Bioshock’s Glorious Microcosm
Updated: Apr 11
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. The essay contains spoilers for the plot of the game Bioshock. It was first published Feb 28 2020.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour. ~ William Blake
A literary or narrative conceit I truly love is the use of a microcosm or synecdoche to parallel an overarching plot that contains it, providing a story within a story that at once condenses and clarifies a central theme. There are many ways in which this can be done, and indeed has been done. One of my favourite examples is the ‘Swann in Love’ arc from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, sometimes (wrongly) taken as its own complete narrative and sold as a self-contained novel or filmed as a stand alone cinematic experience.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the common excising of ‘Swann in Love’ from its context, but I would like to insist that it ultimately robs the work of its genius and renders it a mere common unrequited love story. Whereas its true power is to mirror the broader sweep of In Search of Lost Time in a briefer form, reaffirming and emphasising its metaphysics of identity, memory, secular salvation and human relationships. It foreshadows and comments on the rest of the work, such that both its power and the power of the seven volumed meditation on time and human existence is lessened without the synthesis of the two.
This conceit is not unique to the novel form. In Alan Moore’s comic book Watchmen there is a comic-within-the-comic entitled ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’, a pirate tale in which the protagonist’s descent into moral terpertude reflects back on the trajectories of many of the ‘heroes’ of the central plot. Particular motifs repeat, such as exile, the corruptions of moral absolutism, an ironic fate, violence against those we love and cosmic futility. William Shakespeare was very fond of the nested play as a means to comment authorially on his own work, while simultaneously constituting a dramatic device to move the plot forward. We see this in different genres of his work, such as in The Tragedy of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Lately, I have been watching a wonderful Let’s Play of the 2007 computer game Bioshock, recorded by George Lea on his YouTube channel. For anybody who enjoys watching such things, I recommend it. And this put me in mind not only of the game itself, which I regard as possessing an excellent story (far surpassing its sequels), but also of a particular level of that game. That is, Fort Frolic, and especially its antagonist, Sander Cohen, who Lea rightly describes as a blend of Batman villain The Joker with Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí.
This level is special in an already special game (written by Ken Levine), and it is so for many reasons. In a narrative with as many memorable monsters as a D&D manual, Sander Cohen is supremely terrifying, intriguing, and meaningful. But foremost, it’s the self-contained nature of Fort Frolic. When you enter this area, the entertainment and artists district of the underwater city of Rapture, you are listening to a back-and-fourth exchange between the two big oppositional forces of the game, Rapture’s Ayn Rand styled founder Andrew Ryan and the malevalent trickster Atlas. Cohen silences both of their radio communications, such that you only hear from Cohen during your time in his domain.
Visually, as well, Fort Frolic has its calcified living statues, mutant Splicers in bunny costumes, penchant for purple lighting and vaudeville aesthetics, and all this is a contrast to the more utilitarian or 50s noir areas of Rapture. In short, right away this place telegraphs to the player that you are in a place at a remove from the rest of the game. This is made even more important by the point at which this level takes place in the story’s unfolding.
Having crash landed in the ocean, you find yourself marooned on a lighthouse that then takes you, via submarine, to the city. Thereafter you mutate yourself to fight off the hoards of mutants that fight each other in the ruins of Ryan’s failed utopia, slowly piecing together your own connection to the city. Fort Frolic is encountered right before the central revelation of the game, that is, that you are Ryan’s son, and Atlas/Fontaine’s puppet, being mentally dominated by the trigger phrase ‘would you kindly.’
This will cement Bioshock’s main narrative dilemma, which draws on the game medium itself (in which the player is afforded a limited freedom to navigate the game, but only along a certain scripted route) to ask questions about human freedom, dignity, worth and self-understanding. This is an idea that is explored in various other ways — as you pick about the ruins of Rapture you often encounter various audio diaries, piecing together the lives of hell’s inhabitants and discovering through them many echoes of the aporia of determinism, of the influence of nature and nurture, of the desire to transcend prescriptions (aesthetic, physical, metaphysical) and various failures to do so.
What does this have to do with Fort Frolic and Cohen, you ask? As it happens, a lot. Cohen fancies himself an artist, a crafter of the aforementioned living statues, but also a director of musical and theatrical pieces, a poet, and so on. At one point you find one of his audio diaries and it’s revealed to be a spoken performance of one of his verses; it tells you a lot (and unsettlingly so) about the kind of person you are up against. The Wild Bunny by Sander Cohen starts menacingly enough, then descends into utter mania:
I want to take the ears off, but I can’t. I hop, and when I hop, I never get off the ground. It’s my curse, my eternal curse! I want to take the ears off but I can’t! It’s my curse! It’s my fucking curse! I want to take the ears off! Please! Take them off! Please!
During your time squaring against Cohen, he has you photograph the recently charred corpse of a pianist he blows up in front of you, and then deliver the photograph to his gallery. Eventually you encounter one another and an opportunity for a boss fight ensues, although it is possible to part company more peaceably; it’s a rare genuine choice in the game, and perhaps one befitting a character who, like the player character, finds himself battling the machinations of others to secure a genuine liberty.
The microcosm is a conceit I would recommend to all storytellers. It accomplishes several things economically. First, it shows (as with Levine, Proust, Shakespeare) your full and conscious command of the ideas of your story. Second, it elegantly foreshadows without giving away — the analogue need never be so exact, nor inexact, that this conceit cannot aptly manage to lend your story a sense of coherency without creating an impression of shallowness or artifice. Third and finally, it prods the player, reader, watcher of your story to engage critically with it. By flagging the story as one that has definite ideas, you prompt not just emotional engagement, but intellectual curiosity.
If you enjoyed my essay, subscribe to my monthly newsletter for similar pieces on writing, politics, utopia and horror.