WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS for Bioshock
“My father once told me, ‘Son, you’re special. You were born to do great things,’ and you know what? He was right.” This here is the only line said by the protagonist of perhaps one of the most shocking games in the past ten years. Saying this line solidifies Jack as a semi-silent protagonist, but it is only one line so I think it can slide. These words are almost painfully cliché as far as the average everyman goes. We have probably heard something similar from someone close to us or on all the children’s television we saw many times in our own lives. However, we ride more on it because we know we’re playing a video game and this person who we presume is the hero is saying it. After saying this line, the passenger jet carrying Jack crashes into the ocean. He survives, as heroes often do, and swims toward a light house in the middle of the ocean.
Jack descends from the light house via bathysphere into the city of Rapture below the sea. In this short voyage, the voice of Russian industrialist Andrew Ryan reveals his city and his vision for a society of objectivists free from the judgment or restraint of others (a la Ayn Rand). In hearing something like this, we would expect our character to be unique, an individual apart from the flood of NPCs that exist in games.
Upon descending to the city of Rapture, Jack hears the voice of another man named Atlas. Atlas seems distressed since his family is being held captive in a city full of mutated psychopaths. We the gamers remember that line from the beginning “born to do great things” as well as Andrew Ryan’s introductory words and our hero instincts power up to help this very amiable man. Jack agrees to help without a word because we the gamers feel it is our duty to save the day. We feel unique as a rational human being in a crazy person paradise. Subliminally, Atlas is suggesting ways in which we can help, including giving Jack the power to control all sorts of elemental forces with his hands. Jack almost seems all powerful with these genetically enhanced gifts. Messages all across this Objectivist world describe the difference between the man and the slave. On top of it all, it’s a role playing game. The gamers’ creativity goes into deciding how Jack shall go about dispatching his foes. Players blindly go into this game ready to flex their protagonist powers. Then it all halts with three liberating and empowering words, “would you kindly?”
In a most dramatic turn of events, the apparent antagonist, Andrew Ryan, gradually reveals before completely spelling it out that Jack and the player have been chumped. “Did the airplane crash or was it hijacked? Forced down by something less than a man, bred to sleepwalk through life until activated by a simple phrase spoken by their kindly master.” Jack Ryan (son of Andrew Ryan and a prostitute) never was a hero; he was just a drone genetically programmed to obey any order so long as it was put with the words “Would you kindly”. These words were used by Atlas again and again. What once seemed like suggestions of courtesy now seem like a cruel trick.
The revelation is something that truly strikes beholders of the story between the eyes. Had Jack openly questioned Atlas when ordered to kill Andrew Ryan, gamers might see something being amiss before the grand revelation. There are little things thrown around to make the player think, but it’s more of something to look back to during the grand plot twist. After this moment, the rest of the game isn’t really the same. The character whose role you play is revealed for what every playable character has ever been, a husk to be controlled. Few characters have this blatant recognition that they are controlled by an outside force. Perhaps the other most notable example is Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. However, given that Raiden has many elements of backstory and characterization while Jack from Bioshock has very few, this symbolism flew over the heads of many when this odd followup to a already existing series arose.
Bioshock remains one of the few games that forced the hand of the player just as the player moves the protagonist through a story. It is a feat as both a video game and as a piece of art.