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Once again, I start my experience with a new (to me) game with a rude surprise.

After installing the game Bioshock and clicking on the opening menu, nothing. The mouse buttons had reversed from my left-handed mouse set up. Fortunately, the actual control which takes place through the mouse buttons (namely using your weapon) can be reprogrammed, so I could switch, for in-game use, to the natural (for me) set up. For the menus, however, I’ll just have to get used to it because, as a whole, the mouse is not configurable.

Having got used to that, I started the game with its opening plane crash. I hit the water and emerged, apparently, deaf.

There is a problem with the game installation, not just for me, that the sound doesn’t work. The sound during the intro worked fine, but once I was into the game engine – no sound. I tried fiddling with the settings to no avail and finally did a search on-line. Turns out, if you have a microphone connected to your computer, then the sound works. If not (at least with my setup), then nothing. There may be other ways to fix it, but I’d rather not dink around with settings if I can just plug in a web cam while I play.

Of course, The Zuck can listen in on me now, but its the price I pay for playing games.

It also turns out that the game is a lot spookier with the sound on. It’s an impressive game overall. Nice graphics rendered in the Unreal Engine (version 2.5, if you are counting) and, with the graphics/sound combination, an immersive horror movie ambiance. It may be fifteen-year-old good-looking, but when you’re used to looking at old games on an old computer, that’s still good-looking in my book.

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Lookin’ good. By the way, there is a lot of water.

Bioshock imagines the world of 1960 wherein a wealthy industrialist creates an underwater city that will allow him and like-minded thinkers to prosper without the heavy hand of government. You, the player, start the game in a plane that is about to crash. You manage to get free of the wreckage and find yourself in the ocean near one of the access points to this city below the sea. Entering, you find that something has gone wrong and the city is in chaos. You need to navigate the city (Rapture), figure out what is going on, and (of course) survive.

The release of the game in August 2007 was a combined Xbox 360 and PC release. While making it technically not a console port, it was clearly developed for and targeted to the console world. Some initial criticism of the PC version, particularly around the SecurROM copy protection, probably bent initial sales towards the console version. Current sales, in excess of 4 million units, may well favor the PC.

I’ve never been a big player in the First Person Shooter genre. Up to this point, I can probably count the number of FPS games I’ve played on one hand. While I spent significant time with a couple of them, the only one I think I’ve ever “finished” is Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. So in many ways, what is old hat to the rest of the world is still new to me.

That in mind, I can see the DOOM roots of Bioshock’s gameplay. The gradual upgrade of weapons, the scattered first-aid kits – its a variation on a well-used theme. The trick for much of the genre is that the game has to shepherd the player through, essentially, a linear progression of events while at the same time making the player feel he is in a fully-developed world where anything is possible.

In DOOM, there wasn’t much of a story behind it. There are these monsters all around and if you kill them all, you’ll find your way to another level where there are – more monsters. Once I moved on to Allied Assault, there is a story that starts to mask the linear nature of the gameplay. It took me a couple of deaths and replays to realize just how linear the game still was. Until then, I actually felt that I was rushing forward to complete my mission, fighting in some corner of World War II’s battlefields. A game like Bioshock adds yet another layer, with a complex story underlying the weapon-play and the missions. There is a mystery to be solved. Who are these people and what went wrong? And what does that have to do with me?

True story. When I first started playing DOOM (handed to me by the same guy who gave me Civilization II), I spent a lot of time on the first level. It took me a while to get a handle on being able to find, shoot, and kill the zombie/marines. Then, at some point, I managed to clear the level and find all the hidden goodies. What I seemed to be unable to do was to find the door to the next level. I’m not even sure I knew there was next level, exactly, but I was pretty sure that the game wasn’t over. The funny thing was that, because the idea of a first-person view of a 3D, explorable world was so novel to me, I spent far more than you’d think possible simply wandering around that first level. Eventually I found the door to the next level, and progressed through a few more, but I may have had my most fun with that initial, introductory level, where I could enjoy the scenery and not worry about the game being too hard.

Similarly with Bioshock, as the game ramps up in difficulty I’m worried that it could come at the expense of enjoying the environment. Fortunately, the “easy” level that I’m now playing on seems quite manageable even for a non-FPS player with naturally slow reflexes.

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Hacking the control system of some Rapture machinery.

One interesting aside in that environment is that which I’ve included in the above screenshot. A minigames provides you with an opportunity to hack the control systems of various pieces of machinery. Entering that game, you are displayed what appears to be a sort of hydraulic computer. More ambiance, subtly placed to amuse those who look for it.

As the backstory goes, Rapture’s founder Andrew Ryan left regular American society some time in the 1940s. In 1949, back in the real world, a computer was constructed using hydraulic logic circuitry (MONIAC) as dedicated economic simulator. One must imagine, I suppose, that Rapture’s development into the 1960s, isolated from the rest of the world, has perfected computer design much faster than on the surface (obvious, we have intelligent, autonomous machines about), but followed a completely different path from the surface’s electronics evolution.

Point being, it is a good game and an engaging world in which the game takes place.

Inspirational/Demotivational

Th origin of the Bioshock concept came when project director Kevin Levin was visiting Rockefeller Plaza. He took in the art deco style of the plaza and the statue of Atlas that resides there and began to build the game around it. The story of Andrew Ryan is very loosely based on John D. Rockefeller and his private funding to create Rockefeller Center. In game terms, that turned into Andrew Ryan’s construction of the underwater city of Rapture as a Galt’s Gulch stand-in.

It is worth noting that this theme-epiphany merely put the chrome icing on an already baked cake. Levin, a key player on the System Shock 2 team, had been working on a sequel to that game. Already developed was the three-way mechanic. The first leg of the trio are the low-level attackers, always after you and, while easy to kill, also carrying a valuable resource. Next is a defenseless harvester, who collects the resource. The third is a powerful protector that exist only to guard the harvesters.

Nonetheless, reviews of the game (which were very positive) often focused on the political dimensions of the game. In interviews I’ve seen, Levine has made statements about drawing from works such as Atlas Shrugged, 1984, and A Brave New World. But one of these things is not like the other. While dystopian art often (perhaps necessarily) draws on the dystopian works that preceded it, with Atlas Shrugged, the script is flipped. The dystopian portion of Atlas Shrugged is caused by government intervention. It is Ayn Rand’s proxy and heroine of the story, Dagny Taggart, along with her friends, who are out to save the world. In Bioshock, Ayn Rand’s proxy, Andrew Ryan, has created the dystopia. So far, so artistically-licensed.

The press, however, glommed on to the anti-Rand angle with a gusto. As I said, the “political” component of the game was praised and the relationship to Atlas Shrugged was emphasized in many of the written reviews. The first article or two I read, back when the game was new, lead me to believe it was actually a straight telling of the Rand story.

Atlas Shrugged is ripe for ridicule. Upon its release, it received many negative reviews both for its writing and for the content. Even positive reviews admitted that the book was “no literary giant.” It is an extraordinarily long book consisting of unfathomably long soliloquies. Despite all that, it was immediately popular. Three days after its publication, it was #13 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. Within a few months, it had risen to its peak slot, #3. The publication of the novel also launched, for Ayn Rand, a life of expounding up the them of the book as a new philosophical theory. Throughout the 1960s, she gave lectures and published newsletters endeavoring to develop Objectivism as an influential philosophy.

I, personally, have a hard time taking the “scholarly” component of Rand’s work too seriously. Attempting to derive all human interaction as laws formed from first principles doesn’t seem to be a productive activity, particularly when few are going to agree with that derivation in the first place. While many of the ideas are sound, and find broad acceptance among libertarians, the various Objectivist groups sometimes seem to elevate interpersonal drama over actually improving society.

I don’t know how much one should really blame Levin for this. It is an easily defensible proposition to say that if a John Galt were to form a Galt’s Gulch, it would become a utopian paradise but if an Andrew Ryan were to form a similar Rapture, the result could be a societal and technological collapse. Some folks on the development team may have relished skewering Rand more than others, but I’m not sure that the game is explicitly saying Libertarianism = Somalia.

That said, Bioshock was released in 2007 (I know, I said that already). In that same month, it became apparent to the world that the subprime lending market was in serious trouble. In September, the Federal Reserve began lowering interest rates in an attempt to stave off crisis and in October the Bush administration announced a program to assist subprime borrowers. Following both of these announcement, there was a huge spike in purchases of Atlas Shrugged. So huge was this renaissance that the book hit the #1 Literature and Fiction spot Amazon.com in April of 2009.

Within this new world of Tea Partiers and anti-Obama sentiment, it would seem like a mass-media attack on laissez-faire capitalism was just what the Obamacare-funded doctor ordered. Before the backlash election of 2010, it seemed that if I mentioned libertarian politics, I first had to explain that I wasn’t talking about the John Birch Society. Post 2010? I recall hearing a teachers’ union activist outside a polling place railing about how Republicans were bad enough, but at least you could deal with them. “But those Libertarians!!!”

Will less government turn Galt’s Gulch into Rapture or turn America into Somalia? Do even the most zealous of progressive activists really believe that? I have to doubt it. My guess is it is simply political rhetoric meant to influence the less committed who, nevertheless, might take their side with the right prodding. Particularly in that context, the glee that one might greet a mass-market media anti-Capitalist indoctrination makes a lot of sense, if you are a reporter on the left.

But as it always must, that pendulum may be again swinging the other way.

The events at the end of the aughts made common cause between many conservatives and libertarians. All could largely agree that Obamacare, Federal Debt, massive stimulus, etc., were what needed to be stopped in order to save the country. Whether one came about that through American tradition, a belief in free markets, the Non-Aggression Principle, or “A is A” seemed fairly immaterial.

Recently I’ve seen a couple of conservative attacks on Libertarianism as an inferior basis for guiding principle, vis-à-vis conservatism.This is not so out-of-the-ordinary. Even at its best, the alliance is an uneasy one. Add to that the surge in third-party support as a result of the 2016 election, and conservatives start to see a threat in Libertarian candidates throwing close elections to the Democrats.

This past weekend, I read an article in the Wall St. Journal* attacking the Enlightenment which, to me at least, is a new one. The article is meant as a riposte to a new book by Steven Pinker and a year-old editorial** by David Brooks, the latter criticizing the Brexit movement and the political support for Donald Trump. This is the first I’d encountered, second hand as I did, the argument that The Donald and Brexit are anti-Enlightenment movements. Such an thesis, if I am understanding it, is that modern conservatism no longer has its roots in the Enlightenment Age which founded this country, but that it must be the progressive left which defends this foundation of the modern world.

Of course I’m reading a lot into some specific arguments and generalizing the sentiment, which has its dangers. The point is not to set up a strawman just to knock it down. However, this argument from the left is merely and extension of the Science! exclamations; the assertion that conservatives are fundamentally anti-science and anti-logic. That is, I think I see a coherent part of a larger narrative.

The counterargument in the Journal claims that when pinning all that is good onto the lapel of the Enlightenment you are, quite simply, wrong. In what, in some other political climate, might take the form as an urge toward moderation, the article describes how the glories attributed to the Enlightenment have their roots in pre-Enlightenment conservatism; “a blend of tradition and skepticism.” While America’s Enlightenment experiment produced 200+ years of prosperity and happiness, France’s did not turn out so well. (Echos of the Galt’s Gulch versus Rapture outcomes here). The author (Yoram Hazony) follows the logic of Enlightenment thinkers through the French Revolution, Karl Marx’s theories, and the massive slaughter of Communism.

I guess I am too underdoctrinated in leftist theory to automatically translate a critique of Kant, Descartes, and Locke into a knock against feminism, linguistic philosophy, or other standards of the left academic elite. What I do see within Hazony’s criticism, however, is a reflection of several of the libertarian philosophies, including Objectivism. Furthermore, it would seem that Libertarianism is much more the heir to the Enlightenment than Progressivism. Even the Brooks article cites Marxism and the governments of Lenin, Stalin and Mao as an anti-Establishment force.

So is the Journal editorial actually a criticism of libertarians? Or more of liberals? How about just of Pinker and Brooks, and one shouldn’t read too much between the lines? For myself, my mind immediately jumped to those other critiques of libertarians as unsuitable allies for the conservative cause.

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She was low down and trifling and she was cold and mean. Kind of evil make me want to grab my sub machine.

After all this cogitating, I come back to the thought that maybe I should take Levine and his creation on face value. Maybe he has just developed a narrative that combine various vintage, dystopian stories into something new for his video game. Maybe all these political layers were created by the reviewers and commentators, who wanted to see more to it than there is. Playing the game, I am not overwhelmed by moralizing***. Yes, there is a backstory, but I’m more focused on shooting my enemies while trying to solve the mysteries than mull over the role of government in society.

*The Wall St. Journal articles are generally behind a paywall. In this case, I was able (using Google) to get a version that is available in its entirety, without a subscription.  The link, above, is that result. If that doesn’t work, perhaps Googling the article name would work. It is called The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, not to be confused by the book with the same name.

**The New York Times payroll can also be pretty strict. The same caveats apply from the previous footnote.

***The Little Sister mechanic (see last screenshot) in the game is, in fact, an attempt to introduce morality into the game. The play must make a choice (SPOILER ALERT) as to whether to kill or save the little girls in the game. In saving them, you forgo some of the reward. But will doing the “right” thing be better in the long run?