July 2, 2011

Space Satan Whispers in Our Ears...

Digital Morality

I’m a big fan of Nietzsche. He cuts through a lot of what I see as bullshit, to strike at the heart of morals. I mentioned last time that no one sees him-or-herself as the bad guy, though we can recognize when we fuck up. We all make our own morality, even if it entails only slight changes to whatever is usual near you.

I am not a fan of Ayn Rand (actually I think she was an insufferable twat) so when I play Bioshock and Andrew Ryan starts screaming at me “A man chooses! A slave obeys!” I prefer to see the connection to Nietzsche rather than Rand (although Ryan’s super-capitalism-whatever falls within her ballpark).

Bioshock is a fun first-person shooter that asks an interesting moral question: is it okay to kill kids (like, if you really need to)? While I don’t like kids (they poop and don’t clean it up) I’m against killing them. I guess it’s just how I was brought up, which may make me old-fashioned. That said children give you superhuman powers (maniacal laugh sold separately) makes me go, “ehhh,” but I’m still firmly on the anti-child-murder side.

But the real interest isn’t in the moral choices themselves, but what they mean. Spoilers ahead, but this game is pretty old now, so if you haven’t played, you probably won’t. Jack (the character you play) is closer to a Big Daddy than a real human. He was constructed from a stolen fetus, and is actually Andrew Ryan’s son (with his hooker mistress, a lady who got the decidedly short and shitty end of the stick). Ryan, the guy you’re trying to kill for most of the game, is the enemy of Atlas, aka Frank Fontaine, who has programmed Jack to respond to a certain phrase, “Would you kindly?” that makes Jack do whatever he wants. He uses this phrase all the time, and it’s not until after the reveal (when Ryan forces you to kill him [he figured it out] to prove a point) that the player sees how neatly they’ve been led along.

This brings me back to the kid-killing. You kill kids for superpowers. Or, you can save them to get fewer superpowers. Atlas is pro-murder, but - and I just noticed this on my last playthrough - he never uses the command phrase to force you to kill. That decision is left in the player’s hands. (One explanation is the dev team wanted moral choices so didn’t force you, but that’s the less interesting idea, so fuck it). The player is put in a place that seems beyond good and evil, and presented with a choice that means survival or death; can he, or she, ignore the conventional morality and make the hard (evil) decision? Is it possible, because Jack thinks (for most of the game) that he is human, that Atlas was unable to force this sort of monstrous decision to the conclusion he preferred?

In a world built to deny the traditional rules and morals, your cynical heart can run free. You can get all up in Rand’s philosophy that doing what is best for you is somehow best for everyone (hint: it’s not) or you can take a look at the Nietzschean subplot and determine, free from former constraints, what it means to be moral in a world that has gone shithouse rat-style crazy.

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