ryan’s world order ever comes to pass.