Monday, February 09, 2009

Beyond Grace

I had a recent conversation with Marion that brought me back to the subject of Bioshock. Bioshock wins my award for Best Use of Violence in a Long, Long Time. The game's hype touted its "moral choice" system, but what that really boiled down to was whether you killed mutated little girls to increase your power now, or cured them of their horrible condition in order to increase your power later. It was viscerally effective - when you had the little girls in your hands they were so little girl-like you really felt awful about killing them, which is the real reason I never did - but it was trying way too hard. And the fact that you were rewarded for saving the little girls turned the whole thing into a simple economic transaction.

But Bioshock did and does make me think about moral choices all the same. Let me sketch a bit of background first for those who haven't played the game. Yes, spoilers follow. In Bioshock, the player finds himself in a nightmare underwater art-deco city called Rapture, founded by a visionary man named Andrew Ryan with a chip on his shoulder and one too many copies of Atlas Shrugged in his library. Naturally, this Objectivist paradise is overrun in fairly short order by a gifted thug named Frank Fontaine, whose criminal empire ruins the society. Fontaine spends most of the game playing the player for a fool by posing as "Atlas," a revolutionary figure who still struggles to overthrow Ryan's hypocritical tyranny. "Atlas'" wife and daughter are trapped in the hellish underbelly of the city, which is overrun by crazed mutagen-addicts, and he implores the player's aid to save them.

That will do for set-up. It's important to understand, though, that the aforesaid crazed mutagen-addicts (called "splicers" in the game) have some memory of their former selves, and like all drug addicts, are essentially pathetic. The player is forced to kill a good many of them, but none of them want to die, and are still human enough to feel pain and have desires other than killing the player. They cry over lost babies, have loving relationships, and on more than one occasion I felt that in their dying moments (e.g., as they were running around like human torches because I had immolated them) they regretted what they had become. One of these splicers is a boss-type character named Sander Cohen, who believes himself to be a great artist (and probably once was). Cohen is also a really nasty guy, who chains piano players to pianos to "audition" for him by playing one of his masterpieces and blowing them up when they fail to live up to his standards, creates statues out of people by covering them in plaster, that sort of thing. Yet the player must traverse his part of Rapture in order to reach Atlas' poor wife and son. By the end of it you've been forced to do Cohen's dirty work by killing several other splicers who hate Cohen for what he has done to them and their families, and Cohen at last reveals himself to congratulate you and wish you on your way.

So there I stood, with the monster at last before me, a not-inconsiderable arsenal of mutagen-granted powers, and a very powerful gun in my hand. I seriously considered blowing his head off. I had no reason not to; he had given me everything I needed to get past his locked doors. I even suspected he had a key on him I could use to gain some valuable loot. But I didn't. Why did I want to kill him? Because he was a terrible person. Well, so what? Does being a terrible person justify your execution? Cohen was indeed a monster, but was he beyond forgiveness? He was, at heart, like all the other splicers - doing terrible things in his drug-addled thirst for the things humans value most - love, family, art. I stayed my hand and moved on. But the entire Cohen sequence was enormously creepy, not least because I was killing people I had no desire to kill, and no clear reason to kill other than that they were in my way and attacking the intruder in their midst (me). Despite the fact that Cohen was the most morally despicable person in his private nightmare realm, and very nearly the only person I had not killed, it was almost a relief to let him live.

Contrast this with another situation, later on in the game, when it became clear that Atlas was Frank Fontaine, and I had been his cat's paw all along. Fontaine is, as you might guess, the ultimate villain of the piece, and the final act of the game is dedicated to hunting and putting him down. Yes, he has a megalomaniacal scheme to mutate himself into some kind of ubermensch, and for the sake of the few sane people in Rapture one might feel an obligation to stop him. But the truth is that I wanted to kill him because he had been using me, and in some twisted game logic that was an unforgivable sin.

I've experienced this sort of state before, as Danielle Meroit and as Monica Corvallyn. A few other games have had hints of it. It's like grace, but in reverse. If grace is unmerited favor, this is a state in which favor is unmeritable. Where a person (in this case, Fontaine) is beyond redemption, a stain on existence that cannot be blotted out by repentance, good works, or mitigating circumstances. Only death will do, the more callous and brutal the better.

Was Fontaine's wrong any greater than Cohen's? Not clearly. He was a manipulative, megalomaniacal bastard, to be sure, but he wasn't a sadistic artiste. His was a common, almost bureaucratic sort of evil - the cold pursuit of self-aggrandizement. Cohen's was darker, more sinister. But I skulked about Cohen's lair, scared and ashamed, and for all his horrors I was proud to let him live. There was something cleansing about it. Fontaine I pursued like an angel nemesis, and woe betide anyone foolish enough to try to protect him. The horrors of Rapture were expunged in that state of mind. Fontaine was not even a man any more. He was only a thing to be killed, the object of my clear, brutal certainty that his death was Something That Must Be Done.

I find this state of mind fascinating, because it is in my opinion the most horrific of all states that the human mind can get into. I think it strikes me this way because it really is the opposite of grace, and grace is the great trademark of the mind of God. Forgiveness is always an option, because in the final analysis forgiveness is never fully warranted. It cannot be fully warranted. No action will take back a wrong. We can paper over the wound, but what was done cannot be undone, and so restitution can never truly make a person whole. When forgiveness is taken off the table, whether we realize it or not we are saying that we refuse to forgive them. When we do that, we cut ourselves off from recognizing the very nature of forgiveness itself, and isolate ourselves against the very heart of God.