April 20, 2008


BioShock lets users take on fanaticism through fantasy (Hiawatha Bray, August 27, 2007, Boston Globe)

I don't usually warm up for a video game review by reading a book review. But to appreciate the new game BioShock, it helps to read "Big Sister Is Watching You," Whittaker Chambers's coolly contemptuous take on Ayn Rand's 1957 novel, "Atlas Shrugged."

Rand's book has sold millions of copies this past half-century. To several generations of libertarians, it's pretty much sacred scripture. But to Chambers, a recovered communist with an eye for the dictatorial, "Atlas Shrugged" was bunk, and dangerous bunk to boot.

The book envisions a commercial utopia founded on free enterprise at its most absolute -- so absolute that in Chambers's view, this new freedom must ultimately be enforced at gunpoint. "From almost any page of 'Atlas Shrugged,' " said Chambers, "a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber -- go!' "

Fifty years on, an erstwhile "Atlas Shrugged" fan named Ken Levine came to much the same conclusion. Rather than pound out a scathing critical essay, he created a beautiful, brutal, and disquieting computer game instead. It's called BioShock, and it's one of the best in years. [...]

Rapture was designed as a man-made paradise, but Heaven is only for the dead.

That's the insight that inspired Levine, creative director of Bio- Shock. In an interview, he told me that Rapture is his version of "Galt's Gulch," the capitalist utopia created by the hero of Rand's novel. As a young man, Levine was much taken by the idea. But in time he came to perceive the bitter, world-hating fanaticism at the core of "Atlas Shrugged." He realized, like Chambers, that such fanaticism, even in the service of total freedom, must come to a bad end. BioShock is his vision of how it would all go wrong; it's also a wonderful example of dystopian fantasy done right.

No Gods or Kings: Objectivism in BioShock (Brian Crecente, Kotaku)
Levine wondered what sorts of people might live in an underwater city, what would drive someone from the rest of the world.

"I started thinking about utopian civilizations," he said. "You have these traditional utopian notions. I've always been a fan of utopian and dystopian literature.

"The more I started thinking about making a compelling place and compelling villain, someone who had a real concrete set of beliefs made sense."

Enter Objectivism. Levine said he had been reading Ayn Rand's books over the past few years and was fascinated with her "intensity and purity of belief."

"The surety she has in her beliefs was fascinating," he said. "She almost spoke like a super villain, like Dr Doom."

And her characters, Levine believed, projected that same intensity.

"I started to wonder, what happens when you stop questioning yourself? It becomes a set of accepted truths, instead of something you're constantly using in the lab of reality." [...]

Rand's characters aren't flawed because not everyone is, [Ayn Rand Institute's president, Yaron Brook] says.

"I think its flawed logic in the sense that he thinks that people have to be flawed," he said. "I think in many respects (Rand's) books do put her characters in real life.

"I think there are great people and perfect people and I think we all should strive to be great and perfect."

From the Department of Self-Parody.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 20, 2008 1:18 PM
Comments for this post are closed.