English 738T, Spring 2015
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Bioshock and Frankenstein: Another Modern Prometheus?

Posted by Nigel Lepianka on Tuesday, February 7th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I was stumbling around the Internet (Wikipedia specifically) yesterday morning, trying to enrich my knowledge of Frankenstein. I’m sure all of you can relate to the endless wandering Wikipedia offers with the hyperlinks embedded in the articles. After a while, I found myself on the page for Golems, which apparently have their origins in the Bible. And eventually I thought of some of the modern representations of golems, especially organic, golem-like figures (such as Frankenstein), and I thought of one of my favorite video games:

Bioshock is already known in the gaming world as a very literary and smart game. As a response to Ayn Rand’s objectivist theories, the world of Bioshock is an underwater city called Rapture, comprised of districts with grandiose, allusive names like Hephaestus, Apollo Square, Aphrodite, etc, and governed by the doctrine that man should be free to reap the rewards of his work without censor and restriction. This, naturally, leads to violent anarchy, and the course of the game toys with the theories of uninhibited free will and living as an ignorant slave, as the player explores this dystopian world.

But while that is the publicly acknowledged critique of the game’s literary value, I have begin to muse about other issues it explores and other works it may be in dialogue with. From the title alone, some sort of collision of life and something else can be inferred. Bioshock: a shock to life by something disruptive, surprising, or strange, or perhaps something that restarts or recalibrates life. The connection to Frankenstein should be apparent at this point.

The large golem-like figure dominating the image is certainly suggestive of some sort of strange form of life in any case. And, to those who have not played the game, one of the major plot points is the discovery that these creatures, the so-called Big Daddies, are real men, mechanically and genetically modified to perform specific (and violent) functions as guardians and enforcers.

But this is not the only example of life-hacking and a relationship with Shelley’s novel. The entire game itself revolves around a protagonist whom was engineered by a “mad scientist” father for the purpose of extending life. This is not initially known, but gradually revealed. In essence, players control a Frankenstein’s monster that was not rejected by the father, but manipulated and continually “built” over the course of the game by way of the strange genetic substance called ADAM, a process that was necessary for survival in Rapture.

As I continue to read through Frankenstein, I’ll probably keep the relationship with Bioshock in mind, as the latter seems to be directly related to the former in questioning the role of science and the bleak possibilities of tampering with life. However, at the moment, I feel my thoughts are too premature to begin to try to fully explain or even organize.

But for one last tidbit, attached below is a link to a small, but scholarly, discussion, begun by Tim Welsh at the University of Loyola, on Posthumanism and Bioshock that some might find interesting:



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5 Responses

  • Allison Wyss says:

    Scooped again. I also wanted to talk about golems. I think they are really important to understanding Frankenstein’s relationship with technology. They’re very much the same thing, except animated through incantation/prayer. At least traditionally. I’m not entirely sure how the gaming versions work. However, bringing tech into the idea of the the golem, my pre-tech example of Franken-style monster, is fascinating.

    • Nigel Lepianka says:

      What’s interesting is that the protagonist (whom the player controls) is actually manipulated by a sort of incantation; the phrase “would you kindly…” is genetically encoded in the character to cause unquestioning obedience and action. It is a very strange, transcendent moment when the player discovers this and feels manipulated when the actions they have performed (pressing keys, clicking the mouse, etc) in order to manipulate the character have in fact been manipulated by the use of this phrase.

  • This is fantastic–I hadn’t realized how many connections the game has to Frankenstein. I need to refresh my memory of the game, but doesn’t the mad scientist character also remake people into “more beautiful” (meaning more unique, to him) monstrosities? They’re not patchworks, but they definitely play around with the idea of humanity being linked to a certain range of human appearance/beauty.
    Together with a similar scientist/surgeon character in Frank Wu’s great “mad futurist” story “If the Gesture Be Beautiful” (http://www.frankwu.com/gesture1.html), this makes me wonder about transitory states of monstrosity. Do the definitions of “monster” we came up with last week support the move into and back out of monstrosity, as with temporary blemishes (smallpox, revertible surgical changes to the body)–can monstrosity be merely visual? Or do we buy into the “criminal brain” theory in James Whale’s “Frankenstein” film–does monstrosity sit beneath the skin? Or is monstrosity a temporal attribute, with past actions or appearances irrevocably branding a monster in cultural memory (e.g. shapeshifters or murderers)?

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