“A Man Chooses, a Slave Obeys”? Objectivism, Choice, and Narrative Agency in BioShock

by Stefan Schubert


This presentation will examine the ways in which the 2007 video game BioShock facilitates a discussion of Ayn Rand’s political philosophy of objectivism, centered on the issues of choice and agency. BioShock is a first-person shooter set in a science-fiction/biopunk version of the 1950s, in which the egomaniac businessman Andrew Ryan has constructed an enormous underwater city called Rapture. As an alternative to the apparently looming threat of communism, he built Rapture and its society according to the principles inherent in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism (most famously presented in her novel Atlas Shrugged): Like Rand, Ryan believes in the pursuit of selfinterest and in the importance of individual liberty and choice, an ideology crudely summarized in his belief that “a man chooses, a slave obeys.” Originally built in the early 1950s, Rapture is explored by the player character, Jack, in the year 1960, after the city has been ravaged by a civil war and has turned into a dystopian society.

BioShock offers a popular format for a contemporary discussion of the underlying implications of objectivism as it depicts characters and locations influenced by such a worldview. The city of Rapture thus stands as a kind of ‘adaptation’ of objectivism, while the way it is presented (and narrated) constitutes a critique of the political thoughts characterizing Rand’s ideas. Crucially, the game foregrounds these thoughts and concerns on the metatextual level of the game’s actual gameplay, its interactive elements: The question of individual choice is also implemented in the game’s varying degrees of linear and nonlinear elements, giving players options of how to explore the narrative and of how to construct the game’s storyworld.

Most significantly, though, BioShock pinpoints this issue in its use of a crucial plot twist near the end of the game, revealing that the player character’s seemingly voluntary actions and choices so far have actually been predetermined and conditioned. The game thus uses a moment of ‘narrative instability’ (as I want to term it) that self-consciously ‘plays’ with the fourth wall by emphasizing the player’s previous lack of agency in influencing crucial aspects of the narrative, which, for a moment, also breaks the player’s ‘immersion’ in the game. In a close reading of the game and its politics, I want to investigate how BioShock, in using such an ‘unstable’ twist moment not just on the levels of narrative and visuals but also on the level of actual gameplay, connects the questions of individual liberty and choice in its objectivism-inspired narrative and setting with metatextual discussions of player choice and agency.