Flying over the Atlantic, your plane suddenly takes a nose dive into the ocean. You survive, struggling to the water’s surface. Beyond the flames, you see a lone lighthouse looming over you. It doesn’t seem like a difficult choice: remain in the wreckage, or swim to the dry stone staircase leading into the lighthouse? Yet it isn’t actually a choice at all. If you don’t move to the lighthouse, you will remain perpetually treading water and the game will not progress. You won’t enter the lighthouse’s submersible and sink hundreds of fathoms under the ocean to the decaying underwater city of Rapture. This scenario is just the first of many illusory choices. In Bioshock, free will isn’t intrinsic; you are given permission to choose.
Of course, that’s not to say you aren’t usually in control of the protagonist. You are free to walk around, fire your weapons at anyone, eat whatever food you might find lying around Rapture. It’s the significant decisions you can’t make, the choices that progress the game’s story.
After travelling under the ocean and getting a horrifying introduction to Rapture through the submersible’s window, a friendly voice talks to you: “Would you kindly pick up that shortwave radio?” The voice has a friendly Irish accent. You want to pick up that radio without even thinking about it. In fact, you must, but not for reasons that are immediately apparent. The sub’s door remains locked shut until you pick up the radio, another progression block. It’s hardly even a choice.
Before the game was released in 2007, it was hyped for a significant gameplay mechanic based in morality. In Rapture, where science is unbound by morality by mandate, scientists have developed easily applied genetic alterations called Plasmids that grant its users incredible powers, like expelling flames from your hands or telekinesis. This works on a mutagen called ADAM, a resource that can only be gathered from Little Sisters. Little Sisters are female children genetically modified to gather ADAM from creatures living on the sea floor. They’re guarded by hulking men in heavy diving suits called Big Daddies. Once you kill a Big Daddy, you’re presented with The Choice: “rescue” the Little Sister, turning her back into a human and gaining a small amount of ADAM, or “harvest” the Little Sister, killing the child and gaining a much more substantial amount of ADAM.
The ramifications of each choice seem obvious. Killing the Little Sisters is the morally bad choice, but the reward allows you to get more Plasmids earlier. Conversely, saving the Little Sisters means you must save ADAM up to obtain new abilities, but you’ll be able to live with yourself a bit more. Yet as you continue to play, killing or saving the little girls, the difference in the ADAM received from each encounter actually lessens. Ars Technica forum user twinky graphed the difference, and while the difference is great for the first few little sisters, the amount actually levels out rather quickly. Interacting with Little Sisters for personal gain becomes less of a motivator, and actually only affects the epilogue cutscene you see after the end of the game.
That was the most hyped “choice” in the game, yet it turns out to be largely unimportant pragmatically. You are still allowed to choose, however. You are not allowed to choose the outcome of the game’s most stunning moment. You and the Irish voice on the radio, Atlas, have become quite a team. But Andrew Ryan, founder and corrupt ruler of Rapture, has killed Atlas’s family. He must die. You finally reach his office at Rapture’s heart, yet he does not resist. He seems mentally unstable as he talks to you. Then, all his talk makes sense. “Run, would you kindly,” he directs, and you run across the room. “Stop, would you kindly.” You stop. The player is at this point putting together all the pieces. “A man chooses,” declares Ryan, “a slave obeys!” This is his mantra. He hands you the golf club he’s been toying with. You remember all the times Atlas asked you to do things, always preceding his request with the innocent words “would you kindly.” “Kill,” Ryan commands. You are frozen in place; your only option is to press the button on your gamepad or mouse to strike Ryan in the head with the club. You are forced to slowly beat him to death as he repeats his mantra. He screams past broken teeth “Obey!” and you deliver the killing blow. You never had any choice. You are a slave.
The rest of the jigsaw falls into place: you are Rapture-born, the illegitimate son of Ryan, conditioned from an early age to obey the phrase “would you kindly.” Every game progressing choice was never a choice at all. You are and have always been a slave, and a slave has no options. Many games give you choices like these that aren’t really choices, but Bioshock is certainly the best example of the absence of free will in narrative video games.