BIOSHOCK AS POLITICAL

DIDACTIC GAMES VS GAMES WITH POLITICAL SUBJECT MATTER


Games made to endorse an ideology or “message” will entertain politics as a thesis[1] rather than the subject-matter of the work; they are a sort of “hieroglyph” or conventional sign of (a big, painted arrow pointing toward) the politics they purport. Contrarily, art “as ordered to beauty refuses… to stop at shapes or colors, or sounds or words grasped in themselves and as things (they must first be grasped in this manner -- that is the first condition), but it grasps them also as making known something other than themselves, that is to say, as signs. And the thing signified can be a sign in its turn…[i]

The very things signified or “rendered present to the soul by the sensible signs of art -- by the rhythms, sounds, lines, colors, forms, masses, words, metres, rhymes, images, the proximate matter of art – [these] are themselves but a material element of the beauty of the work, just like the signs in question; they are a remote matter, so to speak, which the artist arranges and on which he must make shine the radiance of a form[ii]

These things “rendered present” are the subject matter of the work [as thesis-infected, the work would be arrested here, directed merely to this point]; the artistic conception (the form, “idea”[iii] or “immaterial matrix”[iv] of the work to be done apprehended in its “individual soul”, a “spiritual germ or seminal reason of the work” rich in the “virtual multiplicity” which will regulate its variegated material components[v]) is “something altogether different from the simple choice of subject: the subject is nothing more than the matter of this conception, and there are even, for the artist or the poet, certain advantages -- as Goethe explains very well -- to receiving this matter from others [a point pertinent to sequels or games made for pre-existing intellectual properties].”[vi]

The more the subject-matter or depicted object “is laden with signification (but with spontaneous and intuitively grasped signification, not with hieroglyphic signification), the greater and richer and higher will be the possibility of delight and beauty. The beauty of a painting or a statue is thus incomparably richer than the beauty of a carpet, a Venetian glass, or an amphora.”[vii]

In light of this we approvingly cite Levine’s following remark: “I read [Logan’s Run] like five times and the thing about, someone can imagine an entire society was very appealing to me and I think it was in high school that I read Animal Farm first and It was really, obviously the kind of political ideas in that was far more sophisticated than Logan’s Run, and Brave New World and stuff like that so it was fiction that I was really drawn to[viii]. The appeal and peculiar beauty of political subject matter, the creation of “entire societies” is in this: that “the city [the polis] includes all the other societies [or subjects or symbols], for households and villages are both comprised under the city; and so political society itself is the highest society… it seeks the highest among all human goods, for it aims at the common good, which is better and more divine than the good of one individual… The city is therefore necessarily superior to all the other wholes that may be known and constituted by human reason[ix]

If subject-matter is richer the more it is a fertile semiotic substrate for signifying the artist’s conception, a means of “making known something other than itself” (in the case of fine art, a “new analogate of the beautiful [the conception], a new way in which the radiance of form can shine on matter[x], rather than subject matter being the end of the work or ultimate signification thereof, as in propaganda) then human society (comprised of rational individuals and their variegated associations) appears to be the “richest” subject matter there is. Nothing else will possess, via operation and arrangement of its constituent parts, the same capacity for symbolizing the most “simple and fundamental”[xi] things as the breadth, the determinacy or actuality of an ordered multitude of rational animals (in each of which, via the intellectual union of knower and known, “it is possible for the perfection of the whole universe to exist”[xii]). Such an ordered multitude is the best “analogate” for the exhibition of [transcendental, essentially-varied] beauty[xiii]. Moreover no “world” would be complete or fully-formed without the same. Levine seems attuned to this in asserting that his fictional societies/the politics in his games emerge in representation of or derivation from (as SYMBOLS OF) the personalities of his characters[xiv] His work also speaks to the point; Rapture is widely and rightfully regarded as one of the best fictional worlds ever created for its universe-building, of which politics is an essential component, without which it would lack its “inner consistency”, universal relevance, truth and terrifying beauty.

Rapture & the promethean concept of human nature it interrogates would be impossible without political subject matter (wherein man flees the order of nature to escape the laws of God and kings, only to meet with ruin; like the biblical Adam, namesake of gene-modification technology in the game, Ryan and the splicers coveted God's likeness as regards ‘knowledge of good and evil,’… namely that by [their] own natural power [they] might decide what [they are, what] was good, and what was evil for [them] to do”[xv]. We note a self-professed ‘queer theorist’s’ disappointment, after remarking on the “queerness” of rapture [where ‘queer’ indicates a “place of contested and resistant meaning where social structures… are ruptured, subverted or even mocked”; Rapture is truly such a place[2]], that the game concludes with the city and the “disruptive future” it represents being “forcibly yanked bank into line” while depicting identity disruption and the dissolution/construction of meaning as a precursor to “murderous aesthetes and nuclear apocalypse”[xvi].)

Indeed these politics are an integral consequence or concomitant of the universe on show, a component deriving or resulting necessarily from the game’s conception. With the aesthetic, individual art assets, plot, gameplay and characters, political subject matter here is a determination or unfolding of the internal logic of Rapture. Politics exist in the game for the good of the creative form, out of love for it (its beauty). The form of the work, the conception in the mind of its creators was (to our ability to discern) most fundamentally of a society emancipated (by Adam and Ryan[2]) from all non-manmade meaning and value (and the structures that emerge in such a condition). While (on the mechanical front) Bioshock deftly combines rpg and shooter elements into a gameplay type that remains brilliant and enjoyable twelve years later, having become the template for so many games since, Levine notes that Rapture is Bioshock’s beating heart: the “ability to tell a story within [this] environment became the most important thing about the game… the visual world was the star in this thing”[xvii]

But “the artist must be as objective as the man of science, in the sense that he must think of the spectator only in order to present him with the beautiful, or the well-made, just as the man of science thinks of his listener only in order to present him with the truth[xviii]. The artist who sets out to procure the sympathy (or antipathy) of his reader or player for a depicted doctrine reverts his work “to the generic type of art and its inferior species, the mechanical arts[xix], the world and subject-matter of which [then] exist as slaves to an animating ideology. Such a work is not “objective” in that it lacks “correctitude of [the artist’s] appetite in regard to beauty[xx]

Bioshock is evidently the work of an “objective” mind in the relevant sense; it is not didactic (and thus not “political” in the colloquial sense of the term); politics is deployed, as colours or sounds would be, as a material component of Bioshock, in service to its conception [and not the reason for its existence, the “beauty of the work not being the beauty of the object represented[xxi]], as the abovementioned creation of characters before their politics attests. It does not want us to subscribe to or abhor as intrinsically evil any of the broader ideologies on show, despite exploring their logical consequences (Ryan is a dick, but not half as bad as he appears… “Is there something laudable in the doomed attempt to transcend the limits of human nature?” is never invalidated as a stupid question, the player can behave in a wretched manner which would be read as a “denial of the existence” of the little sisters[xxii] or as an “endorsement” of the “horrors it depicts” given the lack of critique[xxiii]; Bioshock even retains in-game tobacco use in lieu of mainstream-friendly corporate promotion[xxiv]). Levine remarks that “the best and the most transformative art is almost always really good at entertaining in high quality. So start [by asking] ‘what is a great story I can tell?’ And then worry about getting the messages across. Start with a great story… say ‘How do I lead with the story rather than ideology that I want to get across?’”[xxv]. He is like the medieval “cathedral builders [who] did not harbor any sort of thesis. They were, in Dulac's fine phrase, ‘men unaware of themselves.’ They neither wished to demonstrate the propriety of Christian dogma nor to suggest by some artifice a Christian emotion. They even thought a great deal less of making a beautiful work than of doing good work. They were men of Faith, and as they were, so they worked. Their work revealed the truth of God, but without doing it intentionally and because of not doing it intentionally”[xxvi]


[1] “Let us designate as thesis every intention extrinsic to the work itself, when the thought animated by this intention does not act on the work through the artistic habitus moved instrumentally, but juxtaposes itself to this habitus in order itself to act directly on the work; in that case, the work is not produced wholly by the artistic habitus and wholly by the thought thus animated, but partly by the one and partly by the other, like a boat pulled by two men. In this sense every thesis, whether it claims to demonstrate some truth or to touch the heart, is for art a foreign importation, hence an impurity. It imposes on art, in art's own sphere, that is to say in the very production of the work, a rule and an end which is not the end or rule of the production; it prevents the work of art from springing from the heart of the artist spontaneously like a ripened fruit; it betrays a calculation, a duality between the intellect of the artist and his sensibility, which two, art, as it happens, wants to see united.The artist must be as objective as the man of science, in the sense that he must think of the spectator only in order to present him with the beautiful, or the well-made, just as the man of science thinks of his listener only in order to present him with the truth. The cathedral builders did not harbor any sort of thesis. They were, in Dulac's fine phrase, ‘men unaware of themselves.’ They neither wished to demonstrate the propriety of Christian dogma nor to suggest by some artifice a Christian emotion. They even thought a great deal less of making a beautiful work than of doing good work. They were men of Faith, and as they were, so they worked. Their work revealed the truth of God, but without doing it intentionally and because of not doing it intentionally.” (https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/art7.htm). Could not the same be said for the success and profit of recent landmark works: “these works made profit, but without doing it intentionally and because of not doing it intentionally”?[2] ADAM is the means whereby Rapture’s denizens were able to enact the pretense of deciding identity, good/evil & the order of nature by their own power, “to bend the double helix… black can be reborn white, tall, short, weak, strong”. Andrew Ryan, his city and ideas made this possible: “Ryan and ADAM, ADAM and Ryan... All those years of study, and was I ever truly a surgeon before I met them? How we plinked away with our scalpels and toy morality. Yes, we could lop a boil here, and shave down a beak there, but... but could we really change anything? No. But ADAM gives us the means to do it. And Ryan [who believes in no God but the “Great Chain of industry”] frees us from the phony ethics that held us back. Change your look, change your sex, change your race. It's yours to change, nobody else's.” (“ADAM Discovery”, “ADAM’s Changes”, “The Great Chain” audio diaries https://bioshock.fandom.com/wiki/ADAM_Discovery, https://bioshock.fandom.com/wiki/ADAM%27s_Changes, https://bioshock.fandom.com/wiki/The_Great_Chain_(Economic_Ideal))The Director Commentary cited in endnote xv contains the interesting remark by Levine that ADAM was introduced to provide players with a currency to attain from fighting the Big Daddies, but became central to the story and city of Rapture. Very interesting to observe the different garb an artistic conception can take on and discard in progress toward fulness (and at what impetus)


[i] (https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/art7.htm)[ii] ibid[iii] A+S 244[iv] A+S 90[v] A+S 194[vi] (https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/artfn.htm#93)[vii] (https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/art7.htm)[viii] (http://www.gameology.ir/en/index.php?pid=read&id=5)[ix] POLS 11, 4 https://dhspriory.org/thomas/Politics.htm[x] https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/art6.htm[xi] Tolkien, On Fairy Stories 68-70 (https://www.amazon.ca/Tolkien-Fairy-Stories-Verlyn-Flieger/dp/0007244665)[xii] Degrees of Knowledge 118[xiii] “The beautiful belongs to the order of the transcendentals, that is to say, objects of thought which transcend every limit of genus or category, and which do not allow themselves to be enclosed in any class, because they imbue everything and are to be found everywhere. Like the one, the true and the good, the beautiful is being itself considered from a certain aspect; it is a property of being. It is not an accident superadded to being, it adds to being only a relation of reason: it is being considered as delighting, by the mere intuition of it, an intellectual nature. Thus everything is beautiful, just as everything is good, at least in a certain relation. And as being is everywhere present and everywhere varied the beautiful likewise is diffused everywhere and is everywhere varied. Like being and the other transcendentals, it is essentially analogous, that is to say, it is predicated for diverse reasons, sub diversa ratione, of the diverse subjects of which it is predicated: each kind of being is in its own way, is good in its own way, is beautiful in its own way.” (https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/art5.htm)“The analogates (analoga analogata) of an analogous concept (analogum analogans) are the diverse things in which this concept is realized and which it fits.” (https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/artfn.htm#67)[xiv] Interviewer: Your games deal with a lot of political and philosophical issues, how do you insert them into your games? Is the story based on those factors or they come along as you write? How is the process working?Ken Levine: I think in the best case you are working with character, you know, if you look at Andrew Ryan, you can’t separate Andrew Ryan as a person from Andrew Ryan the political figure, his response to pain, it’s political, right? I’m going to create a society that is going to protect me from that pain and I think that’s what most people trying to do in politics, you get into politics as a respond to something that is distressing or upsetting you and you know we are wrestling with different kinds of demons. You know, the expression of wrestling for me is art work and the expression of wrestling for other people is going to politics, so I tend to write about… I have no interest in being in politics, I like making politics in games because I can sort of have a lot of control in the games. I can forget about the lack of control I have in the real world politics because it’s not a world that I’ve ever was interested in.But I think that you start with a character, like, what’s that person’s problem and what’s their solution and I’ve chosen characters whose solutions tend to be political.[xv] Summa iii.163.2.a (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3163.htm#article1)[xvi] Youngblood 143+ (https://www.amazon.ca/Beyond-Sea-Navigating-Felan-Parker/dp/077355498X/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=bioshock+beyond+the+sea&qid=1562970341&s=gateway&sr=8-1)[xvii] Bioshock Director’s Commentary, included in the “Bioshock Collection”, Episode “The Deeper Shooter”[xviii] https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/art7.htm[xix] A+S 50[xx] A+S 194[xxi] A+S 181[xxii] https://www.vg247.com/2019/05/23/why-dont-triple-a-games-like-overwatch-take-better-pride-in-lgbt-characters/[xxiii] https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2019/06/15/nuclear-winter-is-the-logical-thematic-conclusion-to-bethesdas-fallouts/[xxiv] https://www.exclusivelygames.com/no-smoking-allowed-in-gears-5/[xxv] http://www.gameology.ir/en/index.php?pid=read&id=5[xxvi] https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/art7.htm