Monday, July 09, 2012

If Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Huxley and Ayn Rand Made a Video Game

If Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Huxley and Ayn Rand made a video game it would likely be similar to the 2007 hit game BioShockBioShock was received with much admiration and recognition when it was released by means of a number of awards: Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (AIAS) Art Direction, AIAS Original Music Composition, AIAS Sound Design, and 2007 Game of the Year from the magazine Game Informer.  To date, over 4 million copies of BioShock have been sold.  Despite the mass numbers of tweens, teens, and young adults who have played the game, I cannot help but wonder if they realize the game’s philosophical foundation.

Produced by a company known as Irrational Games, the game’s developers meld some of the darkest philosophies in human history and drop a protagonist in the middles of a city run by those philosophies in which he then must fight his way out on a quest of freedom and self-discovery.  In a sense, BioShock is a thought experiment in which the developers imagined a world in which the Will to Power, the Prince, Objectivism, and Huxley’s Brave New World, were all allowed to play out to their logical (or really illogical) consequences.

The game is a first person shooter set in an art deco post World War II city known as Rapture.  The protagonist, Jack – who appears to be a common business man, literally crashes into the entrance of Rapture when his plane crashes, and he takes refuge on a rocky outcropping in the ocean.  There he discovers an elevator in the only building on the small outcrop, which takes him into the underwater city of Rapture.  There, Jack finds a city in chaos and in ruin.

The city of Rapture was the brainchild of Objectivist business magnate and one of the game’s antagonists, Andrew Ryan.  Those familiar with Any Rand should be able to see the connection here, as not only is the antagonist’s name similar, Objectivism is the school of philosophical thought developed by Any Rand.  In Rand’s own words Objectivism “is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”  This is a summary of exactly what Andrew Ryan hoped to accomplish with Rapture, as he hoped that in the city of Rapture he along with fellow scientists would be able to bring man to his perfection.  More over, to draw out the connection to Any Rand further, the protagonist is helped through half the game by a mysterious man who goes by the name Atlas, which should call to mind Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.

Nietzsche dared to ask the questions, “why morality?” “Why not immorality?” “Why truth?” “Why not untruth?”  Likewise, Andrew Ryan constructed Rapture to be a place free of moral and scientific constraints that had been placed on scientists by humanity and governments.  There in Rapture, Ryan and others conduct genetic experiments on man with a complete disregard for the price or sanctity of human life.  To Ryan, human life has the same value as a nail or hammer.  Rapture was to be a new Garden of Eden fit with two forms of genetically altering material called ADAM and EVE.  Moreover, Ryan can be viewed as a Nietzschian Zarathustra who is trying to gift to the ignorant world Nietzsche’s uberman by means of genetic manipulation.

Through the over experimentation done by Ryan, he creates a world in which Jack finds Huxleinist genetically engineered humans (similar to the ones in A Brave New World) who are produced for one specific objective depending on how their genes are manipulated.  Female children, known as Little Sisters, are bred to collect ADAM from those who have died.  Adults are genetically modified into one of two categories.  The first category becomes what is known in the game as Big Daddies.  Big Daddies are the bulwark for the Little Sisters.  The Daddies have one purpose only and that is to protect and guard the Little Sisters even unto death.  If a Bib Daddy looses his Little Sister, he wanders the remainder of the game lost, sad and looking for his Little Sister.  The other category for adults are the genetically mass produced warriors, called splicers, who have been driven mad by an over exposure to ADAM. 

What the protagonist discovers quickly is that the rule of Rapture is might makes right --an idea that has found rest in the camps of both Nietzsche and Machiavelli.  There is no government in Rapture, only loosely formed gangs of splicers.  Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine (another of the game’s antagonists, a former gangster and black market trader who is bent on destroying Ryan) both serve as kinds of princes where each seeks to manipulate and masses and eliminate any who step in their way to power.  Therefore, Ryan has no problem trying to kill of Jack, and Fontaine has no problem trying to manipulate the protagonist for his own purposes using lies and other techniques (I’m not mentioning the other techniques as I wish not to spoil the game in the event anyone who has not played the game wishes to play it after reading this).

Hopefully, but highly doubtful, what the player of BioShock quickly learns is that a society like Rapture cannot exist in a functional state in our world, where the philosophies of Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Huxley and Ayn Rand rule.  For each of the four philosophies lead to only one place: destruction and chaos.  Furthermore, three of the four philosophies, sans Huxley, can bee seen as architects of death, and one thing BioShock is not in want is death.

On a side note, I’m also imagining a college level intro to philosophy class that involves playing BioShock before reading and studying Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Huxley and Ayn Rand.


Nick said...

Bioshock is an amazing game. It wonderfully satirizes Rand's philosophy. Though the ending wasn't surprising.

The scariest part of Rapture is at the top of the elevator when you enter the city. Though it's not scary the second time you play the game.

kuiperbelt said...

Just one little problem I have with the article is the link between Rand (who frankly is more pop philosophy) and Nietzche. They do appear similar with Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness" and Nietzche's ubermensch, however Rand actually defended the concept of objective morality in the form of absolute political rights.

Paul Cat said...


I agree. It does poke fun at Rand.

The scariest part of the game is the first play through at the beginning when Jack is still in the elevator.

In my opinion it is a great game.

Paul Cat said...


I see what you are saying. The reason I made the connection is that thought Rand defends an objective reality (don't know if she believed in a objective morality), she did hold that the ultimate end of man is man's happiness which makes man an end unto himself. In other words, a kind of relativistic view of how man may go about achieving his ultimate happiness -- a view that fits nicely with Nietzsche

Also, I was just looking at what the game designers did with the city they constructed for the purpose of the plot. The game designers meld Rand and Nietzsche and other to make Rapture. In that by means of Rand's philosophy an attempt by Andrew Ryan in the game to make Nietzsche's uberman was able to be placed at the core of the came.

Calamity said...

Well, Nietzsche didn't necessarily think that "happiness" as such was the sole purpose of a man's life, he would derogatorily refer to this mentality as "English" and remember, Nietzsche scornfully rejected utilitarianism for its naivety.

"If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does."

Paul Cat said...

@Calamity Reread the post title. The game is a combination of philosophies, some over lap.

Nietzsche also distrusted logic and reason, and he did so in a very logical and reasonable way. He is a very inconsistent thinker who in one breath praise then with the next contradicts his premises. His will to power, though rejecting utilitarianism, fits nicely with utilitarianism. For instance, I want to will-to-power my way up in the public sphere; therefore, I must use as a means to my end xy&z people.

Happiness and pleasure can be two very different things. Then again, the English man might want pleasure, but power itself is found pleasurable by man.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...