[Returning guest writer John Perich takes on literature and video games today. Leave your reactions in the comments. —Ed.]
“Who was he?”
“John Galt was a millionaire, a man of inestimable wealth. He was sailing his yacht one night, in the mid-Atlantic, fighting the worst storm ever wreaked upon the world, when he found it. He saw it in the depth, where it had sunk to escape the reach of men. He saw the towers of Atlantis shining on the bottom of the ocean. It was a sight of such kind that when one had seen it, one could no longer wish to look at the rest of the earth. John Galt sank his ship and went down with his entire crew.”
—Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
“To build a city at the bottom of the sea: insanity. But where else could we be free from the clutching hand of the parasites? Where else could we build an economy that they would not try to control, a society they would not try to destroy? It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea. It was impossible to build it anywhere else.”
BioShock shattered critical expectations when it debuted in August 2007. It received some of the best awards of any first-person shooter videogame that year, or ever: 10/10 from Electronic Gaming Monthly, Eurogamer, Game Informer and the Official XBox Magazine. Not only was it the sort of engaging, tactical gameplay you’d expect from the makers of System Shock, but it boasted a vivid and breathtaking setting—the underwater Art Deco city of Rapture—and an original score worthy of a classic horror film.
But even with all this, BioShock would have stunned audiences for one point alone: it’s a video game that makes you think.
Ken Levine, head writer and creative director of BioShock, made explicit the inspiration behind the game: Ayn Rand’s 1957 doorstop of a novel, Atlas Shrugged. Atlas Shrugged depicts a world whose creative minds have fled, leaving society to collapse into self-destructive anarchy, and who build a cloistered paradise for themselves. BioShock depicts a cloistered paradise full of creative minds, and the problems that turn them into paranoiacs, murderers and mutants.
Hundreds of pages could be written about the philosophy that inspires Rand’s novel—and have been—and you could probably fill another hundred pages on BioShock‘s playability as a first-person shooter. But we’re narrowing our focus today. This article will compare Atlas Shrugged to the video game it inspired, to see what was similar and what was left out.
A word on SPOILERS: I will spoil significant portions of Rand’s novel in the following article. I think this is only fair—it’s been out for 50 years, you can study it in school, it’s part of the American culture. However, I will try my hardest not to spoil the crucial elements of BioShock‘s plot. I’ll tell you nothing you couldn’t learn in the first hour or two of gameplay. However, we may spoil more of the plot in the comments later on, so be warned.
“I AM GOING TO STOP THE MOTOR OF THE WORLD.”
Atlas Shrugged takes place in the very near future—the day after tomorrow. The giant corporations that turned the U.S. into an economic powerhouse have begun to dissolve. Washington, D.C. reacts with legislation designed to prop up failing businesses—measures to keep them from competing with each other, or to force them to cooperate.
Dagny Taggart, VP of Operations for Taggart Transcontinental—the last great railroad linking the country—refuses to surrender to the cynicism and despair that poison everyone around her. She refuses to go along with the industrial cartel that her brother James pals around with. She refuses to drop out of society and laugh at the world’s misfortune, as her childhood lover Francisco d’Anconia does. Even as her corporation is saddled with regulations that guarantee her failure, and even as her best and brightest employees quit or vanish, she struggles on. Not because she wants to turn a profit—though she knows she’s entitled to one—or out of spite for her enemies—though she certainly loathes them. But because all she wants to do is create something worthwhile.
Throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, a recurring bit of popular slang sums up America’s cynicism: “Who is John Galt?” John Galt’s not a real person—he’s a mythical figure like Murphy or Kilroy. Asking “who is John Galt?” is the equivalent of saying, “why are you asking the impossible?” It’s a statement of resigned helplessness in a decaying world.
Dagny writes this slang off as a symptom of the world falling apart—until she suspects that John Galt might actually be real.
In the remains of one of the first companies to go under, she discovers the shattered remains of a motor driven by atmospheric electricity—a motor that would have brought cheap, abundant power to the entire world if it had been completed. She tracks down financiers, artists and engineers who have disappeared, and learns that in each case they had a visit from a mysterious man. This man talked with them for a few minutes and said something that made them leave the world behind.
Some of these creators vanish. Some of them go into blue-collar professions—driving trucks, or flipping burgers. But none of them return to their chosen work.
After an epic cross-country chase, Dagny finds a secluded mountain hideaway, protected by holographic illusions. The world’s greatest creative minds have retreated here, pursuing their masterpieces in private. They pay no income tax and perform no charity—they work for the joy of working and trade in mutual benefit to each other. And the entire gulch is powered by a motor driven by atmospheric electricity—the invention of one John Galt.
Galt tells Dagny what he told each of these fugitives: that society will never value the importance of creators so long as creators remain around to sustain society. It’s the output of rational people that allows the irrational to survive—and, at the same time, to question why the rational people should get all the acclaim. These inventors and artists didn’t walk away from their careers regretfully—they walked away joyfully, laying down the burden of supporting an ungrateful world.
They were the Atlases, supporting the world on their shoulders. When the time came, they shrugged it off.
Note: this is a woefully incomplete summary of the 1100-page epic that is Atlas Shrugged. I skipped over all of the subplots—such as the tension between Dagny and her brother James, Dagny’s affair with the industrialist Hank Rearden, Rearden’s deteriorating marriage, Dr. Stadler and his State Science Institute, Galt’s radio speech, Galt’s capture by the bureaucracy and the gang’s gung-ho rescue, etc, etc.
I also skipped over a lot of the substantial flaws in the novel. The rather melodramatic writing style, where every gesture is violent and every statement passionate. The substantial emotional repression which the protagonists inflict upon themselves. The odd epistemological ladder inherent to Rand’s philosophy, in which emotions necessarily reflect thoughts, which necessarily reflect value judgments, which necessarily reflect your worth as a human being. And finally there’s the moral quandary with which the novel ends, in which the supergenius protagonists leave the rest of the U.S. to starve while they hide in their mountain fortress.
It’s a superficial take. Bear with me.