The Leaderboard: The Island of Dr. Steinman--The Roots of BioShock

Games Features Bioshock
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Dan Crabtree examines the cultural and philosophical influences on modern day horror classic BioShock.

In 1896, H.G. Wells wrote the original script to BioShock. Ayn Rand jumped on the project some time in 1957, drafting a philosophical framework for the game world’s chief concerns (now gaming’s objectivist treatise). Then Ken Levine and the team at Irrational Games got their hands on the now century-old script in 2000, just one year after they had released the critically successful System Shock 2. In the adolescent studio’s hands, Wells’ island traveled to the 1940s, then sunk, then showed up again in the 1960s, the humanoid animals replaced by animalian humans. Dr. Moreau was given the medical wing of Rapture (the island’s undersea, art deco virtualization), and Ayn Rand’s anagram given a nine iron and a troubling, determinist self-awareness.

But let’s get back to the 19th century. The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells’ second novel (published in 1896), explores the memoirs of a lost seafarer stranded on a remote island with a mad scientist and his creations—animals surgically molded into human consciousness and subjugated by artificial laws they were biologically doomed to break. Wells was a lifelong political activist, especially in his writing, and Dr. Moreau was his commentary on the “civilities” of a modern man and the British imperialism that imposed technology and Christianity. Spoiler Alert: Wells opposed British imperialism.

But it was the character of Dr. Moreau that made his way into the seams of the first fully-formed concept for BioShock. In a passage eerily resonant with the game, Moreau describes his purpose in “vivisecting” animals into beast-men:

“Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say: this time I will burn out all the animal; this time I will make a rational creature of my own. After all, what is ten years? Man has been a hundred thousand in the making.”

When Ken Levine and his team put together the first BioShock pitch in 2002, their volcanic island setting and its cultist inhabitants struck a similar chord. Replace “animal” with “merely human” in the above quote and the Cult of the Conductor appears. Instead of transforming animals into conscious beast-men, the religious fanatics would evolve humans into part-crustacean, part-jellyfish, part-robot men. As the proposed fiction of this above-ground Rapture puts it:

“What is the measure of a man? Is it the hands and feet? The eyes and ears? Or is it the Holy Spirit that animates him? If the body is lost, but the soul is saved, is that anything less than a victory?”

The evolving human philosophy also would have worked its way into the gameplay of the original BioShock concept, exchanging what ended up as injectable abilities (plasmids) for “chitinous plates” or a translucent body. Choosing which animal attribute would best suit each situation was, then, a major component of the game’s upgradeable elements and tactical decisions, extending to environmental manipulation like temperature management. The game would still be a shooter at heart, the pitch argues, even to the point of including a “story-based deathmatch” mode, but would be enveloped by this question of the perfect human form, an idea familiar to Wells and his good doctor.

The BioShock island experience stuck for at least two years following the cancellation of Irrational’s completed project called “The Lost” and appeared in an October 2004 preview on GameSpot in much the same shape. At that time, the game still had the bits of inspiration that made it to the final cut: an intruding protagonist, a plane crash, NPCs deathly devoted to ideals, and a segment of the island base that would take place in undersea chambers. There were three enemy classes in the October 2004 BioShock build, each with unique “AI ecology” that caused them to behave more naturally like animals than like video game antagonists. “Drones” were gatherers, picking through dead flesh for sustenance and protected by “soldiers” in response to the threat of the more aggressive “predators”. The Little Sister-Big Daddy-Splicer dynamic already existed, but didn’t yet have the fiction that would satisfy Irrational.

So Wells’ story and some captivating AI choices were all the public knew of BioShock for two years until, at E3 2006, Irrational revealed the new face of the island of genetic modification. It had become a full-blown city under the sea, set in a distinctly post-WWII era period, and informed now by some of the ideas set forth by Ayn Rand in her novel Atlas Shrugged. A grizzly, villainous voice posited that “we all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us.” The tracks to ludonarrative discourse had been laid, and city of Rapture, though not yet complete, had been conceptually formed, Big Daddies, Andrew Ryan, and all.

So what happened to Dr. Moreau and his experiments? The beast-men had become disfigured humans, twisted in a “genetic arms race” for superior biological strength, and one physician, Irrational deemed, had to make them pretty again. Enter Dr. Steinman, Rapture’s chief of surgery and genetic idealist, whose religion of scientific beauty drove him to mutilate patients in the name of aesthetics. His voice and blood-scrawled notes haunt BioShock’s first full level, the Medical Pavilion, with monologues like this audio recording:

“I am beautiful, yes. Look at me, what could I do to make my features finer? With ADAM and my scalpel, I have been transformed. But is there not something better? What if now it is not my skill that fails me… but my imagination?”

The implication is as disturbing as it is relevant to Wells’ political interests. Is there a perfect limit to how much one culture, one people can be dissected and rearranged? What is the epitome of society? As the leaking dystopia of Rapture and Dr. Steinman’s failed surgeries might argue, there is no perfect evolution, and so no definitive beauty, aesthetic or consciousness that man can achieve, only different shades.

How might Rapture have developed if Dr. Moreau and his surgical successor were in Andrew Ryan’s shoes? The question of choice for them, it seems, is irrelevant, as attaining perfection is the only logical decision-guiding principle and scientific endeavor is the only means to discover. The nine iron, I’d guess, would be replaced by a scalpel, by the metanarrative discussion of what is visually and biologically superior. Within BioShock, all gamers would be slaves, and choice would be a slight wiggle inside a mechanical framework. Or maybe that’s already the point.

Dan Crabtree is an I.T. guy and freelance writer who has also contributed to Ars Technica, Kill Screen and Gamernode. His dog is considered handsome and well-read. You can find him (the human) on Twitter.