Jan 222009

During the course of play, the first-person shooter Bioshock repeatedly presents the player/character with a moral choice. Amidst the ruin of its underwater city, Rapture, a number of small girls wander, girls who possess a resource (ADAM) the player/character desperately needs. Upon defeating the girls’ monstrous guardians, the player can choose to kill (“harvest”) the child, gaining a large quantity ADAM, or he can choose to save the girl, receiving half as much ADAM and a vague promise of future help from another character. If the player saves a “little sister”, he is treated to a short scene in which she thanks him, then runs off. If he chooses to destroy her he sees… nothing.

That’s not strictly true, of course. The game shows the player/character reaching towards the girl (the on-screen hand seems to be subtly larger than in the “save” option), and transitions via a swirling effect to an image of the parasite the player/character has just ripped from her body. The girl’s body is nowhere to be found. Although the player is meant to believe that the character has just eviscerated a small child in order to gain a strategic advantage, no evidence of the awful crime remains to confront him. Due to the limitations of the engine, the other dead bodies in Bioshock are often temporary, but they at least exist for a moment. The game’s most horrible killings are also those that leave no physical trace at all beyond the advantage they confer on the player.

I find this disturbing because it speaks to an ethos that is at peace with the idea of child murder as an intellectual act, but not a physical one. Regardless of what some reactionaries may say about games, I sincerely doubt that any of Bioshock‘s players could actually go through with the “harvest” if doing so involved a graphic depiction of evisceration. If Bioshock only forced the player to face a dead, bloody body, many would only be able to “harvest” once. Even considered on a purely intellectual level many gamers found Bioshock‘s options to be too much, and were unable to choose “harvesting”. Yet I feel that games which require the player to choose an ethic ought to confront him with the moral horror of his choice. Killing another person, adult or child, is an awful act, and if developers are to be true to the idea of giving the player a morality simulation then they should not hold back on a graphic depiction of the consequences.

I don’t mean to imply that developer cowardice is the only interpretation of the design. One can also take the distancing of the player from the act to suggest that the player/character is in denial about his moral agency. Rapture’s creator, Andrew Ryan, continued to insist on his objectivist beliefs even as he solidified his totalitarian rule over the city; he was blind to his betrayal of his own principles. The player/character’s inability to visualize his own brutality and its consequences may mirror Ryan’s refusal to countenance his own moral failure. Because the player/character is a mirror of Ryan in many ways this interpretation has some resonance.

In addition, the choice not to confront the player with the moral horror of the choice to kill may be making a point about our own moral judgments. Nothing beyond a slightly disturbing ending punishes the player for choosing to kill the little sisters. When one does not have to consider the negative consequences, the decision to murder a young girl becomes almost trivial. I would deny, however, that it is necessary or admirable to emphasize this view. The triviality of murder under such circumstances is already a critical element of this and every other shooter. Acknowledging that a lack of moral perspective or an elimination of consequence enables monstrous actions is hardly interesting at this point.

Developers, of course, must contend with factors beside the limits of their creativity and artistic desire. The ESRB would certainly recoil, and anti-game reactionaries howl in protest, were any game to realistically depict the evisceration and murder of a young girl, or even showed the dead body resulting from such an act. In my opinion, however, allowing players to perform the act and not confronting them with the consequences is exactly the sort of behavior the watchdogs should be trying to prevent. The bloodlessness of murdering children in Bioshock does not make that depiction less disturbing, but more so. In its larger story, Bioshock expresses the thesis that abstract ideals falter in the face of real consequences. To shy away from those consequences is to stab at the heart of the game.

  4 Responses to “Ecce, soror”

  1. Great post Michael. Instead of completely abusing your comments, I wrote up a (possibly excessive) response here: http://www.above49.ca/2009/01/within-constraints-little-sisters-and.html

    We're largely in agreement, there was just a nuance I wanted to draw out. Anyway, if you're interested, give it a look.

  2. That's a great post, Nels. I left a long comment myself.

  3. "In its larger story, Bioshock expresses the thesis that abstract ideals falter in the face of real consequences."

    In a way doesn't BioShock in that very moment conform to that larger concept? The abstract ideal of the brutality of "harvesting" the Little Sister falters in the face of the need to make a game that would get an ESRB rating?

    Ken Levine made the following comment regarding the Little Sister Harvesting and it presents and intresting angle on the entire thing:

    "What I wanted to do there was get across a certain story and moral-choice notion, not make something that could repulse people and turn people off from the story question I was putting forward and on to an explicitness question. And I wouldn't want anybody that was not a healthy person to get any remote enjoyment out of a sequence that was never intended to be enjoyable, just illustrative of a moral choice being made."

    Personally I wonder if the moral choice surrounding the Little Sister was in fact a bit of a "head fake" and the actual question of morality revolved more around the Big Daddies themselves.

  4. That's an interesting point that Levine makes. I definitely understand the unwillingness to provide a sequence that a real sicko might get off on. At the same time, anyone who's twisted enough to enjoy a graphic child murder is probably already getting jollies from the idea itself. The idea that one of these is acceptable and the other isn't just doesn't sit well with me. And then, there's still the question of the missing bodies.

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