To The Bitter End

A Player Obeys

The much-derided final act of BioShock actually drives home one of its most important themes.

By Sam Barsanti • July 16, 2013

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.

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196 Responses to “A Player Obeys”

  1. PaganPoet says:

    I’ll admit it, I’m a Final Fantasy XIII apologist. One of my biggest defenses of the game has been that in every Final Fantasy to date (bar XI, which I’ve never played), you may see a big open overworld but it’s completely an illusion. It really doesn’t open up to you until 10 or more hours of gameplay, because you don’t have the vehicles to cross the water or mountains, or the game forces you to go a specific way because the enemies on certain continents are way too powerful for you to defeat. Final Fantasy XIII just dissolved that illusion and streamlined the experience. I can’t really defend the stupid, annoying characters, or the melodramatic plot, but the linearity of the first 20 hours of the game has never been an issue for me.

    I don’t think lumping Mass Effect with Bioshock is quite accurate, at least in regards to the ending. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of problems with Mass Effect’s morality system, but the truth is, you can accomplish the best endings by completely being a boy scout OR an asshole. Every time a dialogue tree comes up, if you have an available blue or red option, that gets you the best outcome.

    • rvb1023 says:

       I also find myself being an apologist for XIII even though it’s a terrible game and I don’t really like it. I guess it goes along with the internet being hyperbolic about just everything. Personally XIII can’t be the worst since VIII still exists and the only game that challenges VIII for terrible RPG is Xenosaga 2.

       It’s unfortunate that it’s cast (Which really isn’t bad outside of Hope and Vanille) got stuck with such a lousy game. It sucks that Hamauzu did a fantastic job scoring the game but remains relatively unappreciated because it was attached to one of the worst games in the series. I hate that it’s cool premise is wasted on stock anime cliches and terrible writing and does absolutely nothing to explore its deeper themes. I hate that the actually fun battle system only comes into it’s own 30 hours into the game.

      • Dave Dalrymple says:

        I think that the differing opinions on Final Fantasy VIII shows how important that choice can be to the player’s experience. When it comes to the narrative, there is no choice. FF8 is as linear as they come. But when it comes to raising GFs and junctioning magic, the way you choose to play the game can have a profound impact on your enjoyment. 

        There’s a temptation to be constantly summoning and boosting your GFs in battle. But if you choose to play this way, battles will grow very tedious. Regular attacks are much quicker. 

        PS @rvb1023:disqus  : I don’t want to necessarily impute that this is the reason that you personally hate FF8. The game has numerous problems, not the least of which is a non-sensical story that only makes sense if you read the game’s extensive codex. This is just the most common complaint I’ve heard. 

        • CrabNaga says:

          I feel like everything in FF8 was a gigantic troll to the player. Hell, you get punished for leveling up. PUNISHED! The game is actually easier if you decide to stay at level 1 through the entire game and use some creative junctioning. 

        • rvb1023 says:

           VIII just didn’t work for me on any level I think, Junctioning and whatnot included. I’ll give them credit for coming up with something new but I felt it was a poorly designed something new. The game practically tells you regular attacks are more worth your time in the timed Ifrit battle. The game actively discourages using your characters in different ways, instead just applying the same Junction equips to other members as they rotate around.

          If you’re a fan of VIII more power to you, I just could never get behind it.

        • gwardyjay says:

           Honestly, I subscribe to the theory that Squall dies at the end of the first disc by Edea’s icicle (straight through the chest, I might add) and that the rest of the game is Squall coping with his death (it explains his constant bitching about not wanting to be forgotten), even to the point of fantasizing about getting together with Rinoa. Even the end-game where you end up in that hellish looking castle (and the trip there is the stuff of nightmares) seems to support this idea. Following that theory has not only made the game bearable, it’s made it one of my favorites in the series.

    • neodocT says:

       I sorta liked FFXIII too! It’s not the best game in the series, but the streamlined gameplay went well with the streamlined combat, and at least it had an interesting world.

      And, honestly, I actually liked the characters. Hope and Vanille should have been way more annoying than they actually were. Also, the way the first half of the game was structured, with the characters split into revolving sets of pairs, really gave the game an opportunity to examine the relationship all these characters had between each other. By game’s end, you have a general idea of how every single character feels about every single other character. Sure, the script may have been hokey, but it was a very interesting structure for a Final Fantasy game.

      Having said all of that, I fucking hate Snow. That guy’s an asshole.

      • PaganPoet says:

        Snow is indeed terrible. As is Hope.

        I actually didn’t mind Vanille so much. I know her voice acting as pretty over the top, but I enjoyed her stories with Sazh and Fang. The scene at the end Nautilus Park is one of the best scenes from the game.

        • neodocT says:

          See, I kinda liked Hope. He should be the dumb kid I hate, but overall I thought he had a decent arc, some good scenes with Lightning, and at least his voice actor wasn’t terrible. Not a great character by any stretch, but it could have been so much worse that I gave it a pass.

          Plus, he was pretty interesting in FFXIII-2, where he was grown-up and had a bigger role in the plot.

        • zzyzazazz says:

          I like Hope, and I think Hope has one of the more interesting character arcs in the game. Learning to be strong by emulating Lightning, who knows she’s given up to much to become strong, and then eventually having to learn to forgive. It worked for me. Now Vanille on the other hand, I hated Vanille, entirely based on the annoying, inconsistent accent.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

       I was always bothered by the Mass Effect morality system. It essentially encourages you to be only Good or An Asshole the whole way through, in order to get the best stuff. This weakens the choice mechanic (you might as well just choose Good or Evil once, right at the beginning, instead of constantly throughout the narrative), and it makes your character less interesting (I chose to play as Morally Ambiguous Shephard, who was nice sometimes, but a dick other times, because that’s how actual humans are).

      • TheMostPopularCommenter says:

        I was really put off by Bioshock the first time you rescued a Little Sister and a great big “PRESS 1 FOR EVIL, 2 FOR GOOD” graphic flooded the screen. There were far worse offenders, even then, but there were about two years of developer interviews promising me that the morality in this game would be super complex and tricky.

      • wykstrad says:

         But that’s the great thing about the Mass Effect morality system, too.  Morality doesn’t affect anything but your conversation options, and only the first game has any sort of penalty for ambiguity (you can only be really good at either charm or intimidate).  Think the krogan are a menace but the rachni are worth saving?  Go ahead and make those decisions- you’ll get different “points” each time, but the only thing they affect is how Shepard has to deal with the Reaper threat.

        One example really emphasizes how cool the Mass Effect morality system is: A friend and I completely disagreed about the krogan, to the point where we got into a few shouting matches about them.  I essentially saw them as a species that, while more warlike than humans, would be capable of coexisting in the galaxy if they were given good leaders and strong organization.  My friend thought they were nearly as big a threat to galactic peace as the Reapers, and kept trying to wipe them out every chance he got.

        The result was that, by the end of ME3, I’d groomed Urdnot Wrex to become a great krogan leader and helped eliminate his more violent competition, so that Wrex would be able to institute the sort of regulations necessary to make the krogan live peacefully.  My friend had killed Wrex in ME1, leaving the krogan with the violent, crazy leader who drove them into the ground, aided by my friend’s Shepard, who bolstered the genophage and destroyed the krogan’s chances any chance he got, so that the leadership gets crazier and crazier.  By the time he was done with them, they were through as a viable species, and it largely seemed to be their own fault.  We both had hypotheses about the krogan, and we were both able to “prove” these hypotheses through our own actions.

    • zzyzazazz says:

      I agree on most points, except that I like the characters in FF13, and if I didn’t want melodramatic plots, I wouldn’t be playing a JRPG.

  2. The_Helmaroc_King says:

    While I appreciate your reading of the last third of the game, I have to wonder how much of it is deliberate on the developers’ part and how much came down to real-world constraints: budget, time, demands from their publisher, or just plain-old mediocrity. I loved Bioshock when I first played it, idiosyncrasies and all, but I have to wonder what kind of director makes a stand and tells his team, “I want to make the last three hours of this game the video-gamiest they can be, using the hoariest tropes possible!” It’s hard to see a message like that making it past an AAA development team unmuddled.

    At the very least, the final third of the game lacks what I consider two of the greater virtues a work can have, clarity and brevity. It’s also far too subtle, if this reading was their intent.

    To their credit, though, I can’t really think of any other way for the final act of the game to play out. All of the major beats (Ryan’s death followed by your character’s revenge upon Fontaine) are what I would expect from an active video game protagonist, so perhaps they were more on point than I’m giving them credit for.

    … Nah.

    • John Teti says:

      Yeah, I highly doubt the developers had all this in mind. But this is an interpretation of the work, not the developers’ intent.

      • The_Helmaroc_King says:

        Oh, snap! I didn’t even check the byline. Good on ya, Sam! You’re a real boy, now. (I suppose this would make Teti your fairy godmother…)

        Regarding the deliberate vs. accidental meaning, though: I really find it interesting when these kinds of discussions pop up, where it’s argued that some unpopular feature enhances the meaning of a work. It’s a weird balancing act where we have to decode whether or not something that feels unfulfilling enhances the overall experience by detracting from it in an immediate sense.

        The example that comes to mind is the overworld in No More Heroes. The criticisms are accurate — it’s kind of empty and unexciting — but is that part of the game contrasting the main character’s mundane responsibilities with his exciting super-assassin hobby, or is it just bad design? In comparison, the sequel sidestepped the whole issue by replacing the overworld with a menu of sorts.

        To link it to the video posted by @facebook-1271190056:disqus below, Jon Blow talks about the very same thing early on, just in different terms: most game designers are all about the player’s immediate satisfaction, not their overall emotional experience.

        • John Teti says:

          “I really find it interesting when these kinds of discussions pop up, where it’s argued that some unpopular feature enhances the meaning of a work.”

          Me too. It’s amazing the things we can discover and the conversations we can have when we set aside the relatively empty issue of whether a work is “good” or “bad.”

          “Is that part of the game contrasting the main character’s mundane responsibilities with his exciting super-assassin hobby, or is it just bad design?”

          Great example. I think there’s no reason it can’t be both.

        • ProfFarnsworth says:

          I agree that games can have both bad design and great artistic merit.  I personally see the same thing in certain paintings and many, many times in food.  There are times when things just seem to “resonate” with audiences or me personally.

        • CNightwing says:

          “Is that part of the game contrasting the main character’s mundane responsibilities with his exciting super-assassin hobby, or is it just bad design?”
          See, now I imagine a game that focuses on the classic secret identity schtick, whether that be a secret agent or superhero. Rather than calling you up for the explicitly exciting parts of your career, the gameplay would focus on succeeding at the mundane side of your life in intricate detail, with all of your secret missions or heroics reduced to simple resource assignment or choice clicking.

        • Girard says:

          Very often, ‘bad design’ leads to ‘good art,’ I think. Something perfectly designed, that goes down smooth, probably isn’t going to make you radically re-evaluate anything or stick in your craw and give you something to think/talk about for weeks to follow.

        • neodocT says:

           I got really into craft beers and beer tasting for a while, and one of the principles of the thing that most stuck with me is the fundamental difference between craft beers and industrialized beers. It’s not that one is necessarily better than the other, but that industrialized beers must serve a gigantic market, so they must be appealing to as wide a range as possible. As a result, they tend to be bland, because they must not be at all challenging to anyone’s taste buds.

          Craft beers, on the other hand, can afford to make the strangest flavors available, because they’re focusing on the niche market that will track down one particular bar for one particular beer. So they’re often strange, and I’ve had many craft beers that I simply detested, but I’ve also found some peculiar combinations that were awesome to me (like this one local IPA that uses rapadura in its composition; it shouldn’t work, but it’s amazing).

          And I think the relationship with art in general, and games in particular, is there: everyone can enjoy a well made, though bland game; and though you may detest some of the weirder things, the weirder games you like will touch you on a much deeper level because, even without knowing it, the developers made this game for you, trusting you to find it.

        • lylebot says:

          @Girard:twitter “Very often, ‘bad design’ leads to ‘good art,’ I think.”
          I really have to strongly disagree with this.  Design is an art in and of itself, and in video games, I see good design as a necessary condition for good art.  I can’t imagine a game that would be considered good art despite being badly designed:  a poorly designed game would simply not be fun to play, which would defeat the whole artistic purpose of a game.  I’d love to hear about a counterexample though.

        • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

           @paraclete_pizza:disqus I think this is false, too. Bad design kills immersion, by reminding you that this is a Video Game made up of physics engines and graphics instead of being a compelling experience.

        • While I take your point about the likelihood of the developers planning things the way they did because of “subtext,” I suspect that it doesn’t really apply to Bioshock.

          It’s a good point.

          But look at the ending of Bioshock Infinite. It’s quite evident that this development team really enjoys self-referential, meta storylines. The entire storyline of Infinite is an exploration of causation, and the nature of choice. How is this inconsistent with…

          …The exact point of this article?

          In fact, if you really sit back and think about it, the ending of Bioshock: Infinite is exactly the same point about choice and consequence that he’s discussing here, just made with a different argument.

      • TheMostPopularCommenter says:

        I’ve hardly played anything since finishing The Last Of Us, but I can already tell that it will probably spoil me forever on video game endings. I really feel like ND *knew* that people might see through the contrived video-gameyness of the last set of shootouts, but counted on players wanting to know just what the fuck was going to happen.

    • Sanford Abernethy says:

       Why should the intent of the developers matter at all?

      • The_Helmaroc_King says:

        That’s… a good question that I don’t have a real answer to. I know about the death of the author, but I still try to extrapolate the intent of a work because I like to look at things in a structural way: what does this intend, how does it try to do that, and does it succeed? It doesn’t touch on applicability, but it works for me.

      • Girard says:

        I think the intent (or, more broadly, the biography or oeuvre) of the author can certainly be used to scaffold a reading of the work. But I agree that such information is not necessary to do a reading of a work, nor should authorial intent ‘over-rule’ a particular reading.

        • Zack Handlen says:

          Yeah, I’ll second this. I agree that authorial intent isn’t definitive, but I strongly object to throwing it out entirely. (Doing so, at least to me, robs art of one of its more important aspects: the fact that it was created by someone or someones, and that their distinct perspective shaped the result, even if not always in the way they intended. Pretending otherwise is sacrificing a tool for greater understanding simply on principle, and I think that’s silly.)

        • miltthefish says:

          Liked for “scaffold”.

        • SaviourMachine says:

          The author’s point of view is necessary when it makes real sense to the context of a work. Personally, i suppose that trying to emerge the autor’s point in the first place can help to jettison  all the  ambiguous variants of interpretations which make the understanding more hard. Because a work of art is strongly
          subjective thing (your perception is the medium) and it is inheritely has the seal of the author’s mind. If the author’s point is ambiguity, so we we can interpret it how the structure of a thing allows it to us. If the author has his intent or trying to make a statement than ambiguity is useless because all these theories are irrelevant to the REAL interpretation, if there is one.  I don’t think i explain it very well, i just briefly want to state that the intent of the author can be as equal or even more as intentions of the others

        • Telamon says:

          To join the bandwagon of this side-discussion, I’d submit for everyone’s consideration the following excellent passage from Tolkien’s preface to the 2nd edition of Lord of the Rings:  “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

        • Girard says:

          @Telamon:disqus There’s something wonderfully paradoxical about you quoting an author using the preface to express his intent about not expressing authorial intent. I think it illustrates the narrow line we’re traversing here – while the author’s voice can be invaluable to framing how we approach a work, it needn’t dominate how we approach the work.

      • CrabNaga says:

        Because if dissonance exists between what was intended and what actually is, it shines a light on the particular failures/successes/anomalies that came as a result of said dissonance.

        The very fact that Irrational obviously didn’t intend to make the final act of BioShock a boring and mindless slog filled with awful game design tropes is the entire raison d’être of this article. 

        To me it screams like the devs weren’t entirely aiming for some highbrow narrative, or the writers and devs had an entirely different idea on what their game should be. The shoehorned mechanics and final boss (“the video game boss fight to end all video game boss fights” as described above) appear to be the devs falling victim of the “more is always better” philosophy of game design and Michael Bay movies. In my mind, the devs just wanted to make the biggest and most cohesive experience possible and threw in all those elements, and it’s ironic that those elements were what broke the cohesion in the first place. 

        • Sanford Abernethy says:

          That matters, I think, when you’re doing a technical or vocational post-mortem. If you’re playing the game I don’t thin what the author intended matters one whit. What matters is what’s on the screen and in the player’s head. If you’re constructing a reading, it’s only one of many possible sources of insight, and I’d argue that it’s a lot less useful than analyzing the broader culture that produced the work vOv

      • Miko the Squiz says:

        What they got out of me with the Andrew Ryan scene was “..huh, okay”, followed by the realization that I was now not only uninvested but completely disinvested in any subsequent events, and a swift quit and uninstall.

    • Posthummus says:

      I agree, but maybe it’s better for the deeper meaning to be unintentional. It’s long and a bit up its own ass, but this was an interesting read on how Infinite tried to bring the subtext further to the foreground, and kinda messed up the text in the process:

    • CNightwing says:

      I think you could add just a little more to the interpretation of that final act, though again I doubt it was intentional. By forcing you to play as a big daddy, there is a further emphasis on the nature of being trapped in a system of rules that you must obey. Throughout the game you’ve been finding these guys, planning carefully and then slaughtering them – heck, you may have even mind-controlled them for a while with that particular plasmid. You are ultimately forced to become one of them and to carry out their tedious and thankless task.

      This was touched on more in Bioshock 2, where you play one right from the start, but there I think it’s much harder to excuse bad game design to find neat little interpretations.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      When I first played BioShock I found the end to be a similar slog, but I loved the way the entire game was a commentary on games, and while I’m sure it wasn’t just nudging and winking, there HAS to be some in there. Have you SEEN Fontaine?

    • It really doesn’t matter if it was intentional or not. The point about the game representing the inherent lack of freedom in video games still applies.

    • Strong Belwas says:

      As support for the theory that the “video games are systems that provide you with essentially no choice” theory, Bioshock Infinite makes that point and underlines it several times. And since Infinite hits pretty much every single thematic note that the original did, it might just be that the creators of Bioshock intended this point in the original but, since it was so widely missed, decided to beat the player over the head with it in the sequel.

      And as for the idea that “make a horrible, video-gamey video game” will never be part of a good artistic statement since it will always be muddled in the execution? Play Spec Ops: The Line and then come back and talk to me. The gameplay is pretty terrible on purpose, and it all builds to a devastating critique of video games as a whole, and shooters in particular.

      The Extra Credits guys make this point particularly well:

      • The_Helmaroc_King says:

        I actually have played Spec Ops: The Line and I would say that its gameplay is more serviceable than that. It’s a little looser than its contemporaries and it doesn’t excel, but it’s not terrible. I think it’s more important how the game characterizes what you’re doing in the details, like how your character’s “execution” kills get more violent as the story progresses.

        • Strong Belwas says:

          I completely agree that the points that the game makes are underlined more deftly in other aspects of the game. But the gameplay is an important aspect of the point the game is making. The execution in terms of gameplay is pretty decent in the beginning of the game, but as your character descends farther and farther, the gameplay gets worse and worse. What started as a fairly fun and dynamic shooter ends with just hordes of badguys pouring out of obvious spawnpoints as you are forced to hide behind a maze of chest-high walls. Your health drops immediately the second you poke your head out from under cover, and trying to pick off the endless hordes from behind your current chest-high wall of choice gets to be really tedious and frustrating.

          And every time you die, the load screen asks you whether or not you are having fun murdering all of these people.


          (I relish any opportunity to discuss Spec Ops).

    • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

       I suppose the awesome/impossible better ending would be to have Rapture become more sandboxy after that scene.

  3. Discussing Bioshock and “player choice” seems incomplete without including Jonathan Blow’s classic lecture from the 2007 Montreal Games Summit, called “Design Reboot”.

    He starts talking about Bioshock around 33:00, slide 32.

    • pico79 says:

      Blow misunderstands quite a bit about the game, though.  The game isn’t about choice – it’s explicitly about the illusion of choice.  So when Blow lands his “gotcha” critique that the player’s decision to save or sacrifice the girls has no bearing on the player’s actual progress… you can hear the point whooshing way over his head.

      • I think that’s an interpretive framework designed to forgive the game its flaws by incorporating them into a rather dubious master plan. 

        Blow is saying, “Hey this sucks,” and you’re replying with “Yeah, but it’s supposed to suck!”

        • Plus, Blow is talking to a group of game designers about game design. It seems obvious that the Little Sisters are not communicating what the designers intended. That’s fine for us players, you might find what they *do* communicate interesting (I don’t) but obviously if you are a game designer it is a failure you wouldn’t want to find yourself repeating.

        • Girard says:

          Yeah, it seems like Bioshock is committing the #1  sin of games that make metacommentary on questionable mechanics: still including those questionable mechanics wholesale. I’m reminded of Blood Dragon’s reportedly awful tutorial, or apparently the entirety of that new Deadpool game, which both employ a crappy/banal mechanic, then try to achieve absolution through irony (which never works).

        • HobbesMkii says:

           I disagree with the tenet it sucks. I interpret it as pretty straightforward commentary on Ryan’s Randian paradise.

          Here’s your choice: you can work to protect yourself first and obtain more ADAM by killing off the Little Sisters, or you can be a distinctly un-Randian altruist, and save them, even though it comes at cost to yourself (though they undercut that somewhat by leaving you presents).

          Moreover, one of things about actual human morality is that we don’t weigh every moral decision in terms of game mechanics and the benefits it bring us. If it were real life and the choice was “kill these little girls to get out of here” I would bet most people would be like, “Fuck that. There must be another way!” BioShock’s Little Sisters may not have directly influenced player progress, but it wasn’t ever about that, to me. It was simply a moral choice system that asked the player to make a moral choice. The systems where choosing evil or good means you end up with two equally powerful bonuses, or solve the same problem from two directions are the ones that suck for me. Because they’re tacitly admitting, “hey, this is a video game, evil is just as viable an option as good.”

        • Celebith says:

          “But this is supposed to suck!” can be a fair response, if it’s supposed to impart a lesson or emphasize a theme.  Kinda like Ranger school – you learn some fairly specific skills there, but a big part of it is learning to embrace the suck.

        • pico79 says:

          Who says it sucks?  Those are your words, not mine.  The game tells you outright, during its twist, that your choices haven’t mattered, and Blow complains that your choices haven’t mattered.  That strikes me as much less consistent than anything Bioshock is serving up.

          In fact I like the game quite a bit (up until its final act).   Videogames generally don’t give you agency outside of very narrow constraints: get from point A to point B.  During a period where games were trying to give you more choices, Bioshock makes fun of those choices by undercutting their implications.  I think it’s funny and on point.  

        • SamPlays says:

          @HobbesMkii:disqus Game theory (not referring to video games) has demonstrated that moral dilemmas have their own payoff matrices. The “game mechanics” are slightly more complicated than those of a video game but personal gain does play a role. 
          Consider the classic example (it’s classic to social psychologists anyways) of Kitty Genovese getting stabbed to death in a tenement alleyway. Dozens of concerned residents heard her cries for help through their apartment windows yet only one person contacted the police. From a moral perspective, you would expect more people to contact the police because that’s what good people do, right? Social researchers call it the bystander effect and game theorists call it the “volunteer dilemma”. A few things determine your choice to help: 

          1) Misperceiving the emergency based on the fact that others are not responding,

          2) Fear of doing the wrong thing or looking foolish, 

          3) Assuming someone else will provide help (this assumption grows stronger when group size increases).

          There are personal sacrifices involved with making moral choices (i.e., you could endanger yourself, you could fail at your attempt, etc.) and, in fact, play a role in how we respond to moral dilemmas. 

        • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

           @paraclete_pizza:disqus While I generally agree with this, I would like to defend the tutorial of Blood Dragon, which actually works because it’s

          a. legitimately funny
          b. Not frustrating or monotonous
          c. something that only happens once

          Also the character is as frustrated as you are, which I think adds to the humor.

        • HobbesMkii says:

          @SamPlays:disqus  You know that the Kitty Genovese example is flawed, right? The police were contacted by other residents of the apartment complex, and only two residents were even aware Genovese had been stabbed (including the one who called the police and reported it, prompting their response). No one witnessed the murder or the rape itself. In fact, Genovese’s attacker was initially scared off when he drew the attention of a neighbor, but returned to attack her again a second time and kill her when he believed it was safe.

          Harlan Ellison had a lot to do with propagating the myth that 38 callous New Yorkers ignored a woman being killed nearby. 

          Not that the Bystander Effect (or the Volunteer’s dilemma) are necessarily rendered moot by it, just that the Genovese case, while a classical example, is also classically flawed.

        • SamPlays says:

          @HobbesMkii:disqus A fair comment but the story, even if exaggerated, still serves as an example of a social phenomenon that exists and has been empirically modelled. The Kitty Genovese example is flawed if you require it to be factually correct but it’s main purpose is illustrative. My main point was that moral decisions, by and large, are weighed against personal outcomes.

      • Zack Handlen says:

        Wait, so the only aspect of a game that matters is progress in the game? That’s absurd. The fact that saving/killing the girls is the only real choice the player has makes it matter regardless of its specific impact on which tunnel you end up going down. It’s a direct comment on the murder of Andrew Ryan; even as he calls you a slave, you’ve already made a series of choices that got you to that point. And the fact that either of those choices would’ve still gotten you in roughly the same place doesn’t, to me, undermine the value of the choices themselves–in a way, it makes them more important, because there’s no direct punishment for all that murdering. You just have to decide what you can live with. 

        (I should add that I kind of hated Braid.)

        • pico79 says:

          Not only is it not absurd: it’s implicit in every game you play.  Nothing you do in a game has any real impact outside of that game.  The only thing that changes is whether you progress or not, and the only real option 99% of games give you is to complete them (or to keep playing, in endless puzzle games) or to turn them off.  That’s all.

          Bioshock came on a wave of narrative games that tried to emphasize choicemaking, but that choicemaking didn’t amount to much.  Be nice and characters will be nice to you.  Be mean and they’re sad.  You’ll get one of two endings… hoorah.  This game openly mocks this every step of the way.  I think it’s audacious, if not a little inconsistent and mean, but at the same time I think it’s a quantum leap in terms of understanding how little freedom players actually have (and still have in most games, for that matter.)

          You’re right that you invest moral weight in your “decisions” (note you only have two, which is hardly much of a choice) whether the game rewards them or not.  The fact that it doesn’t matter to the game which you do might be saying something about the way that allegedly choice-driven video games handle morality: in the most superficial, perfunctory way.  When these games give you choices, it’s still about “winning”, and you only change the ending animation.

          In the final act, though, Bioshock doesn’t have the strength of its own convictions.  I don’t know what it could have looked like if it had.  

          By the way, you know who else was wildly inconsistent on free will and determinism? Ayn Rand.  She believed both that individuals were driven by their nature, against which they could not act (a mishmash of essentialism and causation); and she also believed in free will and “focus” as the essence of choicemaking.  Funny, that.

        • Roswulf says:

          @pico79:disqus I would simply counter that, for me, the very appeal of roleplaying games is my ability to imagine consequences beyond game mechanics, to empathize and invest in the story being told.

          I understand and accept that video game actions and morality affect you only insofar as they have in-game mechanical consequences, but you must accept that that is not the only way to experience CRPGs.

          This disagreement would perhaps snap more clearly into place if we shifted the discussion to The Walking Dead [SPOILERS AHEAD]. Were you bothered by the fact that the game’s end state was essentially the same irrespective of player choices? I know it didn’t bother me in the slightest.

  4. Enkidum says:

    Haven’t played through the whole thing, won’t read this until I do because I’m anal that way… So, yeah, maybe I’ll remember to revisit this page in like two years or whenever.

    I like to contribute useful, meaningful comments to the conversation.

    • zerocrates says:

      Starting right after this one, presumably.

    • Real_Irwin says:

      Yeah, come back once you’ve gotten around to playing the six year old game. 

      • PaganPoet says:

        Not really sure why the snark is necessary. There’s nothing wrong with having never played a game, no matter how old or acclaimed it was.

        • Enkidum says:

          Although I was surprised it got removed that quickly – it was snarky, but not overtly offensive or anything. I’m a big boy, I can handle it.

          EDIT: And to be fair, it was a supremely dumb comment they were replying too.

    • Girard says:

      Think of it this way: Go ahead and read this – Sam might have just saved you 10+ hours of wandering through dark, dingy corridors shooting at shit. Then use those 10 hours to, like, et ice cream or something.

      • DrFlimFlam says:

        Don’t listen to Girard, even though he’s well-reasoned and makes good points! Play BioShock!

        I’ll never tell someone to play or read or watch something because it’s “important”, because taste is taste, but personally, I loved BioShock and still find it unsettling and engrossing.

      • Roswulf says:

         I’m with the good doctor of flim-flammery, but I will say that if you play the game for a couple hours and share Girard’s reaction to the scenery as “dark, dingy corridors” you should probably stop playing, go watch the climactic scene on YouTube for educational purposes, and move on with your life.

        If the…specifics…of the atmosphere don’t connect, BioShock’s not going to work for you.

      • OldeFortran77 says:

        Sam certainly saved me from spending 3 or 4 hours watching Easy Rider and The Mist.

        • Sam_Barsanti says:

          The statute of limitations is surely up on Easy Rider…they spoil it in the first season finale of the Venture Brothers, I think. 

          As for The Mist, the ending is the best part of that anyway.

        • OldeFortran77 says:

          I have but one thing to say you, Mr. Sam Barsanti … ROSEBUD IS A SLEIGH!

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          The Wizard of Oz is really just some old guy behind a curtain!

        • miltthefish says:

          Jesus died on the cross!

        • Roswulf says:

          @miltthefish:disqus  If you think that’s the ending twist in the Bible, I’ve got some very surprising news for you…

      • His_Space_Holiness says:

        Disclaimer: Please do not eat ice cream for 10 hours. You will most likely die.

      • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

         Your enjoyment of it is directly proportional to your enjoyment of shooters, horror games, and/or awesome art direction.

        • Girard says:

          Shooters: Not crazy about; actively dislike FPSes. One of the first things that rubbed me the wrong way about Bioshock was that it wanted me to navigate a semi-interesting narrative space using the absolute least interesting interface possible.

          Horror games: I quite like the early Silent Hill games, but that was a bit more psychological/weird horror than Bioshock was going for. I was never a fan of the awkward horror puzzling of Resident Evil or the shooting jump-scare zombies that constantly jump out of closets in Dead Space. Though the occasional Alien-style horror elements of the Metroid Prime games were pretty well done, I think.

          Awesome art direction: I didn’t find the art direction especially awesome, personally. I’m a visual person, and often willing to let a game’s aesthetics ovecome any problems I have with mechanics or even thematics (that can be the only explanation for my playing through Muramasa…), but Bioshock didn’t really do much to move me, visually. Too much darkness, dinginess, vague Steampunkiness, and general saminess (to the levels I’ve played, at least, and the clips I’ve watched). Obviously this is subjective, though.

    • Celebith says:

       Girard has a good point.  There’s way more great stuff than there is time to enjoy it.  Sometimes you have to accept that you’re just never going to get around to most of them, so read the Cliff Notes, lean enough to be conversant about it, and drive on.

    • The Guilty Party says:

      Hey, you don’t have to play through the whole thing. A Man Chooses … to stop playing after you kill Ryan and call it a day because that’s where the good bits end.

  5. Fantastic game-and I loved the twist 2/3rd’s of the way through-especially the whole “would you kindly…” but the end boss was so rote I felt let down…because the whole notion of choice and morality throughout the game devolved so rapidly into a typical end fight I was let down.
    I did play Dishonoured right after, so where I was a goody goody in Bioshock I killed everyone I could in Dishonoured, just because.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      I think there’s something to be said for how difficult it is to be good in Dishonored, how much planning and WORK it is to do the “right” thing. I know I’m not the first one to come up with it, but I’m a firm subscriber of the “Two Paths” ideology – that there is an Easy Way, and a Right Way, and they are only rarely the same thing.

      It’s one of the things that keeps me from playing the game more. I want to do the right thing, but it’s so hard and stressful and often fruitless that I don’t often enjoy myself in doing so.

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        That’s why I decided not to bother trying to get the “ghost” achievements, and didn’t sweat it if I had to kill one or two people per level.  I figured it made sense to play a good guy who did his best not to kill, but didn’t hesitate to do so if cornered.

        • Sam_Barsanti says:

          That’s exactly how I played it and I got the best ending, no sweat. Makes me excited to pay as a murderous asshole in the DLC.

    • Roswulf says:

       I tend to agree with the roteness critique.

      I don’t think the game, to achieve thematic fulfillment, had to broaden the players choices after the death of Ryan. “A man chooses, a slave obeys” is not a statement of absolute truth, it is the mantra of ANDREW RYAN. Who is neither the nicest nor the sanest of people. I liked having my character reject Ryan’s belief that freedom of action is the paramount good, instead accepting the limitations and slavery of becoming a Big Brother in order to accomplish- doing good for others and/or destroying Fontaine.

      There is nothing fundamentally off about the ideas of Bioshock’s final act. But lord does the narrative momentum flag.

      • RobertMosesSupposesErroneously says:

        Agreed, but by killing Ryan we were forced to prove him right. I found myself wondering how the game would have turned out if there was an option to humiliate Ryan by letting him live, defying both his beliefs and Fontaine’s orders. 

        I felt the level settings themselves also flagged in momentum. To me, early levels set in Dentist Offices, Farmer’s Markets, and Record Shops felt like such novel places to visit in a video game. You could get drunk in a wine cellar and throw wheels of Gouda at splicers. I mean, I seriously doubt there will ever be another video game with a mission taking place in an apiary.

        Meanwhile, the laboratories and machinery rooms of the later levels, while still beautifully executed, seemed like more standard video game settings (what Ebert calls “smoke and fire factories”)

        • Roswulf says:

           Wait…how were we proving him right by killing him?

          Ryan’s point is not simply that some men are offered choices and others are not. His position is that the “choosers” have a moral(?) superiority over the slaves. My position is that people who stop people like Andrew Ryan and Vic Fontaine have moral superiority, not because of their greater autonomy, but because their fall makes the world a less awful place to live in.

          Killing Ryan in the wreckage of a society reduced to hellish misery by the application of Ryan’s belief structure seems a rather final statement that he is wrong.

      • RobertMosesSupposesErroneously says:

        It’s true that his concept of a utopian society has been proven wrong by the wreckage and misery around him, but I’d argue that he’s too deluded to realize his mistake, given all his diaries/announcements blaming the parasites for ruining his otherwise perfect idea.

        In the end, we prove him right by demonstrating that he is superior to the player due to his free will. Ryan is able to choose when to die, we could only obey his command like an animal. He’s unhinged enough to use his own murder to prove a point  – and perhaps he was terrified of the idea that, if he kept hiding, we might eventually “choose” to kill him, shattering his worldview, so he elected to die on his own terms. 

        In terms of ‘moral’, I’d argue killing Ryan, since we did it on an unthinking reflex, doesn’t make us moral or amoral- we’re just a robot executing a program.

        Killing Fontaine, however, is a moral choice that neither he nor Ryan would have expected of us. 

    • miltthefish says:

      Bioshock’s twist reminded me of the reveal in the Matrix. Both happen at the mid-way point and blow your mind. And then comes filler. The Matrix even has fetch quests (find the Oracle!) and escort missions (protect Neo!) to kill time before the boss fight with Smith.  

  6. Kilzor says:

    For all of Andrew Ryan’s love of design and skill, he really dropped the ball by making himself a par 1 golf course.

  7. Stl_Bob says:

    One thing worth mentioning is that Levine later admitted in an interview (I think with EGM) that he also found the final boss disappointing. He felt like he had to end it with a boss because that’s how games end, but he thought it was anticlimactic. So in a way, I guess he was a slave to constraints too.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

       I wonder how much money Levine could make on a Kickstarter where he was allowed to forgo boss battles and endless action setpieces.

      I mean, he’d run out of money on his five-year project after six months, but MAN.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

      That’s interesting.  Since so much of Bioshock is a deliberate manipulation of these game tropes, and in fact, it’s whole raison d’être is seemingly to comment on these game design standards while still indulging in them, it strikes me as a bit strange that the most fundamental game trope of them all would catch Levine unaware.
         By the rules and tone established within the game, the confrontation with Ryan would really be Bioshock’s ideal answer to the final boss problem. 

  8. pico79 says:

    My only critique of this is that the only choice you really have, when it comes down to it, is turning off the console and refusing to play the game.  After the Andrew Ryan twist (which is brilliant, without a doubt), the game doesn’t allow you to exercise your new-found knowledge in any way… there’s no actual mechanism by which it matters.  That’s the ending’s failure, I think: you’re given a powerful new way of viewing the game, and no way to apply it.

    Still, I think there’s something audacious about a game that so openly mocks your lack of agency.   Even the ending cutscene doesn’t help: your decisions only matter as much as you want them to, because there’s not much moral difference between a ‘good’ cutscene and a ‘bad’ one unless you choose to invest them with meaning.  There’s an interesting lesson there, I think.

    • Electric Dragon says:

      Exactly. If Tenenbaum’s freeing of you from Atlas’ control is not just exchanging one master for another then surely the whole game should just become open world at that point.

    • Andrew Ryan says:

      A curious game… the only way to win is not to play…

    • Girard says:

      So when I said “fuck this shit” and uninstalled the game after level two I was actually asserting my status as AN INDEPENDENT MAN AND NOT A SLAVE TO CIRCUMSTANCE? That’s great. I’ll have to keep that in my pocket for the next time I’m grousing about Bioshock.

      • DrFlimFlam says:

        Actually, yes. It’s one of the few games (if not the only one) where I can say that turning it off is a valid choice that participates in the game’s primary conceit.

      • neodocT says:

        Since you’ve proven yourself to be the most Randian of us all, does this mean you’ll go and create an isolated community of genius billionaires now? Ooh, can I go too?

      • Sam_Barsanti says:

        I guess that means you got the best ending, since nobody can call you a slave. You won BioShock!

      • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

        Naw.  Now you’re just chained to your dislike of a game that is still discussed in great length years after release.
           Those of us who enjoyed it, it is we who are truly free.

      • pico79 says:

        If it matters to you.  I don’t think Bioshock is calling you a slave so much as deflating the much-vaunted holy grail of moral choice in video games.  You’re as much a “slave” when you play Donkey-Kong and keep climbing upwards, but we keep playing it, because it’s fun, and that’s all that matters.

      • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

         A MAN CHOOSES


  9. NakedSnake says:

    Spoilers, obviously. I always felt like they figured out this big reveal and then built the rest of Bioshock around it. It’s a searing critique of the way most video games work. I mean really, how weird is it that in most video games how the player suddenly inhabits the body of the player character, takes their backstory as given, and then starts conducting tasks at the behest of some stranger. I definitely felt the shock and betrayal of the “would you kindly” moment as both a player and as the player character. Of course I hadn’t questioned running around doing tasks (and killing people) for some friendly dude who I only know through a walkie-talkie. At the moment that all is revealed, I, NakedSnake, felt just as much like a simpleton puppet as Jack or whoever I am supposed to be. For all its flaws, Bioshock has henceforth rendered me a skeptical and cynical player character.

    As to the use of lazy design tropes in the final third of the game, I think this has more to do with the challenges of marrying a AAA game to big philosophical ideas (see also: Teti’s Bioshock Infinite review). To be honest, the gameplay is not great throughout. I think the reason why most people hate the last act is that Bioshock ruins your sense of immersion in video games generally, but then it sticks around. You have no choice but to apply your critical faculties to the closest game at hand. I definitely felt like a sucker/slave playing the game through to the end.

    Also, Barsanti, I fully support your suggestion to insert “behold my true form” into this and every video game henceforth.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      Madden 25 – BEHOLD MY TRUE FORM OF MADDEN!!!

    • ly_yng says:

      I agree.

      The feeling of “I’m a slave” was so strong for me that I assumed during the end that what you were actually fully going through the Big Daddy-ification regimen and that Tenenbaum was manipulating you into giving up your humanity to save Rapture.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

       Rockstar’s games are the worst at this.

      PROTAGONIST: I need to advance the plot.

      ZANY SIDE CHARACTER: I can help you advance the plot! But first, I need you to go to this place and kill all the people there.

      PROTAGONIST: What if I don’t want to help you?

      ZANY SIDE CHARACTER: Then I hope you didn’t want to see any other sections of the game world!

      PROTAGONIST: Fine *grumble grumble*

      [repeat until a character is killed dramatically at the end]

      • NakedSnake says:

        Yea, I like the idea of the Heists in GTAV as a way to at least mitigate the contrived nature of the quests.

  10. Normally I hate it when games take away player control for important moments and instead presents it as a cutscene – The Darkness does this right at the end and I never forgave it – but in Bioshock I always thought it was kind of ingenious that although “you” kill Ryan, it plays out without any input from the player. It takes that loss of control and makes it part of the game, so both you and the character you’re “inhabiting” are feeling the same thing: “Hey, I didn’t choose to do that!”

    • DrFlimFlam says:


      Something Levine revisits in BioShock Infinite.

      Seriously, if you’re an older gentleman in charge in a BioShock game, your days are SO numbered.

      • Sam_Barsanti says:

        I really liked Infinite, but I think this particular moment was handled a lot better in ‘Shock 1, since you don’t understand why it happens in Infinite until later…it feels like more of a cheat there.

        • Rick Joyce says:

          It’s getting to the point that all Bioshock games are going to be expected to be meta, assuming there’ll be more. Kinda like Shyamalan movies, though I’m not in the least saying that Levine is a hack like M. Night.

  11. oldtaku says:

    Levine said the final boss fight was a bit of shoehorned in bullcrap they put in because every shooter game ‘need’s a final bossfight. For me the real ending was the Little Sister escort mission – though Levine actually thought it should have ended at Ryan.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      I think the Little Sister mission could be a legitimate ending for a shepherd of the little girls, but not one for those who harvested them.

      • Sam_Barsanti says:

        The first time I played it, I actually thought the ending would be you dragging around the Sisters for a while until eventually the game took more and more control away from you and you just spend the rest of your life as a Big Daddy, never actually killing Fontaine. How cheery would that have been?

      • oldtaku says:

         That’s true – perhaps for those people it should be inverse tower defense, where you’re trying to harvest the remaining Little Sisters!

  12. Andrew Ryan says:

    I find that death scene quite hard to watch.

  13. dreadguacamole says:

     Nice piece. One question – when you say no video game grants true freedom.. as opposed to what?
     Reality doesn’t grant true freedom, we’re all functioning under a set of personal and universal constraints. Hell, even if I had full on omnipotence, I’d still be limited by my imagination…
     It doesn’t detract from the point that Bioshock is making (or from the point that’s being made about Bioshock in the article!) but when you drag poor minecraft into it, it kind of muddles the waters.
     I’ve always found Bioshock’s critique of gaming as something aimed specifically at the status quo of shooters, rather than some sort of universal statement. There’s plenty of games that grant freedom within reasonable constraints. Hell, even scripted shooters can do so if you approach them with a playful mindset.

     I spent waaaay too much time staging benny hill-style chases with combine forces in the early stages of Half Life 2…

    • Me, motherfuckers says:

       Eh if you had full omnipotence you could harvest the imagination of every being in the universe, then also invest the universe and multiverse with imaginations themselves and harvest them. Though of course if you didn’t imagine that in the fist place you’d be screwed.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      While we have certain laws of physics, I think we certainly DO have freedom in real life, just with consequences. You can drive on the wrong lane of the freeway, but you’d better be prepared to meet a semi first-hand. you can probably open many a business door without realizing its a painted wall. While there are limitations, they are not nearly so limiting as game design’s necessary allocatio of resources.

      • Girard says:

        But the decision to drive on the wrong side of the highway wouldn’t necessarily be a ‘free’ choice, it would be the product of a lifetime of universal stimuli, inputs, and actions (as well as a whole universe of other stimuli and actions extending far beyond your life) connected i a vast causal domino chain, the next domino of which is simply ‘DrFlimFlam decides to drive on the wrong side of the road’…

      • dreadguacamole says:

         Well, but there are constraints – it’s just a matter of scope.
         My point is that freedom is always an illusion that we maintain for ourselves. Just as we play along with reality by not willing ourselves to teleport or breathe underwater without the appropriate equipment, we also play along with games as long as we accept their rules. It’s a kind of suspension of disbelief; as long as the restrictions make internal sense and the game accommodates most of the actions we’d want to undertake in its sandbox, we’re golden*.

         However, modern shooters have got to a point where their priority is to become more accessible, guided experiences. Their restrictions have become artificial, obvious and counter-intuitive. Bioshock, by intention or not, succeeds brilliantly at lampooning them specifically. But I just don’t see its thesis applying to the wider, non-mainstream world of games.

        *: And since I’m rambling – I love that, as we become more game-literate, we incorporate these limits to a point they become intuitive. I find it fascinating to sit down with people who don’t really play a lot of games, and find out what they think of conventions we take for granted…

      • dreadguacamole says:

         Well, but there are constraints – it’s just a matter of scope.
         My point is that freedom is always an illusion that we maintain for ourselves. Just as we play along with reality by not willing ourselves to teleport or breathe underwater without the appropriate equipment, we also play along with games as long as we accept their rules. It’s a kind of suspension of disbelief; as long as the restrictions make internal sense and the game accommodates most of the actions we’d want to undertake in its sandbox, we’re golden*.

         However, modern shooters have got to a point where their priority is to become more accessible, guided experiences. Their restrictions have become artificial, obvious and counter-intuitive. Bioshock, by intention or not, succeeds brilliantly at lampooning them specifically. But I just don’t see its thesis applying to the wider, non-mainstream world of games.

        *: And since I’m rambling – I love that, as we become more game-literate, we incorporate these limits to a point they become intuitive. I find it fascinating to sit down with people who don’t really play a lot of games, and find out what they think of conventions we take for granted…

    • Rick Joyce says:

      I really hope you were playing Yakety Sax during these chases.

  14. Mr_OCD says:

    Am I the only one who still very much enjoyed the final third of the game?

    • Me, motherfuckers says:

       No, I wonder if I’m the only person who wasn’t blown away by the twist as it’s basically just the same as every other game, pointing it out isn’t mindblowing unless gamers think they have freedom in games, which is pretty daft as games needs rules.

    • Roswulf says:

       I enjoyed everything up until the final boss fight. Well, I didn’t ENJOY the little sister escort quest because I’m terrible at video games, but it worked for me thematically.

      • ly_yng says:

        Yeah, I think the conception of the end makes a lot of sense. It’s not just Jack who’s been trapped in this weird deterministic fate, it’s the Little Sisters and Big Daddys too. Living the process of becoming one had the potential of really making the whole “lack of choice” angle very clear. It’s just tied up in some tedious gameplay

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      I didn’t HATE it. It was fine. I was fascinated by the process of becoming a Big Daddy, and the personal sacrifice that would take. the final boss fight was kind of ludicrous, but as a savior of little girls, I also loved the ending. Gets me a bit choked up.

    • The_Helmaroc_King says:

      The last third still had a lot of strong world-building, and taking the role of a Big Daddy to protect one of the Little Sisters is an interesting idea, at the very least. It just loses a lot of momentum once Ryan dies, since he was more interesting than Fontaine and had more build-up. I don’t recall hating it, personally, but it’s been a while.

    • Gipson says:

      The visuals are what I loved most about Bioshock, more so than its narrative, its gameplay or its mind-fuckery. This is just a world that is fascinating to inhabit for as long as the game allows. So, I actually found a lot to like in the back third. The decaying tenement housing was an especially creepy environment. I still think its strongest points come before the twist, but because I was still invested in the visual imagination of Bioshock, I rather enjoyed it all the way through (until Fontaine, which was terrible, but at least brief and easy.)

      This is probably also why I like Bioshock 2 more than most. While I get the complaints with the story – it certainly doesn’t feel as “necessary” a game as the first – I really loved the opportunity to explore more areas of Rapture. The Ryan Amusements level is just fabulous.

      (And Bioshock Inifite was better still.)

  15. HobbesMkii says:

    There’s actually a 3rd ending. If you harvest a single sister and then regret your actions because it’s horrible, you get the good ending, but the narrator’s tone is quite changed (not in a good way).

    • Sam_Barsanti says:

      Right, and I think that feels even more video game-y, since it’s an even smaller change. It’s like the Super Metroid-style “you got X%, so Samus will take off her helmet and that’s it” ending.

  16. DrFlimFlam says:

    I will always like how BioShock not only gave you a wonderful illusion of reason as choice, but also toyed with the player’s emotions. They feel righteously vindicated in not only gunning down splicers, but also in taking out Andrew Ryan, or at least the quest of it, until it became clear what Jack really was. And by then it was too late anyway. There’s a salve applied in the good ending (or vindication, I suppose, in the “bad” one), but either way, I like what BioShock was trying to do. I know lots of folk found the gameplay middling, and some people deify a game that was very good but also flawed. For me, I still find it to be a very good game, probably one of this generation’s best. And a large portion of that comes from what it made me feel as a player and what it was willing to do with its narrative.

    Also, large portions of it creep me the hell out.

  17. Mike P says:

    I, um, love the write up.
    But I hate that fact that you’ve ruined video games for me now.
    I never really looked at BioShock at all that way.
    That’s probably why I am not a writer. 

  18. Mike P says:

    I, um, love the write up.
    But I hate that fact that you’ve ruined video games for me now.
    I never really looked at BioShock at all that way.
    That’s probably why I am not a writer. 


    The Atlas reveal in Bioshock was really effective- like a sucker punch from your best friend. From the start, when you’re first on the elevator and he says,”Look, I know you must feel like the aloniest man in the world, but I need your help” he’s got you. And you rely on him throughout the game, even though his insistence that you murder little
    girls for Adam is monstrous- and your first clue that Atlas isn’t exactly who he pretends to be. So when he turns on you, it wasn’t just a story beat- I, as a player, felt hurt. And that’s a serious accomplishment. A lot of what made Bioshock great was that aspect of getting so immersed in the setting, the story and the atmosphere even if the shooter aspect of it wasn’t particularly thrilling even with the addition of magical powers. (Maybe a talking dog would have helped?)

    And a lot of great stage-setting went into the Ryan confrontation- you were finding a lot of ammo and health in the corridors leading up to him, thus reinforcing that a traditional boss fight is coming whereas in the rest of the game, you were planning ambushes against Big Daddies and shepherding your resources and your DNA a little more carefully or trying to outlast waves of splicers while yet another door was opening.

    That being said, I never finished the final part of Bioshock. While I understand that the Big Daddy fetch and escort quest had solid reasoning behind it as others have pointed
    out…. it just stopped being fun or engaging to me. It would take mental gymnastics to say that the whole last act was deliberate meta-ness on the part of the developers and I can understand and agree with the POV that deliberate or not, it draws attention to the most egregious game design sins. But it’s a slog and I was asking myself,”When are we gonna get to the fireworks factory?!”

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      You started at the Fireworks factory. Then you have to sit in the car on the way home.

    • Roswulf says:

       I think this encapsulates why the turn in Bioshock was so effective for me. It conjures greater empathy for the player character by making the reveal of what has been done to that character parallel the experience of playing Bioshock.

      I view it less as meta-commentary (not that Sam’s interpretation is wrong), more as a clever use of the video game form to reinforce an in-universe story point for maximum emotional effect.

      Unfortunately for me it overshot the mark a tad- I was not as angry at Atlas as I was impressed by the game’s cleverness.

  20. Celebith says:

    One of the things I loved about Fallout 2 was that if you were lucky, and new what to do, you could finish it in about half an hour, short circuiting and avoiding almost the entire game.  In the end, you were still limited to a couple of choices / endings, but few other games offered such a direct route to them.

    • Shain Eighmey says:

      Morrowind is similar. Once you figure out the perfect system to beating the game, you can actually beat it in less than 30 minutes. It’s a bit humbling to realize tha tin the end, that was all there was to beating the game I spent dozens of hours playing. 

  21. huge_jacked_man says:

    “But then the game nosedives into a veritable Marianas Trench of boring game design clichés.”

    Dude there’s a warehouse level like 20 minutes into the game. Bioshock’s always been a mediocre shooter.

  22. BillyNerdass says:

    With very, very few exceptions, I really dislike art that engages in this kind of meta-commentary on itself/its genre/its form. It feels kind of insulting. It didn’t take BioShock’s big twist to make me realize I have no choice in games beyond what the designers give me. For me, it’s a waste of time when a game or book or movie takes the time to point out all the underpinnings and tropes. I’m a reasonably smart dude. I have realized all these things before and by pointing them out, you’re not only trying to wow me with facts that any sort-of critical person already knows but you’re also ruining the tacit agreement about suspension of disbelief we had as creator and audience.

    I went to school for video production and it ruined TV and movies for me for years. All I could see were the moving parts and all the technical stuff, never just the actual friggin movie. And it’s awful. 

    Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain is a good example. I was really liking it until the very end when he decides to pull the camera back and show the artifice and yell “You’re watching a movie!!!!” at the audience. Well, no shit, really? BioShock is yelling “You’re playing a video game!!!!” at the player. Yeah, I know.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

      Same thing happened with me and Blazing Saddles.

      • His_Space_Holiness says:

        Similarly, the ending of Bioshock would have been much improved with the addition of a cast-wide pie fight.

    • miltthefish says:

      I get what you’re saying but it’s hard for most video games not to break the 4th wall; immersion only goes so far. Checking inventory, saving a game, reading tutorials, having a HUD…these things all break immersion and constantly remind us that we are, in fact, nerds playing a game instead of having sex.

      • BillyNerdass says:

        Yeah, my issue is not with these sorts of things being present in games but when games make it a point to comment on them like it’s some sort of revelation that they’re there. 
        The Ryan/Atlas twist in BioShock not only serves to show us that, as players, we have no true choice/freedom in video games, but also that we are nerds commenting about video games on a website instead of having sex.

    • signsofrain says:

      This is how I feel. Meta-commentary in games always seems to be beating you over the head. Like “See? See? See what we did there with the thing? Your expectations have been officially subverted!” Even with all the cool/arty new games coming out, nothing has really *surprised* me.

    • Merve says:

      I think what bugged me most about BioShock was not only that it seemed to indulge in what it was implicitly criticizing, but also that it was so damn predictable regardless. Of course Atlas was going to turn out to be evil; there was no doubt about that in my mind from the outset. So the big “twist” fell flat for me.

      • BillyNerdass says:

        I also confess to HATING the big, game-changing, Sixth Sense-style twist as a storytelling device. It’s cliche and it comes of as base cleverness way too often, but the biggest reason I don’t like it is I can’t help but feel like the work of art I had been experiencing is now gone forever, never to return. It recreates everything that’s come before it and I always end up resenting art for pulling that on me.

  23. Ain't Neva Gonna Stop Slugging says:

    BioShock? More like BioShart.

  24. Like @Mr_OCD:disqus , I don’t hate the final third of the game. And heck, I don’t even hate the boss. I think it’s important, in some ways. I think way too many people are thinking of Bioshock-as-theme, and not as Bioshock-as-fully-developed-world (especially the “fetch-quest” complaint – the whole game is mostly fetch-quests).

    After the twist, there’s the fallout. People and sisters, and even the wild splicers (who, despite being monsters, are still humans) still need saving, or at least acknowledging. You have to become the very thing that Fontaine controls (or manipulates) to beat him, and he himself becomes a multi-spliced monster because he can. He’s the extreme of every splicer you met. He knows this world so distinctly that he discovers how to handle all the ADAM powers. Revenge quest, sure, but you know, he’s still trying to kill you, and you still gotta get out of there. You discover the secret of the girls and the process of becoming a Big Daddy, and in a way you become the very thing you’ve been killing all this time. You discover how HARD it actually is to protect a girl in this sociopathic world of crazy people trying to harvest ADAM (which you were at some point).

    It’s a little cluttered and annoying, sure, but Bioshock final third (and its sequel) shows that there’s MORE. There’s MORE to a plot twist here (hey, you know who else is all twist and no substance? Shala-mala-ding-dong). There are stories and backgrounds and secrets. There are characters with motives and shady behaviors and extreme thoughts. The theme of actions and behaviors, of role reversals and identity, of isolation and struggle and POWER especially, is a lot more resonate to me than the theme of choice and freedom, things that, twist aside, Bioshock doesn’t really do all that well. Struggle and power, in fact, is represented in the various fights with the Big Daddies and Big Sisters – planning and planting traps, prepping your weapons and fighting area, etc., and it always seemed to me that Bioshock as a crazy world falling apart and barely holding itself together was a much stronger idea than it’s twist – in fact, I had always wished Bioshock took place during the height of the Ryan/Fontaine conflict, not at the dystopian end of it.

    TL;DR – I think Bioshock is better with its story-themes than its game-theme.

  25. TheMercySeat says:

    There’s only one game that does a better job of confronting the player with the illusion of “choice” – and that game is Killer 7.

  26. His_Space_Holiness says:

    So what are you if you choose to obey? Like, someone gives you an order without coercion and you choose to obey it for whatever reason of your own? Are you a slan? A mave? A butler?

  27. MikeJer says:

    Fascinating article. There *is* one choice we have as players though: to stop playing the game. That’s precisely what I did with Bioshock, in fact. After being wowed by the intro, I was let down by all the gameplay tropes (backtracking proved tedious early) and the lack of exploration. The story had some neat stuff going on, but the *game* bored me out of playing it. I’d rather watch a great film.

  28. Ted Kindig says:

    I’d love to see this column take on “Braid.” I know a lot of people played with it a bit and felt like they ‘got it’–including myself a couple times–but that last level with the princess’s rescue really resonated with me. I admired the cleverness of the rest of it, but I really *felt* that finale.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

       The gameplay mechanics are pretty neat, and the overall design is pretty clever. All the ambiguous quotes came of kind of pretentious, though.

      • Ted Kindig says:

        I agree that they’re the not the strongest component, though they are I think vital to setting the tone. I was specifically highlighting the brilliant final level “1,” not the texty epilogue.

      •  The quotes aren’t so ambiguous when you consider their sources, though. Braid is a game that marries its gameplay and its themes and story perfectly. They reinforce each other so well.

  29. QuiGon_Baby_Gone says:

    “…when you are forced to beat someone to death with a golf club. The victim is Andrew Ryan…”

    “Forced”?  Puh-leeze!  After spending the first few stages listening to Ryan incessantly spewing moldy Objectivist bullsh*t, I was ready, willing and eager to bludgeon him to death, just to get him to shut up!  My only gripe was that you didn’t get to cook him a little bit with your plasmids first…

  30. mrm1138 says:

    The thesis of this article is flawed. BioShock is perfect.

  31. jester says:

    hey, i actually wrote something similar to this on kotaku a little while ago. you can spy it here, if you’d like:

  32. Carniverous Ruminant says:

    I would love to see a write-up to Little Inferno as a companion piece to this. Not to spoil anything, but it certainly covers similar tropes.

  33. Yes! I LOVE this article! Thank you for writing this, @Sam_Barsanti:disqus, this is exactly the kind of video game writing we need.

    I love the idea of meta, post-modern game design, even when it makes the game itself not so fun. It’s like a Jackson Pollack painting, it’s more about the statement and message than the sheer aesthetic of the product itself. It took me a long time to be able to appreciate artists like Pollack or Ornette Coleman– I still can’t stand listening to The Shape of Jazz to Come, but I appreciate what it means.

    Another game that uses this kind of post-modern, self referential design is No More Heroes. It’s hub world was widely criticized for being boring, repetitive, and forcing the player to grind to get to the next assassination levels. And you know what, it was a total chore, and the city itself felt fake and lifeless, less like Liberty City and more like a theme park ghost town.

    But knowing Suda 51 and how that game is a giant homage to/parody of the action game genre, I have to wonder if that was all completely intentional. It was faithfully recreating the grinding nature of the genre, and the player’s frustration was the statement Suda 51 was making. And the cardboard-stand up nature of the city itself, as well as the twist that the whole thing ended up being fake and pointless anyway, was mocking the flimsy pretext most video games, especially action games, give the player for murdering thousands upon thousands of enemies.

    I haven’t analyzed this one as deeply as Sam did Bioshock, but I think the two share that same sentiment that they’re willing to sacrifice player enjoyment to make a statement. Part of me is pissed I have to slog through intentionally poor game design because of it, but the other part of me admires the balls they must have to actually do it.

  34. Alexander Saeri says:

    I’d really like you to do one of these for Prince of Persia (2008). It was probably one of the most affecting endings in any game, ever.

  35. Reggie_Rock says:

    Nothing is absolute. Except this article. Which is absolutely useless navel gazing wankery. Take a logic class people, learn to think.

  36. hurbleduh says:

    Why did you write a bad article

    Did Andrew Ryan tell you to do it

    Are you taking some bullshit college course on “vidjamagames” and tried to lasso some of that there creative writing you did in the halls of higher learning?
    Look at you

    Getting paid to do this, even

    • Sam_Barsanti says:

      Can you and @Reggie_Rock get on the same page? Either I’ve taken too many classes or not enough.

      And to answer your question: because I am A MAN with the ability to CHOOSE to do things! On topic!

      • hurbleduh says:

        I’m just saying I expect this kind of shit on Kotaku, not a bunch of A.V. Club runoff. 

        • Sam_Barsanti says:

          And yet you CHOSE to read it/scroll to the bottom and comment on it. You must not be the protagonist of BioShock! On topic!

  37. Shain Eighmey says:

    Thank you for writing this! I’ll freely admit that I’m an unapologetic videogame snob, much like many are music, art, sculpture, or film snobs, and this article reflects the kind of conversations that are going on. 

    Videogames aren’t just “art”, they’re crafted experiences, and in this case BioShock becomes a very meta take on gaming itself. 

    • hurbleduh says:

      Read your post five years from now and try not to punch yourself into a coma.

      • Shain Eighmey says:

        Easily, if you just want to read gaming articles for shiny things and pretty explosions you might want to check out IGN. 

        There’s a lot to appreciate about gaming deeper than the absolute surface level, and Gameological does a lot of work focusing on that, of which this article is a particularly great example of. 

        • hurbleduh says:

          How many times have you pleaded for games’ legitimacy at the dinner table?

          • Shain Eighmey says:

            Maybe once when I was a teenager, but that was a pretty easy argument to win. It’s really easy to make the case of gaming as an art, and it gets easier all the time.

            The only trick is to get someone to sit down and play a good game.

  38. Pgoodso says:

    I ended up talking about this on, of all things, the AVClub review of The Purge (in all its glory at,98678/#comment-921418697).

    Basically, I think because the choice is really so stark (do you kill or not kill small helpless children), Bioshock earns its moral dichotomy, where in most RPGs, like BioWare’s stuff or Fable, the moral compass can be gamed for reward or accidentally mismanaged to insane proportions, not to mention being dissonant from most of those games messages about self-actualization: if you steal enough, you’ll still “be” evil according to the game despite being good at every meaningful quest opportunity, or giving enough to the church will wipe clean the stain of, well, killing small helpless children, and many times, regardless of those things, you’ll still get similar endings.