On Family, Relationships, & Romance

'BioShock' 10+ Years Later

On Family, Relationships, & Romance

Note: This refers strictly to the first BioShock game. Contains Spoilers for BioShock & Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Consider other games you’ve played. Think of the character’s motivations. It (sometimes) always boils down to some sort of relationship. Here are a few different examples:

  • Luigi’s Mansion—Mario?!
  • Horizon: Zero Dawn — Who birthed me, cuz it sure as heck wasn’t a mountain?
  • Resident Evil 7 — Oh, be right back, have to go murder this family of psychos to save my girlfriend OR the psycho family’s daughter.

Mario Trapped in Luigi’s Mansion

You get the picture. Each of these has a sense of reliance. Luigi has to clear the mansion of ghosts because Mario relies on him and his life (maybe) hangs in the balance. Aloy from H:ZD must discover her own familial history before she can “save the world.” In RE7, they are aaaaaallll related and aaaaallll crazy. Heck even games like Oxygen Not Included have reliance on relationships. Sure, it may not be as obvious since the goal is just "get your duplicants to work together to survive"—but really all it is is building a pseudo house where Bubbles and friends have to work together like a functional family for long enough to survive… forever. Now with expressions, relationships, and empathy for dead friends, which makes keeping stress levels down a much more difficult task! People rely on each other, it’s important for many stories. Hamlet? Oedipus? Or if you’re one for non-dated references, Riverdale, This Is Us, or literally anything fictional on Netflix.

So where am I going with this? I know, I know, it’s not obvious yet. In BioShock, there is no romance. No emotional connection that might cause someone to act empathetically. Every single person in that game (with a few important exceptions) is self-serving, which is incredibly important for this game’s story. Typically, when you meet a women in a video game, they open with “Hi, Hello, I’m Mr. So-and-so’s wife,” or a young boy is in danger and then you save him only to find out that he’s the grandson of some important warrior guy and is in line to be the next leader of the clan. It’s entirely normal for characters' motivations to be derived from some aspect of some relationship.

Example. In Horizon Zero Dawn, Sun King Avad asks Aloy to rescue Ersa from the Shadow Carja. At first he plays it off as oh, she’s a great warrior and everyone is calm when she’s around. Meanwhile, he is head over heels in love with her but they can’t be together because star-crossed lovers, blah, blah, blah, the typical sob story. Juliet and whats-his-name. Oh also, she’s the older sister of the guy that’s been flirting with Aloy for nearly the entire game (a romance that is too icky to discuss here. Another time though, I promise.)

Sun-King Avad Revealing His Relationship with Ersa

In BioShock, everyone is one single person, looking out for numero uno. This means that every character makes genuine, self-serving choices based on their own morals and ideologies. Something about that is so fascinating to me. No one is doing anything for anyone else’s sake. Andrew Ryan even boasts at one point that Rapture is great for scientists because they won’t have to deal with the opinions and pressures of the regular folk. In Rapture, you’re encouraged to just be the most "you" version of you. Want to light your enemies on fire using an incinerate plasmid? Sure, do it. No one will mind because no one cares about anyone else. Andrew Ryan even sets up the Little Sister Orphanage where families can sell their daughters for money. Who needs families anyway, right? Not the people of Rapture!

Believe it or not, this theme of self-servitude even continues into the choice of vending machines. Jack doesn’t need to go to a shop to buy his things, he just puts some dollars in a machine, like the self-serve pop machine at McDonalds. It’s all about agency, which is perhaps the biggest theme of the game, as the player discovers they’ve just been a pawn this entire time even though they were under the impression that they had their own agency. How very meta in a video game.

Let me talk about the exceptions here for a second:

Starting with the one I find funniest: The Sports Boost tonic boasts, “9 out of 10 women prefer an athletic man.” Not so much a mention of relationships as a remnant from the idealization that runs rampant in rapture. I’ll get into that topic more later, as it deserves it’s own article.

Next, Atlas’ “family.” It’s in quotation marks because you might have missed this one on your first play-through. I know I did. Atlas tricks the player (and Jack) into believing they have their own agency by using the idea of "family" to fuel empathy in the player. Atlas tells Jack that his wife Moira and son Patrick have been trapped and that Atlas will help Jack escape if he can first help save his family. This turns into a fake revenge narrative when Atlas makes it appear as though Ryan has murdered Moira and Patrick. But as it turns out, this was all a very clever ruse to gain the player's trust. Atlas doesn’t have a family at all, and in fact, Moira and Patrick is the name of a theatrical play on many of the posters surrounding Fleet Theatre in Fort Frolic. I wonder if Atlas even went to see the play? I wouldn’t be surprised if he did since he seems to have a flair for the dramatic.

Next, we have Jack’s “family.” He actually loses his family twice: once when he crash lands in Rapture and must escape in order to return to his family, a tidbit that fuels Jack’s desire to help Atlas return to his family, by placing him in a parallel predicament of lies; and secondly when Jack discovers that he never actually had a family in the first place and that these ideas and memories were non-consensually implanted into his head. From the very first scene, where you see Jack in the airplane with his gift from mom and dad which reads “Would you kindly not open it until…”, Jack is brainwashed into wanting to escape from this foreign place so that he can return home to his family. But in reality, this emotional connection is entirely fictitious. Jack has actually always lived in Rapture. Again, very meta for a video game where everything is fictitious.

Other exceptions include, obviously, the little sisters who rely on both Tenenbaum and Big Daddies for protection.

A Little Sister with Her Big Daddy

Rapture is a place for zero judgement, gluttony, debauchery, beauty for beauty’s sake, etc. etc.. It is the underwater land of indulgence. Do whatever your little heart desires. They’d probably have made their slogan “The Happiest Place on Earth” if Disney hadn’t already claimed it.

The entire appeal of Rapture is being free. To just do what you want, when you want and how you want. BioShock’s Rapture serves to point out this flaw in our society. Every man for themselves will never, ever work. People need their humanity. Society will fail if people don’t lean on each other or think about consequences. This is what we learn in the “good” ending of the game when Jack takes the little sisters up to the surface. They rely on him and he empathizes with them and wants them to lead a better life on the surface where people are… still selfish, but not as selfish.

Let me know what you think! Have a lovely day!

first person shooter
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Carolyne Hess

A narrative enthusiast. I quite like video games.

See all posts by Carolyne Hess