About a decade ago, as the last generation of video game consoles hit the market, a debate, or at least a question, proliferated among pop culture critics: Are video games really art? Could they ever be?
John Lanchester addressed the topic in the London Review of Books in a bluntly titled essay, “Is it art?” In Esquire, Chuck Klosterman argued in favor of taking games seriously as a pop culture phenomenon but wondered why they had not yet produced great criticism.
Perhaps most famously, Roger Ebert weighed in multiple times to the contrary, asserting not only that games were not yet art but that they could never be art, because they relinquished ultimate control to the player.
“I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist,” Ebert wrote in a response to horror novelist and filmmaker Clive Barker, who had argued in favor of games as a way of creating an array experiences and emotional journeys tailored to individual player preferences.
“Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices,” Ebert added. And in another piece on the subject, he wrote that when viewing his favorite pieces of art, his “empathy was engaged,” a reaction that he found video games were unlikely to elicit.
In the years since, however, the debate has mostly been resolved in favor of video games as art. A robust critical community has arisen around gaming, with a multitude of writers taking on the social and theoretical aspects of games. Even Ebert seemed to come around, sort of, admitting in 2010 that his position had been foolish given his personal disinterest in playing most games.
One of the games that helped solidify this consensus was Bioshock. Released in August 2007, the game was a first-person shooter set in Rapture, a grandly imagined but decaying underwater city built in an ostentatious art deco style. Rapture was constructed as part of the majestic vision of a man named Andrew Ryan; Ryan, who speaks to the player mostly via radio transmissions, was a monologue-prone capitalist who bore more than a little resemblance to the heroes of novelist Ayn Rand, Ryan’s quasi-namesake.
As Ryan explains in an introductory monologue, Rapture was created as a radical haven for inventors and artists, where individuals could pursue their visions without interference from government or social scorn. But by the time you discover the place, it has deteriorated into chaos following genetic modification run amok. Thus, the goal of Bioshock is to get through the city, fending off attacks from zombie-esque gene-mod addicts called splicers while encountering some of its crazed and colorful denizens.
At the time of its original release, Bioshock was immediately hailed by critics for its immersive design as well as for its engagement with political themes, with Lanchester writing in the London Review of Books that the game was “visually striking, verging on intermittently beautiful, also violent, dark, sleep-troubling, and perhaps, to some of its intended audience, thought-provoking.”
It quickly became the best-reviewed game for the then relatively new Xbox 360 console, garnering a 96 rating on Metacritic. It was a huge commercial success as well, selling more than 2 million copies, and it spawned two sequels, which sold even better.
To this day, Bioshock — which was rereleased in September via a “remastered” edition, along with its two sequels — remains a milestone, often referenced by critics, creators, and fans as one of the best and most influential games ever made.
The game’s legendary status is more than a little bit ironic, however, because the game itself serves as a critique of both video games and the people who play them, and an interactive disquisition on the limitations of video games as narrative art.
Like most first-person shooter games, Bioshock gives players an abundance of choices
To really understand Bioshock, you have to understand a little bit about its creator, Ken Levine, a populist game-design auteur who also helped create the critically acclaimed System Shock 2 in the late 1990s. In short, Levine is obsessed with the idea of choice in both games and reality.
He explained this concept to the Guardian in 2014:
Inertia is an incredibly powerful force. It makes us think we have a life, versus a continuum of choices. We always think of the road not taken, of something in the past. “Wow, what would have happened if I married so and so, or took that job in San Diego...” But you rarely think that each and every second that goes by is one of those moments. Like this second that just happened. And that one. And the one that's going to happen in a second.
To Levine, games are more like theme park rides than movies. In the same interview, he compared what he does to what Disney’s ride designers do with attractions like the Haunted Mansion, where designers control the environment but can’t control exactly where someone looks — meaning that the experience is subtly different for every person.
So it’s no surprise that one of the hallmarks of his work is an emphasis on player choice, not only in terms of gameplay style, but in terms of morality and identity. Although he started his career as a screenwriter, he has said that Bioshock started with the idea for its setting rather than the specifics of its story.
“I don’t start with story, because games are not story,” Levine told journalist Kieron Gillen in 2007. “Games are gameplay. Games are interactive.” Player choice, in other words, is the defining aspect of the medium.
Bioshock incorporates player choice in all the ways that first-person shooter games usually do. You can move around pretty freely, exploring the nooks and crannies of each level to find hidden objects. You can select certain upgrades to your character in order to become more powerful in particular ways, and you can “hack” certain enemy objects, like turrets and alarms, by playing an in-game puzzle that, if completed successfully, turns those objects into friendly fighters on your behalf.
And you can choose which weapons you will use in which circumstances, often with a remarkably large number of additional sub-choices involving ammunition types and weapon power-ups. In other words, Bioshock gives you tactical options, letting you approach the game’s challenges in a variety of different ways.
At a glance, what appears to set the game apart is the morality inherent in many of those choices
But Bioshock also gives players another choice, one that is arguably more meaningful than which type of bullets you’ll use on which type of enemy: At key moments during each level, it also lets you decide whether to kill or rescue Little Sisters — very young girls who possess an in-game currency known as ADAM.
Most of the enemies you encounter are half-crazed, genetically modified humans, and you spend much of the game fighting them off by using your own genetic modifications: fireballs that you shoot from your hands, electricity fields that damage anyone who comes too close, telekinesis that launches enemy projectiles back at them. But to gain those abilities, you need ADAM, which makes it one of the game’s most precious resources.
ADAM can only be found on the Little Sisters, little girls in doll dresses who have also been genetically modified. “Harvest” the Little Sisters, the game explains, and you’ll obtain more ADAM, but doing so will mean killing them in a gruesome and disturbingly rendered process that involves squeezing out their lives with your bare hands. Rescue the Little Sisters and you’ll get less ADAM — but the Little Sisters and their creator, a (possibly crazy) scientist with access to stores of genetic modification material, will be in your debt, and reward you some other way.
Bioshock, like so many first-person shooters, is a violent and bloody game that requires you to kill hundreds of people: to shoot them, to set them on fire, to brutally club them to death with wrenches. Yes, nearly all of them are half-dead already — splicer addicts who have become hopelessly addicted to Rapture's seductive genetic power-ups — but sometimes they’re sympathetic anyway: One enemy you encounter is a distraught woman hovering over a baby stroller; another is a crazed man who rambles about wanting his father’s approval. You have no choice but to kill both of them. Violence is the game’s main form of interaction, its chief source of entertainment and fun.
But the game also forces you to reckon with that violence by choosing to either act in your own self-interest by killing the Little Sisters or make a sacrifice by freeing them. It’s a choice about your character — a choice that’s not about how you’ll play the game, but about who you will be as you play it. It’s an empathy test in the midst of a phenomenal video game, and, indeed, an entire video game genre, that seems designed to discourage and destroy any empathetic impulses a player may have. It’s not a tactical choice but a moral one.
The end of Bioshock makes a powerful point about choice — and in the process, proves that video games can be art
Or at least that’s what it feels like as you hold a screaming, suffering Little Sister in your hands. But in the end, there is no avoiding the strategy involved: Harvesting gives you more ADAM to spend for yourself. Rescuing gives you less ADAM but greater rewards overall, thanks to the in-game “gifts” left by Little Sisters you have rescued. You can win either way. As always, video games tend to distill all choices into tactical decisions. You have a choice, yes — but less of one than you think.
Indeed, the idea that choice is an illusion is Bioshock’s ultimate thematic punchline. Throughout the game, you are assigned tasks by a character named Atlas who communicates via radio transmission. Atlas is a familiar character type in video games, the mostly absent quest master who talks the main character through his or her missions, acting as a guide and a friend. He’s on your side, aligned against your enemies. You follow Atlas’s instructions because he is telling you how to play the game.
In Bioshock’s climactic scene, you finally encounter Rapture’s founder, Andrew Ryan, who reveals — spoiler alert! —that Atlas has been taking advantage of secret genetic conditioning to make you do his bidding. That bidding includes killing Ryan, whom you club to death while he declares, over and over again, “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” And killing Ryan is unavoidable: It occurs in one of the game's few cut scenes — a cinematic moment in which the player does not retain control of the character.
Atlas, it turns out, is Ryan’s competitor, Frank Fontaine, and he’s been using you all along. Not only is choice an illusion, but it’s a tool of control. The game is structured to emphasize that you never really had a choice — not one that matters, anyway. And of course you didn’t. You couldn’t have. And perhaps that’s especially true in a video game, where the goal is not to provide real choice but to simulate it, to create the fantasy of individual control. Really, it’s the artist, the creator, the exploiter disguised as a friendly guide, who is in charge.
Coming from the choice-obsessed Levine, Bioshock plays like self-criticism — an extended and elegant, yet frustrated, riff on the limits of choice in video games. It’s a frustration he’s still trying to work out: His next project is something he’s dubbed “Narrative Legos” — an attempt to make a story-based game that is infinitely replayable.
And yet in wrestling with the limits of gaming as an art form, Bioshock inadvertently illustrated that games could meet Roger Ebert’s definition of art — leading players not to a smorgasbord of choices but to an inevitable and devastating conclusion, and perhaps engaging their empathy in the process. Bioshock, in other words, helped prove that the video game medium could be art by showcasing all the ways in which it wasn’t.