The Big Break of BioShock, part 1

Dec 05, 12 The Big Break of BioShock, part 1

What separates someone who’s just playing HALO or BioShock to fill a few hours of his or her time from someone who’s “doing humanities” by performing within a ruleset that goes back to homeric epic or Platonic philosophy? On one extremely important level, nothing. As I’ve demonstrated in previous posts in this series, to perform within a practomimetic ruleset is to engage in humanistic discourse: everyone who participates in fictive performance, whether as a player of Super Mario Bros., as an actor in a production of Hamlet, as a literary scholar publishing an article about symbolism in Moby Dick, or as a philosopher lecturing about the dialogues of Plato, is a humanist by virtue of assuming a performative position as a link in the Great Chain of Practomime.

But this idea will have no chance of persuading you unless I can find a way to account for the difference between the Super Mario-player and the actor on the one hand and the literary scholar and the philosopher on the other. (Not to mention the one between the Super Mario player and the Shakespearean actor! But that one seems to me easier to demonstrate–I’ll handle it down the road a ways.)

The root of my contention that the Super Mario player is “doing humanities” is that in order to win through to the next level of the game he or she must engage in analysis on-the-fly of his or her performance, just as the actor must engage in on-the-fly analysis of his or her theatrical performance, whether in rehearsal or in an actual performance before an audience. More to the point, but in my opinion no more important in understanding how we do humanities, and how we can justify doing more of them, and of more complicated kinds, the beginnings of the analysis of Moby Dick by the literary scholar and the analysis done by the philosopher in his or her lecture happen in precisely the same relation to the ruleset of Melville on the one hand and Plato on the other.

Were the philosopher to begin a philosophy-themed analysis of Super Mario (e.g. what is the ontological status of “another castle”?), he or she–whether or not he or she played the game at all–would be performing that analysis based on a hypothetical version (or multiple such versions) of the on-the-fly analysis-in-performance of the gamer.

That’s where the difference, accurately described, comes in: the distance between those analyses is actually the same distance we find between a reader of Moby Dick on the one hand and the literary scholar on the other, or between Roy Dotrice’s audiobook recordings of A Song of Ice and Fire and/or the makers of HBO’s Game of Thrones on the one hand and, on the other, my own analysis of those works, and of Martin’s own text, as performances within the ruleset of fantasy. The Melville scholar and I are performing both within the ruleset of the literary works, based on the rulesets of the past all the way back to the homeric bards and beyond, and within the highly professionalized ruleset of academic humanistic discourse, wherein we give you pseudo-scientific “explanations” of literature that are mostly of questionable validity and even more questionable value; we do so in pursuit of material gain for ourselves.

But to do a rules-of-the text reading either of Super Mario or of Moby Dick is to uncover a relationship between the reader and the scholar that because of that reading is susceptible of description in a new and potentially helpful way: helpful both for the reader/gamer (in that his or her activity acquires a more potent relationship to his or her ethical life and to his or her critical faculties) and for the scholar (in that he or she has an argument to make as to why he or she should be able to make a living helping reader/gamers get that traction over their ethical lives and their critical faculties, and at the same time may be able to justify changing the ruleset of academic discourse the way I’m trying to do here, in order to produce work of more value to the readers/gamers of the works he or she studies).

That’s where what I call the Big Break of BioShock comes in.

The Big Break of BioShock is the moment in that game when the interactivity of the player with the ruleset is interrupted. It’s a kind of interruption that has analogues in other practomimetic forms, but which carries a special potency in narrative games. I want to suggest that that potency can be described as representing a step from performative analysis to reflective analysis and from naive immersion to complex immersion.

I’ve written extensively elsewhere about the crucial moments in BioShock in the aftermath of the revelation that the player’s and his or her character’s actions have been controlled throughout the game. After killing Andrew Ryan in an unavoidable cutscene where control is taken away from the player in a very standard way, the player is given back ordinary first-person shooter control of the player-character, and told by Atlas, the character controlling him or her, to insert a card in a slot. This command constitutes the Big Break, because in complying the player actually submits his or her will (or, in more familiar game-terms, his or her choice) to the “will” of the character Atlas.

Since a game-rule, as I’ve discussed in the Rules of the Text series, is a constraint of choice within a gamespace, to do as Atlas tells you is to play the game by the rules. But BioShock, in the narrative parts of its ruleset, thematizes objectivist philosophy, as voiced memorably by Andrew Ryan just before the player-character kills him, “A man chooses; a slave obeys.” To obey Atlas is then to admit to being, in Andrew Ryan’s terms, a slave.

The metaphor of the game’s ruleset exposes the meaninglessness of all choice, whether in the game or outside it. The choices the player made before becoming aware that the player-character’s actions were being controlled by Atlas are revealed not as choices but as the absence of choice. For the game to continue, the player must now submit, consciously, to that lack of choice.

(For this reason, incidentally, I disagree fundamentally with those critics of BioShock who maintain that the game is flawed in the equality of game-state outcome of saving little sisters and harvesting them: on my reading, that equality of outcome provides the final confirmation that choice is an illusion both in the game and in the “real” world.)

This moment in BioShock, which I have in the past had great fun comparing to the moment in Plato’s allegory of the cave when the philosopher realizes that he has been living a shadow-puppet show all his life, serves for me as an extraordinarily good model of how humanists of the amateur and of the professional types can bridge what seems at first sight the large gap between the ruleset of Super Mario and the ruleset of academic discourse. I’m going to save the bulk of my discussion of the model for my next post, but I’ll leave you, for the year, with the hinge of my argument: inherent in the ruleset of the sequence I’m describing in BioShock is the potential for analytic reflection, in which the moment-to-moment on-the-fly analysis I described at the outset of this post as being an ineluctable part of performance whether as game-play or as reading or as dramatic enactment is transformed into a new understanding of the conditions of that performance. Moreover, practomimetic rulesets have such moments in much greater abundance and in much greater variety than I think we might at first realize. In BioShock, it’s the “Would you kindly” sequence I’m discussing here. In Hamlet, it’s “What’s he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him that he should weep for her?” In Moby Dick, it’s Ahab’s reference to “the little lower layer.”

The reserved bulk of my argument will address these moments of potential analytic reflection under three headings: 1) how the scholarly ruleset is merely a codification of the reflection enacted in these moments, when their potential is realized; 2) where we can find such moments in less manifestly and artistically self-referential practomimetic rulesets like A Song of Ice and Fire, Super Mario Bros., and HALO; 3) what happens when players of practomimetic rulesets just blow through these moments without noticing the manifest and artistic self-referentiality.



  1. Epic Life: The Big Break of BioShock 3: Humanism of the Walkthrough, or, What happens when the prisoner doesn’t notice he’s been freed | Play The Past - [...] It seems hard to deny that the vast majority of players of BioShock have never thought about the Death-Disarm…

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