Obedience in Gaming – Reflections on Bioshock and Bioshock 2

If you haven’t yet played both Bioshock games, please be aware that the following article is intended for players who have completed them, and so contains spoilers throughout.

The original Bioshock was a gorgeous, vibrant exploration of a undersea dystopia. It was also a lot more than this, exploring the issues of obedience and control. It was probably the first prominent game to explore the player’s passivity in an medium that presents itself as based on interactivity.

We gamers are easily manipulated. We emerge, usually a blinking amnesiac, into each new game world, and do exactly as we’re told. This is only sensible – we want to understand the parameters of the game, and to learn how to interact with the world around us. There is generally no other way of doing things – you do what you are told or you do not advance. So we obey.

This compulsion to obey is more fundamental than any emotional engagement. Sure, in the original Bioshock, Atlas tells us a sob-story about his family, and we get fired up for vengeance when we see their submarine attacked; but that’s not why we obey. We were obedient from the very moment Atlas started speaking to us, because we were told to be. All our gaming lives we have learnt that obedience results in success, progress and pleasure. Contrary to what media hysteria would have you believe, gaming does not make us unpredictable killers, but rather crafts us into obedient, docile serfs.

I got thinking about all this when playing the low-budget first-person arena shooter Killing Floor. The premise of the game is that a team of around 6 players is trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. The zombies are very orderly, and so arrive in successive waves of increasing difficulty. They are gracious opponents, giving you a little time between waves to go and restock on ammunition and equipment. The location of the resupply point switches each round, so it’s hard to keep track of it. To help you out, the game displays a little trail on the ground, leading the route to the resupply point.

But it doesn’t always work. I’ve been instructed to jump out of windows, or off the tops of buildings. And on more than one occasion, meekly accepting that the game must be right, I’ve obediently plummeted to my death. (See below for an example of fatal obedience)

In a way, we gamers like not having to choose. We like to be given a meaningful structure for our interaction, with rewards and a sense of progress. Sandbox games so often cause frustration because they lack this. Upon playing a game, our contract with the developer is that we surrender control in return for a fantastic subjective experience. We don’t usually expect to have to go out and forge this subjective experience for ourselves. We therefore trust the objectives that games give us, because we assume that they’re in our best interests because we’re here to enjoy ourselves.

We don’t expect games to trick us – that would be breaking the contract. Think back to the staged death of Atlas’s family in the submarine in the original Bioshock. I was totally taken in by this deceit, and was later outraged to find out that I has been tricked. But there’s nothing unusual about this ploy: the pre-scripted event has been a standard device since the time of the first Half Life. It’s only different because this trickery later makes us feel foolish. Whether or not Atlas is secretly Fontaine, the game is manipulating us into believing what we are being shown and responding emotionally to it. So tricking the player is in fact central to delivering on the implicit contract between gamer and developer.

I have to admit, I was completely duped by Fontaine. I laughed at Ryan’s idea that the player was an agent of a surface nation. Of course, I knew that I was just here by accident, and being helped by my friend Atlas. Finding out that I was, in fact, Ryan’s son, who had hijacked a plane and crashed it into the sea, primed to obey the words “Would you kindly…”, and sent here to kill his father, I was genuinely angry.

Of course, I should have seen it all coming. I don’t just mean that I should have been attentive to the inconsistencies, the little clues here and there pointing to Fontaine’s deception. Rather, I’m talking about Sander Cohen.

The Sander Cohen section of the game sees the player diverted from tracking down Ryan and forced to play along with a mad artist. I went along with it because it was the only way to advance, and happily slaughtered his poor victims. I even took care to ensure that the photos were nicely framed for his quadtych. I really got into the depraved artistic mentality of it all, and when Cohen finally revealed himself to gaze upon his completed work, I was ready to take the next step. Sander Cohen had been training me for this moment, and I did not disappoint. His was an exquisite death, and I had been so easily manipulated to bring it about. The Sander Cohen section shows that this game’s discussion of control and conditioning isn’t limited to the schemings of Frank Fontaine.

For all this talk of control and conditioning, there is choice to be had in the game. When Bioshock was released, a lot of the publicity was concerned with how each player must choose whether or not to harvest the Little Sisters. In a way, this is fair enough – you are instructed by Fontaine – “Would you kindly…” – to kill the first Little Sister. I disobeyed him, marking the first triumph of choice over control.

But this was all very obvious – a clear ‘right-or-wrong’ morality moment, the likes of which so many games have. The player is instructed to pay attention and play out the good/evil binary that we have all been trained in since childhood. We feel comfortable exercising choice because the game tells us we are allowed to do so. But of course, the parameters of our choice are completely determined by the game.

Worse still are the choices we don’t see. In the big scheme of things, whether we kill or save the Little Sisters, we are still doing exactly what Fontaine wants. This little act of conscious disobedience is nothing compared to the player’s unconscious trajectory. The best way to deprive someone of control is to make sure that they don’t even realise they have a choice.

Bioshock 2

I was surprised by Bioshock 2. As a sequel released not so long after the original, I was worried that it would be rushed, and unable to live up to the artistry of the first game.

The game’s publicity suggested that it would play communitarianism against individualism. Indeed, a lot of the game is focused around the narrative of ‘The Family’ in opposition to the philosophy of Ryan’s Rapture. But I didn’t really get much out of this. With the idea of community relegated to a weird cult, this didn’t feel like an honest discussion. Looking around Rapture, we get a sense of the creative vibrancy of unrestricted individualism, as well as its horrors, but in our dealings with Sofia Lamb we only see community offering at best a bogus sense of purpose, and, at worst, a bizarre nihilistic cult. But none of this matters, because Bioshock 2 does something amazing that took me completely by surprise.

Bioshock 2 presents us with an incredibly powerful exploration of fatherhood, protection and sacrifice. Just like in the first game, you are able to choose whether to save or harvest the Little Sisters. You also get a few more binary choices to make along the way – whether or not to indulge in revenge, vengeance, justice (or whatever concepts you would like to use to describe retaliatory punitive violence against those who have done wrong). You also get confronted with a choice on euthanasia, although the situation is pretty clear-cut, and nothing like as harrowing as such decisions must be in real life.

Through all of these decisions, you are unwittingly teaching your daughter Eleanor how to behave. Later in the game, she takes her cues from you in how she acts. I was not expecting this. I had thought of myself as a bad-ass free-agent, drilling my legions of enemies into oblivion so that I could save my daughter.

I conceived of her in a completely separate world to the violence and horror with which I was engaged. I’d walled her off from all the hurt and the harm that I wanted to protect her from. This was probably how I got through the horror of it all. It didn’t occur to me that she was watching, that how I acted would affect her. I guess it’s not possible to choose which of your actions influences your children. You’ve always got to be on form.

By the end of the game, you are an unstoppable behemoth, bringing ruin to anything that crosses your path. So when you finally get to Eleanor, your inability to save her from Lamb’s smothering is stifling. You rage at your powerlessness. Similarly to your death in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, this impotence feels unfair: you’re not given a chance to prove yourself. Who would have thought that all this butchery, all this strength, could not save her? You made yourself into a monster to save her, with plasmids and weapons, and it wasn’t enough. The section just after you fail to save Eleanor develops this.

For this section of the game you see the world as a Little Sister does. And it’s wonderful. It’s a padded, sensuous existence, with rose petals, soft lighting, and drapes of gorgeous fabric. You see statues of Big Daddies, showing how Little Sisters see them – as a sort of knight in glorious golden armour.

Posters reinforcing Little Sister conditioning adorn the walls, making clear the Big Daddy’s role as protector/saviour. The inhabitants of Rapture are immaculately dressed in formal attire and masks, and even the corpses look like angels.

As a Little Sister, you don’t have any responsibility for fighting, or for protecting anyone. You’re on a lovely walk through a beautiful environment, stopping to pick up a few clothes to bring back to Eleanor.

But when you approach one of the garments, the illusion shatters for a moment, and the player is reminded of the horrors of the surroundings that you have for so long taken for granted. Compare the above picture with the one below.

Through the course of the game, you have walked through hell for your daughter, without even realising it. In a way, you’re as conditioned as the little sisters are. You’ve been brutalised. The ruined environment, the murderous splicers, with their horrible faces and disgusting bodies, are all normal for you.

I felt a powerful sense of revulsion and terror when my vision momentarily switched back to the horrors of Rapture. For a Little Sister to have her gorgeous trance, someone has to protect her and take on the pain that she would feel. As Churchill supposedly said, “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” That message, more so than anything about The Family, makes a powerful point about how parents protect their children, and forces us to think quite how much of a burden society places upon those it looks to to defend it.

I chose to save the Little Sisters and to spare those who wronged me. These decisions result in a powerful conclusion to the game. You finally save Eleanor, at the cost of your own life. The final thing you see is your daughter taking your memories with her, so that you continue to help guide her after death.

We’re confronted with the ruin of the player character – the ultimate, taboo failure in any first person shooter, leaving you impotent and unable to change the world or to defend those you love – but also shown that this is irrelevant. We don’t have immortality, and our strength will fade and die with time. But our children, guided by our choices, will go on when we do not. To see the daughter I’d raised go on to have a positive future, even after I could no longer help her, brought tears to my eyes.

The ending was beautiful, and the game was fantastic. Bioshock 2 saw the core mechanics of the original improved and heightened, and whilst it didn’t discuss the same themes as the original, or feature the same stunning twist (how could it have?), it discussed some brilliant themes in a powerful way, and used the gaming medium to exquisite effect, just as the original did. If you are serious about gaming and about art you must play these two games.

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7 Responses to Obedience in Gaming – Reflections on Bioshock and Bioshock 2

  1. My original vision for this post was to take some screen shots of the beautiful Little Sister section in Bioshock 2 and to discuss it. But it soon widened in scope, as I couldn’t resist talking about a few other aspects of the games. There’s an awful lot more that could be talked about, so please do leave comments.

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  3. Kollega says:

    I see a problem with deconstruction of players’ willingness to do what they’re told. Sure, it works as a narrative trick, but it isn’t really reinforced by gameplay mechanics if the game itself stays linear. For example, in Portal 2 i felt an urge to rebel at times (for example, when proceeding into the condemned testing area against the very clearly stated order of “KEEP OUT”) – but i didn’t really have the option NOT to follow the plotted line, now did i? That’s the problem with pointing out players’ blind obedience is that in linear games, the only other option basically amounts to standing there doing nothing (or turning off the game and going for a walk if they’re really clever).

    • Gulo Peters says:

      Obviously the article writer and I play these games for very different reasons. Feeling outrage at a game’s plot or imagery? How bizarre.

      There’s talk about good-and-evil, right-and-wrong, being lied to and all that — personally, I’m just there for the story. Whatever happens around the character isn’t tied to *me* because there is truly no choice. If you want to see the game to completion, you have to go through the steps to get to the end.

      As Kollega says, there’s no ‘blind obedience’ here. You might as well get angry at an author for making you turn pages to get to the end of a novel.

      Until we’re at the point of virtual reality worlds where you can do anything at anytime (Eat a kumquat! Slap someone with a fish! Do a highland dance! Turn into an octopus!), video games are still just little self-contained storybooks.

      Which is fine, telling and learning stories is still a lot of fun.

  4. David says:

    Very interesting discussion. I wonder how you felt about Portal (The original). I wrote about this a while ago on my blog. There is definitely a distinct difference between that following directions in most games and the brilliant end to Bioshock 2. I also agree that the collectivism v. Randian individualism or whatever was a bit meh. I loved Ryan’s museum, but the rest really lacked.

    Here is my blog piece if you care to read how I feel Portal, F.E.A.R., S.T.A.L.K.E.R. , and Baldur’s Gate 2 dealt with the player’s choice to obey because that is how gamers learn to play.

    http://www.ign.com/blogs/01misnomer/2010/08/30/choices-that-arent-spoiler-alert-f-e-a-r-portal-bioshock-baldurs-gate-2

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