BioShock 2 — “A Pack, not a Herd”

24 02 2010

Bookmark and Share

Spoiler Warning: If you have not played BioShock or BioShock 2, this article contains spoilers. Big ones. I’m serious.

BioShock was far more than just a first-person shooter. It was a story told in architecture and voice-overs and character animation. BioShock’s underwater world of Rapture was actually a grand tour through the ruins of one man’s dream. Andrew Ryan was a man who believed — as most Objectivists do — that he had truly understood human nature, and he built a perfect society based on the principles of individualism, capitalism and the ultimate freedom, the ability to carve a life out of the wilderness and rise as far and as fast as your skills and abilities will take you. The tragedy of Rapture was the ultimate flaw in the Objectivist worldview – that human beings are not and can never truly be free because we can never be alone. We are social beings. We are fitted by the millions of years of evolution that shapes our nature to be pack animals, not solitary hunters. We are not cheetahs.

The tragedy of the splicers and Rapture itself is not that ADAM (the gene-modifying substance that gave everyone in Rapture amazing powers) caused the downfall of society, but that it merely accelerated the inevitable destruction of Ryan’s dream. ADAM and the powers it gave were, ironically enough, the ultimate fulfillment of Ryan’s philosophy. It gave everyone the opportunity to evolve in whatever direction they chose and the power to carve out a niche for themselves in the world and defend it against all comers. The end result of the Objectivist dream society resembles the Wild West – an anarchy where those who have the biggest guns rule and those too weak to defend themselves prove their moral unfitness by their failures. In Ryan’s world, there is no greater vice than altruism.

BioShock 2 takes the ultimate story point of BioShock and flips it on its head. It places you in the clunking boots of a Big Daddy and has you hunting through the still crumbling ruins of Rapture some eight years after the events of the first game for your “Little Sister.” Your foe this time around is Doctor Sophia Lamb. Lamb was a clinical psychiatrist brought to Rapture by Andrew Ryan to combat widespread depression and dissatisfaction in Rapture. The problem for Ryan was that Rapture’s philosophy was diametrically opposed to her own. Lamb is a collectivist. More than that, she’s a “communist” in the truest sense of the word. She views humanity not as a series of discrete individuals but as an extended family, a commune of essentially interchangeable parts where individualism is not only frowned upon, it’s a crime against group solidarity. Love is the universal possession of all humanity and to love one more than another is a tear in the fabric of society.

In BioShock 2, the player must battle against the Rapture Family, a collectivist society molded by Lamb to be the very model of a socialist future. Throughout the game, one is exposed through voice diaries to the tenets of Lamb’s philosophy and it’s here that BioShock 2 has its greatest success. I’ve rarely come across a more devastating critique of socialism than Sophia Lamb. This is a woman who understands the inherent contradiction at the heart of the socialist enterprise – that it’s not a society that can ever be realistically created by human beings. The fact is that for a socialist society to work, one must have a race of beings that are utterly selfless. You need people that can work for the good of all without a thought to their own benefit. You need people without individual attachments or families or loyalties to anything beyond the collective body politic. In short, you need a herd. The thing is, just as humans aren’t cheetahs, neither are we cows.

The solution that Lamb comes up with is far more monstrous than anything that Andrew Ryan ever did. Since humanity as it’s presently constituted is incapable of creating a truly socialist paradise, she will create a new breed of humanity that is capable of living there. She will turn her own daughter Eleanor into the mother of a new human race where everyone’s memory lives in everyone, where individualism as we know it has simply been bred out of the breed.

As Lamb herself says “Utopia will arrive when the first Utopians come to claim it.” Anyone familiar with the socialist ideal of the “New Man” knows the kind of horror that leads to – the socialist Utopia can only be built on a foundation mortared with the bones of non-Utopians. The existence of even one ‘counter-revolutionary” puts the entire socialist enterprise at risk. Lamb herself points this out to the player, cursing Subject Delta because his psychic connection to Eleanor Lamb has “infected” her with individualism, causing her to act in defiance of the Family’s wishes – the social imperatives first laid down by Sophia and hardwired into every member of the Family.

Comparing Jack Ryan and Subject Delta, the protagonists of BioShock and BioShock 2 makes for an interest study in contrasts. The first game had the player playing as a man who believes himself to be free only to find his mental conditioning has chained him in the worst sort of slavery imaginable. The second game has the player playing as a Big Daddy, a person so twisted and warped that all semblance of individuality and free will is supposed to have been eliminated. And in fact, it’s pointed out throughout the game that the reason you’re traveling to find Eleanor is that you literally cannot help it. You’ll die without her. Yet within your slavery lie the seeds of freedom.

The choice to kill or save the Little Sisters is the only truly free choice you have – in both games. The ultimate result in both cases is the same – you’ll pretty much be able to “win.” Therefore with no external consequences, only the dictates of your conscience can guide you. As they say, morality is how you behave when you think no one is watching. We may be a slave to circumstances but our reactions to circumstances can set us free, even at the cost of our own lives.

The odysseys of Jack Ryan and Subject Delta are great examples of the contradictions of the human animal. We are not cheetahs. We are not cows. We are wolves. We are pack animals playing a perpetual game of King of the Mountain. Just as a human alone is not a human, neither is a being without self-interest. Our entire history is a constant struggle between the pull of society and the struggle for a freedom we can never truly attain. Our nightmare is that we’re smart enough to understand this yet stupid enough to try and change it.

If there’s one lesson to take away from both BioShock games it’s this: beware Utopians. Lamb herself points out during the game that the word “Utopia” comes from the Greek for “no place.” Our current social turmoil is just a repeat of an age-old struggle between social controllers and the price of freedom – the realization that granting any amount of freedom to a society means that someone’s going to use it in ways we don’t like, often in ways that hurt other people.

I’ve raised my flag with those willing to pay that price often enough, but merely believing in maximizing human freedom as much as possible doesn’t make me an anarchist. I acknowledge that I am a social being. I am a member of the pack and I owe some sort of duty to the social body. The fact that Lamb and socialists like her are subscribers to a monstrous theory doesn’t make Andrew Ryan right. Like most of us, I’m stuck in the middle – far closer to Ryan than Lamb but forever trying to strike a balance between the two that can never be found.

Bookmark and Share





Angry Bear 16 is Up! The Most Important Twitter Conversation Ever…

10 09 2009

I love me some Soren Johnson. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, he’s the brilliant mind behind much of the gaming goodness that was Civilization III and Civilization IV. As such, whenever he speaks at a conference or updates his personal blog, he’s always worth listening to. What I wasn’t expecting was Johnson’s July 16th entry (called “So this is what Twitter is for…”) regarding a fascinating Twitter exchange he had with some of the leading lights in game design regarding the relative importance of narrative versus actual gameplay.

According to Johnson, the conversation began in response to a somewhat controversial talk given by Too Human designer Denis Dyack at the Design 2009 conference. Johnson Tweeted to Dyack after the talk and was This was responded to by Harvey Smith. Then Clint Hocking Rob Fermier. Brenda Brathwaite and a host of other leading game designers that included Ian Bogost, David Jaffe, Damion Schubert and even John Romero started a long, complex conversation about the boundaries and importance of gameplay vs. narrative. It went on for a while.

(This week’s Angry Bear is my take on Dyack’s talk and the conversation that followed. At the risk of stepping on the toes of all these game designers whose work I’ve long admired, I’m going to say that while I understand where Denis is coming from, he’s drawn absolutely the wrong conclusion from his study. I’m hoping for some heated conversations this week.)
 
Check out the rest of the new column here!

And while you’re here, why not check out the rest of the Angry Bear Columns under the tab at the top of the page?

transformers2007vv6

Bookmark and Share





Is it Right to Boycott? Peter David Responds to “The Turn of an Unfriendly Card”

9 09 2009

One of the great things about living in the Internet age is sometimes the little bit of attention you garner for your work can draw in the very people you’re discussing to put in their two cents. That’s what happened with my Angry Bear article “Turn of an Unfriendly Card (Read the original article here.) In the comments I came across a response by none other than Peter David himself who has a decidedly different take on the whole issue. Here’s what he wrote:

I think you make a lot of valid points in your very balanced and well-reasoned view of the situation (and thanks for the shout out on my work on X-Factor.)

The one place where we diverge, I suppose, is whether boycotts are a free speech issue. I feel they most definitely are, because the endgame (as you put it) is ultimately to restrict free speech. They are designed to put people who have voiced unpopular ideas out of business, and they are designed to make sure that anyone who possesses unpopular ideas think twice or three times about saying anything for fear of facing economic sanctions and potential loss of livelihood. The underlying strength of a free society is, “I disagree with what you have to say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” not, “I disagree with what you have to say, and will do everything in my power to punish you for saying it.”

Should free speech mean freedom from consequences? Well, no. But the answer to free speech is always more free speech, and that should be the only consequence of speaking your mind. Boycotts are not free speech, no matter how much the practitioners of them claim that they are. Boycotts–particularly as utilized by those who take issue with opinions that are in opposition to theirs–are attempts to bludgeon someone into submission economically.

It’s not that people are offended because, for instance, the CEO of Whole Foods has opinions they don’t like. They’re offended because they KNOW his opinions, and the reason they know them is because he availed himself of free speech in a free society. So they’ll boycott Whole Foods and shop at Pathmark or Shop & Stop, and for all they know the CEO of the former is opposed to gay marriage and the CEO of the latter thinks that abortion should be criminalized. So unless they’re performing due diligence to check and see the corporate record of every store they’re frequenting, I’m forced to conclude that this is entirely about free speech, because it’s the use of free speech that’s getting people in trouble and it’s the intolerance of free speech that’s causing the boycotts.

I suppose what it comes down to is this: Protecting popular ideas is easy. Unpopular ideas are the ones that need the most protecting, if for no other reason than that many of the ideas we accept today as truth or even simple common sense, began their existence as unpopular ideas. The Church boycotted Galileo because he opined that the Earth moved around the sun; is that really the lead we want to follow?

PAD

As much as I respect Mr. David, I’m afraid this is an issue where he and I are going to have to disagree. I told him so in an e-mailed reply:

“Boycotts aren’t free speech. What they ARE are other elements of freedom that are just as important — freedom of association, freedom of commerce and freedom of conscience. Note that none of those things necessarily make boycotts moral or ethical to use but by your argument I give up some freedoms (association, commerce, conscience) to protect the freedom of speech of a man I disagree with.

1xfv1

I’d have to reject that. I don’t believe my choice to buy or not buy a game prevents Card from saying what he will. If he chooses to modify his speech in the face of such things, that too is the free market in action and it works for both the right and the left. I have the right to, for example, choose to purchase my groceries only at markets owned by Caucasians or refuse to buy a game created by a designer who has donated to the Republican party (bye bye Sims!) and I should bear the full moral burden of exercising those rights (including the disapproval and possible boycott of those who disapproved of my actions). In doing so though, I don’t believe anyone else’s rights are endangered. These interactions are how societies get ordered in the first place.”

Peter responded again with the following:

I don’t think boycotts are free speech either. We don’t disagree on that point. What I was pointing out was that people who believe in boycotts contend that they ARE a form of free speech, of free expression, equal to and on par with voicing one’s opinion through the media or on line or wherever. And that if someone says something or puts forward an opinion that they find disagreeable, then it is an equal and appropriate response to declare that they are going to cease supporting that individual’s work and, even better, try to get as many people as possible to follow suit.

Except it’s not. Boycotts are not free speech (as you yourself say). They are a punitive measure designed specifically to get someone else to shut up, or to destroy their income in retaliation. Does the act of buying or not buying a game prevent Card from saying what he will? No. But it is an ATTEMPT to STOP him from saying what he will. It is an attempt to punish him for doing so. What else is punishment except trying to ensure that the target of the punishment ceases the behavior that the person inflicting the punishment finds disagreeable?

To say, “I have the right” to shop wherever you wish is utterly beside the point. I’m not contending that you don’t have the right. But just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean that you SHOULD do something. If you truly believe in a free market society, then where you shop should not be determined (to use your example) by the color of the shop owner’s skin. It should be determined by who has the best product for the best price. Everything else is beside the point unless you choose to make it the point.

Boycotts that are started up purely to shut people up have a chilling effect in a society that is supposed to value the free exchange of ideas. There’s a superb book on the subject by Nat Hentoff: “Freedom of Speech for Me, But Not For Thee.” It’s about the lengthy history of the right and the left to shut each other up.

I didn’t want to respond directly to Peter (though he is, of course welcome to elaborate further and I’ll be happy to print it) because I think we’ve each outlined where our disagreements are and while we’re actually not that far apart, they come right to the crux of the morality of using boycotts. Put in simple terms, each of us agrees that boycotts are a private act and as such, shouldn’t be subject to some sort of government interference. Each of us as individuals have the “right” to boycott. The question is — and this is what I was wrestling with in the article — is it “right” to boycott? Is it morally and ethically correct and if so, what are the rules for doing so? These are the questions we as a society are not answering, although Peter’s already given his. He says “no, boycotts aren’t moral.” I envy him that level of clarity because I haven’t found my answer yet.

In a larger sense, we’re throwing economic clubs and brickbats at each other and we don’t seem to be concerned with where they’re landing. It’s really easy to envision a future where every corporation and small business has to have a position paper on every controversial issue in the public domain in order to do business at all. That is after all, what the “Buy Blue” campaign was all about and is what powers sites like Buy Blue USA (no commercial endorsement implied in that link). I don’t think I like that very much and I’m a little frightened about whether we can get off the ugly road we seem to be on.

On a lighter note, if you’re interested in Mr. David’s work, why not check out his blog? I’m also adding it to my blogroll at the right.

Bookmark and Share





Tune in to the Lars Larson radio show…

5 09 2009

I’m going to be on the Lars Larson radio show tonight at about 5:30 PM Pacific time talking about the first in my Politics of Schoolhouse Rock series. Check it out and keep an eye out for the next one in this series along with this week’s Angry Bear!

Bookmark and Share





Instalanche!

31 08 2009

Woohoo! My first personal Instalanche! Thanks, Glenn!

If you’re new here, you might want to check out all the Angry Bear Columns as well as the first part of my series on the politics of Schoolhouse Rock.

And while this may seem a bit crass, I am a freelance wordsmith looking for new gigs, so why not click on my





The Turn of an Unfriendly Card

30 08 2009

Should my purchase of Shadow Complex turn on what I think of Orson Scott Card’s politics?

“Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” — Natalie Maines, The Dixie Chicks

“While we clearly need health-care reform, the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system.– John Mackey, “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare”

“However emotionally bonded a pair of homosexual lovers may feel themselves to be, what they are doing is not marriage. Nor does society benefit in any way from treating it as if it were.” — Orson Scott Card, “Homosexual “Marriage” and Civilization”

I never really thought much about Orson Scott Card’s politics. Why should I? Card was the guy who wrote Ender’s Game, a science fiction classic with special relevance to gamers by the nature of its plotline (a genius child is run through a series of games to prepare him to become a military leader fighting off an alien invasion). I mean, I knew he was a devout Mormon — his five book Homecoming Saga was a deliberate sci-fi analogue of the Book of Mormon and it’s not too difficult to discern the Mormon strains in his Tales of Alvin Maker series — but I was OK with that. I loved the Alvin series and never got past the first book in the Homecoming series because I found it boring. In each case I made the decision based on whether Card’s writing entertained me, not on his status as a Mormon. Why should that matter?…

(My first independent Angry Bear column is all about Shadow Complex, Whole Foods and the morality and utility of boycotts. It’s really great to be writing these again — hopefully you agree with that sentiment even if you don’t agree with the point of view.)
 
Check out the rest of the new column here! 

And while you’re here, why not check out the rest of the Angry Bear Columns under the tab at the top of the page?

e3-2009-shadow-complex-first-look-20090528044049172

Bookmark and Share





What’s that snarling sound?

22 08 2009

After a somewhat lengthy hiatus, I have managed to transfer over all 14 of the original “Angry Bear” columns from GameSpy here. If you’ve never read my original Angry Bear column, here’s a chance to catch up on what you missed. The good news is that I’m not just transferring these over to glory in my time at GameSpy. I loved writing the Angry Bear. It was a chance for me to opine on the gaming issues of the day and take a look at some of the deeper questions that game development brings up. So I’m happy to announce that I am bringing the Angry Bear back. I’m already working on my first independent column to be posted as soon as it’s complete and then every Friday thereafter. Hopefully people will like it enough that they’ll start sharing them with others and we can get a real conversation started.

In the mean, please feel free to click on the “Angry Bear” tab at the top of the page and look through the oriignal 14. You may want to start an argument there, too!

Bookmark and Share