BioShock will be Ken Levine’s magnum opus. It will be his career defining game. It’s ambitious, unusual and aggressive, mixing the high polish expected of a “next generation” shooter, with equal parts storytelling, politics, and philosophy, all wrapped up in a bloody, underwater, 1940’s bow.
The most prominent character in BioShock — Andrew Ryan, Rapture’s founder — is an embodiment of a self-centered, free-will political ideology called Objectivism. Objectivism is the brainchild of 1960s author Ayn (rhymes with mine) Rand. She defined it thus: “Man as a Heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity and reason his only absolute.” Put more simply, an Objectivist says “the world is what it is, my place in it is important, the only way to know anything is to use your own head, and the best political system is one that leaves me the hell alone. “Andrew Ryan is Ayn Rand meets Howard Hughes,” explains Levine.
The initial plot of BioShock — the founding of this utopia — mirrors the plot (albeit through a glass darkly) of Rand’s 1960’s epic book “Atlas Shrugged.” In “Atlas Shrugged” the worlds elite — the “atlases” — stage a minor rebellion and remove themselves to a better place: a valley where they can be free of the eye and hand of the world’s governments and those who would leech off their talents. While the rhetoric of Rapture’s founder, Andrew Ryan (an anagram of Ayn Rand with an extra “rew” thrown in for obfuscation) sounds like a Randian polemic, his nemesis is ambiguously named “Atlas.” To figure out which one is really the good guy or the bad guy, we’ll all have to play the game.
BioShock’s story — for those who wish to stop blowing things up to delve into it — is about translating this Objectivist ideology into the real world. “One of the things that’s very appealing about Rand to me, and about Rapture, is at least in the beginning they’re driven by reason.” Indeed, this is what attracts most people to Objectivism: it’s based on rationality above all else. By both highlighting and skewering Objectivism, Levine’s on the warpath against zealots. “I’m trying to write about what happens when real people try to do things,” he explains. “The characters in Ayn Rand’s books are paragons.” But paragons aren’t real people, and Levine has written his characters to be as real as possible. They may be drawn in broad strokes, but they’re human. “Real people aren’t perfect. That’s the problem with ideologies. Real people carry out ideologies. So even the best of intentions gets screwed up.”
To attempt to do this in a game — not a college art project, but an actual commercial blockbuster game — is phenomenally ambitious. “You don’t elevate the discussion by saying ‘listen to me!'” says Levine. “You get it by saying ‘look this is awesome, oh and by the way we’re also talking about being a human being. We’re also talking about power.'” —BioShock (Gamers with Jobs)