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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Overclocked Episode 2: Rapture, human nature, and which one Andrew Ryan was wrong about.

Welcome to the second irregular installment of Overclocked, in which I go off the deep end and think too hard about something in the hopes that my tortured musings will entertain you. Kind of like Christians in Rome, except the lions are all figurative and live in my head.

Lately I’ve been playing Bioshock 2, which takes place sometime after the game that Ken Levine conceived and sometime before the series ceases to be a profitable brand. The two games have more than Big Daddies and creepy little girls with glowing eyes in common. Both games are skewering one political viewpoint while a significant number of players of the game think they’re skewering a different ones.

In Bioshock the first, the message most people took from the game (at least as far as I can judge by reading reviews) is that capitalism = bad. In fact, the message of the first one is that objectivism doesn’t work as a form of government. I can understand the misconception. At its core, free market capitalism is about letting entities sort out the best way of doing things for themselves with minimal supervision, and that people who earn money should be allowed to keep it. There is common ground there, but the difference is that free marketers favor a system by which property rights can be enforced. This gets back to the whole “keeping what you earn” thing, because there are more people than just government officials who look at your money and think “that belongs to me!”

The objectivist doesn’t agree. To the objectivist, you are entitled to keep only what you can keep. If someone with a bigger gun than yours comes along, well then your money belongs to him now. Unless he falls into some kind of repetitive pattern where he exposes a weak point for you to exploit every third attack. But since life isn’t a Zelda game, that’s not very likely.

The problem with most objectivists is that they don’t even recognize the possibility that someone with a bigger gun would try to take your stuff. Thus, the problem of objectivism is not that objectivism is objectively wrong, but that objectivists are incurably optimistic about human nature. They don’t think out the consequences of their own policies under the immutable fact that human beings are nasty, wicked creatures who will do what benefits them in the easiest way possible unless someone or something stops them from doing so. That’s why societies have laws and constabularies.

This blindness that objectivists have for the unscrupulous is precisely why Atlus caught Andrew Ryan so off guard in Rapture. To Ryan, he had created a true utopia, in which everyone was free to explore their own full potential in the absence of stifling laws or cultural mores. It simply never occurred to him that anyone would want to run the place for his own gain. Just like it never occurred to him that it might be a bad idea to let people give themselves super powers by freebasing sea slugs. What they do with their bodies isn’t his business, right?

Bioshock 2 is likewise likely to be misunderstood. I expect people will take it as a shot at Christianity, when in fact it’s about fascism.

Yes, yes. Feel free to pat yourself on the back. I’m sure you’re the first person clever enough to think “what’s the difference” to the above sentence. Good for you.

Fascism usually starts where you have a disproportionate amount of losers in a society. I don’t mean losers in the forty-seven-years-old-and-his-mom-still-picks-his-clothes-for-him sense, but in the actual I-tried-to-open-a-business-and-lost-my-shirt kind of way. When you get a lot of society’s losers in one place, you get at least one person who sees those losers and realizes that there is power in numbers. That person will then take up the cause of the downtrodden and offer them something they want, or think they want. Chances are they don’t even believe what they’re peddling; they’re just trying to get power.

For Sophia Lamb, she saw that people were missing G-d. Ryan, being the secular humanist and objectivist libertarian that he was, saw religion as a hindrance to the greatness of man. So long as you believe in a power greater than your own, and adhere to artificial laws handed down from some musty old book, then you can never be truly free. Or so Ryan would argue. So naturally, religion was discouraged in Rapture. And bibles are the only books to be banned.

The interesting thing about Bioshock 2 is that it changes the meaning of some of what the player saw in the first game. The first game featured smuggler’s crates full of bibles, and the introduction of the spider splicers had them spouting pseudo scripture instead of the usual incoherent ramblings the player had come to expect from splicers. This was to be taken as hypocrisy on Ryan’s part; the great champion of freedom in all things taking the decidedly totalitarian step of banning literature as subversive. In the context of Bioshock 2, we see that Ryan wasn’t simply preventing people from reading the good book, but was defending Rapture from the fascistic rumblings of Sophia Lamb.

This is made clear in the audio logs, in which Ryan voices his disapproval of Lamb’s coordination of artistic activities in Dionysus Park. He explicitly says that he disapproves, but as it’s Lamb’s property, he has nothing to say about it. But he adds ominously that he will take a sledgehammer to the place if his investigation of Lamb confirms his suspicions.

This exposes Ryan not as the megalomaniac we first took him for in the first game, but as a tragically deluded figure who truly believed his vision would be best for everyone, and was trying to defend the nature of Rapture against elements who would turn it into another totalitarian state.

Lamb, however, is the prototypical power-grabbing fascist aspiring to dictatordom. She uses high flown rhetoric about unity (in Lamb’s case, the buzz word is Family, but it might as well have been Worker, Proletariat, or any of a hundred terms that real-world fascists use to claim they speak for the people) to whip up support for her agenda, but she’s certainly not above strong-arming the odd surrogate mother into giving up a child if it benefits her. Lamb’s own transgressions against the family are forgivable, even laudable, because her only real principle is that of the attainment of power. Because, like any fascist, she believes that everything would be beer and skittles if only she ran everything.

Ryan was actually trying something new. Something that had never been tried before. But it didn’t work out, because people are people. Lamb is just rehashing the ideas and tactics of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joe Stalin and Che Guevara. That never works either, for much the same reason.

Which is kind of fitting, when you think about it. What could be more appropriate to a sequel than a villain that cranks out the same old rhetoric hoping that it will work this time?