During the final two levels of Bioshock, as player character Jack traverses the halls of Point Prometheus and the Proving Grounds, there is a notable shift in the game’s focus: where once it was about destroying the heinous dictator Andrew Ryan, everything suddenly becomes about the Little Sisters. Jack’s journey through Rapture concludes with a series of events that change the little girls from notable side-quest to characters of literally game-changing importance. Saving or killing the Little Sisters—the one decision Jack is truly able to make for himself—comes to define his character, effectively structuring his personality and determining if he is a hero or a villain.
With the release of Bioshock 2 in 2010, and Bioshock Infinite earlier this year, a pattern began to emerge based on Jack’s original journey, with the main protagonist of each game—in all cases an older (or, in Jack’s case, simply larger) male figure—acting as a protector to a younger female character. Perhaps even more interesting, the games’ villains follow a dynamic based on similar principles, though instead of protecting young characters, they harm them for personal gain—an act that, in the otherwise morally grey universe of Bioshock, marks them as irredeemable. Through these patterns, the Bioshock series maintains an underlying current of paternal anxiety, where the hero’s major conflict lies in his ability—and his choice—to protect or harm his female progeny, and the villain becomes irredeemable by harming her.
In all three of the Bioshock games, the main character comes to represent a father-figure to at least one younger female character—ranging from the prepubescent Little Sisters, to the teen Eleanor, to the young adult Elizabeth—for whom he feels (or is at least encouraged to feel) greatly responsible. While this dynamic is less obvious in the original Bioshock, with the Little Sisters initially acting as little more than XP sources, the game’s central twist causes a dramatic shift in this perception. As Jack was being mind-controlled into every decision but the choice to save or kill the Little Sisters, that decision alone is what will determine who he is as a person: if he protects them, he becomes a father to the girls he manages to save and raises them as his own, whereas if he kills them, he becomes a brutal monster intent on conquering the surface world.
Like examples exist in Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite, but with a greater focus on the main character’s nuanced effect on his progeny. Much of Bioshock 2‘s focus rests on how Delta’s actions influence Eleanor, whose unwavering respect for him causes her to mirror his behavior; there is a distinct sense of being observed in Delta’s case, and with it the anxiety that comes in one’s own actions—good or bad—being modeled by someone impressionable. Meanwhile, though the effects of player choice are not as prominent in Bioshock Infinite, there is still a sense of concern over Booker’s actions influencing Elizabeth. For example, when Elizabeth murders Daisy Fitzroy, Booker sees in her the sort of horror and regret he has experienced throughout the majority of his life, brought on by Elizabeth replicating his violent behavior. (This comparison becomes particularly obvious when she asks him how he washes away his regret as a way to determine how to cope with her own.)
From that point onward, he attempts to preserve her innocence, in particular pleading with her to let him kill Comstock in her place. Like Delta, his anxiety comes in how his actions reflect onto Elizabeth and how they will change her own; however, given that the player cannot choose to disregard that anxiety and move forward without consideration for her wellbeing (as they are able to do with Jack and Delta), the struggle is even more obvious as Booker tries desperately to reverse what his early, brutal actions in Columbia have already set in motion.
At the same time, each of the Bioshock protagonists is forced to confront an antagonist whose villainous mettle is similarly determined by interactions with children—specifically, that they harm children for their own gain. Upon discovering that young girls exponentially increase the output of ADAM-producing slugs by acting as their hosts, Fontaine establishes the Little Sister’s Orphanage to procure—or abduct—girls as needed for the project.
He is assisted in this effort by not only the scientist Su Chong (who can, in various recordings, be heard forcing a young Jack to kill a puppy as part of his mental conditioning, and experimenting on girls to advance the Little Sister program), but also by his bitter enemy, Andrew Ryan. Feeling that the importance of producing ADAM outweighs the girls’ physical and mental wellbeing, Ryan sets up a program to abduct girls for initiation into the Little Sister program to ensure that the city maintains a ready supply of ADAM at their expense. He even grossly attempts to implicate the girls in their own mistreatment in the audio diary Pulling Together, in which he claims, “it is not my hand alone on the chain that created them. No. Their little fingers were right there, next to mine.”
In the morally murky world of Rapture, where characters such as Ben Sullivan (who electrocuted a man to death on Ryan’s orders) and Tenebaum are regarded as redeemable, it seems that few actions are seen as inherently evil. However, in observing the behaviors of the series’ villains in comparison to less nefarious characters, it becomes clear that harming children is a point of no return, one that each of the game’s major antagonists crosses. This act functions as a signal to players, distinguishing the villain as uniquely vile even in the brutal world they occupy. For example, the player is prompted to feel intense anger at Ryan for the orchestrated death of Atlas’ wife and son, and the lead-up to the battle with Fontaine sees the man threatening Jack with the destruction of the Little Sister sanctuary, swearing he will “take it apart, piece-by-piece and brat-by-brat.”
The fact that Tenenbaum—who is equally culpable in the abuse of the Little Sisters, having masterminded the project while under the employ of Fontaine—is redeemed through saving the girls from Fontaine and Ryan’s machinations only reinforces this idea: the intentional, continued, and remorseless abuse of children is the event horizon of villainy, and once crossed, it cannot be undone. There is perhaps no better symbolism for this idea in Bioshock than the collapse of the city itself. While the ADAM obsession leads to Rapture’s swift deterioration, all is not lost until the establishment of the Little Sister program; the last major social event before the New Year’s Massacre that begins the Rapture Civil War, this state-sanctioned child abuse marks an irreversible turning point for the city that ultimately shows it has gone too far to turn back.
The villains of Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite exhibit similarly abusive behavior toward children that cements their vileness. Sophia Lamb, in an attempt to create the epitomic utopian, abducts Eleanor from Delta’s care (after forcing him to kill himself in full view of the girl) and seals her away against her will. On a more physically harmful level, Lamb suffocates Eleanor and resuscitates her on the edge of death to sever the girl’s connection to her Big Daddy; it is this act in particular that is meant to conclusively establish Lamb’s vile nature. In Infinite, Comstock acts as an even more brutal example: after stealing Elizabeth from her original reality as a child, and then abducting her again when she escapes confinement, he subjects her to months of agonizing physical and mental torture to force her to become his successor. This act enrages the player as much as it does Booker, solidifying that Comstock has surrendered any right to mercy. (Also notable, it is when Comstock begins a physical confrontation with Elizabeth that Booker is prompted to brutally murder him.)
Perhaps the simplest and starkest example of this pattern in play, however, is Daisy Fitzroy: she exists on dubious moral ground throughout the first half of Infinite, with her viciousness being counterbalanced by her ideals of equality. The main characters’ opinion of her plummets during the events at Fink Manufacturing, when she attempts to have them murdered. However, the moment when Elizabeth and Booker choose to kill her isn’t when she orders their own deaths: it’s when she turns her gun a child, at which point Elizabeth, a symbolic child herself, stabs Fitzroy in the back.
These portrayals touch on a deeply compelling theme: the very human fear of hurting the young, or allowing harm to come to them. It is no secret that society at large is repulsed by actions which hurt children; for instance, harsher punishments are assigned to crimes against children, and even their inadvertent endangerment carries heavy consequences. These policies are rooted in deep-seated social practices—the infamous plea to “think of the children” is so common as to become parodic, and even those who mock its overuse usually believe in the basic principle behind it.
Video games are no stranger to this concept; in violent action games like Grand Theft Auto, where adult characters are killed en masse in firefights and high-speed car chases, any child character present is effectively bulletproof, bouncing off speeding vehicles and inherently avoiding crosshairs. Other games, such as Half-Life 2, get around such considerations by not having child characters at all; still others include young characters, and make protecting them a large focus of the game (such as The Walking Dead). This framework in mind, a person who would intentionally harm a child becomes instantly villainous, and if they do not attempt to repair the damage—or, worse, feel justified in their actions and show no remorse—they are nothing short of monstrous in the eyes of the audience.
Looking at this idea in regard to the heroes of the Bioshock series—who, in their best form, seek to protect the children the villains wish to harm—causes a more subtle and complex theme to emerge: the fear of harming one’s own child. For instance, Delta’s realization that Eleanor is observing and mimicking his behavior effectively renders any justification for his actions null (for instance, she does not see killing Stanley Poole as a justified act of revenge against an evildoer, but justification for all brutality against enemies), and he must contend with the anxiety that he could radically alter Eleanor for the worse. Booker is beset by similar fears as Elizabeth, wracked with guilt over Fitzroy’s murder, descends into the sort of regret that destroyed his own life; coupled with the eventual revelation that Elizabeth is actually his daughter Anna, who he sold in a fit of desperation to escape his debts, and it is clear how Booker’s personal inadequacies bring harm upon the very person he is trying to protect. Finally, Jack (who is himself an abducted child, procured as a fertilized zygote and molded by the influence of his destructive surrogate parents, Tenebaum and Fontaine) only comes to understand his true connection to the Little Sisters late in his journey, and must contend not only with the possibility that he has already harmed the girls beyond repair—but that, set in a pattern he may not know how to break, could continue to do so. In this regard, Jack acts as a perfect example of both models under consideration here: while he can emerge as a hero if he protects the Little Sisters, harming the girls turns him into something every bit as villainous as the people he spends his entire journey through Rapture fighting against.
Ultimately, Bioshock—a series that straddles the action-adventure and horror genres of gaming—seeks to exploit player fears on a variety levels; this includes, among many other things, the parental anxiety of inadequacy. While the vast majority of the time our flaws are our own, and can be buried or justified, being observed by a child brings those flaws into stark relief in a way we fear we may not be able to counter. Through the young charges taken on by the main characters of the Bioshock series, the player sees a glimpse of that fear, the anxiety that our children will come to harm based on our own personal inadequacies and failings that we cannot control. We see the fear of one’s true impact reflected in Delta, as his every move informs Eleanor’s perception of herself, no matter what drove him to those ends. We see the fear of failure that wracks Booker as he tries to keep Elizabeth from suffering as he has, even as his own actions reinforce destructive behavior. And we see the fear of helplessness when Jack, assaulted on all sides by manipulative forces, is given control over the lives of the Little Sisters despite being quite powerless himself.
It’s up for debate from where such paternalistic concerns—almost universally in regard to fathers in some way bringing harm to their daughters—emerged in the development of the Bioshock series. It is entirely possible that many of the creators driving content at Irrational and 2K are men at such an age that they are having children of their own, and feel that anxiety palpably. (In a now famous reddit AMA, Ken Levine hedged on such sentiments when referring to erotic fan content featuring Elizabeth, claiming “It’s like coming across a picture of your daughter. I die a little inside with every page view.”) Perhaps Bioshock as a series is more willing than many to address topics that appeal to an older audience. Or, maybe, Bioshock simply goes deeper into the psyche than one might expect, examining what truly inspires fear. For some, it’s the body-horror of the splicers or Sander Cohen’s ghastly statues. For others, it’s the powerlessness of being forced to commit acts against one’s will, such as the murder of Andrew Ryan or Delta’s suicide. It might be the inability to protect loved ones, as with Booker as he hears far-away indications of Elizabeth’s suffering and can do nothing to stop it. Or perhaps it’s a personal feeling of helplessness, of imperfection that one is unable to fix—while someone innocent and dear to us watches, and mimics.
In the final level of Bioshock 2, as Eleanor and Delta scramble to escape the Persephone penal colony, she tells him, “Mother was right about one thing—I have been watching you, Father, studying the way you have treated others, and now I know who I am.” These words are then followed by either a message of hope or viciousness, wherein she chooses to save or kill the Little Sisters escaping with them, determining if who she is is a savior, or a monster—the responsibility for which falls squarely on Delta’s shoulders. Just as he must contend with that uncertainty, Jack must see how his choices help or harm the Little Sisters (who, in one version of events, become his own daughters), and Booker must confront the impact of his own poor decisions as they affect Elizabeth. Burial at Sea, the upcoming Bioshock Infinite DLC, promises another iteration of this focus on parental anxiety, as Rapture-rooted versions of Elizabeth and Booker go in search of a young girl named Sally—who may or may not be Booker’s daughter.
We will likely again see how the main character confronts this state of anxiety, this deep-seated fear, this horror that reaches deep in the midst of terrifying images and surroundings to pluck at something hidden much deeper. Within each of its stories, the Bioshock series maintains an underlying current of paternal anxiety, where the hero’s major conflict lies in his ability to protect or harm his female progeny against irredeemably nefarious and destructive villains—and perhaps we’ll again watch as he struggles to pull it off, with as much rapt attention as before.