Of Philosophy in ‘Bioshock 2’: Some Words from the Devs

On February 5th, 2010, some of the development team responsible for Bioshock 2 took part in a conference call with the gaming press. Questions were asked in a moderated forum to a group that included creative director Jordan Thomas, lead designer Zak McClendon, and lead environment artist Hogarth de la Plante.

Most of my own interests in taking part in the forum regarded how the philosophical concerns and ethical choices that made the first Bioshock so compelling might or might not be continued to be explored in the sequel. Interestingly, while the first game grappled with the notion of how creating a society on the libertarian and individualistic principles of Ayn Rand’s objectivism might look in the aftermath of its dissolution, the second game seems to change direction with an eye to considering utopianism of another sort, that of the utilitarianism of collectivist thinkers like John Stuart Mill.

While I would have liked the opportunity to follow up on responses concerning Mill and “the intellectual progeny of Richard Dawkins,” what follows is my transcription of the questions and responses from the call that seemed to focus on the devs thinking about philosophical inspiration, ethics, and how Rapture would continue to serve as an environment to explore big social and political questions and additionally some more fundamental social concerns about basic family organization and family dynamics.

Moderator: How does the sequel expand on the original Bioshock story?

Jordan: The focus here is on choice. In that the player is defined by the moment in which he is granted free will this time around, very much in contrast to the original. Unlike other Big Daddies, Delta is not enslaved to the city and is able to make a number of ethical decisions, which shape the outcome of the plot in a way that wasn’t possible in the original. Andrew Ryan is now dead and in his place and in that power vacuum, Dr. Sofia Lamb has come to be in control. She is a very different thinker, based on John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and she is unwilling to allow any individual to compromise her plan.

Moderator: So, will players ever know the true origins of Delta in Bioshock 2 or does it solely rely on the point after he is awakened?

Jordan: Suffice it to say that the story is mystery driven. One of the central questions that people always ask is “Who am I?” We’re certainly mindful of that, although I would say that because the central conflict of the story is sort of a family triangle in many ways, there is more to offer than just that question in terms of the mystery that unfolds towards the end.

Moderator: Are we going to see any returning characters from Bioshock, and if so, can you say who will be back?

Hogarth: Definitely Tennenbaum is a character that you actually see in Bioshock 2 who was also in Bioshock, but I think that on a more abstract level that Rapture is basically Ryan’s legacy, the crumbling, sad legacy of Andrew Ryan. You’ll see Andrew Ryan’s messages and Andrew Ryan’s ideals around the game. So, he’s still part of the game as a character. As a lot of people said, Rapture was kind of a character on its own, but I think that’s more about Ryan than anything else. You’ll see Tennenbaum as an actual person, but Ryan is still a part of Bioshock 2.

Moderator: Does Andrew Ryan’s objectivist philosophy still hold weight on Rapture, or has the passage of time and Sofia Lamb erased his legacy?

Jordan: Sofia Lamb has certainly made her attempt to blot him out although there’s a level early on called Ryan Amusements where you see the philosophy of Andrew Ryan from a child’s eye view. It is very much a propaganda, an indoctrination park, and so, you absolutely get a lot of the fire and brimstone that you got from Ryan but from the point of view of one of Rapture’s native children.

Moderator: Will the moral choices in Bioshcok 2 require the player to make the unpleasant choices that the first one offered but never actually required?

Jordan: It would undermine the value of a moral choice to force one or the other path. The father relationship with the Little Sisters although twisted, in that both people involved in the pair have been subjected to this gruesome conditioning, is still kind of primal and sad and, in some ways, kind of uplifting, depending on how you treat the Little Sisters. So, you are still called upon to make those choices, but you’re not forced to mistreat them. In fact, what you do with that trust is part of how the choices effect the ending.

Moderator: Have you made the choice of whether to harvest the Little Sisters any harder this time around? In the first game, we didn’t feel that you lost out on enough by saving them to make it a difficult choice. You could become just as powerful regardless of whether you saved or harvested them.

Zak: That’s been something that has been a common criticism of the first game, and we tried to make those choices around the Little Sisters a little more gray. It is both harder to be good and more rewarding to be really, truly evil. If you just straight up save the Little Sisters and never engage in the adopting of them, you are going to be starving for Adam for most of the game. On the other hand, if you are as terrible a person as you possibly can be, and you go around and you adopt and you partner up with the Little Sisters and then you harvest them later, you are going to be really, really flush. But there’s a middle ground, and if you are the kind of player who really wants to work for it and gathers Adam from bodies and save Little Sisters, you can keep pace with the selfish player who harvests them outright. But you are going to be doing a whole lot more work for it. So, as those battles get more difficult as the game goes on, it’s a lot more alluring to just cash in a Little Sister immediately by harvesting her and get that reward rather than doing the long hard work of gathering from bodies. What we’re hoping is that that gameplay choice is more reflective of the choices that go on in your head when you’re trying to make complex moral choices.

Moderator: The philosophy of individualism was obviously a huge part of the first title. With the sequel seemingly going in a completely opposite direction, how early on in development was a theme determined and what were the decisive factors to take that approach?

Jordan: Shortly after deciding that the father-daughter bond would be central to the story, came the obvious question of: what would make for a meaningful antagonist for that? So, somebody to subvert the traditional definition of family through heavily altruistic filters for the common good, above the individual loyalties, sort of naturally followed, and that’s how Sofia Lamb was born. As previously mentioned, she is based on several altruistic thinkers and also on the kind of intellectual progeny of Richard Dawkins.

Moderator: What was the thought process behind telling the story of the fallen Rapture in multiplayer, and why tell this story as a part of Bioshock 2 instead of giving us a fully fleshed out prequel?

Jordan: I’ll start with the prequel thing. In many ways, we feel like an honest prequel to Bioshock in a single player kind of milieu would be a very, very different game. It would sacrifice a lot of what made Bioshock 1 work. If it was at all honest about simulating a live city, then the chaos that makes for the ecology that powers Bioshock would not be possible. Without saying that there will never be a game that takes place earlier in Rapture, we certainly felt that that wouldn’t speak directly to the values of the first game. As far as the multiplayer version goes, the year between 1959 and 1960 is the civil war, when utopia became distopia, and I actually feel very strongly that translating those events into multiplayer mechanics is extremely apt, the sort of dogpile of self interest could not be more laissez faire, and so, the notion that you get to compete for Adam during that time period without losing narrative integration into the world of Bioshock was actually very compelling for me.

Moderator: The world of Bioshock has been heavily influenced by Ayn Rand. Do any other authors stand out as clear influences in Bioshock 2?

Jordan: There’s the obvious influence of Orwell. Utopian in general and particularly distopian fiction almost always comes through an Orwellian filter just because the dangers of an all consuming state are best articulated by that kind of stuff. That being said, a lot of the other influences are non-fiction, again, Dawkins and the evolutionary psychologists that follow him, the works of Marx, Mill, and, for example, more modern philosophers, like David Pearce, who is still alive and would like to eradicate suffering from the planet. So, it’s kind of a blend of fiction and non-fiction.

Moderator: Are video games an acceptable way to explore literature?

I find that the term literature kind of corrupts when applied to video games. I think that there are many game developers that have read philosophy or are fairly versed in the classics but that don’t wear that quite so much on their sleeves. Starting reading philosophy does not necessarily make you or your work particularly deep on its own. I do think that there is a demand for mature themes and that follows naturally into the demand for mature influences and that opens us up into being a bit more pointy headed, particularly in the optional content, where players who are interested in engaging critically with the game on an intellectual level can do so. I wouldn’t say that games are the ideal way to experience literature. I think literature has done that quite well. That being said, games offer the opportunity to ask interesting questions and allow the player to answer them in a way that transcends previous mediums.