A man chooses, a slave obeys: 3 lessons from BioShock about choice & control

We all lament that we don’t have as much choice and control over our lives as we’d like. Bad weather, abrasive people, overwhelming workloads. Out of our control, right?

But what if we have more control than we think?

What if we just need to look at things from a different perspective to gain control and realise choices we never thought we had?

In this article we’ll learn what BioShock can teach us about choice and control.

If you haven’t played it, you can currently get BioShock for a dollar via Humble Bundle until 23 July 2014. To avoid spoilers, would you kindly finish the game before reading on.

Spoilers lie ahead for the original BioShock. Big unmarked spoilers.

If you’re cool with that, read on.

1. Accept that some things are out of your control

In BioShock, choice and control are major themes. In our real lives, choice and control are vital to our happiness.

Hopefully none of us are in precisely the same situation as the protagonist Jack in BioShock when he crash lands and ventures into the fallen underwater “utopia” of Rapture.

Things are messed up down there. Seriously. Worst New Years ever.

It seems Andrew Ryan, Rapture’s founder, is to blame. Jack finds an ally in a man calling himself Atlas, and proceeds to do everything he can to help Atlas bring Ryan down.

Thing is [spoilers ahead, for those who didn’t heed the first warning] Jack never had any control. He was brainwashed to unwittingly obey any command or request accompanied by the phrase “would you kindly”.

We discover this in a gruesome scene toward the end where we, the player, literally lose control over the character’s actions. The scene involves a monologue and a golf club.

I’m assuming you know the scene in question. If not, there’s a video link below, but this scene can be hard to watch due to gore and violent imagery.

It’s also rough because around 1:22 in the video, your character goes into autopilot (at that point in the video you can see the screen go into letterbox mode). You’ve just lost control of the character you’ve been controlling for the past dozen hours.

You don’t need to watch the scene to understand the rest of the article. Feel free to skip it if you’re familiar with it or would rather not watch. At 2:15 the violence begins.

[Trigger warning: the following video contains violent imagery.] 

If you want to watch: this video contains violent imagery.

A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys

After 12 or so hours of gameplay where Jack responds to every key stroke, click and button press, that control is suddenly taken away. In the moments as Jack realises he has no control over his actions, the game actually takes control away from us, the player.

Button-mash as much as you like. Try to run. You can’t. It makes no difference. The scene plays out the same every time. Jack kills Andrew Ryan. That’s all there is to it.

(For those wondering why would Ryan want this, there’s a few theories).

Just as in real life, some things are truly out of our control. We can’t control the weather, we can’t dictate how people treat us, we can’t make our workload suddenly disappear.

(In real life we do have control over our actions, though. So anyone considering using “brainwashed” as an excuse for real world violence, just… put your golf clubs away, would you kindly?).

We can’t control everything. What we can do, though, is accept that.

Once we accept it, we can stop stressing over stuff we can’t change. It feels good just to let it go. Leave that stuff up to fate. You’ve got no control over it, so choose to be okay with that. Then, you can get on with something productive. Focus your energy somewhere else.

Some things, you just have no control or choice over.

Accept that as reality and then move on to…

2. Find where you have control and focus on it

In BioShock there’s only one choice that you have real control over. You can choose to save or kill the genetically modified Little Sisters.

It’s Jack’s – and our – only real meaningful choice in the story.

Check out these two videos to see different endings based on whether you saved or killed the Little Sisters.

Big difference, huh?

  • Save the girls and they go on to become grown women with careers and families. They become your family. You die old and happy surrounded by loved ones.
  • Kill them and none of that happens. Instead, they’re dead, you take command of Rapture’s mad splicers and unleash death and destruction on the world.

In either scenario, you killed Ryan. You had no choice in that.

But look at what a difference to the world you make by focusing on where you have control and choice. Of course, it’s up to you what you do with that control. Personally, I’d try to shoot for the Good Ending, in life.

In real life we can do the same. You’ve accepted that some things are out of your control. Now look for the things that are in your control.

  • You can’t control the weather, but you can bring an umbrella.
  • You can’t dictate how other people treat us, but you can control your reaction and how you let their treatment affect you.
  • You can’t make your workload suddenly disappear, but you can organise your workload, get help or work smarter.

Focus on where you have control.

3. Open your eyes and choose, don’t blindly obey

The brainwashing in BioShock is not exactly an everyday occurrence. However, there are a lot of choices we blind ourselves to in normal life.

What’s great for us is we probably have a lot more choice than we realise.

How many things in your life do you just go along with because of… reasons? Reasons you haven’t articulated or thought about.

Does this sound familiar?

  • You go to work via this route, not because it’s quicker, just because.
  • You buy this brand of cereal, not because it’s healthier, just because you’ve always bought that one.

There’s bigger stuff too. Look at your life and think about it.

  • Why do you seem to never have any free time? What are you choosing to use your time on? What if you chose something different?
  • Why do you do your work in that particular way? What if you chose another way?

Have you realised that saying “Yes” to something is effectively saying “No” to something else?

Yes, I’ll watch this movie (so no, I won’t watch the sunset). Yes, I’ll eat this burger (so no, I won’t eat that sushi).

It’s not bad to say no; just be aware you’re doing it.

Be mindful of your choices and I think you’ll find you have a lot more control and choice than you thought.

Open Chat

What other lessons for life can we learn from BioShock? What do other games teach us about choice and control? Add your voice to the comments below, if you choose to.


When Jarrod's not writing about personal development through pop-culture, he's helping people like you reach their goals through fun, empowering coaching.

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