Apr 042009

BioShock‘s most famous moral choice concerns the fate of young girls who are wandering through the undersea city of Rapture. The player gets to decide whether these girls live or die, and in a game that features a civilization built on the principle of laissez-faire one expects economics to play some kind of role in this decision. Many writers, however, have complained that it does not, and that the choice has too little of an effect on one’s ultimate experience of the game. Leigh Alexander and Bonnie Ruberg, among others, have suggested that something more sophisticated is going on here, and in other aspects of the player’s behavior in Rapture. The difficulty of resolving the rescue / harvest choice in BioShock by a cost-benefit analysis illuminates the little-discussed value of selfishness embodied by most gameplay.

Ludonarrative dissonance and the player’s choice

Clint Hocking’s famous critique of BioShock accused it of developing a case of “ludonarrative dissonance”, or tension between the message of the mechanics and the message of the story. As he put it, the mechanics offer a “ludic contract” that tells the player to seek out power (in the form of weapons, ammunition, plasmids, and ADAM) in order to advance in the game. This contract encourages the player to adopt a philosophy of rational self-interest much like that espoused by Andrew Ryan, the founder of the game’s undersea dystopia. The story, by contrast, offers a “narrative contract” that tells the player to help others (initially Atlas, later Tenenbaum) in order to advance. In Hocking’s view, the player can choose to accept or reject the ludic contract by harvesting the little sisters (maximizing his take of ADAM) or rescuing them, respectively. However, because the overall narrative of the game is fixed, the player cannot really choose to accept the philosophy of rational self-interest, and the climactic confrontation with Ryan seems to ridicule the player for putting up with that limitation.

Subsequent discussions of the game took a curious turn, however, in that aspects of the rescue / harvest choice itself were accused of being the centerpiece of dissonance. Wes Erdelack’s excellent discussion of ludonarrative dissonance is a case in point, although I believe this take on the matter originates with Jon Blow. The essence of the complaint in this case is that the story sets up the player’s choice to save or kill the girls as crucial, the consequences of the choice amount to almost nothing in terms of the gameplay. Although the player obtains significantly less ADAM when he chooses not to harvest the little sisters, repeatedly rescuing the girls causes Tenenbaum to give him gifts containing additional ADAM, ammunition, tonics, and a unique plasmid. As a result, in terms of strict gameplay consequences, the choice the player makes with respect to the fate of the little sisters doesn’t matter. In essence, the game doesn’t allow the player to make a choice about the philosophy of rational self-interest because both options are compatible with that philosophy.

These discussions all assume that dissonance ought be avoided, but as Michael Abbott has noted, it has its uses. The odd discordant note may offend the ear, but it draws attention and forces the observer to consider the artwork more carefully. The seeming mechanical equivalence of choice may be the conceptual error of a foolish team, or an intentional effort on the part of the developers to make the player consider the conflict presented more carefully. If we interpret this dissonance in BioShock as signal rather than noise, BioShock indicts the value systems of games and gamers.

You are only a link in the great chain

The philosophy of rational self-interest lies at the heart of both kinds of dissonance in the game. Andrew Ryan intended Rapture to be a utopia with no governing principle other than man’s own self-interest, and regards those who seek the protection of a government to be little more than parasites sucking society dry. He builds Rapture for himself. His primary antagonist, Frank Fontaine, embraces this philosophy in a more nuanced way. He too only acts in his rational self-interest, but rather than Ryan’s reactionary hatred of charity, Fontaine sees the feeding and housing of the poor as a transaction in which he purchases loyalty. They are very different men — Ryan wishes to build a society, Fontaine aims only to plunder one — but their heuristics for moral decision-making are identical. Whether either of them fairly depicts Randian Objectivism is an interesting but ultimately pointless debate; their self-interested philosophy most resembles the implicit morality of video games.

Obviously I don’t mean to attribute a moral system to games like Guitar Hero, but most games that feature a player-controlled avatar operate on a moral system much like Fontaine’s, in which all the world is the player’s for the taking. Certainly most games try to cover this with a veneer of a story that somehow involves saving the world, but this motivation rarely takes center stage in the player’s mind. In almost every game in existence, the player is encouraged to kill everything he encounters and plunder every chest he sees in order to win the game. Role-playing games often acknowledge this, usually through some abstracted morality system as in the Fable games. Yet in these cases only the extent of the behavior is criticized, not the fundamental attitude. So long as a chest or trove lacks any obvious owner, the player will not be criticized for taking it. The primary value of these games is always selfish advancement motivated by hedonism.

“Never play a man for the short con when you can play ’em for the long one…”

In keeping with this value set, we expect our options in games to be clearly differentiated in terms of their utility with respect to our self-interest. Because this is not operationally true of the rescue / harvest choice, many players were frustrated or confused. This statement from Duncan Fyfe, is typical of the protests:

It’s hard to understand why this is the case because it’s such a fundamentally simple and classic philosophical debate. You can make the rational, self-interested choice to gain as much resources as you can from this one interaction. Or you can sacrifice/minimise your short-term reward in favour of long-term benefit. This is how it’s presented to you and it’s basic political philosophy. It’s realism versus idealism. You’ll get less Adam for rescuing the little sisters but there’s the promise of a greater reward down the line.

The problem with objections like this is that delaying gratification doesn’t put philosophical ideas into opposition at all. The debate over long-term benefit vs. short-term benefit is just an argument over what constitutes self-interest, or what is the more “rational” route towards actuating it. Reducing the rescue / harvest choice to long-term vs. short-term gains merely recapitulates the contrast between Ryan’s short-sighted anti-altruism and Fontaine’s “long con”, but neither of those options entails a rejection of rational self-interest.

It’s not the choice you make, it’s why you make it

If you want the player to really consider the implications of the philosophy of rational self-interest in the rescue / harvest choice, there are only two real ways to do it. The first is to make the rescue choice truly oppositional to the player’s expected self-interest, i.e. give him no ADAM or very little for taking this route. The obvious disadvantage of this approach is that the game now becomes highly skewed. Although the vita-chambers relieve difficulty in the typical sense of dying and thus being unable to continue, the game will certainly become a much more frustrating and challenging experience. A gamer who played through such an experience might come away with the impression that the game was designed to convey the idea that Ryan and Fontaine were right, that he should have chosen killing.

The other alternative is to arrange gameplay in such a way that “rational self-interest” no longer constitutes a reasonable standard for decision, and this is what the choice looks like. The point is not to give the player a way to reject the philosophy in the decision, but rather to draw his attention to the fact that this was such a large part of his decision-making all along. Rational self-interest cannot tell us what to do with the little sisters because both options fit this mindset. Thus, the arbiter of judgment is your conscience, as it is in real life. The fact that costs and benefits of the options you can take with the little sisters don’t conform to our expectations about “moral choice” in a game invites us to examine the values that inform those expectations, and the ways in which games express or exploit them.

Games have implicit values — do as you’re told, take what you will — that we might disagree with were we forced to acknowledge them explicitly. Because these values are both hidden and integral, it is difficult to force the player to confront them without a shock or a feeling of confusion. The dissonance in the rescue / harvest choice may be intended to inspire the latter. If so, then both the confrontation with Ryan and the choice for the little sisters are commentaries on the nature of video games. Despite the ever-increasing promises of freedom, games have always played you the same way Fontaine played Jack. And regardless of how you feel about Ryan and Fontaine, you have always played games as if you were them. BioShock elaborately displays the callousness and evil of these men, and through them, you. How do you feel about that?

  One Response to “You can’t put a price on your soul”

  1. Nicely written.

    I'll admit, my training with JRPGs leaves me with a distinct habit that I carry into any new ones: I search everything and take anything not nailed down (often the search action has no transition into taking; you just grab stuff you find with no choice to put it back down).

    There are no consequences for this (except, perhaps, the sort of choice that you see in FFVI, where the item in a chest changes depending on when you claim it), and indeed, it's often necessary to progress. There is no "you open the chest and see X, to you take it?" prompt to make people wonder if there's a reason not to.

    Every once in a while, an NPC will challenge you and stand in sentry over a chest, but almost inevitably, they conveniently disappear or are swayed to your cause, allowing access to the treasure. Even so, this is more a function of story progress than any sense that the NPC has been swayed by your murderous, plundering ways.

    Perhaps it's all a function of the notion that most games are about killing "monster pinatas" for their loot (body parts, coin of the realm or inexplicable weapons or armor), with the heroes only making progress because they kill stuff, and that progress almost entirely geared to be able to kill stuff more efficiently. The classic DIKU flavored power fantasy, in other words.

    Games really can be more than that… but will the players buy in?

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