Games are often left unfinished. Sometimes they’re too difficult, too vast, or too repetitive to see all the way through to the closing credits. To The Bitter End is The Gameological Society’s look at those endings that are worth fighting for—or at least worth reading about.
I love stories that take sharp left turns at the end. Not just plot twists, but the sort of abrupt change that makes you take a step back and wonder whether or not anything you’ve just experienced made any sense or was worth the time you put into it. Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film, Easy Rider, is like that. You don’t have any reason to expect that it will end with everyone lying dead on the side of the road, but once it happens, you know it couldn’t have ended any other way. Or the 2007 Stephen King adaptation, The Mist, which ends with the protagonist killing his son to spare him from being eaten by monsters—only to be saved by the military moments later. That certainly could’ve ended any number of other ways, but holy shit, that took some guts.
The original BioShock takes two sharp turns. The first one comes about two-thirds of the way through the game, when you are forced to beat someone to death with a golf club. The victim is Andrew Ryan, the founder of an underwater Objectivist utopia called Rapture, and as he dies, he keeps repeating the phrase, “a man chooses, a slave obeys.”
Ryan is sacrificing his skull to prove a point to your character (known only as Jack) about the importance of choice. Jack’s entire life has been pre-planned by outside forces in order to bring him to this exact moment, and every decision that Jack thinks he made along the way has actually been made for him. Ryan believes that Jack is worthless because of this, and he’s letting himself be murdered in order to show just how little freedom Jack has. It’s all very heavy, and it’s one of the most thrillingly brutal video game plot twists. It is, in short, awesome.
But then the game nosedives into a veritable Marianas Trench of boring game design clichés. BioShock’s ending is a mess. This is the other sharp turn, and while it seems like more of a dip in quality than a plot twist, it actually serves as the extension of an underlying theme in BioShock: In all video games, not just this one, choice is an illusion.
Let’s back up a little bit. To understand BioShock’s ending, you first have to understand the relationship between the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies. Rapture’s economy is based on a substance called ADAM that, setting aside the pseudo-biological details, gives people superpowers. ADAM is gathered by the Little Sisters—mutated children who suck the elixir out of corpses with giant needles. In order to get some for yourself, you have to make a choice: Kill the girl and take what she has, or set her free and be rewarded for your kindness in the future.
Complicating this calculation are the Big Daddies, hulking brutes in old-fashioned diving suits who are outfitted with enormous drill hands. A Big Daddy will do anything to stop you from getting close to the Little Sister it lives to protect. The Big Daddies and Little Sisters are present throughout your journey, but BioShock puts them in particular focus after the twist, and exploiting their relationship becomes your pathway to the end.
After Ryan’s death, your kindly Irish friend, Atlas, reveals himself to be a power-hungry con man named Frank Fontaine who has been pulling your strings the whole time. In order to reach his lair, ensconced behind doors that can only be unlocked by a Little Sister, you must disguise yourself as a Big Daddy. That means traveling to different areas of Rapture, collecting individual pieces of the suit, and then backtracking to where you began. This is what’s known as a “fetch quest,” and it’s one of the most overused and lazy ways that developers drag out a game’s length. Fetch quests aren’t inherently bad, and the one in BioShock at least takes you through interesting areas (including the “orphanage” where Little Sisters live), but “Go there, get that thing, and bring it back” is an order we’ve been given in hundreds of other video games before this. Dull. But it’s still better than what BioShock has you do next.
After you don your diving suit, you get a Little Sister to protect. Since only she can unlock your path to Fontaine, you have to keep her safe from an army of crazy people that Fontaine has sent to kill you. This sequence is an escort mission—another derided game design cliché—and it’s a lousy one at that. It turns out that little girls are kind of fragile, and this one lacks common sense to boot. She’ll only walk forward if you’re standing behind her. She stops altogether if you’re too far away. And she has a penchant for getting you stuck in narrow hallways. It’s an aggravating sequence, if only because it stands in such stark contrast to what came before. BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth—with the way she throws you ammo and never places herself in danger—is a tacit response to design like this.
The rest of BioShock drives home the pattern of notorious video game tropes. Apparently, while you were enduring that slog with the Little Sister, Fontaine was turning himself into the cheesiest of final bosses. When you arrive at his lair, you find him strapped into a machine that gives him super-charged versions of all your powers and transforms him into a ridiculous golden god. You even fight him in different stages, with slightly different powers each time. The only thing missing is a cry of “Behold, my true form!” a la Castlevania’s Dracula.
It’s practically the video game boss fight to end all video game boss fights, and once Fontaine is dead, your reward is one of two ending videos (technically three, but two of those are virtually identical). If you saved all of the Little Sisters you encountered, you get the good one. Otherwise, you get the bad one. That’s it. The idea of explicit “good” and “bad” endings is common in most games with a morality system, like the Fallout series or Mass Effect. Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid likewise vary the ending based on something you did hours ago.
When you take a step back and recognize these clichés for what they are, you can start to see that they serve a purpose beyond padding out how long the game is. By forcing you through not just one or two, but four tired old video game tropes, BioShock calls attention to the fact that it’s a video game. By the time you’re fighting a ridiculous monster of a final boss, BioShock might as well be yelling “See? Get it?!” and gesturing toward itself.
Now, remember bashing in Andrew Ryan’s head as he repeatedly called out the difference between a man and a slave? It’s not a big leap to see that he’s not just talking to Jack there, but that he’s talking to the player as well. After all, what little choices you did make throughout your quest barely had any consequence on the larger narrative. You, like Jack, were simply acting out the story that was planned for you. Then, at the end, the game forces you to do things that you know are tired and boring, but you still have no choice in the matter. Just like Jack was subject to the whims of Ryan and Fontaine, you are subject to the whims of BioShock’s developers. When he dies, Ryan isn’t just talking to you as a BioShock player, but as a player of video games in general.
No video game grants absolute freedom; they all have rules or guidelines that govern what you can and can’t do. The sci-fi epic Mass Effect is a series that prides itself on choice, but even that trilogy ends on a variation of choosing between the “good” and “bad” ending. Minecraft, the open-world creation game, is extremely open-ended, but you can’t build a gun or construct a tower into space because it doesn’t let you. BioShock’s ending argues that the choices you think you’re making in these games don’t actually represent freedom. You’re just operating within the parameters set by the people in control, be they the developers or the guy in the game telling you to bash his skull with a golf club.
BioShock’s disappointing conclusion ends up illustrating Ryan’s point. A man chooses, a player obeys. It’s a grim and cynical message that emphasizes the constraints of its own art form. And given that the idea of choice is so important to BioShock’s story, I don’t think it could’ve ended any other way.