Rapture: Bioshock, Andrew Ryan, and Christian Society
It’s now recognised that video games can be as beautiful, evocative, and educational as any other art form. A so-called “triple-A” title, released by a prominent gaming publisher and produced on a substantial budget, is expected to have – in addition to good gameplay – rich, immersive environments to explore and engaging, interactive plotlines. This being the case, video games can relate to our religious awareness now, as much as any work of fiction can: we can examine the story, the characters, and even our own choices, and reflect on them. One of the milestone games of this new era of entertainment is Bioshock, published by ‘2K Games’ in 2007. The Bioshock series – comprising Bioshock, Bioshock 2, and Bioshock Infinite – each explore their own themes as well as having overarching, common ones. Here, I’d like to focus on the first installment of that series.
Bioshock is set in the mid-1960s, in a huge art deco city of skyscrapers residing on the bed of the Atlantic Ocean called Rapture. The city was originally founded by a wealthy American industrialist by the name of Andrew Ryan; he sought to create an environment free from censorship and conventional morality, where art and science might flourish free from the controlling and grasping tendencies of government and organised religion. Rapture was to be an isolated colony, secret and safe, and populated by those who shared Ryan’s passion for work and creativity; before long, the city was (again, in isolation, and unbeknownst to the wider world) a thriving metropolis full of advanced technology and diverse art.
You play Jack, the game’s silent protagonist. The game begins as your aeroplane crashes into the Atlantic Ocean; floating among the wreckage, you happen across a lighthouse inexplicably in the middle of the ocean. This lighthouse serves as the surface entry to Rapture – using a small personal submarine you find there, you are taken to the city under the sea. Very quickly, though, you discover that something is very wrong: Rapture is in ruins, torn apart by civil war and overrun with crazed, deformed humans – “Splicers” – with bizarre powers such as telekinesis and teleportation. Ocean water pours in everywhere from breaches in the unmaintained infrastructure. Sea life grows on the walls.
Perhaps most disturbing, pale, small girls with eerily-glowing eyes roam the halls with huge syringes; they are the “Little Sisters”, brainwashed into gathering genetic material from Rapture’s many corpses strewn in the streets and protected by great, lumbering “Big Daddies”. Themselves brainwashed into defending their Little Sister with brutal, lethal force, these huge biomechanical monsters were once humans, grafted into diving suits and with their ability to talk replaced by the low, long moans of underwater mammals like whales. As you battle your way through the game (in extremely bloody fashion, I hasten to add), you are guided by other characters via radio and you also collect and listen to the audio diaries of Rapture’s many inhabitants; gradually, you piece together what happened to the city.
Your quest through Rapture raises many questions: What is freedom, and what is slavery? What is the role of force and coercion in our societies, and the role of law? Is compromise a virtue, or is it better to be uncompromising in defence of the larger ideals? Why do we follow other people? So many of those questions in Bioshock revolve around one character in particular: Andrew Ryan.
Andrew Ryan, the city’s founder, is utterly uncompromising in his defence of what he sees as Rapture’s “freedoms”. His final words in the game (as part of a fairly shocking mid-game plot twist and delivered superbly by actor Armin Shimerman) are “A man chooses; a slave obeys“. Up to this point, it becomes progressively more evident that Ryan himself is central to the collapse of the city: he is unable to compromise with those who oppose his vision, or who simply want a part in it; nor to see Rapture as anything more than his city; and eventually rules despotically over as much as Rapture as he can, imposing the restrictions and censorship he was so desperate to leave behind.
Andrew Ryan founded Rapture to be a secure, secluded haven away from those he deemed “Parasites”. The introductory video he recorded for new arrivals to his city derided mid-Twentieth Century America, the Soviet Union, and organised religion for each having their own justifications for hypocritically depriving those who create by their labour. As Ryan’s back story is expounded upon in-game, we see how his experiences have led to this outlook: a refugee of the Bolshevik take-over of Russia; a man who made his fortune in the United States; but was, more and more, told that what he had worked for “was God’s” and should be handed-over to the government for distribution to the poor; only to have that government steal from him for its own ends, such as to wage devastating war.
Ryan, then, formed his personal philosophy as a reaction to an age of grotesque extremes. One can see the moral, even Christian, value in socialist societies: they are an attempt to design a system that will fairly distribute wealth to those who need it. One can see also a value in statist redistribution, as an attempt to alleviate the suffering of extreme poverty. But seeing that value doesn’t make those societies and approaches good; quite often, they degenerate into dictatorship and corruption. Understanding that a society must have moral values, then, must lead to actions that are wise and temperate lest those societies end up undermining those values in the name of those values. That, then, is the great irony of Rapture: in pursuit of a laudable human good – free will – but untempered in its approach, Rapture sinks into civil war and dictatorship… exactly the social situations that Rapture was founded to escape from!
This is Ryan’s blindspot – actually, the blindspot of many of the “classically liberal”: freedom and free will don’t just somehow “happen” in the absence of coercion. Rather, they are states that are maintained through virtuous behaviour. Without those virtues, freedom rapidly turns into licence. That licence is then writ large as unrestrained anarchy. Ryan prides himself on his sense of moral values in contrast to his value-less nemesis, Frank Fontaine. Of course, from a Christian perspective, Ryan’s disproportionate, egotistical, prideful pursuit of his values arise precisely because they are his values, not the values of God. Not being the values of God, they are inherently hostile to God, and to religion.
Rapture isn’t a place where people might choose religion; the “freedom” here is – and can only be – the freedom that Ryan permits, showing how self-contradictory his concept of free will is. Strewn around the ruined city are crates of contraband smuggled in from the surface, which, upon examination, one finds to contain bibles. Corpses are found strung-up, with bibles at their feet. In Bioshock’s sequel, Ryan concedes that, by Rapture’s own rationale, worship may occur privately but never publicly. There are, in fact, active penalties for choosing for God and against Rapture’s ultra-individualist philosophy. In spite of those penalties, there is still an active demand for religious items which is met by smuggling and so breaking the only law Rapture had during its “Golden Age”: contact with the surface is forbidden.
Humans have a natural tendency “towards God”, which the non-religious might find from time to time in, say, an inexplicable desire to pray. When God is denied to people, they – again naturally – look for something else to fill the gap in their lives they sense. In Rapture, the accepted object of “faith” is Ryan’s “Great Chain” – an idea that, if all in society pull on the chain of human progress by acting according to their own will, human society advances. It is the ultimate idealising of the dynamics of the free market: under no circumstances can exchanges between individuals be limited; the direction of all society will be determined by the sum of those exchanges. Even those specifically chosen by Andrew Ryan to inhabit the city recognise the emptiness of that doctrine, particularly those that cannot thrive in Rapture and end up on the bottom of the social pile.
As Christians, we believe that human society has been ordained by God and God must be at the centre of it: God’s will must coincide with our own wills in the choices we make as individuals; God’s established order must be reflected in our laws and social institutions. Rapture was founded in complete contrast to this: “my own will be done”, as it were; and society itself merely an expression of systematised selfishness. The breakdown and collapse of Rapture – from its economy and society, right down to the genetics of its individual citizens – is an expression of the consequences of this poor choice. Demonising and rejecting the poor as “parasites” can only lead to class turmoil, and the brutal exploitation of the poor by a callous ruling class and unscrupulous demagogues alike. “Improving” the human form independently of advancing the holiness of the soul progresses to insanity. Obsession over possession and rejection of law causes brutal tyranny, not liberating anarchism. Rapture, in short, falls in Bioshock because it is doomed to fall, as any society deliberately founded to reject Godly values and virtues such as charity and neighbourliness, humility, detachment, and wisdom inevitably must.
We look uncomfortably then at our own, real-life societies. We are apt to look with pride on the civilization we have creating in the Western world: one which is, comparatively, rich, stable, and free. But that’s the word that should give us the clue that we might not be as rich, or stable, or free as we think we are: pride. When we look to poorer countries and feel pride in ourselves, we ignore that our material possessions sit alongside our barren spiritual lives and that ultra-wealthy individuals exist alongside the homeless and destitute. We are proud in the stability of our governments, but we allow ourselves to be manipulated through fear into surrendering our liberties for a small measure of security. We are proud we are free, but our secular societies deride and demonise those who choose to live a clerical vocation, or religious life, or a chaste life. Our pride blinds us to our failings. It may well lead to our social failure, as much as Andrew Ryan’s pride led to the failure of Rapture.
Can we remedy the failing of our societies? Andrew Ryan tried but, in his blindness, he wasn’t able to exhibit the wisdom, courage, justice, or temperance needed to bring things back from the brink – one audio recording one can collect in Bioshock is of Ryan’s oldest friend begging him to come to terms with Rapture’s rebels after Ryan’s initial victory over them. Ryan simply cannot; the rebellion deepens until it shatters the social order. Needless to say, faith, hope, and charity are also unconsidered by Ryan – they are, of course, the only things that might remedy his own brokenness. His unwavering pride and certainty in his own strength blocks whatever grace he might receive from God from repairing and redeeming him, and so Rapture remains broken also. This is what Bioshock shows us as Christians: we must reject pride and other sins; we must embrace virtue; and that virtue, by God’s grace, might allow us to bring our civilization back from a brink that most people will refuse to see until the very bitter end.