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Ryan, Galt, and Rand--thoughts on Bioshock and Objectivism

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Disclaimer: I am neither a die-hard fan of Ayn Rand nor am I an objector to every single thing she says.

The first time I played Bioshock 7 years ago, I concluded that Bioshock was a criticism of Randian philosophy--that the game was saying that if Ayn Rand's ideals were placed in the real world, it would fail spectacularly. Inject a highly destructive, highly addictive substance into a society that has no regulations--and watch it collapse. After playing through Bioshock again these last few weeks, here is my tentatively revised opinion.

Before I begin, some background: most who play Bioshock know that it's inspired by Ayn Rand's book, Atlas Shrugged. In Atlas Shrugged (spoilers), a man (named "John Galt") leads a "strike of the mind" by contacting the leaders of business and industry and convincing them to leave their work and join him in a secret city hidden from the outside world, until the outside world eventually collapses from incompetency. Towards the end of the novel John Galt gives a 65+ page speech essentially laying out the entirety of Rand's philosophy. Galt is a fairly transparent personification of Rand's ideals, and Andrew Ryan was inspired by John Galt's character (leading people to an underwater, libertarian utopia) and by extension Ayn Rand (his name being an anagram of "We R Ayn Rand"). But there are key differences among the three.

Ayn Rand is by and large a philosopher. She spoke often and loudly about the evils of government, and how the economy does best when its left to its own affairs, but throughout her life she didn't actually try her hand at business and industry: she spent her life being a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. In essence, she talked the talk--but she did not walk the walk.

John Galt is the ideal man in Rand's philosophical world. He talks the talk, and he walks the walk: he is as successful engineer and physicist who creates amazing inventions, and his philosophies are so convincing that he caused the rest of the world's brightest minds to follow him.

Andrew Ryan is somewhere in between. I like to think of him as an enterprising businessman who subscribed to Rand's philosophies, but only as far as one of her less idealistic students. He talked the talk, and he walked the walk--partially.

Ryan constantly espouses Rand's philosophies throughout the game. He says that Rapture is a city where "the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality", where the government would not interfere with business. He states that, unlike big government, he does not resort to violence to fulfill his goals: "My strength is not in steel and fire, that is what the parasites will never understand". Of course, the game goes on to demonstrate that he violated almost every single one of his beliefs: he had Anna Culpepper killed for writing reactionary songs, nationalized Fontaine's businesses, and shackled the minds of the city to slavery: using pheromones to control splicers, splicing to control Big Daddies, and conditioning to control Little Sisters. Despite his claims that his strength lies not in steel or fire, he repeatedly tries to have the player (and anyone who disagrees with him) killed--an interesting parallel to Rand's Atlas Shrugged, where the main characters repeatedly express disgust at violence only to conclude the story through a series of murders (Rand justifies this by saying that a person who does not have their own opinion is less than human). Ryan becomes increasingly delusional as his city collapses, claiming that it was the Little Sisters' faults, as much as his, that they were placed in the situation they were in. He mocks the player for being a slave and not having free will, when that is something that he forced upon nearly the entirety of Rapture. His time at Rapture and his actions have made him the very thing he hated the most: autocratic government. Probably in a moment of clarity and remorse, he finally chooses to have Jack kill him.

This is why I no longer believe that the game is a complete criticism of Rand's philosophy. Rand would have been horrified by all the things that Ryan had done (particularly, I think, the robbing of free will)--were she in Ryan's shoes, I'm pretty certain that she would have chosen death rather than compromise her ideals, as opposed to Ryan, who compromised his ideals and then chose death. But at the same time, I don't think that the game endorses Randian Objectivism, either.

Some would argue that Ryan failed because he compromised his beliefs, but I don't think that's true. Had Ryan not done any of the terrible things he did, that wouldn't have stopped Frank Fontaine from exploiting the system and ultimately becoming a threat. Fontaine was a very real threat and his ultimate goal was the takeover of the city (or, at least, its resources); Ryan's actions towards controlling Fontaine, while barbaric and self-serving, were ultimately very effective (until Jack came along). In this sense, I do believe that Bioshock is a criticism of Randian philosophy.

If anything, the people who most closely resemble Rand in the game are not Ryan, but people like McDonaugh, Sullivan, and Culpepper. These are three people who followed Randian Objectivism and refused to compromise their beliefs. Now here's the interesting thing: they are, for the purposes of the game, unwise. The first two are lured by the belief that Fontaine's not such a bad guy and sympathize with him to a point, which causes their frictions with Ryan. However, Fontaine's clearly the bad guy--only Ryan seems to fully comprehend that, and he responds by compromising his beliefs in order to put pressure on Fontaine (and it works, up until Fontaine's incredibly unlikely yet fruitful Ace in the Hole plan--that's another post for another day). True believers of Randian philosophy meet Fontaine, the con man--and they are easily conned. This is, at its essence, why Randian philosophy in Bioshock failed--not because of ADAM, but because of the inevitable destruction of a hard-line philosophy when it meets reality.

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