With the arrival of Bioshock Infinite next month, Russell Jones chose to revisit the game that put the franchise on the map. How does it hold up to the praise and status that’s been heaped upon it in the six years since it release, and how will the depths of Rapture compare to the heights of Columbia?
I reloaded my revolver as I walked toward the cowering little girl. Her eyes blazed with sickly yellow light, and she let out of a feral hiss as she crawled into a corner of the ruined theater lobby.
Do it, the demon over one shoulder said, its now-familiar “Would you kindly” conspicuously absent. Show mercy, said the angel over the other, and my hand itched with the gift she’d given me.
I picked the struggling girl up and could feel the ADAM coursing through her, courtesy of the slug surgically attached to her central nervous system and the corpses I’d stepped over on my way here. Surviving the horrors I’d found since emerging from the bathysphere had been a close thing, and cold logic told me I needed every edge I could get to survive the monsters hiding in Rapture’s depths.
Could I do what I came here to do and stay a man? Or would I become one of the monsters in turn?
To this day, I believe that question remains the most important one Bioshock asked its players to answer, and could be one of the most important themes in next month’s Bioshock Infinite.
A question of morality
Bioshock‘s story had other notable facets than just the Little Sisters, including the “Would you kindly” revelation that was both gameplay gimmick and meta-comment about the nature of control. However, the decision of how you go about acquiring Rapture’s most treasured resource, ADAM, is arguably that one which affected gamers the most: it hits them on a a practical level (how much ADAM you get), a gameplay level (affecting which ending you received), and an emotional level (can you live with your decision).
In practical terms, the decision becomes largely moot as the game progresses. But on an emotional level, it’s a really tough question for me: is this girl really like a terminal cancer patient, as is rationalized by Doctor Steinman’s audio diary, or is she worth saving?
Looking ahead to Bioshock Infinite, it’s a safe bet that Ken Levine will have similar questions in store. The main story, in which an agent named Booker tries to steal a psychic time-shifting girl named Elizabeth from a city in the clouds, will take place in the middle of the war between Columbia’s two political factions, the Founders and the Vox Populi. Levine said in an interview last November he and the writers at Irrational Games want to examine the motivations that drive these two factions into the situation they find themselves in. He said the game world is like a science lab where he and the writers can experiment with these theories in a way you couldn’t normally outside of a virtual environment.
Bioshock saw the denizens of Rapture put aside “petty morality” in order to strive for perfection and the utopian ideals of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. In Columbia, though, the Founders appear to instead double down on the authority their morality grants them. Through their leader Comstock, or “Father Comstock” as he’s referred to by his followers, the Founders believe they are doing the Lord’s will by following his predictions for Columbia’s future, even if that means increasingly xenophobic and violent actions. The leftist Vox Populi oppose this, but their actions in the name of their ideals become just as brutal and damaging to Colubmbia as Comstock’s.
The key factor in the these experiments, though, is the player: how do they react to the situation created by these two opposing moralities? Which side do they root for? What actions are they willing to take, how far are they willing to go to protect and defend, or just to survive the world they find themselves in?
In Bioshock, you have a lot of little girls you can choose to save, or not to. In Infinite, you only have one girl: a single, very important, very special girl. What will players be asked to do in order to survive this time, and what will it cost Elizabeth or their own humanity in the process?
I pull my glowing hand away from the Little Angel’s forehead, now cool to the touch. Her eyes flutter open, a pale blue instead of the sickly glowing yellow of before. I set her down gently, and she curtsies before scampering away into a nearby pipe. Atlas rebukes me, Tenenbaum thanks me, and I head deeper down the rabbit hole.
I’ve played through that scene about a half-dozen times since Bioshock was released, and cannot bring myself to select the other option: to become the monster. My limit hasn’t been reached in the depths of Rapture.
But in the clouds of Columbia, however… it remains to be seen whether we will see Booker as a hero, as a monster, or just as a man.