Analysis, Feminism

Down the Rabbit Hole: ‘BioShock’ & Women’s Agency

Bioshock

I had heard lots of good things about BioShock, which prompted me to buy it. (The sale on Steam didn’t hurt either.) I’d heard that the worldbuilding was interesting, the gameplay wasn’t bad, and there were great twists to the storyline to eff with you. Those seemed like good recommendations to me. I had also heard that there was a degree of horror to the game, which I am not a fan of, and that women were not treated very well in the game overall. Since this sexism has been discussed in a number of places, including in the “Tropes vs. Women” series, you can understand that it was with some trepidation that I began to play.

BioShock freaked me out a good bit; let’s get that out right off the bat. The atmosphere of the game, all gloomy, flickering lights, and structures that were breaking down with leaks everywhere was an exceptionally creepy aesthetic. It made everything feel rundown and broken. So, well done there. But that’s not what really got me freaked out. The visuals, while powerful, were not the biggest factor of my fear. The sound work in the game is downright brilliant. While you can hear your own feet and occasionally the panting you do when running (which was very cool), what caused me to hunt for corners was the sound of various enemies wandering about, yelling nonsense and ranting. Just hearing the moans and stomping of a Big Daddy made my heart start to race and check and recheck my ammo. The sound engineering, with the excellent Foley and scratchy dialogue, set the mood far more effectively than any of the visuals were able to manage.

However, that being said, there are aspects of the visuals that are more disturbing than engaging, making me almost recoil from the game rather than stay immersed in the storyline. It wasn’t the creepy shadows, watching the figures of distant people do things, or the ruins of Rapture. No, that fact was the bodies. And, more specifically, it was the fact that the majority of corpses lying about were female. Sure, I got the fact that I was playing in the ruins of the Ayn Rand’s Wonderland pretty quickly as the game is upfront about it—that all the social nonsense had come to play and destroyed itself. But why were the majority of the dead female? That was a nagging thought and made me uncomfortable. Thankfully, the majority of them were dressed like ’50s housewives rather than in very skimpy nothings, but there were a few of those as well. It was … problematic.

Now, I had no problem with the fact that there were female Splicers of various types running around and trying to kill me. I have always held the belief that if you attack me, then you are fair game, so male, female, alien—you attack, then I’m not very worried about the fallout. But in BioShock, there are a disproportionate number of dead women lying about. And that doesn’t even get into the horror of the Little Sisters. These cute little girls who happily drain Adam from corpses, talking about Angels and such … yeah, that was disturbing as well, but not nearly on par with the obvious brutality towards women. So, it was clear from the game that you had three distinct types of women in BioShock: enemies (the various Splicers), victims (both the corpses and the Little Sisters), and disembodied voices (such as Dr. Tennenbaum). For all the interesting bits of the game, such as the story and sound, that basic situation threw me a good bit.

Undeterred but nervous, I moved onto BioShock 2. This one was better in terms of gameplay, less horrific in a number of ways, and had a greater degree of gender equality, which was a lovely surprise. The Big Bad was a woman who used psychology as a weapon, which, given the setting’s time period, is an accurate statement as to how some people used that field. Dr. Lamb was a wonderfully sincere and terrifying villain. There was also the inclusion of the Big Sisters to the mix of enemies.

So, one of the powerful enemies you had to face was now female, and then there was the usual trope of female enemies and victims. What helped make BioShock 2 less of a problem than the first game was the fact that this one gave women greater agency. Sure, it was annoying to see another dead sex worker or three scattered about, but a few of them left recordings that let you know their beliefs and thoughts on the matter. You got bits of self-empowerment and loss of power in the narrative mix, which was nice. There were even a few mid-level bosses who were female, which spread the power more.

BioShock 2

That was very heartening, because the gender disparity evident in the first game was more evenly spread, making things easier to cope with. Eleanor was an engaging plot motivation who had real backstory as both a child and young adult, as well as reasons for her drive to do things. The voice acting by both young and old Eleanor was excellent, too. The fact that for a short while you got to play as a Little Sister, complete with their skewed view of the world, was powerful. Women had entered the narrative world of BioShock as more than simply people with guns who were targets, and had gained depth. That alteration in the formula made me enjoy the game far more than I had the first. The bits and pieces of the storyline trickled out through recordings made the various women and men interesting—far more than was the case in the first game. BioShock 2 came across as more the fallout of the previous Ayn Rand circus, with people trying to find something to hold on to. That it was an odd religion was actually par for the course and interesting.

To say that I enjoyed BioShock 2 far more than the first is accurate. While some of the horror elements were less prevalent, the sound work was still spot on, making the atmosphere oppressive and claustrophobic. That was good. There were still some problematic elements in terms of how women were portrayed, but on the whole, it was worlds better than BioShock. Sure, the playable character is male in both games, but with the fact that Delta is a Big Daddy, some of the gendered issues there were subverted. Instead of a man with a greater degree of power in that world, you play a near-destructive machine that, despite everything, is called ‘Daddy,’ and could be any particular gender.

So, as I get ready to dive into BioShock Infinite, looking back at the two prior games shows that in terms of worldbuilding and narrative complexity, the series has indeed grown. BioShock was a pretty straightforward shooter with an interesting world design and story, but was essentially a ‘white man saves the day’ sort of structure. It was your standard power fantasy. BioShock 2 had a similar narrative, but the differences were wonderful and made the entire thing more engaging, widening the gender equity for both heroes and villains. They did an excellent job in the development of the series, from one iteration to the next, making a better product as they moved along. That is important for any company, as resting on your laurels results in later products pretty much sucking. I do hope this means great things for BioShock Infinite, but I will discover that soon enough.

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5 thoughts on “Down the Rabbit Hole: ‘BioShock’ & Women’s Agency”

  1. I wouldn’t say the first Bioshock was really that disparaging in terms of gender disparity. It personally did not ruin the game play for me as there were enough female splicers running around trying to blow me up and the fact that Tennenbaum and Adam (? it’s been while hehe) were arguing for the main character’s allegiance. Also, there are pictures plastered everywhere about plastic surgery which they poke fun at, so I don’t think they were trying to make females feel left out. There was certainly no unnecessary sexual violence like there was in Tomb Raider. The executive producer was a woman, too, Alyssa Finley. 2K is pretty adamant about their inclusion of women (Borderlands being a good example). You do, however, make a fair point about Bioshock 2 which has a higher inclusion of females and their stories. The Big Sisters were a nice touch!

    For Bioshock Infinite, in terms of female inclusion, all you really have is Elizabeth (who is pretty awesome and daring, albeit a little air-headed and rash) and the “red pill, blue pill” couple; but I won’t say anymore so as to not ruin the fun. Cheers~

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  2. Okay– I disagree “Bioshock… was your standard power fantasy”. I mean, if you look at the ending, I see that… but… the most notable scene in the game was very deliberately a direct subversion of the standard power fantasy… and spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler… spoiler… spoiler! Also, minor technicality, Bioshock does have a possible bad ending… it’s not necessarily ”white man saves the day”… it could be ”white man makes a bad day substantially worse for everyone”. I’d say that the most important thing, to me, about Bioshock is it’s critique of objectivism, sure it’s not a particularly detailed critique but I can think of few games that are so overtly and significantly political. By that token, I’d personally never describe it as a generally standard game. Standard in terms of it’s gender politics, sure. Which was probably what you meant by that. Still, why would I pass up an opportunity to talk about a game I rather like?

    Btw, I’d love to see your take on Bioshock: Infinite (there’s rather a lot to take on). As well as the story DLC, Burial at Sea.

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