“To build a city at the bottom of the sea…insanity! But where else could we be free from the clutching hands of the parasites? Where else could we build an economy that they would not try to control? A society that they would not try to destroy? It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea; it was impossible to build it anywhere else.” — Andrew Ryan
In December of 1971, libertarian futurist Werner Stiefel took a major step toward realizing a dream possessed of a grandiose daftness worthy of Cobra Commander: to establish a sovereign nation, a new libertarian utopia, by building his own landmass in international waters. Schemes like these are why I love nutjob libertarian dreamers. Unlike their republican and democrat counterparts, libertarians don’t usually find themselves with any real political power or popular talk shows. This means that the lunatic libertarian fringe has a lot more time to devote to crackpot sci-fi aspirations straight out of Omni magazine. While Nixon was busy stinking up the White House, those libertarians still riding the tail end of the hippie era were busy designing impractical alternative societies that probably consisted of orbiting space platforms maintained by dolphins in spacesuits with robot arm appendages. Hell, to this day, a huge number of libertarian freethinkers are obsessed with the idea of “seasteading” — getting off the rotten, over-governed mainlands and building new societies on or in the ocean. Unfortunately, almost all of these lofty visions of escape from the burdens of a bloated and corrupt political system end up being nothing more than awesome concept art or five dudes in rain slickers living on an old deep sea oil rig.
While Stiefle’s plan to drift to freedom on a man-made libertarian flotilla smacks of Music Man-esque scammery, what makes it (and other futurist dreams of the 1960s and ’70s) so endearing is that Stiefel wasn’t a flim-flam man. Or rather, he wasn’t just a flim-flam man. He was that very special brand of flim-flam man — the one who believes his own flim-flam. You might label that “delusional,” and it probably is, but I’ve always found that sort of crackpot insanity charming. Stiefel was nothing if not his own most devoted true believer, committed to an unfortunately and obviously doomed scheme that fascinated a motley crew of idealists, visionaries, loony eggheads, hippies, freaks, political radicals, and smirking smart-asses who recognized the madness around them but still chose to immerse themselves in it just for fun. Working out of an old motel he purchased and dubbed “Atlantis I,” Stiefel threw himself into the realization of “Operation Atlantis” with zeal. He founded a newsletter, to which he was the primary contributor, and published the first issue in September of 1968. He lined up multiple corporations that threw their support and endorsement behind Operation Atlantis — never mind that Stiefel himself had founded them all and seemed in every case to be the sole employee. He began recruiting believers, most of whom appreciated the cleanliness and low rent at Atlantis I, if not the overall dream itself. In November of that same year, he announced that the Atlantis Development Corporation was expanding beyond the confines of the motel, having also recently purchased a two-bedroom house that would allow a family to join the project. Conferences and town hall meetings were held, though most of them seemed to be overhyped gatherings of a couple dudes in a Chinese restaurant. They even did what all futurists in the late 1960s did: built a geodesic dome. Soon after, he published The Story of Operation Atlantis, a manifesto on the state of the United States and the need to establish a new society governed by reason, science, and of course, sound libertarian principles.
Although the objectivism espoused by sociopolitical philosopher and terrible writer Ayn Rand always seems to serve as the foundation for any talk of a futuristic, anarcho-libertarian society, the early recruits to the Operation Atlantis project also included adherents to the secretive philosophies of another libertarian thinker: Andrew Galambo. Much like other pay-for-revelation philosophies, Galambo’s ideals were closely guarded behind a veil of intellectual property copyrights and threats of lawsuits should you divulge them to anyone who hadn’t paid for the privilege. At times, the philosophy for which you paid seemed like a snake eating its own tail — you learned a lot about how ideas should be protected property, sort of like paying to sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for enlightenment, only to discover that the idea of having people pay to sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for enlightenment makes up a large part of the enlightenment. Eventually, philosophical differences between the Randians, the Galamboans, and the hippie futurists — who dug the idea of a free society dedicated to liberty and scientific advancement and general grooviness but had trouble reconciling themselves with the more vicious aspects of objectivism — would begin to undermine the entire endeavor.
Project Atlantis was originally envisioned as being close to the Florida coast (which, in true futurist fashion, they would travel back and forth from via hydrofoil), but Stiefel and his merry band of engineers and dreamers soon found such a set-up to be unobtainable. The U.S. government wasn’t too keen on a bunch of dope-smoking freaks starting their own country and then expecting to do their grocery shopping in Cocoa Beach all the time, and the Coast Guard was probably already pinching the collective bridge of their nose thinking about the inevitable rescue missions they’d have to run come hurricane season. Stiefel began shopping around for alternatives and was soon negotiating for the purchase of two uninhabited islands in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, the owner was unwilling to sell, though they would lease — an arrangement which would serve to undermine Atlantis’ status as an independent and sovereign nation. Plus, the deeds for the two islands were a maddening tangle of co-owners and bureaucracy, making the successful purchase of them — to say nothing of their use as a libertarian paradise — an increasingly remote prospect. Not one to be deterred, Stiefel started looking into alternative solutions, including the construction of a man-made floating platform. In the end, building their own land mass seemed like the best idea.
So it was that in December of 1971, Stiefel and his cabal launched Atlantis II, a ferro-cement boat that was to serve as the foundation for Atlantis III, the true fruition of Stiefel’s dream, his glorious libertarian alternative society presumably comprised of lots of geodesic domes. There were some foreboding snags during the maiden voyage of Atlantis II that should have raised serious doubts about the soundness of the engineering and construction that went into it — not to mention the wisdom of the people in charge. The boat was initially launched with what was some disregard for the fact that the Hudson River is a tidal river, meaning that shortly after leaving port, the thing was stranded by low tide. Once they actually managed to get the thing out of New York Harbor and start it down the coast, the propeller broke. Eventually, they got that fixed as well and continued on their merry way. Shortly after arriving at its permanent home in the Silver Shoals of the Caribbean Sea, a hurricane passed by and Atlantis II sunk. No one died in the accident, but that was pretty much it for Stiefel’s dream, though he persisted in efforts to revive it for several more years.
If only Stiefel has shared the vision of BioShock‘s captain of industry, Andrew Ryan, the sinking of Atlantis II may have been seen as the next step in the process rather than the final nail in the coffin. BioShock imagines a society built on very similar principles as those of Atlantis I, II, and III, but instead of geodesic domes floating on the surface of the ocean, Ryan’s libertarian utopia is a city at the bottom of the sea.
BioShock begins with you, Jack, enjoying a drink aboard a well-appointed plane when something goes terribly wrong, and the plane crashes in the ocean. The apparent only survivor, you cling to a piece of flotsam and have what at first appears to be the good fortune of washing up on some sort of island. It turns out, however, that the island is actually a mechanism by which one enters Rapture, an underwater city founded by industrialist Andrew Ryan (voiced by Armin Shimerman, best known for his role as Quark in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine but also, coincidentally, one of the actors in Atlas Shrugged, a low-budget trilogy based on a book by Objectivist thinker Ayn Rand), who imagined it to be a utopia where “the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small.” And for years, Rapture was just that and enjoyed a golden age of scientific and artistic advancement, culminating in the discovery of a genetic material called “Adam,” which when combined with another substance dubbed “Eve” allowed humans to take advantage of “plasmids” — substances that give the user incredible mental and physical powers.
Like most utopias, however, it didn’t last. Ryan’s anarcho-libertarian city built for and populated by great and ambitious thinkers who, in the tradition of objectivism, disdained “altruism” and dedicated themselves to higher, often more self-serving pursuits, didn’t factor in the unwillingness of its citizens to take on the grunt work required for a society to function — the sewer cleaners, the fishmongers, the construction workers. In the shadow of Ryan’s ambitious vision, the circumstances became ripe for a criminal underworld. In turn, Ryan became increasingly paranoid, and Ryan’s own belief that humans could overcome their baser instincts allowed the criminal underground to flourish. Scientists delved further and further into research that was becoming increasingly twisted, and in the rush to embrace the powers granted to them by the new science of gene splicing, the citizens of Rapture — the artists, the creators, the scientists, the great men and women — failed to fully grasp what it was doing to them. By the time you find yourself clamoring out of a bathysphere and into the city, Rapture has become a crumbling madhouse beleaguered by structural flaws, civil war, and insanity.
Most of this you have to figure out as you go. Andrew Ryan taunts you from time to time over a citywide intercom system, which he also uses to push snippets of his philosophy. At the same time, a man named Atlas urges you to venture further into the city to help his family escape the madness and violence that has consumed Rapture, doling out bits and pieces of the city’s history as you progress. Other characters emerge from time to time, the other main one being scientist Brigid Tenenbaum (voiced by Anne Bobby from Nightbreed), who discovered Adam only to see her breakthrough used to create monsters. There are also audio logs scattered throughout the game that provide you disjointed bits and pieces of the back story. As fate often does in these sorts of stories, it reveals that you yourself have more of a connection to Rapture than you remember.
BioShock is Atlas Shrugged meets The Great Gatsby meets, well, whatever work of fiction features a mysterious man drifting through an art deco retro-future using weapons and powerful genetic enhancements to fight your way through a deluge of batshit insane dilettantes and grunting guardians in old deep sea dive suits. I think that was more or less the plot of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. More or less. Design-wise, it’s a sumptuous combination of styles: the art deco of the late 1920s, the futurist technology of 1950s science fiction, the brass filigree and clockwork constructs of steampunk, the filtered sort of retro-future that probably didn’t start with Blade Runner but certainly entered the pop culture zeitgeist through that film. You are still playing a first person shooter, where you walk through an assortment of levels and corridors, but the design team manages to give you something different than the norm. Absorbed in the game, it becomes pretty easy to believe in the technological possibility of Rapture, with its colorful neon signs, faded opulence, bathyspheres, and plastic tubes. Even completely nonsensical things — why the hell do the Big Daddies dress like Tarpon Springs sponge divers? — make perfect sense within the context of the game’s artistic design.
Character designs are suitably creepy. Most of those who remain alive in Rapture have become “splicers” — people who have abused the gene enhancing techniques to the point that they have become drug addict psychos. They stalk the leaking halls and ruined ballrooms still clad in the tattered remains of their masquerade party finery, clinging perhaps to some vestige of themselves and Rapture before everything went to hell. There is perhaps a little too much repetition in the appearance of your sundry assailants — how many crazy doctors and flappers in green dresses does this city contain? — but if they had to skimp on designing a city full of unique looking inhabitants in order to realize the city itself in such breath-taking glory, well then, I’m fine with that. I’m mostly just shooting them with bees anyway.
BioShock’s music is a combination of “old time” American pop standards — think Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, The Ink Spots, and most thematically important, Bobby Darin — and a creepy score composed by Garry Schyman. As of this game, the Ink Spots became the official vocal group of the retro-futurist style. They started their future career in, fittingly, Blade Runner. Video games embraced them with the Fallout series, which made fantastic use of the band’s “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” crackling in and out of tune as the game reveals a burnt-out post-apocalyptic wasteland. The Ink Spots continue to make their presence known in BioShock, which features both “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “If I Didn’t Care.” What is it that makes the Ink Spots the go-to group for stories set in this sort of “old future?” I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that they sound exactly like what people think of when they think of “old timey” music. There couldn’t be a more pitch perfect example. Plus, despite their popularity for such projects, they are still somewhat obscure to modern audiences, unlike say, Billie Holiday. Finally, although the songs are on the surface just simple little ditties about broken hearts and romance, there’s also something sinister in some of the lyrics — or maybe it’s just fortunate word choice that allows the songs to perfectly match the mood of dystopias and cyberpunk futures.
The Ink Spots are the de facto sound of the retro future, but the official pop standard of BioShock is definitely “Beyond the Sea,” which is presented in the game in both the familiar Bobby Darin version (well, familiar to people like me) and a much spookier sounding instrumental version from famed classical guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, who together founded Quintette du Hot Club de France. Their version of “La Mer” might be the most perfect song in all of BioShock, which is saying a lot, because this assembly of music is far more than just a bunch of old songs thrown together. Like Schymann’s score, the old songs are used to evoke very specific emotions and moods. There’s great care placed in the selection and placement of each tune.
Morality — or at least philosophy, if you consider them to be all that separate — is central to the story of BioShock, steeped as it is in the concepts of libertarianism, objectivism, and human nature; in the conflicts and cooperation between art, science, economics, religion, and bureaucracy. The pursuit of the perfection needed to build a perfect society requires us to sacrifice much, and if you have to chop out a part of your brain to conform to the perfect society — well, that hardly sounds like a perfect society. Your attackers aren’t exactly villains. Some are crazy, all are prone to violence, but mixed in with shrieks and madhouse chattering are very lucid comments. Some implore you to leave them alone, even as they uncontrollable lunge out at you. Others seem genuinely to want to die, to escape either what they’ve done to themselves with science or escape Rapture, the utopia that has become a prison. Most problematic of all are the Little Sisters and their dive suit-clad protectors, the Big Daddies (or “Mr. Bubbles,” as the girls refer to them). These little girls are pretty spooky — barefoot, clad in ragamuffin dresses, and with lifeless glowing eyes, they prowl the dank, ruined halls of Rapture in search of corpses they can drain of precious Adam. accompanying them are the hulking Big Daddies, sinister behemoths clad in old style deep sea diving suits. Like the rest of the history in the game, the origins and purpose of the Little Sisters is revealed in fragmented, non-chronological order as you pick up scattered personal logs and interact with Dr. Tanenbaum.
The nature of the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies makes them the most morally challenging opponents in the game — what do you do with them? BioShock doesn’t really delve too deeply into the concept of the “morality meter,” something that would become integral to the gameplay of titles like Mass Effect and Fallout 3. But what you do with the Little Sisters does affect the eventual outcome of the game. For me, the decision was pretty easy when it came to the little girls: you can either save them and gain a little power, or “harvest” them and gain a lot. What got me was how bad I felt for the lumbering Big Daddies, creatures whose sole purpose is to protect the Little Sisters. Compared to the other citizens of Rapture, the Big Daddies aren’t all that villainous (in fact, assorted Rapture crazies will attack or be attacked by Big Daddies throughout the game). From time to time, you encounter a Big Daddy without a Little Sister, and you can follow them as they walk to a Little Sister “hidey hole” and bang on it. If you’ve already saved or harvested all the kids on that level, no one emerges, and the Big Daddies react with an almost poignant confusion. When you encounter a Big Daddy accompanying a Little Sister, however, you really don’t have any choice but to take on these hulking leviathans, even if you don’t think they’re not deserving of being killed.
The ultimate failure of Rapture is almost heart-breaking. Andrew Ryan is a noble thinker, and indeed there is much about the society he builds that is admirable. But it’s not sustainable. It can’t cope with the realities of human nature. Instead, Ryan sticks to the Randian “deny, deny, deny” but how often does that work? No compassion, a demonization of altruism — no concept of noblesse oblige. Ryan watches corruption seep into his perfect society, which increases his reactionary paranoia, which makes room for more corruption… so on and so forth. In the end, Ryan’s solution is an extreme that, like most extremes, could almost pass as reasonable if you only look at the tiny little steps and betrayals that lead to it. But as a latecomer to a ruined Rapture, we the game players weren’t soothed by the incremental approach to madness; all we see is the horrific final outcome of Ryan desperately trying to defend his ideals by betraying every one of them. Now that’s not something modern America could relate to at all, is it?
That’s what undermines Rapture in the end and leads to civil war and in-fighting (the same ideological splits weakened Project Atlantis). It turns out that if you gather together a bunch of brilliant, ambitious people, and seal yourselves off from all the mundane “little” people, then some basic shit tends not to get done. Things start to fall apart if you don’t have someone willing to clean the toilets, patch a crack in your sea-dome, and take care of other vocations. Atlas can shrug all he wants, but if your great society of incredible minds forgets the value of Dirty Jobs, well, then you give rise to civil unrest. Just see how irritable people get of the sanitation department doesn’t come and pick up the trash. Eventually a man like the game’s Fontaine is going to emerge, a man whose ambition makes it easy for him to reconcile his morals with smuggling and extortion, and whose willingness to get his hands dirty with the menial jobs means he ends up as much in control of Rapture as Andrew Ryan — the classic “Who run Bartertown?” dilemma. Inevitably, in the end, it must all come crashing down. But at least it falls to an excellent soundtrack