I mentioned earlier that Videogames include values, and that these values can be discovered by interacting with the game interpreting it. Additionally, this activity of interpretation depends on each individual’s conditions and his/her psychosocial status — in other words, the mental state and the social context.
On this occasion, I want to take the case of a very emblematic game within the industry, and analyze it with Paula Sibilia’s proposal in her book The Postorganic Man (El Hombre Postorgánico).
For those who haven’t played Bioshock, let me warn you that in this article you will find many Spoilers. If you keep reading, they do it at your own risk and you won’t be able to tell me that I didn’t warn you. The best thing you can do is close this window and get the game as soon as possible; you will not regret playing this marvelous gem.
Welcome to Bioshock
Bioshock, developed by Irrational Games and created by Ken Levine, welcomes us to its plot with a plane crash and an extremely powerful sentence: “No Gods or Kings. Only man”.
Thus, we arrive at the mysterious and intriguing city of Rapture, an underwater city that could also be analyzed as an analogy of Atlantis. Let’s put a pin on this to get back to it later.
Rapture is the Mecca of development and technology, a place where morality and ethics don’t limit the creativity or ingenuity of researchers, inventors and artists. However, this same characteristic has led the city to its own ruin, engulfed in an internal civil war that’s clearly a battle of Power.
And in the middle of that war, we have the substance known as ADAM, which is used to reconfigure the DNA of its users and grant them superhuman abilities. The city is full of so-called Splicers, citizens consumed by ADAM and the addiction it generates.
This is, generally speaking, the context in which the game is developed. It’s the ADAM and its ability to rewrite the human genetic code that interests us now to apply Paula Sibilia’s proposals.
The Faustian Man
When we were trying to deepen the possibility of analyzing Videogames as signs or discourses from a Semiotic point of view, my Thesis director, Sebastian, suggested us to read Paula Sibilia and her concept of the Faustian Man.
And it turned out crucial to our analysis. The postorganic man, the Faustian man, is inspired by Faust, a mythological character that expresses “the combination of fascination and terror caused by the possibilities of technology and knowledge”. The need to overcome his own limits leads him to sign a pact with the Devil.
Applied to Bioshock, the domino unfolds on its own. Sibilia tells us that industrial and modern societies have developed numerous devices designed to “shape the bodies” and the subjectivities of citizens.
In Bioshock, this tendency to shape the bodies that the author talks about is clearly reflected in the Splicers and the various characters of the game, in a grotesque and literal way. The ADAM stands as the flag carrier of the Rapture citizens’ body modifications, deforming them, twisting them, breaking their bodies and minds.
The development of ADAM can be compared with what Sibilia proposes as “biopower technologies”, that is, a power that aims to shape and manage life itself.
The faustian need for progress, development and latent evolution in Rapture isn’t fortuitous. Bioshock’s argument, set in the 1960’s, is contemporary with the boom caused by the discovery of DNA in 1953. After this discovery, the human body began to be thought of as a set of coded information. In our videogame, that information is not only deciphered, but edited and manipulated.
One of Bioshock’s gameplay main elements are Vita-Chambers, technological devices whose purpose is to bring players back to life when they are killed in combat
How these machines work is also linked to DNA. Vita-Chambers are linked to the genetic code of Andrew Ryan, one of the game main antagonists and founder of Rapture. Their function is to avoid the death of Ryan, but they would also prevent someone with a similar genetic code from losing their lives. And, as it’s subtly revealed in the plot of the game, the protagonist turns out to be the illegitimate son of Ryan, Jack.
I wanted to discuss Vita-Chambers because we can see in these devices one of the key issues of the postorganic man: immortality. In her work, Sibilia tells us that Faustian knowledge seeks to control all aspects of life, and thus overcome all its biological limitations, including mortality.
It’s extremely curious that an element introduced in Bioshock to facilitate the gameplay is presented as a fundamental characteristic of the postorganic.
No Gods or Kings. Only Man
During Bioshock’s plot, we witness the rise to power of two fundamental characters: Frank Fontaine and the avatar we incarnate, who happens to be Jack Ryan, the son of Andrew Ryan, central antagonist of the game.
Both Fontaine and Jack become postorganic men; the first does so abruptly at the end of the plot; the second, gradually, little by little during the course of history.
However, both characters embody two antagonistic aspects of the game. Fontaine is initially presented as “Atlas”, name of a Titan God of Greek mythology. Despite being a pseudonym that he uses to deceive others, we can see that his body resembles that of a colossal God when he introduces large amounts of ADAM into his system. Literally and figuratively, Fontaine becomes Atlas himself.
And, nevertheless, he falls before the protagonist of the game, Jack Ryan, who has been able to control his genetic recodification thanks to a gradual process. A true transformation into a postorganic man.
This final combat, in which our avatar defeats Frank Fontaine/Atlas, is a metaphor for the initial phrase of the game: No Gods or Kings. Only Man.
It’s no coincidence that Bioshock presents itself as such a deep work of art, that goes beyond the narrative limits of a videogame. Its creator, Ken Levine, is a screenwriter and an awarded writer, who has admitted to include metaphysical, sociological and philosophical elements in his games.
Part of Bioshock’s inspiration comes from the book “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand -in fact, we can see an obvious relationship between the author’s name with Andrew Ryan.
The analysis we made around this videogame is clearly limited. If we wanted to delve and dig deeper, we would find countless references to other narratives and many more philosophical concepts.
The phrase “No Gods or Kings. Only Man” also makes us think of Nietzsche, with his superman and the death of God.
The Power games between the different factions of Rapture could also be analyzed from Foucault’s statements.
Psychology is present in Bioshock through the strong operative conditioning presented by the protagonist, Jack Ryan, which is manipulated by Fontaine through the phrase “Would you kindly?”.
The mythological references of the game don’t end either in the character of Atlas. The similarity of Rapture with Atlantis is evident, and the ADAM and EVE substances make direct reference to the biblical creation of humanity, as a metaphor for a postorganic re-creation.
It’s precisely the presence of other signs in this work that allows us to analyze it from Semiotics. It only remains that each one of you, with your own interpretation conditions, interact with the game to discover which values and references are intermingled in its code.