In the fall of 2007, on what I remember as a complete whim, my dad took me to the store and let me pick out a video game, which he bought for me. I can’t remember what the occasion was, but I’ll never forget the game I picked: BioShock, a first-person shooter developed by Irrational Games. It seems fitting in retrospect that this is how I should come to play a game that so intricately explores free will and the power to choose.
At the time of writing, BioShock is sitting pretty at number 10 on the list of my all-time favorite games, and is one of only two true first-person shooters in the top 50 (House of the Dead is the other at 48). What sets BioShock apart in this criminally boring genre is the way the game weaves standard game convention into its narrative, involving not only the protagonist in the story, but directly engaging the player as well.
Okay, listen. I’m about to spoil like 85% of BioShock’s plot (and it’s the best 85%). Thhe game is over 12 years old, so if you haven’t played it and any of this sounds intriguing, just go play it. You’ll be glad you did.
Before we get to the heart of it, let me set the scene: you’re hopping a flight across the Atlantic to see your folks when your plane crashes. You doggy paddle your way to a nearby lighthouse, where you find a bathysphere that carries you deep below the ocean. As you travel deeper and deeper, an old-timey PSA teaches you about Andrew Ryan, an objectivist visionary fed up with a society that consistently asked him not to be such a greedy asshole. Fleeing this oppressive tyranny, Ryan built an underwater metropolis, called Rapture, in order to practice those ideals he held most dear.
In Ryan’s words, Rapture is “a city where the artist would not be incensed, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small.” From just these first ten minutes, we’re already introduced to the game’s core idea: agency, the ability to decide your own fate. Upon entering the lighthouse, you are greeted by an enormous golden bust of Ryan, with a banner declaring ‘NO GODS OR KINGS. ONLY MAN.’ In Ryan’s world, you are beholden to no one, free to live as you see fit.
And this probably isn’t even the first time the player is getting this message. The marketing for BioShock was rife with buzzwords and soundbites emphasizing the freedom the player is given in approaching the game. With a vast arsenal and a subtle morality system, you’re free to play your own way. The developers don’t want this to go over anybody’s head: you are your own person, and you make your own decisions.
From the moment you set foot in Rapture, it is clear that something has gone horribly wrong. The sound of dripping water echoes down dim hallways, punctuated by the anguished yowls of disfigured junkies splashing through three inches of standing water. Flickering neon lights advertise storefronts that have been ransacked and abandoned, and a thin layer of grime dulls the shine of the art deco architecture.
It wasn’t always this way, though. Initially, Rapture flourished. The discovery of a material that allowed users to alter their genetic code was discovered in an ocean-dwelling sea slug, and this material (called ADAM) was soon commercialized and distributed as superpowers in a bottle. The lack of regulation of this industry, coupled with growing tensions between the working and business classes, ultimately led to a brutal civil war that destroyed the city. Most of the inhabitants were driven into a psychotic rage from the overuse of ADAM, and those who maintained their sanity were forced into hiding.
All of this, nearly twenty years of history, has already happened by the time you set foot in Rapture. Fleshing out the game environment this fully only adds to the depth of agency the player feels. The inhabitants of Rapture all have their own history and motivation, from the lowliest thug to Andrew Ryan himself. You may be the protagonist of the story, but you are not the center of it, and this frees the player from the burden of narrative importance.
You spend most of the game talking to Atlas, the leader of the working class uprising. He understands you don’t necessarily identify with his cause, but with Andrew Ryan holding the keys to the surface, your aims are parallel. Atlas asks you to help him in order to reach Ryan. This contrasts with your interactions with Ryan, who baselessly accuses you of being an assassin sent from the surface to kill him. I mean, rude! It’s not your fault your plane crashed into the ocean.
Looking at this juxtaposition in terms of narrative burden, Atlas (like the developers) is intent on freeing you of responsibility, asking you to play a bit part in the liberation of Rapture, while Ryan is continually trying to paint you in a box, foisting upon you the defined role of ‘trained killer’ and making the story about you.
BioShock’s genius lies not in the way it implements this theme of agency, but in the way it suddenly subverts it. After cutting a bloody swath through the drowning city, you finally arrive at Andrew Ryan’s office. In the game’s only cutscene, Ryan appears very calm as he lectures you again on the ideas of agency, free will, and the power to choose. Then he drops the bomb: Atlas has been playing you from the beginning. Atlas’ oft-uttered ‘Would you kindly?’ is not just a polite turn of phrase, but a trigger programmed into the protagonist’s mind to coerce him to do whatever is being asked.
Using the code word, Andrew Ryan commands the protagonist to kill him. Players who may now see Ryan in a sympathetic light have no choice but to watch in horror as the protagonist beats him to death with a golf club. BioShock takes away the player’s control of the protagonist just this one time, at the most crucial moment in the game, to drive home the idea that, from the beginning, neither the protagonist nor the player had any agency at all.
“Would you kindly pick up that shortwave radio?” Atlas asks at the beginning of the game. The trigger phrase forces the protagonist to acquiesce, and the player needs to pick up the radio before a door will open, allowing them to progress.
“Careful now…would you kindly lower that weapon for a moment?” Atlas suggests during an impending exposition dump. The protagonist does so, and the player’s weapon disappears only this one time throughout the entire game, despite other similar sequences.
On the plane, the protagonist has a gift from their parents with a note that reads: ‘Would you kindly not open until: 63° 2’N 29° 55’W’. Inside is a revolver. Turns out the plane crashed because the protagonist hijacked it! From the beginning!
This revelation is so stunning because the game has deceived the player as fully as Atlas has deceived the protagonist. BioShock’s grand illusion is couched in standard game convention, things that gamers would take for granted. Invisible walls that provide linear structure to a game narrative. Unquestioningly following the directives of a quest-giver. These mechanics are so deeply rooted in the video game zeitgeist, the player doesn’t miss a beat when following every order Atlas gives them. There is no suspicion that these mechanics tie into the narrative, because it’s just how video games work.
Familiar too is the expectation that the player will succeed in their goal, despite the incredibly unlikely odds of the scenario.
Starting as a nobody and becoming a one-man killing machine capable of mowing down hordes of enemies is the fundamental basis of FPS gameplay, but the notion itself is often difficult to believe. BioShock uses the player’s expectations of the former to build a compelling narrative with the latter. It’s hard to argue against the whole ‘assassin’ thing while you’re down there painting the walls red with the blood of Rapture’s residents.
And indeed, you come to learn that you were the assassin Ryan thought you were. Atlas waited and plotted for years to put his plan into motion, and you were the center of that plan, the linchpin of his designs. You were born in Rapture and sent away to the surface, only to return at the most crucial moment. Ryan was right to burden you with the narrative, because you were the narrative.
BioShock’s usage of core gameplay mechanics to reinforce a plot that overturns the expectations the player naturally builds from the game environment, characters, and even the game’s marketing is brilliant. Especially in a genre where the player is discouraged from feeling responsibility for their actions (e.g. killing a shitload of people), bringing the full weight of the player’s complicity to bear is a powerful narrative tool, and the developers wield it to great effect here.
The themes of agency and free will play strong roles within the game, but they also force the player (even if it’s just subconsciously) to consider how these themes apply to game design in general, what limitations exist inherently, and what is taken for granted. It’s a thought-provoking experience typically absent from the medium. If you haven’t played, you really should. But, hey, you know – it’s your choice.