Good Writing in Video Games: A Deeper Look at Bioshock 1&2

Warning: Some of the below videos have scenes of violence not suitable for a younger readership

Bioshock and its immediate sequel Bioshock 2 has really got under my skin. Every so often I feel the need to return to that impossible underwater city and explore the hidden depths (pardon the pun) of the many intricacies of the plot, the setting, the concept and the moral choices you are presented with in the games. I have recently played both again in quick succession and finally on the hard setting. I said I would come back to this in my original dabbling with story telling in video games and doing this while it is still fresh in my mind.

Firstly, would you kindly watch the above video (those who have played the game will already get the reference).


Welcome to Rapture, kid!

It is 1960. Andrew Ryan fled the Russian Revolution for America believing it could provide opportunities for him. While there he grows incensed at what he sees as the corruption of the capitalist system and turns against any form of government. He attacks the New Deal as anti-capitalist and despises it as much as he despises Communism. Similarly, religion is given short shrift. All three systems limit humanity and are therefore “parasites”. Ryan is an anarcho-capitalist. That is, he is a man who thinks that capitalism when unrestricted by any form of government or other systems of control will regulate and govern itself. Knowing that no country would ever accept his philosophy, Ryan sets out to found his own city. But he could only do this where no country has claimed the land for its own – and that’s at the bottom of the ocean in international waters.

“Rapture: 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.”

Inevitably, the city would begin to fall apart within a couple of decades of its foundation when corruption and a top-heavy class system failed to account for who would clean the toilets, do the plumbing etc. But without most of the traditional strictures of government, civil war broke out turning the capitalist utopia into a war zone. The challenger to Ryan’s crown was Frank Fontaine, a former Bronx gangster who made his fortune in Rapture through Plasmid and Gene Tonic technologies. He had also been responsible for the creation of the Little Sisters (I will come to those) along with Brigid Tennenbaum (I will come to her too). Fontaine grew in power and eventually declared war, sending his army of Splicers (humans genetically enhanced so much that they went mad) after Ryan. The first game begins at the end of the civil war and the city is reduced to a virtual wasteland – without rule or order.


The straw that broke the camel’s back was the discovery of a substance called Adam. It is a type of stem cell found in a previously undiscovered sea slug and it had great implications for genetic research. With it, the scientists of the city of Rapture were able to advance genetics way beyond what was understood on the surface. The lack of ethical restrictions meant some incredible technologies were developed: amongst them were the Plasmids which were genetic upgrades that allowed telekinesis, pyrokinesis, electric bolts and to freeze things and various other upgrades that the player can use as weapons in the game. Gene Tonics are “upgrades”, passive “weapons” such as harder skin, resistance to fire and ability to easily hack the vending machines.

Because not enough Adam could be harvested directly from the sea slugs, researchers discovered that placing them in the stomachs of young (female) children could lead to a mass production of Adam and bring down the cost of Plasmid and Gene Tonic enhancement. These girls are called “Little Sisters”.

Science Without Ethics

The Little Sisters are the most tragic element of the story. Without a code of ethics and with the needs of the capitalist utopia paramount, there are not-so-subtle hints of Nazi research here. It is in fact blatant with a former Nazi scientists (Brigid Tenenbaum) working in Rapture on this new technology. Tenenbaum has Jewish ancestry yet saved herself from the gas chambers of Auschwitz where she was imprisoned by virtue of her scientific genius. Eventually she would become an unofficial research assistant to the scientists at the camp and after the war made her escape. She disappeared from public view, believed to be on the run in South America, but had been located by Ryan who petitioned her to work in Rapture.

But anyway, back to the Little Sisters. Because they could not produce as much Adam as was required, they were mentally conditioned to recycle the substance from dead bodies. They were neurologically altered to see the city as a utopia and Adam-filled bodies as angels on which they were compelled to feed. Eventually, because the demand for Adam was so great, a protection system began to pair the Little Sisters with a Big Daddy.

A Big Daddy is a tragic figure – once a human male – grafted into a large, heavy diving suit. Their sole purpose is to protect the Little Sisters at all costs. In turn, the Little Sisters were conditioned to identify their pair-bonded Big Daddy as their own father.

Free Will and Moral Choices

In the first game you play Jack, the illegitimate son of Andrew Ryan, who believes himself the lone survivor of a plane crash. You go through the game under the instruction of the mysterious figure known as Atlas. In the second game, you play one of the original prototype Big Daddy characters (Subject Delta). In both, the ultimate aim is to obtain as much Adam as you possibly can in order to proceed in the game and complete it. You cannot possibly win without acquiring Adam to continue to splice up with Plasmids, get better Gene Tonics and upgrade your Health and Eve (Eve is the fuel for the Plasmids – what in fantasy games might be called Manna).

The choice you have to make is whether you harvest (kill) the Little Sisters or save them. When this choice is first presented to you (video below) Atlas maintains that they are beyond saving; however Tenenbaum, who has become a Guardian to the “Little Ones” promises to make it up to you if you can safely remove the Adam from their bodies without killing them. Kill them and you obtain more Adam for the final battle; save them means obtaining less Adam but the help and support (and supplies) from Tennenbaum and the saved Sisters.

In the second game, there are far more choices. Where the Little Sisters are concerned you can choose to adopt or harvest – if you adopt you use her to gather Adam from bodies strewn across Rapture; once she has harvested her fill you take her to a vent where you are given the choice to free her or harvest her.

All of the moral choices you make will add up and alter the ending – and this is the case in both games. An added paradigm in Bioshock 2 is whether to kill or not kill various surviving humans throughout the game. But they are not straightforward deaths. One has tried to kill you throughout the early part of the game but it is based on a misunderstanding and your choice is basically Vengeance Vs Forgiveness. Another is a sadist, but do you have the right to impart formal justice for his sins? Another is a mercy killing – but should you let him suffer for what he has done by condemning him to live? For which would continued life be the more sadistic sentence? As with the first game, the end sequence changes depending on these moral choices. There are three endings in the first game and six in the second.

A Man chooses… A slave obeys.

Ultimately the twist in the first game is how little choice you have. Certainly you have the choice(s) to harvest or kill the Little Sisters but in the end it is revealed that you have been conditioned to respond to Atlas (who it is revealed is actually Frank Fontaine) and his command Would you kindly.

(Warning – violent scene below)

Everything you do is because Atlas wants you to do it. You have not made the choice. Would you kindly think of an elephant? Would you kindly read to the end of this post? Would you kindly share it? Would you kindly comment?

The biggest moral ambiguity in the game is killing the Big Daddies. You have no choice if you want Adam. You can choose to harvest or save Little Sisters but with Big Daddies there is no such qualm. These tragic characters must be put down in order to proceed in the game.

The Rapture Family

Following Ryan’s death, Doctor Sofia Lamb seizes control of the city with a very different view about how things should be run. She fosters the idea of “The Family”, the idea that the city should work together for the betterment of all of its citizens – the greater good. Sounds great in practice right? Actually, Sofia Lamb kills anybody who attempts to leave her paradise and over the years allowed and even encouraged a religion to grow up around her apparent altruistic ideals. You could argue that she has tried to create a North Korea in the city of Rapture while fostering herself as its “Beloved Leader”. Because of her opposition to Andrew Ryan, he had her jailed as a political prisoner and while inside she began building her army, eventually seizing control of the prison facility. By the time of the second game, she is in charge of the city and is trying to stop you from getting to her daughter Eleanor Lamb through which she intends to rebuild Rapture. You play Subject Delta, one of the prototype Big Daddies mysteriously revived ten years after his death at the hands of Lamb. Lamb has also abducted a great many young girls from the surface to use as her new wave of Little Sisters; she has a new weapon too in Big Sisters (post-pubescent girls who have grown in power due to Adam exposure). These are the iron fists through which she will maintain control.

The story of Rapture is far larger than this 1800 word post, it is so vast and so complex that there is an entire Wiki devoted to it. I have tried to include as much information as possible but in some cases have had to skim over details for the sake of not boring the reader.

And for those of you who already know the game, kudos to these guys for imagination!

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