Friday, 3 April 2020

Philosophy in Bioshock

On the surface, Bioshock seems like a pretty straight forward series of bizarre science fiction games. The series as a whole can be described as a mix of several different genres, combining a retro science fiction aesthetic with a hybrid of first-person shooter, puzzle-solving, and RPG mechanics. Bioshock has proven extremely influential. One can trace influences from earlier games, perhaps most obviously Half-Life 2, but its influence on later games is irrefutable. Later franchises such as Dishonored draw heavily on Bioshock's blending of genres and its distinct gameplay.

The series currently consists of three main games, plus two additional storylines released as downloadable content- Minerva's Den for Bioshock 2 and Burial at Sea for Bioshock: Infinite, with a fourth game currently in development. Additionally, novels expanding on the game's lore have also been published, and there was even a cancelled movie. The majority of the series concerns Rapture, a failed underwater utopia that exchanges hands through several different people over the course of the series. The third game in the series, Bioshock: Infinite, changes the setting to Columbia, a city in the sky (though Rapture makes a cameo, and its story is further developed in the Burial at Sea campaign).

The City of Rapture, as seen in the original Bioshock

For our purposes, this discussion will be focused primarily on the material related to Rapture, namely Bioshock (2007), Bioshock 2 (2010), and Burial at Sea (2013). All together this creates four distinct storylines (Burial at Sea was released in two parts, both with a different focus), with the player controlling a different character in each.

As is revealed over the course of the series, Rapture was created by a businessman named Andrew Ryan, who was fed up with government regulations infringing on his success. He is generally opposed to things like charity, that he feels interfere with a person's ability to earn through hard work. To him, this is the work of "parasites" who take what is not rightfully theirs. Ryan's concept of Rapture was a world in which everyone earned their own fortune, starting at the same place and climbing the ranks. Unfortunately for him, this did not go entirely to plan.

One of the big commodities in Rapture is a substance known as "ADAM"- a drug harvested from a rare sea slug that can be used to rewrite DNA. When administered, ADAM can be used to gain superpowers, such as the ability to shoot lightning or fire, to freeze objects or people, even telekinesis. It also can be used to obtain various "tonics" that can give the body various advantages.

Unfortunately, it is also extremely addicting as it causes instability in a person's genes that can only be resolved by continued doses. Prolonged use of ADAM results in gradual mental and physical deterioration, until the user starts to lose track of everything that makes them an individual, loses their capacity for rational thought, and turns into a mutated mess only capable of pursuing their next fix, known in the games as "splicers."

Because of its limited availability, ADAM is recycled through mutated children known as "Little Sisters." These are young girls who have been mentally conditioned to collect ADAM from corpses around Rapture. Because this makes them a target for splicers, they also have a bodyguard in the form of a "Big Daddy"- perhaps the most iconic part of the game. Big Daddies are re-purposed construction workers created by mutating humans and permanently sealing them inside a diving suit, while also having their vocal chords surgically altered.

There are important philosophical themes which are routinely explored in each game. Each of the main games essentially revolves around a different philosophy (objectivism in Bioshock, utillitarianism and collectivism in Bioshock 2, and American exceptionalism in Infinite). Additionally the series also wrestles with other complicated issues including human nature, guilt and redemption, the ethics of genetic manipulation, the existence of free will, the roles of government and business in society, the tendency of revolutions to replace tyrants with even worse tyrants, and ultimately the futility of trying to create a perfect society- a task inherently doomed to failure simply because humans are imperfect. But one particular philosophy has a tendency to re-appear again and again- objectivism, which also happens to be the very foundation on which Rapture was built.

Objectivism is a philosophical popularized by author and philosopher Ayn Rand (whose writing was a significant influence on Bioshock). In its simplest form, objectivism is a theory about the self- that one should focus first and foremost on maximizing their own well-being (we can contrast this with the theories of utilitarianism and collectivism, which focus on rejecting the self in favor of helping others). Rand's writing famously suggested that if everyone could adopt a lifestyle built on reason, self-interest, and capitalism, the world would be a much better place.

Objectivism is the foundation of Rapture's society, to the point where its founder is even named Andrew Ryan in reference to Ayn Rand. Fittingly, his primary rival adopts the moniker "Atlas," referencing Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged). His real name, Frank Fontaine, also references another of Rand's works, The Fountainhead.

This ideology is present from the earliest moments of the original Bioshock. The player character, a man referred to as "Jack", narrowly survives a plane crash into the Atlantic Ocean and stumbles onto a small island containing only a lighthouse. Inside the lighthouse Jack gets his first glimpse of the bizarre and disturbing world which he is about to enter.

Upon entering the Bathysphere and submerging, a screen appears, and a short video plays in which Ryan introduces Jack (and the player) to his philosophy. He asks the question "is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow" and cites three examples of societies that say no. Ryan then claims to have "rejected those answers" in favor of constructing his own world, which became the city of Rapture. The slideshow illustrates what Rapture is supposed to be, and on paper it seems to create a very appealing world.

To hear Andrew Ryan tell it, Rapture is designed as the perfect society to accommodate the American dream. It is a place where everyone starts independently at the same level, and through nothing more than hard work can rise to greatness and receive a hard-earned reward. Ryan describes it as being free from the "parasites" of society (which in his mind, means anyone who would take what is rightfully yours). But already we start to see small hints of the problems with this idea. While in theory a place like Rapture can sound very appealing, in practice it is extremely flawed.

Ryan's speech includes his statement that the artist is free to construct as they wish, and the scientists can experiment without the hindrance of ethics. What Ryan is unable to understand is that the rules are in place for a reason, and why the complete freedom he is allowing is a recipe for disaster. We see this reflected in three different characters encountered over the course of the game, two of whom are encountered by the player, while a third appears among the game's many audio recordings that help piece together Rapture's backstory.

The first one encountered by Jack is Dr. Steinman, a once-brilliant plastic surgeon who has developed an obsession with perfecting the human form, to the point where he considers himself an artist on part with Pablo Picasso, and performs operations well beyond treating patients in a desperate attempt to mold them into his standard of beauty. We also see the cruelty of objectivist science demonstrated in Dr. Yi Suchong, a scientist who sells his skills to the highest bidder and finds the concept of empathy to be completely alien.

Suchong is revealed to have conducted a variety of less-than-ethical experiments on unwilling test subjects. This includes his contribution to making the "Big Daddies" but also his secret role in creating Jack. One audio log found in the game indicates that he was figures in not only making Jack, but also conditioning him to respond to certain phrases. In the audio log, he gives Jack a dog, lets him grow attached, then uses the trigger phrase "would you kindly" to make Jack snap the dog's neck.

His cruelty and self-serving worldview ultimately prove to be his undoing. As found in the audio logs in Bioshock and his brief appearance in Burial at Sea- Episode 2, Suchong's arrogance, selfishness, and lack of ethics actually impeded his progress. He is depicted as obsessively trying to find a secret formula that would force a bond to develop between the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. To this end he goes as far as to study the bond between Elizabeth and Songbird in another universe, even forcing Elizabeth on a pointless quest to gain a sample of her own hair.

The ironic detail is the bond is formed not through any chemical formula, but through a simple act of kindness (two little sisters helping an injured Big Daddy), a concept Suchong cannot comprehend. It is then this bond, the very thing Suchong has been determined to create, is what ultimately kills him. Even more ironically, he dies by his own selfish ego and lack of compassion. We first learn of the grisly scene in an audio log in Bioshock, and actually get to see it in Burial at Sea- Episode 2.

In both cases, the scene begins with Suchong recording an audio log ranting about his constant failures to create a bond between the little sisters and big daddies. His “report” is interrupted when two little sisters enter and try to get his attention. Suchong responds angrily and slaps one of them, which provokes the Big Daddy into attacking him.

Not only is Suchong killed by his own ego, but he dies completely oblivious to the fact that the very thing he has been trying so hard to achieve was accomplished, despite it literally staring him in the face. The two little sisters were obviously trying to get his attention to introduce him to their new “friend,” and if he’d shown the slightest bit of compassion he would have seen the successful bond. His reaction (“What are you doing? Get back... get back!!!“) indicates that he perceived the attack as being entirely random and unprovoked. As far as he was concerned a big daddy just came out of nowhere and attacked him for no reason.

Dr. Suchong, an objectivist scientist killed by his own selfishness.

We also encounter Sander Cohen, a snobbish "artist" who looks down on others, tortures his performers when they fail to meet impossible expectations, and has a tendency to produce some very questionable "art" when left to his own devices. The man holds impossible standards. One of the first things he is seen doing is torturing a “disciple,” Kyle Fitzpatrick, by plastering his legs to a piano bench and forcing him to play a musical piece on a piano rugged with dynamite. In  Burial at Sea- Episode 1, he is shown electrocuting a pair of dancers for not meeting his standards.

Cohen’s freedom to create has the detrimental effect of boosting his ego, to the point where he is unable to take criticism and even accuses Jack of being a “doubter.” Audio logs also reveal the story of a singer named Anna Culpepper, whom Sander Cohen wanted dead for criticizing his work. 

His “masterpiece” leaves one to wonder if censorship isn’t such a bad idea. This piece, which Cohen refers to as the “Quadtych,” is the one Jack is forced to help him assemble near the end of Bioshock. It consists of a group of plastered corpses displaying picture frames that end up containing photographs of the corpses of Cohen’s murdered “disciples.” 

Cohen's "masterpiece"

But of course, we cannot discuss objectivism in Bioshock without talking about the man at the center of everything: Andrew Ryan. "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow," Ryan asks in the slideshow which first introduces us to Rapture. But it is less about working for a reward and more about keeping what you own. Ryan's backstory involves him growing up on the wrong side of the Russian Revolution, and watching as his family's property was seized by the revolutionary forces. Presumably being too young to understand the politics of the revolution, all he saw was his family's rightful property being taken by "parasites" creating the basis for his objectivist vision.

"Parasite" seems to be the term Andrew Ryan uses for anyone who disagrees with his objectivist vision, but he has one particular image in mind. To Ryan, a parasite is anyone who takes something which is not rightfully theirs. "Is a man entitled to the sweat of his brow?" indeed. According to Ryan, the "sweat" (or rather, the results of said man's work) is taken by someone else, rather than allowing the man to keep it. To hear his vision of Rapture, it is a world where everyone keeps what they earn.

This is likely rooted in the above-mentioned backstory, where Ryan saw what he understood to be his family's rightful property being stolen by others who did not deserve it. This fuels Ryan's behaviour and his social darwinist mindset. He has come possessive. To him, it doesn't matter if something is valuable or not, what is important is ownership. If its his property, then as far as he is concerned nobody else has  a right to touch it unless he allows it.

This belief is so deeply rooted that Ryan is even willing to destroy his own property to keep it from being taken. One audio log has Ryan relate an anecdote about a forest he once purchased. Others asked him to share it, but this is what Ryan considers to be a "parasite" in social terms. It was a simple matter of the fact that he owned it and therefore others had no right to ask him for anything. According to his anecdote, after failing to keep other parties away, Ryan chose to burn the forest to keep it out of anyone else's hands.

Ryan continues to display the extremes of his philosophy over the course of the game, most notably in the Arcadia level and later during his confrontation with Jack. In both instances, Ryan asserts his ownership of Rapture to the point where he is ready to commit mass murder when it is threatened by his rival Atas.

In Arcadia, Ryan begins destroying the forests which provide oxygen for the city, effectively planning to suffocate the entire city and all its inhabitants, simply to keep Rapture from being taken. This forces Jack to work with Julie Langford, a botanist with an experimental formula for reviving dead trees. When Jack finally reaches Langford's office, he arrives just in time to witness Ryan demonstrate how much he values ownership.

Ryan contacts Julie on an intercom, and emphasizes a contract between them which specifically states that Ryan owns the forest and can do whatever he wants. Since Julie was challenging this theory by trying to undo his damage, Ryan floods her lab with a toxic gas. Once again, it was all about the fact that Ryan owned the forest. He was destroying it, and in his mind Julie had no right to stop him. This is very much the same principle as the forest he described purchasing and then destroying in his audio log.

We see it come up once gain during the confrontation between Jack and Andrew Ryan. Ryan, now realizing he is defeated, opts to end his own life and allow Rapture to self-destruct. He might not have won, but he is ready to do everything he can to deny his rival the satisfaction of victory. In Ryan's mind, nobody else has any right to own Rapture, so if he can't keep it, the next best thing is to ensure nobody else can take it. Just like Arcadia and his previous forest, it's all about being entitled to what he owns.

Ryan's possessive nature becomes even more clear when one looks at how he rules Rapture. His belief in objectivism is almost fanatical, to the point where he more or less preaches it despite asserting that Rapture should be a secular society. He has messages broadcast throughout Rapture reminding people of its values and watch out for "parasites." The word "parasite" is used to build distrust in others. He goes the extra step of cutting off Rapture from the surface, and very meticulously controls who is permitted in and out (if anyone), censors dissidents and, despite claiming to create freedom for the artist, censors work he disapproves of.

Does this behavior sound familiar? It should, because these are the methods of a dictator. Ryan even has blatant propaganda designed for the sole purpose of indoctrinating children. The "Ryan Amusements" theme park in Bioshock 2 was specifically designed to reflect Rapture's values (much to the frustration of its creator), romanticizing the city's history and offering a "Journey to the Surface" ride designed to convince children that the surface is a horrible place full of parasites and that they should have no reason to want to go there.

Similarly, in Burial at Sea- Episode 2 Elizabeth encounters a daycare center which proudly features the characters of "Ryan the Lion and Peter the Parasite." The concept is a twisted version of the classic Aesop story The Lion and the Mouse, where instead of proving that the most seemingly insignificant details can end up being essential, the small mouse is seen as trying to steal what rightfully belongs to the lion. This image is plastered all over the daycare center, along with propaganda films that valorize "Ryan the Lion" (a child-friendly representation of Andrew Ryan) and condemn "Peter the Parasite" while displaying a simplified version of Ryan's philosophy. They even go as far as to valorize some kids as "makers" and publicly shame others as "takers."

From Burial at Sea- Episode 2; "Ryan the Lion" and "Peter the Parasite" are used as contrasting roles to indoctrinate children with objectivist values

Ryan's behaviour resembles a dictator in so many ways, but why should we expect anything else? After all who are some of the best real-world examples of objectivists  other than dictators? A dictator acts in their own interest, asserting their authority. An an authoritarian society the dictator owns everything, including the people. But the problem is that a dictator works at the expense of others. A dictator gains while taking from the people. The dictator is a parasite. This is the ultimate flaw in Rapture. Ryan didn't create a utopia free of the parasites he so desperately tried to escape- he created the perfect environment for those same parasites to thrive.

In fact, if anything Ryan was almost too successful in creating an objectivist society. Most of the city's inhabitants either embrace it, or are themselves victims of Ryan's philosophy, or both. Ryan may have claimed to escape from the parasites of the surface, but in Rapture he becomes one to the working class. He exploits them, kicks them when they're down, and eventually drags the citizens of Rapture into the mass marketing of plasmids, a drug that can rewrite a person's DNA.

The result is the splicers encountered throughout the series- once normal human beings who, thanks to Ryan's greed, began overdosing on plasmids that slowly destroyed them. After a slow period of mental and physical deterioration, these unfortunate people began to lose all capacity for reason and empathy. Their deteriorating minds combined with the memories contained in the ADAM reduce them to feral instincts, until all they can think about is a combination of their own survival and obtaining more ADAM at any cost. The splicers may be victims of Ryan, but they have also been themselves turned into disgusting caricatures of objectivist thought.

It is fittingly ironic that an objectivist should be the one to finally take down Ryan. Enter Frank Fontaine, a con artist who works his way into Rapture and begins challenging Ryan's position of power. Fontaine, despite his disliking of Ryan, actually embraces Rapture's values, he just proves to be better at playing by those rules. Like Ryan, Fontaine is an ambitious individual who works his way to the top for his own gain, but in many ways he is even worse. As Fontaine he is a liar and a power hungry cheat ready to do anything to maximize his wealth and power. But even worse is his alter-ego.

When is finally cornered by Ryan, Fontaine escapes by becoming the worst kind of parasite- the kind that pretends to be your friend. Ryan may have been a crook, and ultimately a parasite himself to the people of Rapture, but at least that was clear. Fontaine's strategy is to fake his own death and assume the identity of "Atlas." This is a persona deliberately crafted to manipulate others, with Jack only the last of potentially thousands of people fooled by this charade.

Fontaine's goal was to create a character that the underclass of Rapture could relate to, a working class hero from humble beginnings that can inspire the people to revolt. This is an especially cruel form of objectivism, as Atlas disguises himself as a utilitarian when in fact Fontaine is only exploiting others for his own selfish (and very objectivist) ends of wealth and power. He uses this persona to create dedicated followers who are ready to fight and die for him thinking they are part of a noble cause, and when he gets what he wants he has no problem turning on the people who helped him. He bludgeoned Elizabeth to death with a pipe wrench after she found his "ace in the hole", indirectly arranged the murder of Dr. Steinman (who performed cosmetic surgery to make Fontaine's "Atlas" character more convincing), and tried to exploit his control over Jack to make him "get stepped on by a Big Daddy."

From Burial at Sea- Episode 2, Fontaine adopts the persona of "Atlas" to manipulate the more vulnerable citizens of Rapture into serving him.

But we cannot forget the most tragic victims of Rapture- the iconic Little Sisters and their Big Daddies. Like splicers, both originated from normal humans who were subjected to mutation experiments against their will. The process results in the suppression of their identities and turns them into slaves for Rapture's economy. Under Ryan's protection, thousands of little girls were abducted from their families and genetically altered to become little sisters, children with no memory of who they used to be. Their function is simply to gather ADAM from corpses so that it can be reused, a process that is used for the sole reason that reusing ADAM is cheaper than obtaining it new.

The Big Daddies are implied to be subjected to an even more excruciating process. They were once normal people transformed against their will and brainwashed into serving Rapture, originally to perform menial labor before being turned into bodyguards for the Little Sisters. Though the process is never fully explained, it involves heavily mutating the subject, performing surgery on their vocal chords, and then permanently sealing them in a diving suit. The few we do get to know all ended up in their position simply because they got on the bad side of Ryan, or someone close to him. Several "parasites" were involved in this process, including not only Ryan himself but also Suchong, Gilbert Alexander, and Augustus Sinclair.

From Bioshock 2, Subject Delta was a deep sea diver who stumbled across Rapture by accident before being captured and turned into a Big Daddy.

This makes it fitting that the Little Sisters should be the basis for the key moral distinction that is made throughout Bioshock and Bioshock 2. In both games, the player needs to get ADAM to gain useful abilities (which are sometimes needed to clear obstacles). The primary way to get ADAM is from the Little Sisters, and there are two ways to do it. The player can "harvest" the Little Sister, killing her but providing a huge load of ADAM. They can also "rescue" the Little Sister, which not only avoids killing her, but also turns her human again and grants the player rewards later on (but at the cost of receiving less ADAM from the process).

This can obviously be read in terms of good and evil, but there are also other ways to look at it. The decision is something like a much darker version of the marshmallow test- a psychological experiment in the decision between short-term and long-term gain. In this case, the player can choose to immediately satisfy their needs by harvesting the Little Sister, maximizing the amount of ADAM they gain from her and being able to use it to gain more power more quickly. Alternatively, the player can accept a smaller short-term reward in exchange for a later payoff. The rewards come in the form of extra ADAM, supplies, and even unique plasmids, that can often be extremely valuable or even life-saving. A player who harvests the Little Sisters can gain more power right away, but may use up valuable resources that will be needed later.

In Bioshock and Bioshock 2, the player is routinely given the choice to rescue or harvest Little Sisters. If the player chooses to harvest the Little Sister, she is killed but the player gets more ADAM. If she is rescued, the player gets less ADAM but makes things better for the Little Sister, and can be rewarded later, 

It is not only a choice of good and evil, but a choice of whether to embrace or reject the philosophy of Rapture. Jack can choose to accept Ryan's objectivist thinking by harvesting the Little Sisters and focusing first and foremost on maximizing his own gain, or he can reject it by saving them and putting the needs of others above himself. As Ryan himself says "A man chooses, a slave obeys"- Jack is making that choice throughout the game, even before he realizes he is being controlled. This also reflected in the game's two possible endings that show opposing outcomes. 

Both endings ultimately see things working out for Jack, but in very different ways depending on whether he ultimately embraces or rejects Ryan's philosophy. If Jack chooses to embrace objectivist thinking, he goes on to seize control of the city, betrays the Little Sisters, and even manages to hijack a submarine with nuclear missiles, implying plans for further conquest. If Jack rejects objectivism, he instead abandons Rapture, bringing the Little Sisters to the surface and raising them as his own, putting them above himself. Jack can emerge as something better, or he can become a new parasite for Rapture.

It is fitting therefore that Jack should be given two allies who represent both sides: Atlas and Tenenbaum. Atlas, the false ally, spends most of the game pretending to be Jack's friend, but ultimately he turns out to be an objectivist out for himself. But even before the big reveal of his true identity, we see hints towards his selfish nature.

For his supposed friendliness and compassion towards Jack, Atlas displays a very dismissive attitude toward the Little Sisters. When he first shows Jack how to get ADAM, Atlas insists that the Little Sisters aren't even human, and encourages Jack to harvest them (contrast this with Sinclair in Bioshock 2, who outlines the pros and cons of both options but decides its the player's call). It is only through the intervention of Tenenbaum that Jack even learns that there is another option. As a man who only looks after himself, it is hardly any surprise that Frank Fontaine would insist on taking the selfish option.

Tenenbaum on the other hand, provides a contrast to many of Rapture's citizens, including both Ryan and Fontaine. She is the one person to question the morality of Rapture's scientists, including her part in creating the Little Sisters. By the time of the first Bioshock, she has been focusing on trying to undo the mutations on the Little Sisters with hopes to eventually bring them to the surface. Her introductory scene involves her saving a Little Sister from a splicer, and desperately trying to persuade Jack to take the "rescue" option (while Atlas insists he should harvest her).

Later on she helps Jack by surgically removing the “would you kindly” trigger from his brain, guides him to the serum needed to remove the rest of Fontaine’s conditioning, and finally helps him stop Fontaine for good. Fittingly, she narrates the ending of the game, her tone shifting depending on the player's choices. She expresses admiration for Jack if he rejects objectivism, but disappointment or anger if he embraces it.

Tenenbaum briefly reappears in Bioshock 2 and shows up again in its side-story Minerva’s Den. At the beginning of Bioshock 2, Subject Delta is contacted by Tenenbaum and guided to her hideout. She has already returned to Rapture to continue helping the Little Sisters, giving them a sanctuary in a train station where she seems to have done her best to make them comfortable. She also tries to help Delta, only leaving him when her hand is forced by the entrance of Sofia Lamb’s minions (though not without leaving Sinclair to continue helping him).

During the events of Minerva’s Den, Tenenbaum continues trying to rescue the victims of Rapture by helping Subject Sigma, another Big Daddy she recruits to help find an advanced computer known as “The Thinker.” Her involvement in finding the computer is ultimately to use it for further research in the hopes of eventually curing what she has come to know as the “ADAM sickness”- trying to find a cure for the effects of ADAM. The game's ending implies that after leaving Rapture, Tenembaum works tirelessly to find her cure and eventually manages to turn Subject Sigma human again- a process everyone else in Rapture was sure was impossible.

There is a counter-philosophy to objectivism, known as utilitarianism. In its simplest form, this is the belief that one should put the needs of others above themselves. Tenenbaum embraces this ideology, showing almost no concern for herself and only on helping the victims of Rapture. This makes her a fitting contrast to Atlas, and what better way to defy Ryan than by embracing the exact opposite of everything he values. It also makes her a contrast to Atlas, who only pretends to be a utilitarian. She ends up being one of the few people in Rapture who is not a parasite. Tenenbaum and Atlas therefore serve as contrasting guides for the player. The player can opt to embrace objectivism, and become a new Fontaine, or they can reject it, and become another Tenembaum. 

But utilitarianism itself is not a perfect system either. While it may have proven the better option in Bioshock, Bioshock 2 reveals that a utilitarian society is no better than an objectivist one, possibly even worse. In the sequel, we return to Rapture almost ten years after the events of the first game, to find that it has been taken over by a brilliant but manipulative psychologist named Sofia Lamb. Like Andrew Ryan, Lamb is fanatically devoted to her ideas- in this case she is a utilitarian.

Lamb's ultimate vision is exactly the opposite of Ryan's. Where Ryan promoted individualism, Lamb endorses collectivism. She has turned the citizens of Rapture into a cult she refers to as the "Rapture Family" and seeks to ultimately create a "true Utopian." Where Andrew Ryan thought this would be a person who climbs the ranks through simple hard work, Sofia Lamb believes it is a person who works for the greater good of the group. She ultimately believes that in order to achieve a utopia she needs to change people so that they are incapable of thinking for themselves, and only acting for others.

The problem with this theory, ironically, is that Lamb herself ends up displaying objectivist behaviour. For a person who speaks so much about helping others, she ends up proving to be extremely selfish. The audio logs encountered during the game reveal that Lamb exploited her position as Rapture's psychologist to manipulate others into joining her cause, and even after being sent to prison and wiped from most of the city's records she only took it as an opportunity to further solidify her hold on her cult. She kidnaps children from the surface to be turned into Little Sisters, treats her own daughter as a tool, abandons Gil Alexander as soon as he is no longer useful, and eventually tries to leave the entire Rapture Family to die in order to save herself.

Her own treatment of others also ties into her twisted view of utillitarianism. Lamb claims to "love" everyone the same, meaning she does not care about any of them at all. She shows a total willingness to sacrifice others if it furthers her goal of creating a "True Utopian." Gilbert Alexander contributed heavily to Lamb's early work, as well as the development of Big Daddies, before being made into a test subject himself, as part of Lamb's project. When the project fails, she outright abandons him, showing no gratitude for any of his previous contributions.

Gilbert Alexander in Bioshock 2, mutated into an unrecognizable form for Sofia's "true utopian" project, then abandoned when it failed.

Even Sofia's own daughter is not safe from her wrath. Eleanor Lamb has clearly rejected her mother's ideology, going as far as to resurrect her "father," Subject Delta, as part of a plan to escape. Sofia's ultimate plan is to turn Eleanor into the "first true utopian," through genetic manipulaiotn, a goal that sounds a lot like what she tried to do with Gil Alexander, only now with more confidence in its success. But even then her treatment of Eleanor is questionable at best. Sofia is keeping her own daughter imprisoned and sedated, then smothers her with a pillow in an effort to kill Subject Delta. This is only what she does to her own, to say nothing of the numerous children who she has had kidnapped to be turned into Little Sisters. It shows that a utillitarian can be every bit as much of a parasite as an objectivist.

The ultimate irony is that, despite her efforts, Sofia Lamb is unable to realize that people like she envisions already exist. Like Jack in the first game, Subject Delta has a choice of whether to embrace utilitarianism, or return to Rapture's objectivist roots. In the most optimistic ending, Delta chooses to put the needs of others above his own. He rescues the Little Sisters and spares as many people as he can, at he cost of his own life. Bioshock 2 has several different ending variations, but more optimistic endings tend to occur with utillitarian actions.

Unlike Jack, however, Delta's actions become an inspiration for Eleanor Lamb, who looks up to him as a role model. A more brutal player will slowly turn Eleanor into a cold-hearted killer, but a utilitarian player will start to turn Eleanor into a utilitarian herself. Eleanor will take leadership for the Little Sisters, bring them to the surface, become a personal guide, and (in the most optimistic outcomes) is able to be the bigger person by giving Sofia a breathing device after her room on the submarine is flooded.

In this version of events, Eleanor actually becomes the "true utopian" that her mother envisioned. What Sofia Lamb could not understand was that it was not something that could be forced onto a person. Remember Andrew Ryan's statement: "A man chooses, a slave obeys!" Delta and Eleanor CHOOSE to be utilitarian, and Delta reveals the ACTUAL way to share that view with others- leading by example and inspiring others to do the same.

In the more optimistic ending of Bioshock 2, Eleanor Lamb is inspired to become a utilitarian

This is even more ironic if we look back at Jack in Bioshock. He is referenced several times in Bioshock 2, and Sofia Lamb cites his mental conditioning as an inspiration for her goals. What she fails to consider is that, while Jack was programmed to follow instructions, he eventually broke free of that conditioning and became his own person. Just like Delta, Jack makes a choice to either embrace or reject Ryan's message. In fact, if Jack chooses to rescue the Little Sisters he actually defies the person giving him the instructions (remember that Atlas encouraged him to harvest them).

We also cannot forget about Elizabeth in Burial at Sea: Episode 2, who gives up her cosmic powers and immortality to help save the Little Sisters and (indirectly) bringing down Fontaine and Ryan. This is even with the knowledge that her chances of getting out in one piece are almost non-existant, and that Atlas will inevitably betray her as soon as she stops being useful to him. She ends up being quite selfless, her only comfort being an imaginary projection of Booker to whom she can express her feelings. It gets to the point where threats to the self do not even affect her.

We can see this near the end of the episode, when Elizabeth wakes up to find herself imprisoned by Atlas, who begins demanding he location of his "Ace in the Hole." To do this, he has her held down while describing a process known as a "trans-orbital lobotomy"- an actual procedure once common in psychiatric facilities that involved inserting a pick through the eye socket and tapping it with a hammer to penetrate a thin layer of bone protecting the prefrontal lobe. He proceeds to "demonstrate" by placing the pick under Elizabeth's eye (made more intense by the first-person perspective) and taps the pick multiple times, citing different things that would get removed if he were to reach the prefrontal lobe, and how it would essentially destroy a person's identity.

It is not hard to see why Atlas considers this an effective means of torture, but what proves Elizabeth's selfless nature is her refusal to give in. While the process is clearly painful, she refrains from offering anything more than a grunt, and taunts Atlas during the process, until he states that he is getting close to penetrating the bone. Elizabeth outright taunts him, even dares him to keep going, pointing out that doing so would actually be preventing her from giving him the information he wants. It is only when Fontaine instead brings out Sally, the Little Sister Elizabeth has been trying to help, and threatens to do the same procedure on her, that Elizabeth changes her tone. She seems to have very little concern for how she herself is affected- she only gives in when doing so can help someone else.

From Burial at Sea- Episode 2, Atlas tries to get information from Elizabeth by threatening her with a trans-orbital lobotomy

These examples prove the flaw in Sofia Lamb's reasoning. Lamb tries to force a collectivist ideology onto others, but Jack, Dela, and Elizabeth already are the types of people she imagines. What changes is that they are utilitarian by choice, and that is the only way to create the "true utopian" she imagines. It once again calls to mind Andrew Ryan's famous words: "A man chooses, a slave obeys." There are other characters over the course of the series that display similar tendencies. Sinclair in Bioshock 2 ultimately leans in the direction of utilitarianism- even before the game his business (Sinclair Solutions) was founded specifically to help solve other people's problems (albeit in not always ethical or legal ways), and he spends the whole game aiding Subject Delta, even after being transformed into a Big Daddy. Even Booker Dewitte in Bioshock: Infinite ultimately allows himself to die to end the cruelty of his alternate self.

The ultimate message to be obtained from the Bioshock series, if one exists, is the inability to create a perfect society. Both Ryan's objectivist and Lamb's utilitarian systems ultimately prove to be their undoing. In the end, the effort to create a utopia of any kind is inherently doomed to failure, simply due to human imperfection. 

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Why Star Wars: Fallen Order is a Step Back for the Franchise

The Star Wars franchise has a long relationship with video games. The sheer number of video games based on the Star Wars universe over the years is too long to list. They have filled any number of genres from shooters to strategy games to RPGs. Heck, quite a few major game developers have at some point or another worked on a Star Wars title at least once. So strong was the interest in Star Wars games that there was even an entire company, fittingly titled LucasArts, that mainly released Star Wars games (though not exclusively, they did have releases also based on Indiana Jones and occasionally licensed original content).

Star Wars video games have also had a polarizing range of reception. Critical reactions have varied from games turning out to be the worst of the worst to beloved classics that end up being a huge influence on later games and even create their own fandoms. Probably the most famous example of the latter is the Knights of the Old Republic series of role-playing games, elements of which can be seen in many subsequent RPGs, including the later Mass Effect series by the same developers.

While Disney's purchasing of Star Wars did lead to some positive developments, this is one area in which it unfortunately had a negative impact. LucasArts was more or less completely shut down, and the video game rights to Star Wars went to Electronic Arts (EA). So far the only major releases by EA have been Battlefront I and II (which was a reboot of an older series by LucasArts), and a few mobile games. Hardly the output that LucasArts was once known for.

Adding to the frustration was EA becoming embroiled in a series of scandals, mostly involving their use of microtransactions. To make a long story short, EA had been using strategies designed to extort money out of players. This had happened in several of their major franchises, but it understandably shook confidence in their role in making Star Wars video games. Not helping were statements from EA saying that they were planning to stick to multiplayer games and ditch single-player storylines, even going as far as to shut down production on another game that was being made.

So admittedly many of us were surprised by the reveal of a new game- Star Wars: Fallen Order, which promised a single-player campaign which EA proudly boasted would be free of micro-transactions. Unfortunately, even if they are sincere about this part, their efforts to improve somehow only took them backwards in a different direction. According to the information that has been released, the game takes place between the prequel and original trilogies, following a former padawan trying to survive in the aftermath of the Jedi Purge in Revenge of the Sith. Could be some interesting opportunities here, not that the trailer said much beyond introducing our new hero.

Unfortunately, it is upon seeing the new hero (who is about the only thing the trailer bothered to tell us anything about), it quickly becomes clear that we have a new problem in effect. One of the more positive aspects of Disney buying Star Wars is a much greater effort at diversity than the original films. We saw this on multiple occasions. In The Force Awakens the two main characters are a woman and a black man (who also show no romantic interest in each other).

We also got the female protagonist Jyn Erso for Rogue One: A Star Wars story. Jyn was a complex anti-hero who eventually became a committed rebel who indirectly set Luke's entire journey into motion. We also can't forget that in the same film she was accompanied by a diverse group of partners from various backgrounds. This is obviously a huge step up from the six films overseen by George Lucas, in which the majority of focus was on white men (Leia and Padme being exceptions).

We can also see this going further in some of the material outside the films. Star Wars Rebels made a firm point of introducing a diverse group of characters for its main cast. Its supporting cast also included a variety of both male and female characters of different ethnicity on both sides of the force. Ezra may have been the entry point to the series, but as it went on it turned more into an ensemble cast that often shifted the focus between different characters. As as a result, it's female characters of Hera and Sabine had their share of moments in the spotlight. If anything, those two were probably the best part of the show.

So imagine our disappointment when the trailer for Star Wars: Fallen Order was revealed and we learn that our protagonist is... yet another white man. Seriously, of all the choices they could have made, they went with this. They could have taken the opportunity to introduce a strong female lead, or a non-white protagonist, maybe a non-caucasian female, or at the very least make use of the numerous aliens that populate the Star Wars galaxy. Alternatively, they could have added in a character customization system, allowing the player to create their own character (i.e. a character they feel comfortable playing as)

But no, we get stuck with generic white man Cal Kestis, whose face is put onto every shot the game has to offer. The game barely shows us anything other than this generic mug that we've no doubt seen on a thousand other protagonists. The trailers don't even give us a sense of any other characters besides him, so it's hard to even be completely sure if they at least have a diverse supporting cast. This is absurd.

About ten years ago, it might have been possible to get away with this type of practice, as some games from that era show. But this is not that time. The days of masculine heroes made by developers who assumed they were marketing to guys are over. In this day and age we need a more diverse array of heroes. We've seen it work with other franchises that have traditionally been male-dominated, why not here?

The Call of Duty franchise, for instance, has had a long history of stories centered on male bonding. The first few games took place during World War II, and generally revolved on male soldiers (with the exception of Tanya Pavelovna in Finest Hour), and there were next to no female characters across the Modern Warfare games. Black Ops didn't have much either, and Black Ops II only had a female civilian who has to be protected by men. Advanced Warfare actually had a female soldier as one of the players' allies. Black Ops III on the other hand allowed the player to choose their character's sex (though there was a somewhat confusing plot about how they actually died at the beginning of the game but had their consciousness uploaded into another guy's brain), as well as multiple female supporting characters. This pattern has generally continued through subsequent games.

Far Cry is another great example. One of the many ways Far Cry 2 has aged poorly (aside from its weak attempt at a twist ending) is the fact that the player is given nine different playable characters to choose from, all of whom can be encountered in the game as so-called "buddies," and all of whom are male. The thing is, in addition to those characters, there are three female "buddies" that function more or less the same as the males, and yet they are excluded from the players' selection.

This is especially frustrating when one realizes that it could easily have been done. The entire game is experienced in the first person, and whichever character the player chooses remains silent throughout. This literally means that the only animation that would have to change would be the two arms in front of the camera. They might have to have to record some alternate lines of dialogue where gender-specific pronouns are used, but it would have been entirely feasible.

Why did they not choose to make the female characters playable? I don't know if there's a specific reason, but my guess is such a possibility didn't cross the minds of the developers. They were working in a different time when they were probably more accustomed to seeing male heroes and assumed that the majority of players of their game would be men who would want to play as a man.

The good news for the Far Cry series is that the developers actually learned from their mistakes and began working to improve. Contrast the absurdly masculine tone of Far Cry 2 with the more open-minded structure of Far Cry 5, released ten years later. This time around, the developers had started to realize that they needed to better represent a diverse fanbase. Not only did they include a diverse group of supporting characters, they also added full customization so the player could create the character they felt comfortable with, including options to be female and/or non-caucasian.

Dishonored managed it in record time. The first game took place in a patriarchal society inspired by the Industrial Revolution, but once the developers heard requests for more diversity they quickly got on top of it. In the two downloadable campaigns featuring Daud, the developers made a firm investment in trying to add a mix of both male and female characters of different ethnicities (including Billie Lurke, who was later revealed to be bisexual). Dishonored 2 did one better, letting the player choose between two different characters, either once again playing as Corvo (the male protagonist of the first game) and his daughter Emily Kaldwin.

While Assassin's Creed has had an extremely diverse cast of NPCs one can't help but notice that the player characters are largely male. It took five games before we got our first female protagonist (and even then, only in the spin-off game Liberation). This is obviously something that had fans annoyed for a while, but the developers listened. After some backlash towards a few remarks about the lack of female assassins in the multiplayer missions for Assassin's Creed: Unity, Ubisoft began working on finding more diversity for players.

In Assassin's Creed: Syndicate the player rotates between the twins Jacob and Evie Frye, and can pretty much choose whichever they want while exploring its world (though specific missions require the player to be one or the other). The bulk of Assassin's Creed: Origins sees the player controlling a black man, the medjay Bayek, with sections in which his wife Aya becomes playable. Odyssey actually lets the player choose between a male and female version of the player character to allow players to choose whichever sex they feel more comfortable playing.

So if these games are any indication, we are living in a changing world in which we need to work on increasing representation of different people. The fact that these franchises began as predominantly masculine is not okay, which is exactly why the developers behind them have been hard at work trying to make them better. It's the same with genres, too. Notice for instance the diversity of a multiplayer shooter like Rainbow Six: Siege and Overwatch, unlike older models such as the Counter Strike series and Team Fortress 2 (both of which lack female playable characters).

And from there we once again find ourselves with this disgusting brown-haired pretty boy Cal Kestis. After all the effort we've seen from the rest of the Star Wars franchise, and from other gaming franchises, we're once again stuck with a generic white male (and probably straight) hero. All this seems to indicate is that EA has learned nothing from other franchises, including its own. One would think they would be willing to consider adding diversity after the popularity of the Fifa series (which actually added women's teams) and Battlefield V (which was promised to make a point of showing the contributions of women in World War II, even placing a woman on the cover). Evidently, that is not the case.

And all we really know about him is that he's just a generic white male who's going to go on some epic journey and do something. We literally know nothing about the character beyond his face. He is bland, dull, and completely unappealing as a hero. Why couldn't we have a strong female lead or, better yet, the option to create our own protagonist for this journey? As it stands, if Star Wars: Fallen Order hopes to prove us all wrong, EA had better get their act together.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

The Not-So-Missing Link

Sir Robert Frost (Hugh Jackman) is an aspiring adventurer with a fascination for paranormal creatures. Unfortunately, he finds he is not taken seriously by his Victorian peers and his efforts to change their mind prove futile. He is particularly despised by the head of the Explorers' Club, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), a man who insists he is leading the "civilized" society of "great men" while his arrogance and closed-mindedness constantly betray his true savage nature. Dunceby is rooted in the past, refusing to except new ideas like the concept of evolution and women's suffrage. Frost is constantly seeking out adventures in the hopes of joining their ranks to no avail.

After an unsuccessful attempt to prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster (he finds it, but fails to obtain solid evidence of its existence) and the resignation of his valet, Frost finds a new opportunity when he receives a lead on the legendary creature known as Sasquatch- a possible missing link in the evolution of humanity-Vowing to prove himself to the Explorers' Club, Frost places a bet with Dunceby that he can prove its existence.

Amazingly, not only does Frost find the sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis), but discovers it is an intelligent creature who can speak, read, and write in English. Said sasquatch actually turns out to be quite friendly, and actively seeking out Frost. He's lonely, and looking for his place in the world. The only lead to where there might be other sasquatches is in legends of yetis in the Himilayas.

The two of them strike a deal- Frost brings the sasquatch to the Himilayas in exchange for all the evidence he needs of his discovery. Also thrown into the mix is Frost's former girlfriend Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), who gets brought along for the ride. But Dunceby is determined to preserve his "civilized" society and hires a big-game hunter to kill them and make sure Frost has no chance of winning the bet.

The result is a fast-paced action adventure rendered in impressive stop-motion. The animation in this film is amazingly smooth. Without proper context one could easily be forgiven for not even realizing this is stop motion, that's how impressive it is. The amount of detail that goes into the animation is incredible- from the intricate movements of its characters to the beautiful scenery that makes up the various environments encountered by its characters (and which many of the action scenes love taking advantage of). The quality of the stop-motion alone is enough to make this a worthwhile experience.

And yet it would hardly to justice to simply call Missing Link a mere spectacle of animation. There are far more complex layers to this story than one might expect. Between its various brands of humor (which includes slapstick, absurdist, intellectual jokes, and dark comedy) and over-the-top action scenes there are some really well-written and very emotional character interactions, and they even managed to fit in a bit of social commentary. This is part of what makes Dunceby such an effective antagonist, that for his goofy design and silly name his attitude feels remarkably genuine for his setting. (this is fitting with the irony of his role- a "civilized" man who constantly displays behavior that would be considered "savage")

The three heroes prove an effective team. The relationship between Frost and the sasquatch (who adopts the name "Susan") is surprisingly complex and turns out to have a lot of detail, even while in the middle of slapstick gags involving Susan's size and strength or his efforts to blend in with humans by wearing a suit. But we also can't ignore the role of Zoe Saldana. Adalina proves to be a very strong character from the moment she is introduced, and she spends much of the film proving her worth as an adventurer every bit as capable as Frost, sometimes even more so. She never feels like she's just there to be used by the men or to be looked at by the audience.

Finally, the story is extremely compelling. The narrative itself is pretty straight forward but includes a variety of twists and turns (special mention to when they actually reach the Himilayas- though I can't say why without giving away spoilers). It ultimately asks a lot of questions about where our heroes belong. What does it mean to be a "great man" (or woman, or Bigfoot) and what does it really mean to be "civilized?" And what does it mean to find one's place in the world, which is often not where you expect?

Missing Link is a must-see for fans of stop-motion. It is an incredibly well-crafted film that will appeal to all ages. Kids will enjoy the animation, the humor, and the fast-paced action while adults get all that plus a few deeper layers.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

To Be a Free Man: Understanding the Futility of Freedom in Half-Life

The full Half-Life series currently comprises two main games, a series of expansions to the first installment, and two episodes continuing the story of the second game. The gameplay is fairly simple, focusing on a mix of first-person shooter action and problem-solving that usually require the player character to get from once place to another while avoiding obstacles and enemies.

In the first game, the player assumes the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist newly hired at the Black Mesa laboratory. Shortly after his arrival, an experiment goes wrong causing a resonance cascade that results in the laboratory being infested by aliens from another dimension. Gordon then finds himself battling through both aliens and marines sent to cover up the disaster eventually travelling to the dimension of Xen where he defeats the nihilanth (the apparent "boss alien"). Half-Life 2 picks up twenty years later, where the world has been taken over by a ruthless alien race known as the Combine, and Gordon Freeman becomes the leader of a revolution.

But this is where the situation gets more complicated. The themes of freedom and liberation are hardly subtle. It's even reflected in the protagonist's name: Gordon FREEman. Yet the irony is that Gordon Freeman, the so-called "One Free Man" is never truly free. He is constantly subordinated to someone or something in what seems to be a never-ending chain of command. Throughout the series, Gordon Freeman is constantly under the thumb of a mysterious figure of authority. The true identity of this unnamed man remains a mystery still debated among fans of the games. Numerous fan theories exist to explain his apparently metaphysical presence, and the uncertainty of whether he's even human.

However, the identity of this character, known in the community as "G-Man" (derived from his filename) is ultimately not as important as what he represents to the world of Half-Life. Whoever this guy is is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that he is the puppet master behind Gordon Freeman. Whatever his endgoals are, and for better or worse, he displays a firm investment in Freeman's activities and appears to be working toward specific outcomes (even if to what end remains unclear). Throughout both Half-Life and Half-Life 2 G-Man makes routine cameos where he appears to be observing Gordon, or otherwise taking an interest in the setting. Both games also see G-Man congratulating Gordon for his efforts, implying that the player did indeed produce G-Man's desired outcome.

At the end of Half-Life, G-Man appears to offer Gordon a "job opportunity," yet the game implies that this is not a choice on Gordon's part. G-Man appears to consider Gordon a valuable asset for reasons unclear and wants to make use of him again, and subsequently puts him into stasis until the events of Half-Life 2. In that game, G-Man once again awakens Gordon, only to once again suspend him in stasis as the film's conclusion after, once again, Gordon has produced the desired outcome. G-Man has essentially enslaved Gordon and is treating him like one might a tool, literally the same way one might treat a hammer or a screwdriver. Gordon is taken out when he is needed, but when he is no longer useful he is placed back into stasis, a sort of "toolbox" where he is stored until such a time as he is needed again.

This adds a peculiar irony to the events of Half-Life 2, where Gordon is drawn into the resistance against the oppressive Combine. He becomes a beacon of freedom towards everyone. The vortigaunts, once enslaved by the antagonists of the first game, now happily aid Freeman. By the end of the game resistance members eagerly follow him and place their trust in his leadership. But is this really freedom? Or are we only seeing a transition from one handler to another?

As the player already knows, Gordon is trapped under the thumb of G-Man, with no clear means of escape (this is accomplished in Half-Life 2: Episode 1, but G-Man's reaction suggests this is little more than a temporary setback). And yet the vortigaunts are calling him the "One Free Man," a moniker the player knows to be false. In short, Gordon Freeman, the leader of the freedom fighters is himself under the control of someone else, only he is given strings that can be seen by nobody else.

The futility of Gordon's efforts at freedom is further reinforced by the decision of Valve to treat him as a silent protagonist. Throughout the series Gordon never speaks a single word, not even so much as a grunt. The series is also experienced in the first-person- Gordon's face is only ever seen on the game boxes and posters. This deprives Gordon the chance to express himself in any meaningful way. By keeping him from speaking, Gordon is unable to share his thoughts or opinions on any issue. The first-person perspective prevents him from emoting. This is also fitting as there is another dimension to his character.

G-Man is not the only one manipulating Gordon. He is also being controlled more directly by someone else- the player. Every action Gordon performs is up to the player. Gordon's movements are based on the actions of a figure who, within the diegesis, shouldn't even exist. As a silent protagonist whose story is seen in the first person, he never gets a chance to properly share any independent thought, personality, or emotions. They are whatever the player decides them to be. So even when Gordon is released from G-Man's grip by the vortigaunts, he is never released from the player's.

Furthermore, in addition to the players, Gordon's path and actions are dictated by the game's writers and developers. His movements are controlled by an entity he doesn't know exists, and his story is scripted. Freeman is therefore perhaps the least free of all the cast of Half-Life, without so much as a means to share or even indicate any real independent thought. Gordon is a puppet on three different fronts, and he can only recognize the strings of one of his puppet masters. He is about as far from a "free man" as can be imagined.

And yet, the contradiction of the so-called "Free Man" and his constant imprisonment is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the themes of control. While Gordon Freeman is indeed being manipulated by forces he can't control, he also has puppets of his own in the form of his apparent allies. Part way through Half-Life 2 one of the Vortigaunts provides Gordon a means of controlling the antlions (a hive-minded race of insectoid aliens) by harvesting Pheropods. As a result, the antlions become Gordon's personal army.

Now the puppet has become a puppeteer. The antlions under Gordon's control blindly follow his orders, taking on enemies and being ready to get themselves killed on mass just to protect Gordon. Just as Gordon cannot see that he is being controlled by the player, now the antlions become his unwitting servants, fighting and dying for him all while being unable to see or even comprehend the strings that are manipulating them.

Once Gordon reaches the levels Anticitizen One and Follow Freeman, the antlions are replaced by human resistance members. "Hey everybody," the rebels yell as they join him, "Follow Freeman!" These are freedom fighters, driven by a desire to end the oppression of the Combine and liberate humanity, but in fact they are now Gordon's servants. He can instruct them on where to go, when to hold position, when to follow, and they obey his orders.

These people are devoting themselves to following Freeman, meaning they are in fact becoming his puppets. Just as Freeman is being manipulated by G-Man, now he manipulates the resistance. The only difference is that the resistance can't see that they're being controlled, and that they are not truly free.

And yet this is only what is seen through the perspective of Freeman himself. Let us shift our perspective for a moment and consider the character of the so-called "G-Man." We never do find out exactly who he is or what his intentions are, beyond that he seems to have an investment in Gordon's success and the implication that he may not be entirely human. He is even shown to be able to freeze time itself. It is obvious that G-Man is a powerful figure, perhaps moreso than even Gordon could begin to understand. When he is not directly obverving Freeman, he is seen interacting with other characters in ambiguous conversations. The expansion Opposing Force even implies that G-Man was the one who sent the marines into Black Mesa. This would seem to suggest he is a boss figure of some sort, the man in control of everything...

Except that is not in fact what he is. He may appear this way as far as any human is concerned, but one important detail is G-Man's references to his "employers." Who G-Man works for is an even bigger mystery than the man himself, but it is clear that he is working for someone. This is not some all-powerful being manipulating everything for his own personal gain, but an agent or employee acting on behalf of an even bigger party, someone so high up that we have no idea who they even are. This means that G-Man may in fact have no more control over anything that goes on than Gordon himself, and his actions are mainly conducted to suit the needs of his unknown employers.

This does leave an interesting question to think about. If G-Man is himself being controlled by someone else, whoever they are, is that party also being controlled by someone else? Is this simply a never-ending chain of command, servants controlling servants who control servants? This appears to be the case when one examines Gordon's enemies. In the first game, Freeman is battling a mix of aliens and U.S. Marines. In the second, he is mainly fighting his way through the Combine forces, with a particular emphasis on their human propaganda master Wallace Breen.

Breen is an interesting case study given his status as the "face" of the dystopian world established in Half-Life 2. In keeping with its not-so-subtle Orwellian influence, Breen takes on the role of a "big-brother"-like figure who regularly appears on screens to deliver messages encouraging City 17's residents to be compliant and submit to the Combine authority. Among the city's residents he is a figure of resentment and a symbol of the Combine's oppression. The man basically sold out humanity when the combine first arrived (though this proved the only way to ensure humanity's survival). As a result he has practically enslaved the entire human race, enjoying the privileges of his role as administrator while trying to comfort everyone else with exaggerated claims about the supposed long-term benefits of Combine rule (even referring to them on-camera as "Our Benefactors").

But Breen is himself little more than a puppet for the Combine. His job is simply to go along with whatever they desire and find some way to present it to the human population as a positive move. Under Breen's direction, it is implied that humans are stripped of everything that makes them individuals to turn them into the ruthless metro police and and the soldiers who routinely work to stop Gordon Freeman, but they are ultimately serving the Combine, not Breen. Breen is only a tool used by the Combine to subjugate humanity. He is ultimately using his position of authority to work toward their interests. Once again we a puppet, albeit a puppet who also has puppets of his own.

Curiously, in Half-Life 2: Episode 1 we see the screens once again being used, this time by Dr. Isaac Kleiner. This comes after the revolution started in the previous game, after Breen has been deposed from his position as administrator for humanity. Kleiner instead takes up a suspiciously similar role, even if he is now speaking on behalf of the resistance. We hear him instructing humanity on what to do, and how they should feel about the Combine recognizing them as "malefactors" (echoing Breen's referring to them as "Our Benefactors" throughout Half-Life 2). He even begins providing instructions for any humans who aren't in immediate danger to begin reproducing to re-establish the human race. It leaves us to wonder: is anything really changed? Has the resistance made things better or are we only replacing one authoritarian regime with another?

Likewise, in Half-Life both groups of antagonists are acting on behalf of other authorities. The marines who arrive to cover up the Black Mesa incident are themselves implied to be manipulated by G-Man. They are only acting under orders, not even fully understanding why they have been deployed or to what end they are working. They are only acting under orders, not out of any malevolence to Black Mesa, on a mission that appears to have been meticulously planned by someone well above their level of command.

The aliens that invade Black Mesa have been enslaved by a creature called the Nihilanth, a peculiar telepathic entity that rules the dimension of Xen. The Nihilinth serves as the primary antagonist and ultimately the final boss. But it ultimately turns out that the whole reason the aliens were in Xen to begin with was because they had themselves been enslaved by the Combine (the primary antagonists of the second game). The enslaved had now become the slaver.

Furthermore, the Vortigaunts find themselves in a peculiar position. They were previously enslaved by the Nihilinth until it was defeated by Gordon. This leads to the Vortigaunts developing a particular respect for Freeman, to the point where he takes on an almost messianic quality in their view. They become extremely loyal and willing to do almost anything for the person they have come to know as "The Free Man" (who, as we have established, is not in fact free in any sense). Throughout Half-Life 2 and its episodes the Vortigaunts provide Freeman with various services. This suggests that Gordon did not in fact liberate the Vortigaunts, but that he merely replaced the Nihilanth as their master while they unknowingly continue to be controlled by their own blind loyalty.

Given these patterns, one is left to wonder about the Combine, who at first seemed to be brutal imperialists interested only in domination. We never do find out just who or what runs the full empire, something only alluded to by the transmission sent in Half-Life 2: Episode 1, but what we have seen of the other characters suggests some interesting questions about what might be found if the series had continue or were to be revived. Is it not possible that, given what we've seen, the oppression and brutality exerted by the Combine forces is in fact because they themselves are being controlled by something else?

At the end of the day, we are left with a simple question: what is freedom? What does it mean to be free? Can one ever be truly free or do they just change controllers? These are the questions which the series constantly wrestles. Their answer? Freedom is an abstract concept constructed in our minds, one for which we constantly feel we must strive towards and yet can never truly attain. True freedom is impossible. The closest one can get is the illusion of freedom brought on by strings they cannot see. Everyone is locked in a series of endless chains of command- servants controlling servants controlling servants, in an inter-tangled web of manipulation and control.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Thursday Movie Picks: Childhood Favorites

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is childhood favorites. This one is a tricky one to select as it's difficult to remember everything I loved as a child. Also a lot of what I was watching was on VHS tapes so there wasn't much of a distinction at the time between "movie" and "VHS compilations of a TV show" back then so it's hard to sort through what definitively counts.

I also remember have some more embarrassing entertainment moments. Here's a fun story: when I was first read the climax of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (the part where Harry confronts Quirrel and he turns out to have Voldemort on the back of his head) I was so scared I was probably the only person who didn't want to watch the movie. When my parents took me to see it anyway, I got so panicked at that moment I had to be taken out of the theater until the scene was over. I remember it also took a few years and some gradual adjustments before I was finally able to watch the full movie without having to leave the room as soon as that scene came up.

Still, I've tried to come up with a good list of a few classics.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1958)

I watched this one so many times when I was younger. I was a big Jules Verne fan and found myself captivated by this version (incidentally, this one is in every possible way superior to that insulting 2008 3D version everyone was talking about for a while). It easily became a personal favorite and one I watched over and over again. The other one I loved was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but it wasn't until much later I got a chance to really examine that one in depth.

The Wrong Trousers (1993)

As a kid, I was a huge fan of Wallace and Gromit and owned all three of the original short films on VHS; but The Wrong Trousers was probably my favorite of the three. This one is plain bizarre and hilarious in so many ways. After all, this is the film that literally revolves around the acquisition of electronic pants (come on, tell me you didn't want your own pair of techno trousers as a kid). It then goes on to involve Wallace renting Gromit's room to a penguin who is really a criminal mastermind planning to steal a valuable diamond, and ultimately culminates in an epic train chase worthy of Buster Keaton...on a model train! (see picture) 

What's not to love about this? Just the bizarre gadgets Wallace has on hand are amusing enough (he has an unusually convoluted morning routine, which ends up getting sabotaged), but also the fun uses it finds for model trains (come on, tell me you wouldn't want a train setup like this one). It's also remarkable how complex Gromit can be without making a round (Wallace is the only speaking role).

Real Wheels/There Goes A... (1993-2003)

I guess this technically counts, though I'm not sure if anyone else here will actually remember these old videos. I used to watch them all the time. Basically, it was a series of short documentaries (usually around 45 minutes) hosted by Dave Hood (several them also featured his co-star Becky) which would talk about different types of vehicles. The films combine documentary film-making with slapstick and screwball comedy to educate kids about how different types of vehicles work and different ways they are used.

Most of them tend to focus on Dave, sometimes accompanied by his co-star Becky, as hosts who are allowed to "pretend for the day" that they are in a specific job so they can learn about the vehicle in question. This often leads to a number of sketches where they consult experts and try to perform aspects of their pretend job only to botch it up in humorous ways. That is also intercut with straightforward documentary portions that allow experts to talk about the vehicles or their history in some cases.