There is one moment in Bioshock that stands out as one of the most impressive in gaming history. Everyone who has played the game will be aware of the exact point I am referring to. After being guided through Rapture by a man going by the name of Atlas, you finally confront Andrew Ryan, creator of the underwater city. That’s when he make the revelation: your past is a lie, you have undergone a program of mental conditioning and will automatically obey anyone who uses the phrase “would you kindly” when making requests. Atlas has been using this phrase throughout. You haven’t been helping Atlas out of your own free will, you’ve been helping him because you can’t do anything else. Ryan then orders you to kill him and you have to watch helplessly as your character brutally carried this out.
The would-you-kindly moment is one of the most amazing plot twists around, and it’s a twist that could only have this effect in gaming since you have been in full control the whole time. Obviously in basic plot terms it is still a surprising twist. The character we assumed was an outsider has actually been unwittingly used as a pawn in Rapture’s power struggle. However, the biggest impact is in the fact that this moment is as much a comment on the nature of gaming as it is a story element. All through the game the player has been following instructions from Atlas (or as he really is, Fontaine) for no other reason than that’s what we’re used to in games. Some-one tells us to do something and we mindlessly do it. That’s what the game wants. We might as well be following the “would you kindly” command for what difference it would make. However much freedom the game may appear to give, if there’s a set story to tell then it’s all basically an illusion.
But Bioshock also doesn’t have a solution to the problem it has pointed out to us. Whether through careful design or lack of thought it’s hard to judge but the game continues with Dr. Tenenbaum removing your mental conditioning so you’re no longer being controlled. She then tells us we need to go after Fontaine and the only way to get to him is to disguise ourselves as a Big Daddy. So what happens? We cheerfully run off and start mutilating ourselves just to obey her. There are no mind controlling code words. We have just had the nature of gaming brought into question and already we are so pre-programmed with game conventions that we’re straight back to mindlessly following orders again in the most extreme way.
Bioshock was one of the games with the potential to change everything. In practice its impack has been more limited with games more likely to try to replicate its tone and style than to try to change gaming. Whether there is a solution to the issue of player freedom, or whether there even needs to be, is debatable. But if gaming is going to improve as an art form as well as an entertainment medium, these are the sorts of questions we need to think about. More philosophical games should become increasingly important. In the meantime, Bioshock at least gave us something to think about. And now I’m going to load up a game to obey some more orders.
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