Spoilers for the Bioshock series follow. Really nasty, in-depth, throwing 'em around like it's a spoiler party spoilers. You've been warned.
"A man chooses, a slave obeys." This is the phrase uttered to you by libertarian Andrew Ryan before he asks you to kill him at the end of Irrational Games' BioShock. The protagonist, a mind-controlled sleeper agent, only needs to hear the phrase "would you kindly" to beat Ryan to death with a golf club.
Bioshock's best-remembered line is also proof of its biggest failings, and by extension, one of the biggest failings in modern video games: it tells you rather than showing you. Ryan doesn't need to tell you that a man chooses and a slave obeys, because he's just explained that you're his son, and that you'll obey any request prefaced with "would you kindly". Saying you're a slave at this point, is overstating the point.
Which is the problem with Bioshock's political stylings. Bioshock is a game I'm very fond of; I enjoyed it a lot and have played it several times. It's just that the politics is half-arsed college-level pondering. Its main political statement is: "Aren't libertarians bad?" with a side order of "Did you know that building a city underwater to live totally away from contact with the rest of the world is a bad idea?".
There have been enough science-fiction stories about why building societies away from the moral standards of Earth is a bad idea, but Bioshock is lauded for its political content because games often steer clear of strong political statements. Bioshock is one of the best of a bad bunch, but politically its message is over-simplistic and overplayed.
The original Bioshock plays like game director Ken Levine read a copy of Atlas Shrugged, and instead of taking to Twitter to express his distaste, decided to make a scathing critique of the book the primary storyline behind the game. This is fair enough, a lot of people haven't read Atlas Shrugged, and telling stories is what plenty of games do.
There's nothing wrong with saying Ayn Rand perhaps had the wrong idea, Ken, but naming the game's big villain Atlas is more-than-a-little on the nose. I mean, here's a photo of statue Atlas, next to the form Atlas takes for the game's climatic boss fight.
It's a heavy-handed statement, spelt out in big letters just in case players might miss it. Regardless, Levine was hailed as some sort of gaming messiah for the five years between Bioshock and the third game in the seriesm, Bioshock Infinite. He was profiled by Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Games culture held him aloft to the world with a bold shout of "Look, games can be taken seriously too".
Bioshock should be taken seriously, and it deserved all of its praise as a game, just not for its political message. How can you explore the real effects of a libertarian dystopia, after all, when you can fire swarms of angry bees from your hands?
The other big political statement is the supposition that Bioshock is about the illusion of choices in video games. Thing is, Bioshock does give you a choice. If you take the hard way and spare all of the Little Sisters, you'll get a good ending. Give in and harvest them and you'll be more powerful but get the bad ending. For a game that people suggest is about the fallacy of video game choices, it's all predicated on one premise. Do you want to be a good person, or do you want to be powerful?
You could say the same about the game's sequel, but admittedly it's handled with a slightly more subtle hand. This time the underwater city of Rapture is devolving into a socialist dystopia, rather than a libertarian one. Bioshock 2 gets more of pass because it doesn't call its villain Atlas, but it suffers from the same problems: how do you explore the problems in society when you have superpowers?
Bioshock Infinite goes the other way. We're taken to the sky-city of Columbia instead of Rapture, and this time the big philosophical question is essentially: "Racism is bad, right? But what if it maybe isn't? Probably?" One of the first things you do after arriving in Columbia is make the choice over whether to pelt someone of another race, or the man trying to impel you to take part in the hate crime. It doesn't matter what you do, you're stopped regardless, before you can speak up in any way. Jeremiah Fink, one of the game's villains, worships America's founding fathers,and is a man so comically evil that the Bioshock fan wikia lists persecuting black people as one of his hobbies.
Knock him out of the way and let the popular resistance group Vox Populi take control, and you quickly find out leader Daisy Fitzroy is just as bad. They may be on opposing sides of the coin, but they're both extremists.
I love Bioshock, but I'm tired of its political message. I'm tired of AAA studios handling politics in a half-arsed way because they can't bring themselves to adapt their design around the story, or because they're not sure their core audience will understand it. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided had a heavy dose of ludonarrative dissonance because in a world where people are scared of augs, you're an aug that's a nigh impervious killing machine. Spec Ops: The Line tries to tell you you're slowly becoming a brutal monster, while letting you perform horrendous executions on enemies from the very first level.
We need more games that handle politics like Papers Please; a game that handles difficult themes with subtlety but delivers a strong message. I didn't realise Papers Please had got to me the first time I played it. I'd just played the game legitimately. I had a family to feed, paperwork to do and expenses to pay. I needed to get paid, so I processed people fairly, without prejudice either way. It took me a couple of weeks to realise I'd slowly indoctrinated myself. Despite telling myself I'd do the right thing if I didn't have a virtual family to feed, I was... well, just following orders. It tells a subtle tale of how good men can do bad things.
Bioshock? Well, it just asks me to fire rockets and angry bees at a near literal representation of the giant who holds the world on his shoulders. Bioshock's a great game, It's just if we're going to applaud politics in games, let's try to applaud the games that do it right.
BioShock: The Collection, which includes remastered versions of all three games, is out now on PS4, Xbox One and PC.