“Would you kindly?” An analysis of free will in Bioshock

I’ve been putting this off for too long, so I finally sat down to write an analysis of Bioshock. I’ll focus on the concept of “free will” and how it is explored in the game. This will definitely contain spoilers, so don’t read on if you haven’t played the game.

At the core of Bioshock is a philosophical argument. Basically, Bioshock is a criticism of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. Objectivism states that there exists an objective good and bad, and we just need to improve our knowledge until we can reach it. The best way to do this, according to Rand, is through free will and selfishness, through striving for greatness and individual achievement. Objectivist philosophy is often associated with laissez-faire capitalism and libertarianism, because they both stress individual freedoms and the importance of selfishness. According to this philosophy, a society that granted true freedom and relied on the selfishness of its people would be successful.

The idea of an objectivist society led by great men is satirized in the name of the city: Rapture, like the biblical event. Ironically, Andrew Ryan fancies himself a sort of king or messiah, come to bring people to the superior objectivist society while flawed society crumbles around them.

In this sense, Rapture is the ideal objectivist city. It is led by it’s great men, its creative elite, like Andrew Ryan. Individual freedom is valued above all else, and selfishness drives everything. According to Rand, it is the definition of a perfect society. As we already know, Rapture went from utopia to dystopia, and took most of its citizens and ideas with it.

One of the main criticisms of objectivism to be found in Bioshock is about the nature of free will itself — namely, that it doesn’t objectively exist. During the first part of the game, while taking orders from Atlus, you (the player), along with Jack (the character), don’t question a thing. Not only do you follow instructions, you truly believe in the Rapture that Atlus describes to you. During this time the game never takes control out of your hands or forces you to do anything, because it has no reason to. Essentially, you, the player, are given the illusion of having free will in the context of the game. The game demonstrates how reality itself can be distorted due to one’s flawed perception.

Bioshock shows how subjective our perception or reality really is, and how absurd it is to claim that we can define objective morality, because morality is so dependent on reality. What is right and wrong changes drastically depending on context.

One of the strangest and most powerful scenes in the game is where you kill Andrew Ryan. The game takes control completely out of your hands for the first time. This is a jarring experience, as we still see through our character’s eyes. The whole experience is accompanied with Ryan telling you that you are a slave. You are a slave in one sense because you cannot control your character during the sequence, because you have no choice when you kill Ryan. But in another sense, your character is a slave because it never had and never will have true free will.

This cutscene throws everything on its head, because it asks you why you’ve done everything you have so far. The answer is simple: because you were told to. At the time, you didn’t think about it because you never think about it. As a game player, you’re used to following instructions. This cutscene makes a powerful statement about our mindless nature, about how willing we are to obey authority without thinking, just because we are psychologically trained to. We’ve trained ourselves to trust the authority in video games without even realizing it, and who knows what other areas we’ve been conditioned to accept the will of authority. The power of the cutscene comes not just from this realization, but from the fact that for the first time in the game, you don’t want to kill Andrew Ryan.

Ryan’s appeal to your free will fails, for what now should be obvious reasons. As you are killing him, he repeats the phrase: “Would you kindly kill?” This phrase can be interpreted many ways, but I choose to interpret it like this: by not specifying who he’s asking you to kill, he’s hoping to take Fontaine down with him. He knows he is going to die, but he hopes this last order may help you to kill Fontaine. Further evidence for this is when Ryan exclaims that his life may be taken, but his city never will be.

Even after Fontaine is revealed to be a con man, and our character Jack “willingly” choses to follow the instructions of Tenenbaum, he can never know for sure whether he really is choosing his actions or whether he is still being manipulated. He can never know if what he’s being told is true. For these reasons, we can never know if his actions are morally right or wrong; they appear to be moral, but only in the context of what we assume is reality. In a sense, Jack is as much a slave of Tenenbaum as he was of Atlus. Is that why he protects the little sisters, or why he fights Fontaine? We’ll will never know, and most likely, neither will Jack.

About probabilityZero

I'm a rather boring, geeky college student. Most of my time is spent at a computer, reading a book, or sitting in (mostly uninteresting) classes. My hobbies include reading, blogging, creating and running websites, creating amateur video games, arguing incessantly on discussion forums, and buying books on amazon.com because I'm too lazy to go to the library.
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9 Responses to “Would you kindly?” An analysis of free will in Bioshock

  1. wam says:

    Really interesting stuff! I had heard some of this before but not all of it!

    Bioshock is the greatest game ever!!

  2. noisewar says:

    Heh cool, a like mind! Wrote about this and had the same conclusions as you:

  3. Kisama says:

    I exercised my free will and stopped playing the game. I hated the fact that I agreed with everything I heard about Ryan, and wished I could join forces with him instead of following the linear path I could tell would end with the player character condemning Ryan’s philosophy :-( Reading the spoiler that I would have had to watch “myself” kill Ryan makes me really glad I stopped playing. I might have cried.

  4. Nick says:

    I interpreted Ryan’s last moments as attempting to save you. I assumed his repeated claims of “A man chooses, a slave obeys” while you kill him were made in hopes that it could help you break yourself free of the mind control and choose to not kill Ryan.
    Also, I was always kind of curious as to why you’re given the choice of harvesting or saving the little sisters. Fontaine instructs you to harvest them, but never goes so far as forcing you to. I guess it wasn’t important enough to him.

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  6. henry gomez says:

    I know its too late for me to post a comment and expect you to read it but ill do it anyway.
    You are mistaken on the matter of andrew ryan motive for asking the player Would you kindly kill. It’s not a plea to make the player kill fontaine he is just stating that the player since the beginning had no control over her/his action since he was commanded to do everything he/she has done until that point. The speech he gives you about what separates a man and a slaves is the hint. With that speech he is just telling you that he is a man who truly have free will since he choose his own destiny by forcing you to kill him and you are the slave because you have no option but to obey his command. He was willing to die just to prove his own ideology. The whole point about the game is to establish that the sense of free will the player have is an illusion and every action you made was conditioned by the ones who truly had the capability to choose.

  7. Fei says:

    I suggest you check out the Milgram Experiment, probabilityZero. It involves a figure of authority (a test proctor, in this case) shocking someone for getting answers to a certain sequence of numbers incorrectly. At some point, the ‘person’ (the test has long since replaced the person with a tape recorder) on the other end would complain about pain, and upon questioning the proctor, participants would be told/encouraged to continue. The proctor would go so far as insisting that they do so, before allowing them to leave on their own.

    How far people would go, up to even lethal shocks (at one point the victim complains about pains in his chest), tells a lot about what lengths several of the participants would go to when an encouraging authority figure is present.

  8. Fei says:

    Oh, clarification, the figure of authority is just observing the participant, not doing the shocks himself; the participant is doing the shocks under instruction.

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