Warning: the following article contains spoilers for the first two BioShock titles.
Freedom is something that all people want and history is full of examples where people have fought for it. Martin Luther King Jr led the Civil Rights Movement in the US; Gandhi’s peaceful protests were key to ensuring India’s independence from the British Empire, leading to the creation of the world’s largest democracy; and the French Revolution saw the fall of the absolute rule of the monarchy.
Those are just three prominent moments in history where people went to great lengths to ensure more freedom for themselves. However, the thing with freedom is that there’s almost always more of it to be had, and that philosophy is what leads to the events of BioShock and the creation of Andrew Ryan’s Rapture.
Rapture was built to allow people to keep the rewards from what they created, but the age old desires of power quickly returned. What began as a place of freedom slowly turned into a war zone with two natural leaders vying for control of the city – Andrew Ryan on one side and Fontaine on the other.
“No Gods Or Kings. Only Man.” That statement is first seen when Jack, the protagonist of the original BioShock, begins his journey down to Rapture, serving as a testament to the greatness of the human spirit and the thirst for knowledge. There is no greater thing than humanity is what the phrase is meant to impart to every person who makes this journey.
The events of the Bioshock games bring a different meaning to this phrase though, especially the last two words, “Only Man”. The phrase no longer highlights the greatness of humanity, but rather its shortcomings. We aren’t perfect but instead can be greedy, power hungry and unethical. A state of true freedom, like the one that exists in Andrew’s mind, cannot exist because we are only human.
Both the protagonists of the Rapture BioShocks have no real freedom of their own. Jack was a drone from the start, programmed to respond to the phrase “Would you kindly?” and to act on any instructions that followed. The most harrowing of these instructions comes when he is forced to kill Andrew with a golf club by the request of Andrew himself. He can’t stop and Andrew knows it.
Moving onto BioShock 2, Delta also doesn’t have any real freedom, but is instead tied to the fate of his Little Sister, Eleanor. He needs to find her or his whole reason for existing becomes obsolete.
Both protagonists are a representation of what Rapture has become, a city where control and power is necessary to survive. For most of the games neither character truly has control, except in respect to the fate of the Little Sisters.
The Little Sisters are the source of a dark innocence in the drowning city. While they harvest corpses for ADAM they also are the magnetic points for your moral compass. How you react to them has knock on effects to the events that transpire in Rapture. Their existence also provides the only true point where the protagonists are free to act how they wish.[drop2]Do you fall for the quick satisfaction offered by the death of the Little Sisters or do you wait patiently and save the children? This choice is a rare moment of power in the games, in particular the power over life, death and the future.
While the residents of Rapture fight for control of the failing city, both the protagonists, who were introduced as nothing more than tools to further the aims of the rulers, become the most powerful inhabitants of not just Rapture, but the world. Depending on how Jack and Delta act they either bring some peace to the world or unimaginable horror.
If Jack goes on a killing spree then the Splicers invade the surface, a world not ready for such powerful and insane people. If Delta kills and harvests all the Little Sisters then Eleanor leaves to conquer the world. If both save the Little Sisters then the girls have a bright future ahead of them and the world remains safe for now.
These choices and the question of freedom are what the BioShock games are truly about. The nature of true and unchecked freedom is shown to fail because of human behaviour. Rapture falls because everyone wants power and it was easily available through plasmids. BioShock serves as lesson in human attitudes towards short term and long term gains.
Think about it. Every time you were asked to save or harvest what did you take into account? How much more ADAM you needed for a new Plasmid or what the fate of the city and the Little Sisters would be? The important things is that there’s no wrong answer.
The genius here is that the Rapture BioShocks experimented with your psyche, and based the game world’s future on your actions. Were you like Andrew Ryan who built his city as a quick fix to keep everything he earned or did you look for the long term gains like Lamb?
The city of Rapture demonstrated that true freedom was chaos, while full control was just as bloody. In the end it was a controlled freedom that allowed the most power. Rules had to be played by and depending on how those rules were broken or flaunted led to different outcomes. All it really comes down to is what kind of person you are.