Bioshock 2: Libertarianism, Transhumanism and the Will to Believe

Spoilers galore ahead

1. I finished Bioshock 2 last night. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the opening – mind control makes you shoot yourself in the head 30 seconds into the game, then you resurrect 10 years later – the idea of Rapture (the city you explore) is one of the best premises I’ve come across in a long while.

Some background, familiar to those of you who’ve played the first Bioshock. Rapture is an underwater city created in the 50’s by ultra rich Ayn Rand fanatics who want to live entirely independent of government. They get their wish and for a little while things go smoothly to a degree. There’s all the capitalism one could want and some issues with class and indoctrination, but nothing fatal.

Then people find a sea slug that when mixed with their blood gives them super powers. The rich quickly become angels and demons of a sort and the poor are relegated to merely human status. The problems don’t just stem from the scarcity of superpower blood additive, as the more of the substance one has, the more powerful one can theoretically be. This leads to people pretty much eating each other. A former gangster, in the name of getting more additive for the people, finds a way to mass produce the stuff and stages a rebellion against the city’s founder. Things get bloody quickly and the whole city becomes an insanity-filled ruin. The substance isn’t perfect and deforms people over time. It certainly does not promise immortality just yet.

As a critique of libertarianism and Objectivism, Bioshock’s plot is powerful. I’m really amazed gamers can play this and not have doubts about some of the views popular in the gaming community. I remember attending libertarian events. There was always ranting about how bad government was and almost no thought about how low some individuals we knew were actually going. The assumption was once the evil government was removed, whatever is left is good. Bioshock just explodes that: power is real and people want it. Take away restraints and those who have advantages will abuse them for any number of reasons. When there’s no formal order, everyone can become more fearful and paranoid. For all its problems, law protects us from each other.

2. The setup of a fallen Rapture is not without nuance. Bioshock 2 presents the educational amusement park dominated by Rapture’s founder, Andrew Ryan. The voice of Ryan and several animatronic Ryans preach the evils of the surface to children in exhibit after exhibit. Government takes away from honest, hardworking farmers, stifles scientific progress, prevents artistic free expression. As you explore the area, Ryan Amusements, you encounter the audio diaries of several of the major characters. One of the gentlemen who wanted to create the park wanted a genuine amusement park, a place where children could have fun. His vision seems to have been completely appropriated. Ryan himself, though, expresses doubts about the mode of education involved. He concedes grudgingly that the approach of Ryan Amusements as a whole works. The larger tension of how freedom and education reconcile is driving the darker emotions on display. Aristotle does not think children or animals have rational choice. If Aristotle is even close to being right, the consequences for an immediately practicable political ideology are huge, and not just for the children being indoctrinated. The doctrine itself is in a way pretending that freedom is a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Bioshock 2 concerns Sofia Lamb, a psychiatrist with a literally cult following. Ryan and the former gangster are dead following the first game, and Rapture was a dystopia then. Now her cult “runs” what’s left of an already that much more wrecked Rapture, with drug addict super powered post-humans everywhere. She once accused Ryan of unleashing the egoism of everyone in the city. Given where one finds that accusation, it might be thought a comment on Ryan creating a cult of personality. Ryan saw her cult as a collectivist menace. Both run cults of personality but seem willing to accept that irony. Ryan thinks of what he’s achieved as liberty. A little egoism never hurt anyone, as long as they’re free.

With Lamb, the problem runs deeper. She sees self-awareness as pain and greed. Utopian individuals are possible, but they need to be completely disinterested. Her cult of personality is a stepping stone to a greater good. She’s using it to collect more of the superpower substance for her daughter. Her daughter will have near infinite mental resources and powers. She can be the first citizen of a true utopia. It’s weird: in game, Lamb comes off as shrill, menacing and insane. Writing out what she’s after – hey, if we get rid of self-interest, aren’t these superpowers usable? – makes her project look a lot more feasible and interesting. Give the superpowerful family ties and selflessness: that’s not just a perfect society, but an angelic realm, no?

3. Why this can’t work is tricky. The conventional narrative, given by the game: the rarity of the superpowered substance required a new race specifically devoted to having the sea slug in them, producing and storing the stuff in their bodies, collecting it from corpses lying around the city. This was the Little Sisters: genetically modified to have it pump through their veins and lacking any superpower besides regeneration, as well as mentally conditioned to see the world as roses no matter how bleak it is. “Little Sisters” are loyal to a fault to “Big Daddies,” behemoths designed to defend them to the death while they harvest/produce/store.

Lamb’s daughter for a complex set of reasons was turned into a Little Sister. This turned out to be a blessing for her mother’s plan, as it meant she could process a large amount of the substance without becoming deformed or insane. But it also meant that she became attached to a “Big Daddy” – you, the player in Bioshock 2 – and since she has some issues with Mom, is trying to get you to rescue her.

The larger issue is “What is family?” and Bioshock 2 doesn’t disappoint. You, as a Daddy, are almost entirely a construct of your own daughter. Lamb’s make-a-family project has a lot of validity to it – again, this is very hard to see while playing – and it looks like the daughter picked that much up from Mom. Your daughter resurrects you using the system set up to empower her. The choices you make as a player are prompts conditioned by the fact you have to attempt a rescue and, in it, learn her history.

It’s a very strange circumstance: a parent almost entirely created by a child, one who has to learn a child just to act himself. Even stranger is the outcome, where the daughter learns from how you act. Who she grows up to be is completely dependent on what you do in game. What is the difference between “almost entirely” (your daughter’s construction) and “entirely?” (her moral formation)

4. If I knew the answer to that, I’d be a lot richer. Suffice to say the question on my mind is how the libertarian framework created the collectivist, religious one. It would be easy to limit that inquiry to “conditions:” the failure of libertarianism on a practical level created the need for something more egalitarian. The story of Rapture allows for that explanation. I don’t think it’s good enough.

It’s not good enough because people’s attachment to what looks like order in game is too convincing. In the midst of death and destruction and a complete lack of anything like civility, people are that much more in awe of someone with a title or some kind of power. Again, I don’t think that’s just “hey, when you’ve got no power, you make the person who does a god,” although that’s sort of true. Nor is it nostalgia from memories of a time things were more ordered, although that might be true.

Something about self-awareness leads to a deeper consideration, but it isn’t clear why. Lamb and Ryan and everyone else in Rapture are right to emphasize the utility of reason. Who cares if you know more about yourself through a book? What’s more important is that knowledge can benefit all or be used to increase your pleasure or pride. Yet the daughter wants self-awareness above all and her mother thinks she is a monster for this.

I can’t tell you what freedom is, but I can see what hesitation is. Independent of any moral concerns, hesitation – reason as restraint – seems to be the flip side of reason as utility. Self-awareness may be nothing more than pain and greed ultimately. But we like to think that it is about our sitting in judgment of ourselves, having some control over who we are. Maybe that’s the real reason why a cult with no pretense to anything divine, only an earthly hope, takes over in Rapture. Only Lamb really believes in a selfless order. All those in awe of her might respect the fact she has the distance to think about things and put them together for herself, to form something appropriate.


  1. Great article. I’d like to read more about the experience of playing as the big daddy. What are these choices one makes? How and within what sort of time frame are they made? What does what know at the point they are made? What doesn’t one know?

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