The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet

I’m Andrew Ryan and I’m here to ask you a question

I finally went back to Bioshock and finished it.

I was playing it some time ago, but it pissed me off when I got to Arcadia — my goal was unclear, and I couldn’t figure out the damn map, and that just frustrated me, so I took a break. Yesterday I stopped taking a break and played through the rest of the game in one sitting. That’s how I roll, yo. So now I’d like to talk about some general Bioshock-related mishmash that doesn’t really belong in my proper review. It’s best to assume that this entire post is one big Bioshock spoiler, so don’t read it if you care about that.

As I believe I mentioned in the review, I don’t understand the submarine scene. I’ve even gone so far as to read a long-winded plot analysis written by some mincing leftist who was more keen to explain over and over again why objectivism is such a horrible idea than to discuss the fucking game, and I still don’t come away with any further insight. As presented, the submarine contains Atlas’ wife and son, and then Ryan has them killed, and this sets Atlas off and establishes the conditions for the confrontation with Ryan. Seems straightforward enough, but the snag, of course, is that Atlas doesn’t exist. He’s a character created by Frank Fontaine to push his own agenda, and he explains to you explicitly that his wife and son never existed. So, wait, who got killed in the submarine scene? And why did Ryan kill them? And what was Fontaine’s plan in the event that Ryan didn’t randomly kill them? The whole scene almost seems like an accidental hold-over from an earlier script where Atlas wasn’t the bad guy in disguise.

On the subject of Fontaine, here’s a brief list of industries he’s become a huge player in since his arrival in Rapture:

  • Genetic engineering
  • Biotechnology
  • Weapons development
  • Oxygen production
  • Real estate
  • Orphanages
  • Mind control
  • Eugenics
  • Fishing
  • Smuggling

So when exactly does this dude find the time to be a con artist? And what’s the fucking point? He can’t get rich enough by dominating ten different industries? Not only that, but you’d think anybody who could be that successful in all those different fields, plus be able to create, adopt, and sell this Atlas identity at need, plus be able to rally the people and organise a successful rebellion against Ryan, plus successfully present himself as the great saviour of Rapture without letting anybody realise that he’s trying to give that impression — well, a guy like that must have a little bit on the ball, yeah? And yet, when you finally meet Fontaine, he talks like a two-bit thug who can’t even construct a proper sentence anymore, and he does irrational stupid thug things. It makes no sense.

I’m told the developers intended Rapture to present the dystopic society that Objectivism leads to, but I’m not sure I believe that, since, if that was their intent, they clearly were aware that they failed. I’m not going to make any statements about the viability of Objectivism here, but I will note that what brought down Rapture clearly wasn’t any failure in the Objectivist ideal. What brought down Rapture was Andrew Ryan’s lack of faith in his own vision. There is, in fact, a diary in Hephaestus ("Anya Andersdotter – Assassin") in which that’s explained quite clearly. To quote: "I believed in this place. I believed in Ryan. But when it got hard, Ryan didn’t believe in Rapture, didn’t believe in the Great Chain. He believed in power." What we hear from Andrew Ryan is explanations of his high-minded vision, and rationalisations for why he’s compromising all of his ideals for the "greater good." He rules Rapture with an iron fist; there are government takeovers of private industry, public executions, prison camps, mind control. Curfews, limitations on public gatherings, and restrictions on travel. This is not anarcho-capitalism, as any damn fool can tell you. This is big government.

I don’t understand where Ryan got the people to come to Rapture from. Did he explain to them the idea of Objectivism? A lot of them appear to have been expecting some kind of managed economy and centrally-enforced equality. Rapture is filled with the kind of people who complain that Ryan is rich and they’re not, even while they sit around in the bar drinking all day when Ryan’s building cities and industries. Perhaps he should have made sure that only people who knew what they were getting involved in moved to Rapture, yes? As it stands, it kind of looks like he kidnapped a bunch of Massachusetts Democrats while they were sleeping; they woke up and, wait, my government handout booze money is gone? WHAT!

I get the game mechanic of hacking the vending machines to get lower prices, but it goes off the rails a bit when they try to integrate that into the world. So, wait, why on earth would thugs hack the vending machine to pay lower prices when they could, like, bust it open with a wrench and just take stuff?

One final note. The last level is this big bullshit escort mission where you have to walk a Little Sister through a long corridor and try to keep her from getting shot too much. But before you can do that, you have to dress up like a Big Daddy. The reason for all this is that the path Fontaine ran down has all these doors that can’t be opened except by a Little Sister, so you need to be a Big Daddy so they’ll follow you. Now, let’s ignore the fact that it would probably be easier to use some of your grenades to blow the doors up, or maybe set them on fire with your mind, since they’re only wood. I’d like to ask a different question. If that’s the way Fontaine went (and we know it is, since we see him run off and slam the door behind him), and if those doors can only be opened by Little Sisters… how did Fontaine open the doors?

December 19th, 2008 Posted by | Games | 2 comments


  1. I actually think Ryan’s fall — that he sacrificed his own ideals when things got tough — is a critique of Objectivism, at least as it applies to practice. I think the game is making a point that the sort of society Rand/Ryan envision isn’t one that can exist, because humans will seek to use coercion against other humans, that this must be checked by government, and that once established governments will be run by those who want power the most.

    Ryan is a man who is committed to his ideals, but ultimately allows his personal hatred for the kind of person Fontaine embodies affect his judgements, which leads to the crazy government takeover. Fontaine is supposed to represent the ugly side of capitalism — smart, industrious, hardworking, and completely without scruples. Ryan has scruples, fucked up as they are, and sacrifices them to try and destroy Fontaine because Fontaine represents the sort of thing Ryan hates. Fontaine has no interest in science or knowledge beyond making a buck, where Ryan clearly believes that commerce and industry should be about something higher.

    Ryan is actually one of the most interesting videogame villains I’ve ever seen. He’s inconsistent in the application of his principles, but that’s the point. All humans are. Somebody like Fontaine, who’s just a one-note villain, isn’t interesting at all to me.

    Also, with regard to where Ryan got the people for Rapture, it’s mentioned a few times that a real problem which Fontaine exploited was the underclass. Ryan got a bunch of intellectual Objectivist elites to come with him, but they also needed janitors and welders and stuff, so they paid a bunch of people who didn’t really buy into the system. Those people weren’t really equipped to make it in Ryan’s technocracy and thus quickly became disaffected and angry and eventually sided with Fontaine.

    All of this said, I think the fact that Bioshock raises all these kinds of questions and leads to this sort of discussion is its real achievement. It tells its story very well, and for much of the game it’s an interesting story. The gameplay is pretty blah after a while, but it’s passable for the most part, and coupled with the outstanding storytelling makes the game worth playing.

    Comment by Stephen | 19 December 2008

  2. I can see where you’re coming from, but I guess I just don’t agree (and didn’t make clear in the above) that Ryan only sacrificed his ideals when the shit really hit the fan. He never seemed that committed to them in the first place. Rapture, as you yourself mentioned to me, had a ban on religion from day one, which was what gave the smugglers the idealistic power they gained in the first place. How does that have anything to do with Objectivism? A government oligarchy telling people what to think appears to be the exact opposite of what a genuine anarcho-capitalist would believe in.

    That said, yeah, I realise Ryan is a bit contradictory, and I also realise that’s what makes him both someone we can identify with and someone we can find interesting. I agree with your entire last paragraph also; I just wish the Fontaine / Ryan relationship had been a bit more sophisticated. It seems almost like (irony alert!) the developers allowed their desire for a standard video game villain to overpower the more interesting dynamics of the good capitalist / bad capitalist interplay and Ryan’s eventual corruption.

    In short, I agree that Bioshock represents the bad shit that happens when an idealistic government becomes consumed with fighting against what it views as evil — look what’s happening with our own government, for that matter. I will confess that the diaries of Ryan’s where he talks about how such-and-such is abhorrent, but acceptable during the crisis (Arcadia: Andrew Ryan — Desperate Times: "Doctor Suchong, frankly, I’m shocked by your proposal. If we were to modify the structure of our commercial plasmid line as you propose, to have them make the user vulnerable to mental suggestion through pheromones, would we not be able to effectively control the actions of the citizens of Rapture? Free will is the cornerstone of this city. The thought of sacrificing it is abhorrent. However… we are indeed in a time of war. If Atlas and his bandits have their way, will they not turn us into slaves? And what will become of free will then? Desperate times call for desperate measures.") definitely hit a bit close to home. But still, how does that have anything to do with Objectivism? Andrew Ryan shouldn’t be setting himself up as DICTATOR 4 LIFE if he’s really as Objectivist as he claims. I’m just saying the seeds of big government were sown in Rapture long before Frank Fontaine arrived.

    It seems to me that Bill McDonagh really digs the Objectivism, though. Too bad Ryan didn’t listen to him.

    Comment by Darien | 20 December 2008

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