By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm
Cave Johnson of Portal 2, and BioShock's Andrew Ryan before him, are characters that serve as foils for societies of that specific time, embodying all that was great and innovative about the post-war philosophical renaissance, while being ultimately crippled by its foundational flaws. Video games have the potential to explore those fictional scenarios -- where complicated philosophy can be acted out in full. We enter their worlds, discover the tumult and woes that plagued them, and understand how character revelation, marked by hubris, is an electric and enlightening narrative device.
Warning: Spoilers ahead...
Objectivism, Ayn Rand's contentious contemporary pseudo-philosophy, has been well-documented as the main scaffolding that Andrew Ryan's Rapture is built upon. Even his name is a distorted anagram of the Russian author's own, and his dense history follows her's in remarkable congruence. The basic premise of the Objectivism is this: human beings should act on their own rational self-interest, and the only societal norm enforced on the mass populace is the total respect of each one's individual rights. Essentially, government entities should pursue laissez-faire free market capitalism (libertarianism), while individuals are entitled to pursue only their own happiness, using whatever means necessary to take them to that end. Self-made billionaire Ryan channeled this brainchild of Rand -- which was, in actuality, being constructed in parallel in 1946 -- to bring the best and brightest, the most cutthroat and severe, and (not coincidentally) the most sociopathic to his land, Rapture.
But, Choice's Child eventually strolled into his cavernous office and cracked a 9-iron across his skull until he was dead. Ryan fell victim to the product of his lawlessness, and his alleged faith in mankind's ability to choose good through rational self-interest. Ironically, the product of freedom, named Jack, wasn't greater freedom -- it was that humanity clipped of freedom. Ryan's operations, along with the help and scientific capacity of Dr. Yi Suchong, engineered a being controlled by vocal cues, who was recovered by Frank Fontaine, the primary rebel who acted against Ryan and sought to overthrow him. Fontaine had his own rational self-interest in mind, and outwitted Ryan by relinquishing a violent Jack to the underwater city, not with a clandestine approach but with clandestine motives. Objectivism is duplicitous in its nature here, both destroying its founder by one who moves within its confines, and by the hand of one who has been stripped of conscious choice.
I found this particular dichotomy to be pleasantly jarring when I set down my controller and watched as a cut-scene took freedom-of-movement from my hands and killed Ryan. Some have cited this instance as the fundamental example of ludo-narrative dissonance -- a damning act that practically renders the game broken in concept. But I found its self-awareness to be sturdy and emotionally profound. It made me consider how the structure of the game has set me up to be betrayed so forthrightly. It also made me consider Andrew Ryan as a flawed man, and how we can trace his actions back to the moment he broke the rules of his philosophy. It came before we ever set foot there.
Even before the pursuit of Andrew Ryan by Fontaine's agent, the culture of Rapture was in steady decline, galvanized into mayhem by terrorism and civil war. And contrary to his Objectivist ideals, Ryan was either too arrogant or too uncertain to let society correct itself. He began quickly working to take away free choice from large circles of Raptures populace, an act of hubris that would eventually return to kill him as he waited. And we obviously can't be certain that a tacit allowance of the status quo of Rapture would've yielded better results for the man himself, but his demise would've likely been at another's hand, and at a different time.
Despite Ryan's insistence on inoculating the mass public with the ideals of complete freedom, he was unable to shake that popularly communist trait of pervasive propaganda, which by definition influences just the opposite. Across all corners of his grand kingdom, his voice boomed through loudspeakers, and icons of him rose forth in lobbies and courtyards and hallways. He wanted his people to follow him, and he did away with those that tried to steal his crown. But another's rational self-interest won out in the end, and Ryan took it on the chin, so to speak. All his best attempts to render it otherwise notwithstanding.
Andrew Ryan's philosophy couldn't hold up to practical application in BioShock, and the exploration and documentation of the fictional history is one of the most compelling aspects of the game. His immediate follower in spirit, Valve's Cave Johnson, is largely the same in scope and brilliance, however he marries the exploits of science and industry to build his empire. We delve into his life long after his death, but it is incumbent on us as the gamer to unlock the reward of his voice by solving the puzzles his people designed for us to negotiate.
In actuality, World War II caused a few monumental shifts in how industries operated, particularly in the world of engineering and science. The incessant call for more vehicles, materials, munitions, and mechanisms forced more successful manufacturers to expand. Many were contracted by the military long after the war was over to continue research and development on defense projects. Johnson's fictional original company, Aperture Fixtures, was built on the creation of military shower curtains in 1943, though its marked success allowed for the expansion into science where its new name, Aperture Labs, and its unbridled experimentation became real. The portal gun was a product of this shift.
Cave Johnson became seduced by the limitless influx of government money and the brainpower he could afford with it in his bank account. He was dependably a thinker and a businessman, yet his philosophies weren't based on the musings of a specific post-war idealist. He had a simple mantra -- one that showcases the specific kind of innovation that resided in the American Golden Age:
"Science isn't about why. It's about why not."
That philosophy, that quixotic want for more, eventually leads to the unraveling of Johnson himself and the Aperture Labs he built. Johnson's didn't look to advance science and technology for real, tangible results. Instead, he wanted innovation for innovation's sake. It reminds me of NASA and the whole Space Race -- when we went to the moon "not because it was easy, but because it was hard." Cave Johnson was a dreamer; he didn't care for consequence, only the glory of achievement. He lost control of his dreams, but they were persistent in his life.
There's hilarity in them, the accounts of severe, accidental asbestos poisoning, the outbreak of mantis-men, the total degradation of the test-subjects. As his business begins to fold, Johnson quickly shelves his care for human beings, cutting corners and placing his test subjects in more and more danger. It's unnerving. But there's also a measure of sorrow, as we see him consumed by his addiction to a highly-scientific moon-based drug. That is the incarnation of how the reckless gluttony of his ideals flows through him, and how he's eventually killed off by it. The drug makes him feel heaven and euphoria, but he isn't much for consequences. Like his lifelong affair with "why not?"
It's rare when we witness such nuanced video game characters, and only very occasionally do we get to explore these sorts of histories. Ryan and Johnson are two fictional pillars of industry defined by that decades-long generation just after World War II, when the breakneck speed of technology and American industry was at its peak. Even more than that, though, they've defined this video game generation: when social commentary, narrative savvy, and figures of literary proportions became a reality.
Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.