There are significant spoilers ahead for the game BioShock. If you haven’t played it yet but want too, don’t read. Also, this is probably too long. I haven’t beaten BioShock yet, but I have gotten passed one of the key plot twists within the game. To fully explain my interest in this one scene, I have to go back to the beginning.
The game’s antagonist, Andrew Ryan, is a hard nosed industrialist who founded the underwater city of Rapture. He adheres to his philosophic code, which he refers to as ‘The Great Chain’, a philosophy very similar to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Both philosophies are uphold the concepts of free enterprise and free markets, and the belief that self interest is the ideal with respect to individual rights.
Now philosophy is something everyone has, even if they are not aware of it. It is the abstract study of problems, including morality. We all have a sense of right and wrong, but we define it differently. Religion has its own philosophy, but not every philosophy adheres to religion. And politics is merely the real-world branches of philosophy’s roots. A catch-22 occurs when someone argues that philosophies and ideology are “politically dangerous”, because they still adhere to a philosophy of their own, even if it’s not fully recognized or understood.
But Andrew Ryan’s beliefs come apart under the weight of caring for Rapture; he relents and nationalizes a rival corporation, going against his own laissez-faire beliefs. He places an embargo on the import of outside goods, violating free trade and creating a black market that smugglers capitalize upon. Kidnapping girls to create ADAM would be universally respected as wrong. There were the murders of Jasmine Jolene and Anna Culpepper. And the addition of pheromones to plasmids, a corruption of Ryan’s concept of free will.
Ryan lost it. He lost sight of his own philosophic code and let the desire to win against his foe override his own morality.
Now, Ryan created an enemy out of smuggler and mob boss Frank Fontaine, who helped to found the entire plasmids industry. Circumstances in the war to obtain Rapture eventually forced Fontaine to create an special assassin using advanced growth scientific theories, mind control impulses, and a fetus purchased from a stripper who had slept with Andrew Ryan.
This assassin did not know of his programming, of his history. During the struggle, Andrew Ryan finds himself on the losing side of the war as this assassin has tipped the scales. So Ryan sets Rapture to destroy itself. But before this happens, Ryan calmly faces his assassin (the player) and reveals their past. Most tellingly, Ryan reveals that all along, the player was responding to the words “Wound you kindly” and was forced to do whatever he was told as long as this codeword was uttered.
Ryan had total control over the assassin. He could have ordered the player to kill himself and end the game. But he didn’t. Instead, Ryan hands his assassin the golf club and orders him to kill. As the assassin beats Ryan to death, Ryan repeatedly reminds the player, “A man chooses. A slave obeys.”
I have heard a few theories as to why Ryan chose to die this way. Yes, he chose too. He had the upper hand. He could have killed his assassin. But he didn’t. Some say it was assisted suicide. Some say it was a way to try and save his illegitimate son from the mind control. It could be even be both.
But I have a slightly different theory.
Atonement is a term we often reserve with religious implications. Then again, we borrow many things with religious origins and use them without reference to their theological roots. But I feel that Andrew Ryan’s words with Jack (and the player) are his attempt to atone for the self-betrayal of his own philosophy.
When Ryan encountered the assassin Jack, he saw something that was an affront to his original beliefs. He saw a man who could not choose. He was a slave. He had to obey the words, “Would you kindly.”
“A man chooses. A slave obeys,” Ryan said. If we applied these words to the decisions Andrew Ryan made with his governing of Rapture, it would mean that Ryan was fully aware of the choices he made that violated his own philosophy. But Jack was different. He was a man who had, up until then, spent his entire life obeying words and not understanding why. He never even knew that choice was denied to him.
For a while, I wondered if Ryan’s death was his means of spitting in Jack’s eye. As though to sneer to him that he was a slave and to drive that thought home. A lot of Ryan’s early tone was condescending, as though looking down on Jack. But when he orders Jack around using the phrase, his tone changes. The disdain seems to go away. It becomes something else.
Throughout Ryan’s rule, he was eventually driven to become the thing he despised. The very thing that drove him to create Rapture in the first place. And perhaps, in making Jack realize that he was a slave was Ryan’s attempt to restore some semblance of free will to a place that had lost it. As Ryan is beaten, his tone sounds increasingly more of one of regret.
And Ryan had hoped his words would win out and beat the programming. One might think that Ryan failed in this because he was killed. But Ryan was going to die anyway along with the rest of Rapture. In the short term, Ryan’s words did nothing. But apparent through Jack’s actions and desire to live, it eventually had the effect that Ryan wanted. Jack wanted to be free. He wanted to live. He wanted to be a man instead of a slave.
Choice is the key. Choice is what separates us from slaves, whether in chains or in the mind. Understanding this can help make sense of the ending of The Matrix Revolutions, when Agent Smith asks Neo why he gets up. Why he keeps fighting. What’s the cause for it, the reason. Trying to make sense of whatever concept it is that keeps Neo going.
And when you apply Andrew Ryan’s words as a cipher to Neo’s answer and the reason of the Matrix itself, it can be understood plainly.