For those who aren’t careful, a Psychoanalytic critique of a game appears to only be concerned with the fiction of a game and the relationship of the characters. Unless the game is Psychonauts, most games seem to have little to nothing to do with the human psyche. Neglecting how the game fiction and the gameplay (or game rules) come together to create the Psychological work in a game is a common pitfall. Another easy pitfall is to get wrapped up in Psychoanalyzing the developers of the game, or what may be infinitely more embarrassing, accidentally analyzing one’s own psychological state while trying to pass it off as an analysis of the game. Though it is true that the fiction of a game is an important part of any Psychoanalytic analysis, the gameplay is where the most profound sources of material because the interactivity of the game can influence and transform the player in more powerfully subtle ways than a passive medium. In the following essay, I intend to highlight the psychological work of BioShock that goes beyond the fiction and is backed by the gameplay experience of the player.
To begin, I’ll discuss the death work BioShock. Sigmund Freud theorized that death is biological driven. He called this the death drive in attempt to explain the wide spread self destruction found on this planet (death work). In a nutshell, death work is psychological and physical self-destruction. The evidence of this work can be seen in the individual who destroys him/herself by over eating or over dosing, as well as on the national level where whole nations are constantly at war. Death is a serious matter that we, the living, have no experience in. Yet, despite it being mysteriously and inescapably bound to the end of our lives, death is a force that is perhaps too terrifying for us to deal with. This is why we fear it. Knowing this, it is easy to see how death and the fear of death, shapes our psychology. After all, in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, fear is a key driving force.
In BioShock, death work is evident in the fiction and behavior of splicers. Splicers are genetically mutated citizens of Rapture that are addicted to Adam and the power that is gained from it. Adam is the “genetic material that makes Rapture go round.” Tenenbaum revealed, however, that Adam is a drug that destroys the user: “Adam acts like a benign cancer, destroying native cells and replacing them with unstable stem versions. While this very instability is what gives it its amazing properties, it is also what causes the cosmetic and mental damage. You need more and more Adam just to keep back the tide. From a medical standpoint, this is catastrophic.” Aside from turning the user into a monster that will do nearly anything to obtain more Adam, hallucinations (visions of ghosts) are a common side effect: “Seems like some poor blighters have started seeing ghosts. Ghosts! Ryan tells me it’s a side effect of this plasmid business.” -McDonagh. Ultimately, using Adam ensures one’s psychological destruction. And that’s just the intangible destruction. In the game, splicers behave in a highly self destructive manner. In game terms, the failure of these enemies to assess the battle situation or even their own life and act in self preservation is simply poor AI. But, as part of a Psychological critique, these splicers are characters that consciously and actively throw their lives away. Skilled players can take on large numbers of these adversaries without problem. Even if the splicers didn’t know that they would be no match for the player, surely witnessing previous splicers easily fall to the player in one shot would inform them otherwise. In their rabid state starved for Adam, splicers can also attack Big Daddy’s hoping to harvest the protected litter sister for their next fix. It is very clear to the player, and to all citizens of Rapture that attacking a Big Daddy is a dangerous affair. These splicers are suicidal. Such behavior functions as self destruction on the psychological and physical level.
When analyzing people and material, Psychoanalytic critics and theorists have to be careful not to conceptualize the death drive to avoid moving death away from the world of actions, reactions, and responsibility. Turning death into an abstraction makes blunt its powerful force and by extension works to undermine a significant portion of our psychological frame work. If death is the greatest fear that frames, organizes, supports the existence of other fears (fear of abandonment, fear of intimacy), then removing the impact of death, or worse, removing death itself would work to destroy one’s identity or selfhood. In BioShock, the function of Vita Chambers remove the consequence of “death” in battle, thus turning it into an abstraction. According to the description of the Vita Chambers, “If you are killed by the hostile denizens of Rapture, you will be revived live and whole at the last Vita-Chamber you passed.” The gameplay in BioShock is structured in a way that when the player falls in battle, the game doesn’t reset back to a previous state to give the player another chance. Instead, everything remains as it was, and the player has only to jog back to where he/she fell and resume the battle refreshed of health and a little bit of Eve: “Some of your health will be restored, and you will always have at least a small amount of Eve.” Besides dangerously destroying what little game was present in BioShock by destroying a major structural consequence (based on the Classical game model), death becomes a joke. Without consequences, players quickly learn and fall into habits of taking what would be foolish risks in any other game. Snapping photograph after photograph while turrets and enemies attack you from all sides isn’t dangerous. Striking a Big Daddy from behind with a wrench just to taunt him is a fun game. And in a world where bombs, projectiles genetics, and guns rule, “wrench-revive-repeat” all opponents becomes an equally viable strategy. Falling into any of these or similar patterns works against any identity that exists between the player and game. Like whimsical, make-believe, fairy tale magic, Suchong refers to the Vita-Chambers ability to resurrect the dead with the word “poof:” They keep saying plasmid reconstruction this and quantum entaglement that, and then poof, dead people come back to life.” Suchong was a skeptic for good reason. Can there be life without death?
Freund’s theory of the superego, ego, and the id are represented by Ryan’s rules of Rapture, the player’s freedom of choice within the gameworld, and the Splicers that greedily roam Rapture respectively. The Superego by definition consists of the internalized social values that determine our sense of right and wrong in a particular culture. All of Andrew Ryan’s comments, ideas, rules, and regulations make up BioShock’s super ego. Hacking the vending machines is bad. Free enterprise is good. Big Daddy’s and little sisters are disgusting but necessary. Atlas also shares his views of what is right and wrong. From the beginning of the game, the player learns that plasmids are good and little sisters are little “Frankensteins” that can be disposed with without any ill feelings. True to the Freudian model, the id is directly opposed to the superego. The id is our instinctual selves and is singularly focused on fulfilling forbidden desires of all kinds without consideration of consequences. In BioShock, the id are represented by the splicers who only have a desire for Adam. As I have noted, Splicers will even throw themselves into the jaws of death in attempts to secure Adam from the Little Sisters. Representing the balance between the superego and the id is the ego, or the player of BioShock. The player is the conscious level of the game that experiences the world of Rapture through his/her senses. Because the game is in the first person perspective, they experience the world in a very intuitive natural way. In the game, the player hears Ryan prohibit hacking, yet he sees splicers hacking turrets and other machines, and has to determine for him/herself how to proceed. In this way, the player is the embodiment of the conflict between Ryan and all the orders he/she receives from the many characters who hold power over him/her, and the Splicers who relentlessly pursue Adam. As Freud states, the relationship between the superero, ego, and id speaks to our culture (in this case the dystopic Rapture) and ourselves. By indulging in the forbidden acts around Rapture, and taking out or restructuring the power structures by killing Ryan and Fontaine, the player literally balances out the super ego and the id by playing BioShock.
The family is very important in Freudian Psychoanalytic theory because of the how each member’s role in the family greatly shapes who they are. BioShock contains a very interesting family structure. The family I referred to is not the artificial family flashed in photographs triggered by Fontaine sinister control over the protagonist. And it is not Atlas’ family that was supposedly killed just before being rescued in the fishery. The family I will discuss is both more subtle and more obvious than that. The BioShock family I intend to discuss is made up of the Little Sisters, Big Daddys, Mother Goose (Tenenbaum), and the player. The Little Sisters are innocent little girls whose only concerns are harvesting Adam, finding angels, being tucked in for “beddy” time, and alerting the Big Daddys of any threat. The Big Daddys are the father figure; large, strong, protective. Tenenbaum is the mother figure. Her role throughout the game is of a more passive nurturer who would rather spare words than lift a finger to protect her “children.” So where does that leave the player? The player is the big brother who completes the oedipal conflict and sibling rivalry relationships. According to Freud, an oedipal conflict consists of competition with the parent of the same gender for the affection of the parent of the opposite gender. The player discovers early in the game, that Tenenbaum will make it “worth [their] while” to spare the little sisters instead of harvesting them. For many players, this promise of pleasing “Mother” is all that is needed to save every little sister they come across. In order to save more sisters and make Tenenbaum happier, the player must destroy his father, the Big Daddys, in combat the primary function of BioShock. What is interesting about this bizarre family is the player can choose which core issue they want to embody. When they save a little sister, they participate in the oedipal conflict. When players harvest the little sisters, they’re acting out of sibling rivalry in an attempt to punish the Little Sisters for taking away the attention of mom and dad. If they do both, then they personify both the oedipal conflict and sibling rivalry (and should seek help immediately). Of course I’m only joking about seeking help.
If you’re not completely convinced of the existence of the bizarre family relationships of BioShock, remember that the player cannot harm the Little Sisters outside of the saving/harvesting them. Unlike virtually every other object and surface in the game, shooting or striking at a Little Sister produces no sound effect or reaction from her whatsoever. What’s significant about this restriction is that the only way to affect the Little Sister is tied into the same decision that will either please Tenenbaum or not. In other words, the player is bound to interact with Little Sisters in ways that reinforce the physiological issues. Furthermore, by transforming into a Big Daddy, the player assumes a role that is physically and emotionally removed from Tenenbaum. When gathering the Big Daddy parts, Tenenbaum comments on how disgusting and monstrous the Big Daddy’s are as well as their repulsive stench. In other words, the Player becomes the father figure the player has fought so hard against (even when there’s no little sister present) as part of his inescapable psychological destiny. The Big Daddy armored diving suit that the player wears shields him/her from bullets and emotional intimacy as the guilt from disobeying “mother” by harvesting the sisters, or from destroying “father” haunts the player into becomes what he/she hated most.
After practicing killing your father over and over with each Big Daddy, killing Ryan, the protagonist’s actual father, seemed like no big deal. But you’re not the only one with desires for the mother. Fontaine, during a moment of exhilaration after splicing up for the first time exclaims: “This stuff is the mother’s milk…” We’ll just leave Fontaine be for right now. I won’t even get into an interpretation of the protagonist’s romp through Rapture as part of dream. That’s another essay for another time. Hopefully this essay helped to reveal the physiological work within BioShock. If you’ve come to this point and aren’t convinced about anything I’ve discussed, well….as a true psychoanalysts would say… you’re just repressed.