“No Gods or Kings, Only Man”: The Philosophy of Bioshock

Heavy spoilers for the game and its ending


Ashton Oldewurtel, Staff Writer

Ken Levine’s Bioshock takes place in the decaying underwater dystopia of Rapture; the objectivist paradise envisioned by the ambitious entrepreneur Andrew Ryan. Andrew Ryan asks you one question. Are you a man, or a slave?


Ryan was born Andrei Rianovski to a lower-class family in pre-soviet Russia. After the communists took over, he saw how they oppressed the hardworking business owners, causing him and his family to have to move to the United States. This had a monumental impact on his ideology, shaping him into the industrious capitalist he would soon become.


When he arrived in the United States, he and his family were able to make a sizable fortune for themselves through their oil business. With his profits, Ryan and his family purchased a forest. The government told him that the forest belonged to the poor, and the religious told him that it belonged to God. Before the federal government seized the land, he burned it to the ground, destroying every last tree. He saw these people as parasites, leeches taking what they could not build from those who could.

2K Studios, Ken Levine and friends

He believed that the strongest force in the world wasn’t some God or some government, but the great chain of progress and industry. “I believe in no God, no invisible man in the sky. But there is something more powerful than each of us, a combination of our efforts, a Great Chain of industry that unites us. But it is only when we struggle in our own interest that the chain pulls society in the right direction. The chain is too powerful and too mysterious for any government to guide,” said Andrew Ryan. But the people on the surface — the parasites — are just dead weight on this great chain. Religion, collectivists, and poor people he all saw as nothing more than a cancer on the side of progress. 


From all this, Ryan became disaffected with the world. “In what country is there a place for people like me?” says Ryan.


The solution to his ails? Rapture, the underwater capitalist paradise.


He built a city seven thousand feet below the ocean, gathering the most brilliant and talented people to come with him. He promised zero moral restrictions on scientific advancement, zero censorship on artistry, and zero regulation on business.


Those are the three pillars of Rapture. Science, Art, and Industry.


For years, Rapture thrived. The economy boomed, art was at its finest, and science was progressing faster than ever before.


But what happens when people become poor? What were to happen if science were to go too far?


Ryan (and, by extension, all of Rapture) had no time for such questions. Just look at the economy!


This is where the faults in Ryan’s ideology start to become apparent (ignoring the fact that the underwater city had no means of importing/exporting goods, a central feature of any modern economy, would be a fatal flaw).


There started to become an ever-growing underclass, the same group of people Ryan saw as parasites. Genetically modifying drugs known as plasmids started to take over amongst the underclass, with terrible unknown side effects (to the users, not the producers). The poorer members of Rapture led by the conman Frank Fontaine (posing as Atlas) start to war with Ryan’s militias, leading to the collapse of Rapture.


But why was this? What was the fatal flaw in his ideology?


It seems obvious to me that the developers were trying to critique the nature of a capitalist society. People on the top stay on the top by striving against those on the bottom. This is why the fall of Rapture was inevitable. The bottom was always destined to fall out from underneath.


However, I don’t think that’s the case necessarily. I agree that Rapture with Ryan at its head was always going to fail, but not for the same reason.


While market economies create wealth inequality, they also raise more people out of poverty than any other economic system humans have ever developed. There’s a reason the United States is the wealthiest nation in the history of planet earth, and it’s because of the free market. There’s a reason the global poverty rate fell fifty percent in less than a hundred years, and it’s because of free markets. But society does not stand on one leg.


Ryan was staunchly anti-religious, and he made rapture in accordance with this value. This is what crumbles societies. This is what caused Ryan’s paradise to fall.


When a society lacks religion, the fundamental principles and moral precepts that a civilization bases itself upon, that society collapses. Religion is the cornerstone of civilization, not some afterthought we can discard at will.


Ryan seemed to think that liberty was the highest value, that Man, when allowed to do as he saw fit, was in himself complete. But that is just not true. Liberty for liberty’s sake is of no use to Man. Freedom is of use, only that we may angle ourselves towards the good. But when the good is ourselves, when Man strives towards money or power, he idolizes himself. Man, therefore, puts himself on God’s throne, making his own precepts and values. Whatever Man sees as good becomes his value hierarchy, whether it be identity, money, pleasure, possession, food, etc. These examples, by the way, all lead to the “seven deadly sins” (greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth, and pride).


This is true of America as well. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” said John Adams, the second president of the United States. “It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” Clearly, the founding fathers tailored the constitution with this knowledge of the human condition, that people, without any proper religion, make their own God and worship at its feet.


The Latin term “summum bonum” is a term that refers to God, translating as “the ultimate good.” In essence, whatever is our ultimate good becomes our god. Whatever we’d be willing to lose everything for is what we worship. In the case of Bioshock, this is unbridled human autonomy, represented in the figure of Andrew Ryan. In a way, Andrew Ryan is the God of Rapture, an idol at the feet of which people worship.


Near the end of the game, Atlas (who is merely Ryan’s enemy and the conman Frank Fontaine in disguise) asks if you would kindly go into Ryan’s office and kill him.

2K Studios, Ken Levine and friend

You learn that throughout the entire game, Frank Fontaine had been mind-controlling you. But only after killing Andrew Ryan, killing the false god of self and greed, do you lose the mind control of Fontaine and become truly free.