Welcome to “Speech Check,” a mini-series that examines some of the most memorable speeches and monologues in gaming. Inspiring, terrifying, or laughably badly acted, our favourite games have some oratory gems that have something to say.
The seventh generation of video game consoles was an era that promised freedom. With more processing power than ever before, the Xbox 360 and PS3’s game lineups promised unprecedented wide-open worlds, complex narratives, and player choice. Amid the Fallouts and Mass Effects of the world, gaming had finally delivered on its promise of fully immersive worlds with decisions that mattered.
And then Bioshock makes you brutally murder a man with a golf club, against your will, while he screams about the concept of agency. Let’s rewind.
Within minutes of the game’s crash landing start, we’re introduced to Rapture, the shockingly beautiful, submerged and dystopian paradise. Through the crackle of a pre-recorded city welcome, we “meet” Andrew Ryan. He croons about building a city filled with artists, scientists and other elites, “where the great would not be constrained by the small.”
A thinly veiled analogue (and anagram) for the philosophies of Ayn Rand, Ryan’s Objectivist playground calls for passion and progress of great individuals, uninhibited by the sensibilities of common morality and governmental oversight. And yet, the Rapture you see is broken and falling apart, rife with delusional and horrifically mutated monsters barely clinging to a shred of their humanity. Not exactly a picture-perfect tourism photo.
Luckily, a friendly voice on a nearby radio hails you and promises to help you escape. He kindly asks you to you trudge off into the aquatic hellscape to search for the man who built Rapture. Over the next few hours, you become an unstoppable force of nature – choosing, like a deity, which of the many ways you will crush those in your way.
Fast forward a bit, and after cutting a bloody swath through Ryan’s Art-Deco miracle under the sea, you find yourself face-to-face with the man himself.
In almost comically stereotypical villainous fashion, he is practising his putting in his office as Rapture crumbles around you. He’s been waiting. Immediately, you know something is wrong. He’s not interested in a dramatic final boss fight. “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” he says, cryptically.
He explains that you are not some unlucky everyman who stumbled upon Rapture. Instead, you are the twisted result of a science experiment, laser-guided, brainwashed, and bred to kill Ryan. Remember the “friendly” voice on the radio that guided you from place to place? The polite, yet hyperspecific man that would ask “would you kindly” before sending you deeper and deeper into Rapture to search for Ryan? That was actually a man named Frank Fontaine, Ryan’s sworn enemy. And you were his unwitting pawn, forced into his bidding by a subconscious code trigger phrase.
Now empowered with the trigger phrase that controls your every move, he implores you to sit, stop, and run. Like a dog, you obey his every word. As the player, you frantically and fruitlessly mash every button on the controller, hoping to break free. Except you’re not in control. You never were. You panic, wondering how you’ll survive.
Instead, Ryan commands you to kill him. You find yourself powerless, unable to do anything but follow every last order. Each time you strike him with the golf club, he humiliates you, a reminder that any agency you’ve felt in the entire game was entirely false, and you were too ignorant to realize.
As you begin to take his life, you realize that he must pity you and your lack of agency. He was a man who built an empire on the back of his own willpower, and you don’t even own your own actions.
Through a mutilated and broken scowl, he looks you in the face. “A man chooses,” he hisses. You strike him again. “A slave obeys.” After one last, defiant and seething glare and roar, you end his life.
Frank’s voice crackles over the radio with one more “would you kindly.” Time for the next task.
In that short sequence, Bioshock takes everything from you. Your agency is a sham, your controls fail you, and nothing you’ve done matters. You, for all your powers and weaponry, could be defanged by three simple words. Not even your motivation to escape was real. You, are not real.
It’s a moment that could only be delivered by a videogame. While the game gives you the illusion of power and choice throughout the game, you are slapped with the stark realisation that your experience exists at the whimsy of the developers, and can be taken away in an instant.
Sure, you end the man responsible for Rapture. But do you really feel like the victory is yours?
In the end, Andrew Ryan was just a man. But a man chooses.