(Editor’s note: This article contains graphic imagery which will be marked as “not safe for work.” Reader discretion is advised.)
(Editor’s note: I myself subscribe to a very broad definition of the term “religion,” such that I don’t see what sets philosophies like Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam apart from other belief systems–in terms of what can be used to determine law and policy, for example–but for the purposes of this article I will adhere to the simple, colloquial usage of the term.)
BioShock is not a game where the player is bombarded with religious symbolism. Most of the characters aren’t named after Biblical figures; the use of “Rapture” for the name of the central underwater city ruled by greed and unmonitored capitalism is neither reverent nor ironic (I think one of the dev diaries stated that Rapture was named such so as to imply exclusivity–not everyone could get in–and I wish I could remember which one), and the player isn’t given a bunch of objective names that bring to mind Biblical references (contrast “Sins of the Father” [Ezekiel 18, sort of] in Mass Effect 2, “The Last Enemy That Shall Be Destroyed” [1 Corinthians 15:26] in Red Dead Redemption [massive story spoilers]). The game is largely about shooting, survival, and getting to the next area. So where does religion come in? And what prompted me to write this?
Polygon wrote an interesting article about, essentially, making Christian games that don’t suck, and this immediately called to mind the reason I usually don’t listen to pop-Christian radio anymore: I simply don’t like a lot of the music! It doesn’t often match my aesthetic tastes, and to be honest, without the Christian material, I have to wonder how much of an audience this work would even have, because on its own it’s not particularly noteworthy. The most annoying part about that is that I can hear excellent songs by bands like Skillet on secular radio but not on Christian radio. My suggestion is that usually I think it’s better to make games that function well as games before worrying about the philosophies and messages you want those games, unless the story you want to tell is just incredible (which is difficult to determine without hindsight).
Anyway, the city of Rapture is an individualist utopia: you don’t have to worry about having to support the poor; you don’t have to worry about tacky things as ethics and morality getting in the way of your scientific discoveries; and you can basically work to be, do, and become anything you can imagine.
Apparently for some people this wasn’t enough:
And, moreover, some individuals met a very bloody end for their “crimes”:
All in all (see also a transcript of the BioShock audio diary Death Penalty in Rapture for further reading), this adds up to a clear and interesting point: these people were offered the very best that the world had to offer them, and for some of them, it just wasn’t enough. I’m speculating from this point, but it’s likely that these individuals, many of them possibly either Splicers or dead at the time of the game, were wanting a deeper meaning to life that couldn’t be found in catering to their own desires. I recall a Splicer enemy singing the children’s song “Jesus Loves Me” at one point early in the game, and this sort of examination of Rapture’s setting and internal conflict helps to place that song in a new light. The Splicer wasn’t just given that song by the devs to creep the player out. The Splicer, in all likelihood, was singing that song out of a desperation that was evidently mirrored by many of his fellow citizens of Rapture. These sorts of smuggling crates are found throughout the game, and what’s inside them, stacked to the top of the boxes, themselves often in stacks themselves? Bibles all over the floor. Crucifixes:
And more Bibles, soaking wet and lying everywhere. Rapture creator Andrew Ryan was convinced that his way of living would satisfy everyone who came to Rapture, and evidently he was clearly wrong.
BioShock is not a game that beats the player over the head with religious imagery or symbolism, but it’s definitely there to be seen by those willing to look for it. It’s this sort of subtle yet powerful storytelling that makes me heartily respect BioShock’s attention to detail in its setting, regardless of whether the game lets me summon beings named Shiva and Ifrit or not.
Image from SuperbWallpapers.com. I took all of the BioShock screenshots used here via Steam.