BioShock and American Exceptionalism

Adam Serwer posts the new BioShock trailer and notes that the third installment of the FPS horror series will take on the concept of American exceptionalism:

The first BioShock envisioned a libertarian dystopia where an underwater city constructed on Randian ideals falls apart and all the residents devolve into some state of slavery. The sequel imagines the destroyed city and its remaining survivors falling into the hands of a religious collectivist. Because there’s never really been a randian society, and communist-style collectivism is largely been discredited as a philosophy, the first game was really far superior to the second.

The trailer for the third BioShock game came out, and I’m pleased to see it’s based on another interesting political idea. Instead of taking place in underwater Rapture, the game takes place in a floating city called Columbia which resembles “the 4th of July in 1900.” Instead of libertarianism or collectivism, the high concept driving the game will be American exceptionalism.

According to the game’s creative director, Ken Levine:

The notion of this American exceptionalism came to me quite late. It was only about six to eight months ago. We always had the city in the sky. Because there was this feeling of optimism at the turn of the century. All this technology was changing, twenty years ago we were this little regional power, we were all farmers and fisherman and now we’re working in factories and there are cars and there are aeroplanes and there’s electricity. If you look at the art back then, if you told someone that in five years they’d be living in the sky, they’d say, okay I buy that, because that’s how much the world is changing.

I only every played the first of the BioShock games and I thought it was brilliant, both as social commentary and as a first-person-shooter. Not to mention it was terrifying. Judging by the trailer, BioShock Infinite should be even more visually stunning than the first and probably just as scary. Besides, what better way to critique American exceptionalism? Most games hint at just the opposite.

As Serwer notes, “Having gone from Rand to Marx, it sounds like the third BioShock might have a sprinkling of Niebuhr.” Naturally, few of BioShock’s fans will be familiar with Reinhold Niebuhr or his critique of American exceptionalism but that’s neither here nor there; it’s the ideas that count, not how we come by them.






52 replies
  1. 1
    cleek says:

    the second was good, too. not as awesome as the first, but only because it was in the same city, and for me at least, the surprise of the setting had worn off. but it was still fun to play!

    i never really got into either of the stories, though. they were mostly just background noise, for me.

  2. 2
    DougJ says:

    Marx and Niebuhr get a bold face, but Rand doesn’t?

    Why do you have freedom?

  3. 3
    matoko_chan says:

    it’s the ideas that count, not how we come by them.

    unless they are lies, evil, bad-craziness, flipping or eumemes.
    not all ideas are equal.

  4. 4
    t jasper parnell says:

    @DougJ: He haves freedom because Carter deregulated beer production.

  5. 5

    @t jasper parnell: Rimshot! You got there before I could.

  6. 6
    El Tiburon says:

    As Serwer notes, “Having gone from Rand to Marx, it sounds like the third BioShock might have a sprinkling of Niebuhr.”

    So typical.

    I gave up Atari because it was so sick with Nietzsche.

  7. 7
    LittlePig says:

    @t jasper parnell: I’ll drink to that!

  8. 8
    Aet says:

    The second game is interesting because of the running ‘battle’ between Lamb (religious collectivist) and Ryan (anarcho-libertarian): as you proceed about your errands, you occasionally locate recordings of a debate between the two of them.

    It’s fascinating to hear because you know that both of these people are masterful bullshitters, as at this point you have seen both ideologies fail utterly. But they are both experts at debate: they demolish each other while holding no truth of their own, save in their own feelings of superiority. It’s a verbal nuclear war, where the collapse of the world is itself the aftermath.

  9. 9
    Mark S. says:

    I kinda wished BioShock could have figured out a better way to tell its story than those never ending tape recorders.

    Since we’re geeking out, is anyone excited about Mafia II coming out next week?

  10. 10
    t jasper parnell says:

    @asiangrrlMN: Zank you Zank you, I’ll be here all through the weeks, try the veal.

  11. 11
    cleek says:

    @Mark S.:
    right, those tape recorders. that’s why i gave up on even trying to follow the story – had better things to do than collect tape recorders.

  12. 12
    Zifnab says:

    @Mark S.:

    I kinda wished BioShock could have figured out a better way to tell its story than those never ending tape recorders.

    The whole game was the story. Folks getting tortured to death or going mad. Beautiful underwater environments left to crumble and fail. The fight for scarce resources at the expense of innocent children.

    The tape recorders filled in the nitty gritty parts, but I don’t know a lot of better ways for them to accomplish that, except maybe a few hours of movie spliced in.

  13. 13
    Mark S. says:

    It’s been a while since I played it, but I can still hear:

    Welcome to the Circus of Values!

  14. 14
    Ken says:

    “a floating city called Columbia which resembles “the 4th of July in 1900.””

    Did anyone else think of the movie version of A Boy and His Dog?

  15. 15
    James Gary says:

    I kinda wished BioShock could have figured out a better way to tell its story than those never ending tape recorders.

    Let me third that. I thought the concept of BioShock was incredibly cool but I got kind of bored with the gameplay after about ten hours and never finished it—all the shooting just seemed too much work to get to the next piece of what was a fairly great story.

  16. 16
    debit says:

    @Ken: Shhhh. Harlan will sue.

  17. 17
    BethanyAnne says:

    I’m about to finish Bioshock 2, just got it last weekend. It’s been big fun, but I did like the first better. The surprise factor, and being closer to a functional Rapture, it was prettier. I am curious how my choices in B2 are going to affect the ending. I’ll have to play it again and see how it differs.

    This thread looks like a perfect place to post this. Someone took the game Yakuza 3 to actual Yakuza to review. :)

    One thing about Bioshock, I wished I could hear more of the background propaganda. Ryan would be chattering away over the PA, but I couldn’t hear it well sometimes over the screams and ‘splosions.

  18. 18
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

     

    resembles “the 4th of July in 1900.”

    Hooboy, is Sister Sarah going to be pissed when they try to assassinate Mount McKinley.

  19. 19
    brantl says:

    “and communist-style collectivism is largely been discredited as a philosophy,”

    Funny, the Chinese have gone from being nobodies on the world stage to the second biggest economic engine in the world, without being a military superpower, and they are still quite collectivist. Seems you missed that, E.D., just like you miss a lot of things. What a shock.

  20. 20
    brantl says:

    “and communist-style collectivism is largely been discredited as a philosophy,”

    And also still practiced, quite successfully on collective kibbutz’s, in Israel, of all places.

  21. 21
    sherifffruitfly says:

    Play EVE. Be someone.

  22. 22
    matoko_chan says:

    Isn’t American Exceptionalism crapology, Kain?
    isn’t it just protestant religious doctrine pumped up with black slave labor on land stolen from red men?

  23. 23
    growingdaisies says:

    The trailer looks awesome/disturbing.

    As good as the story was — and everything I heard about it said it was a great story — I couldn’t play the game. After about half an hour the constant violence got to me and I gave up. If you’re not into that kind of thing, it just makes you feel like you need to scrub out your brain after awhile.

    Still waiting for a heavily narrative-focused, mystery-solving game like this that doesn’t involve either the extreme of mowing down everything in your path (no thanks), or nothing but pointing and clicking (boring).

  24. 24
    JGabriel says:

    El Tiburon:

    I gave up Atari because it was so sick with Nietzsche.

    But at least the Will to Power encapsulates something primal in the essence of video games. It wasn’t the travesty that was the Schopenhauer Wii. Talk about bleak …

    .

  25. 25
    ruemara says:

    I rather like BioShock, as a game nerd who enjoys theory, art and plot over, you know, actual playing. I’ve always thought the philosophy writ large like this was amazingly subversive. Can’t wait to see what #3 has in store. Hope I get to play it sometime.

  26. 26
    HernCo says:

    @growingdaisies:
    If the *constant* violence (typical in an FPS, really) got you down in BioShock 1 but you still want moody/spooky, consider the PS3 title Heavy Rain or the multiplatform Alan Wake.

    It’s difficult to escape violence in video game horror, but FWIW I like to look for games that use sound effectively to induce scares–including both BioShocks, and games like the Condemned franchise and a slew of Japanese games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame.

  27. 27
    Duke City Roller says:

    Because there’s never really been a randian society, and communist-style collectivism is largely been discredited as a philosophy

    I think one godless materialism organized around the personality cult of a Russian ideologue and founded upon an inpenetrably-dense text dogmatically adored by its demented true believers was enough.

  28. 28
    Joel says:

    I haven’t played an immersive first person game since System Shock 2, which was awesome. These games sound incredible but I’ll never have the time to find out.

  29. 29
    Joel says:

    I haven’t played an immersive first person game since System Shock 2, which was awesome. These games sound incredible but I’ll never have the time to find out.

  30. 30
    Bnut says:

    Ok, so I have to plug Men of War. It’s an almost perfect RTS by my take. It came out in April so it’s cheap right now at Direct2Drive.

  31. 31
    Console says:

    I’m pretty sure bioshock was made by the same creators as sytem shock

  32. 32
    Draylon Hogg says:

    I enjoyed them both. The gameplay mechanics in 2 are a lot more fluid and the character models are far superior. The part where you see the idealised Rapture through the eyes of the Little Sister you control is superb. Also there is far more scope for creative plasmid and tonic use. Setting a splicer on fire, waiting until they run into water then zapping them with an electric shock before finishing them off with killer bees fired out of your hand never gets old. Which is good because like the first game, the weapons just don’t give good enough feedback.

    Ryan makes a more compelling antagonist than Lamb but what I like about both games are the morally ambivalent crooks and hucksters like Fontaine and Sinclair who throughout subvert the ideological purity of both Ryan and Lamb to serve their own ends.

    And there are more geeky in jokes in 2. Grace Holloway for one (Dr Who, from the abortive 1996 BBC / Fox pilot with Paul McGann), Sinclair Solutions (arise Sir Clive), and Doctors John and Edward Grimes diaries.

    Off topic now but how long do we have to wait for a GTA Gotham City with Batmobiles, Bat planes and Bat copters tied to a Syndicate style Wayne Industries R & D resource management aspect?

    Or a Superhuman sandbox with customizable powers and a fully destructible environment?

    Superman or Kid Miracleman, the choice is yours.

  33. 33
    JWeidner says:

    @Mark S.:

    Since we’re geeking out, is anyone excited about Mafia II coming out next week?

    Definitely. The original still is on my top 5 list of all-time-favorite games. Great story and a twist I never saw coming for the finale. I’m hopeful that Mafia 2 can live up to that.

  34. 34
    JGabriel says:

    growingdaisies:

    Still waiting for a heavily narrative-focused, mystery-solving game like this that doesn’t involve either the extreme of mowing down everything in your path (no thanks), or nothing but pointing and clicking (boring).

    Portal, sort of. Give it a try, if you haven’t already.

    .

  35. 35
    A. Serwer says:

    This, from Draylon:

    Ryan makes a more compelling antagonist than Lamb but what I like about both games are the morally ambivalent crooks and hucksters like Fontaine and Sinclair who throughout subvert the ideological purity of both Ryan and Lamb to serve their own ends.

    I mean, that’s how politics works isn’t it?

  36. 36
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Mark S.:

    Since we’re geeking out, is anyone excited about Mafia II coming out next week?

    I keep seeing the posters for that and thinking it says “Mafia IT.” That’s the game I want to see. “Nice little server farm ya got here. Hate to see somethin’ happen to it, ya know what I mean?”

  37. 37
    JGabriel says:

    @Duke City Roller:

    the personality cult of a Russian ideologue … founded upon an inpenetrably-dense text

    Rand’s writing isn’t impenetrably dense. Just bad, puerile, and simplistic.

    For instance, in The Fountainhead, Rand names a character “Twohey”. Just to make sure no one misses the point, she pounds it in by having a character say to Twohey, “I like your name. It reminds me of spitting.”

    That sledgehammer-like level of subtlety is one of the hallmarks of Rand’s prose. The other hallmarks, of course, are rape fantasies, and hundreds of pages long monologues serving as paeans to capitalism – all about as subtle and intellectually demanding as the above mentioned example.

    (I’m assuming you meant Rand. Marx is German.)

    .

  38. 38
    dmsilev says:

    @Mark S.:

    Since we’re geeking out, is anyone excited about Mafia II coming out next week?

    We’re about a month away from Civ V. Goodbye, any semblance of a life.

    dms

  39. 39
    DougJ says:

    @JGabriel:

    For instance, in The Fountainhead, Rand names a character “Twohey”. Just to make sure no one misses the point, she pounds it in by having a character say to Twohey, “I like your name. It reminds me of spitting.”

    Thank for you this. Best laugh I’ve had all day.

  40. 40
    Duke City Roller says:

    @JGabriel:

    I meant Lenin, not Marx, but I get your point. I was trying a little too hard to get the snark on today. :)

  41. 41
    cleek says:

    @JGabriel:
    seconded .

    Portal is awesome awesome awesome.

  42. 42
    Draylon Hogg says:

    @growing daisies:

    This may not mean a great deal to people in America unless you’re avid BBC America watchers but the ideal opportunity for such a game would be Doctor Who. A protaganist who scorns violence and strives for a peaceful solution whenever possible. Plus time travel. It’d probably never get made though because despite the fact that Who is the longest running science fiction series ever, it isn’t big enough in the USA to make it commercially viable.

    The BBC recently made some downloadable games of it, but they were amateurish, boring point and clickery.

    You could try Fallout 3. It’s narrative heavy and has great visuals and soundtrack, and lots of the quests can be solved by dialogue instead of violence. And if you get the Game of the Year edition you can nuke the Pentagon if you’re feeling that way out.

  43. 43
    Lee says:

    Ken Levine is a damn genius.

  44. 44
    ProudCynic says:

    @Draylon Hogg

    Meh. Fallout 3 is pretty terribly written, and the options for non-violence are nothing compared to its predecessors. New Vegas might be better in that regard, being made by some of the people behind the second, but they also made Alpha Protocol, which while intriguing in premise was apparently a bit of a glitch-ridden mess so we’ll see…

    Not that it’s not fun. Got all the DLC and sunk far too many hours into it. Just finished a marathon session of it the other night, actually.

    Now I’m going to go geek out on some BioShock 2. Yes, the plot is worse, but the gameplay is better.

  45. 45
    E.D. Kain says:

    @brantl: Wow. You really lack reading comprehension skills one would consider prerequisite to going online.

  46. 46
    E.D. Kain says:

    @HernCo: Silent Hill was super creepy. Nightmarish.

  47. 47
    LGRooney says:

    I hated that damned game… and I only had the first one. Rehashed ideas and little else. I want Deus Ex & Unreal for the late-model Macs and I’m looking forward to Diablo III. Spore has been fantastic and I’ve enjoyed Starcraft II although it is a bit slow and repetitive.

  48. 48
    Uloborus says:

    First, I always considered the combat/gameplay third and the story only second in either Bioshock game. They were games about theme. #1 was about being lost in this disintegrating underwater city, surrounded by the crazy future the 50s imagined. #2 was about being a Big Daddy. It was about sacrificing everything to be the wall between innocence and the Hell around it. As that description probably tells you, I reeeeeally loved Bioshock 2.

    @brantl:
    What a strange description. The Great Leap Forward, the actual attempt to turn China into a real communism, failed horrifically to the tune of a hundred million starving to death. Before and after it’s been an almost feudal hierarchy of people who have absolute power over the level beneath them. And to be honest, that was failing miserably until they started easing in Western Capitalism.

  49. 49
    BethanyAnne says:

    Hmm. Just finished Bioshock 2. I got the “best” ending – looked things up online after watching :) I’m going to have to think about the ending more. My initial impression was sadness, but … there’s more there. Damn fine game, all in all. I love the snippets of story being delivered through the diaries. One of the things I love most about games is the feeling of exploring a world, and those diaries were the perfect reward for that. I guess I play every game in as much of a “explorer / sniper” mode as possible. And agreed, Levine is a genius. I still want to play the old System Shock games.

  50. 50
    Bostondreams says:

    @LGRooney:

    I was just thinking about Deus Ex as I was reading this thread. If anyone wants an awesome game that requires some thinking, check it out. You can get the first and second (not as good) pretty cheap on Steam.

    And they are working on Deus Ex 3 now, which is apparently a prequel where we sort of see the, um, ‘base stock’ of JC Denton, or so I have heard.

  51. 51
    jake the snake says:

    @Duke City Roller:

    I

    I think one godless materialism organized around the personality cult of a Russian ideologue and founded upon an inpenetrably-dense text dogmatically adored by its demented true believers was enough

    As opposed to a god obsessed spiritualist cult-of-personality organised around a reformist rabbi and founded upon intepreting alleghory as literal truth.

  52. 52
    idioteraser says:

    @James Gary:

    You do have other options then shooting everything. A little bit of stealth or hacking does wonders to break up routine plus you can run past a lot of the enemies.

    Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the wii has no combat you just have to run from the monsters when they appear and do some other stuff like throw stuff in their path to slow them down as well as be smart at hiding when you have to.

    One of the reasons the Great Leap Forward failed was because Mao didn’t listen to advice on how to do it. They had farmers build backyard smelters to try to make steel or other important alloys when all such backyard smelters could make is cheap pigiron.

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