‘BioShock’ (2007): Toxicity and Contagion

 Toxic Cultures: A Companion, edited by Simon Bacon, published by Peter Lang, 2022

For blood to be considered toxic, one may understand this to mean that the fluid that runs through the body, largely comprised of plasma and water, possesses at least one of two features: it may contain properties that are dangerous to the preservation of the self or it may be deemed hazardous to other individuals. Although comparable, Toxic blood should be considered in a different strain to how viral blood is depicted within fiction. As a lifelike organism that spreads to other hosts in order to survive through propagation and replication, the viral outbreak is the fuel of zombie stories or cataclysmic end-of-the-world narratives; whereas, for blood to become toxic, it has to be introduced through external agency. For the purposes of inciting dramatic events in her novels, Agatha Christie’s “preferred method of homicide was poison” (Acocella 2013), making her method of dispatchment analogous in effect to the fantasy scenarios that magically befall Disney’s panoply of sleeping princesses. Toxic blood can also be used as a sustained plot device and as a means of swiftly concluding events. For example, the acid blood of the predatory Xenomorph species from the Alien series of movies is not a threat to the creature itself, but poses a continual problem to anyone who encounters it, in the same way that Superman kills Dracula by accident in an issue of the Superman comic, as “Superman is a living solar battery”, so “Dracula took a big bite out of the sun and it wasn’t pretty” (Loeb 2002: 21).

Video games differ from other types of media in that they also give the player agency to operate within the diegesis, with an emphasis on heightened interactivity as well as immersion (see Stobbart 2019). A novel or film will continue to a structured finish; in video games, players are frequently tasked with the handling of events to propel and sustain the narrative, often to avoid the abrupt consequences of defeat. Within this framework, the avatar being poisoned can also be considered a standard status effect, which can be permanent or temporary, and it may buff (help) or debuff (hinder) the player through an alteration of the underlying statistics that govern the capabilities of the hero. In Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (2019), the protagonist can become infected by Poison Toads, which drains the player’s health over a period of time, but as a consumable item obtained through slaying the same monsters, poison can be used by the player to enhance offensive magic attacks such as Toxic Storm.

The terms used here are indebted to the role-playing game (RPG) community that pre-exists their usage within video games. Released in 1975 for the University of Illinois’ PLATO system, dnd is a game that consciously borrows many of the elements from the tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons (1974). Avatar (1979), also made for the PLATO system,was subsequently influenced by dnd, but “added some firsts of its own”, including that “Monsters could perform special attacks (like poison or paralysis)” (Moss 2016). RPGs emphasise choice and decision making in handling events; yet, while a special attack from a digital bestiary can function as a variation to generate novel encounters and emergent solutions, it can also have further significance beyond gameplay mechanics or the unfolding of events within the story. Massively multiplayer online RPG, World of Warcraft (2004), presents one such example. In 2005 an enemy character’s debuff spell, Corrupted Blood, spread from avatar to avatar, going on to affect millions of players worldwide. Researchers have since found that the “high rates of mortality and, much more importantly, the social chaos that comes from a large-scale outbreak of deadly disease” within the game also “raised the possibility for valuable scientific content to be gained from this unintentional game error” with potential applications for the real world (Lofgren and Fefferman 2007: 625). 

Where Warcraft is notable for an error of game coding, BioShock is a useful case study in purposeful design. BioShock is an RPG in the first-person shooter mould, in which the art deco-ornamented, underwater city of Rapture has collapsed into ruin after an implosive civil war among its people. With central themes that encompass “individual agency versus external manipulation; and individual effort versus the collective enterprises of society”, toxic blood is a mechanism through which these tensions are explored (Wilson 2017: 14). Within the fiction of BioShock, the 1950’s world of Rapture was founded by Andrew Ryan following an Objectivist philosophy analogous to the works of Ayn Rand (see Courcier, Kanafi, and Lucas 2017). Separated from the cultures perceived as inferior on the surface, Rapture is a city where its creator declares “the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small.” A fundamental aspect of this rise-to-the-top edict, which soon becomes a fatal flaw, is that those who hold power are unrestrained and all others are in ceaseless rivalry.

One consequence of this unfettered experimentalism and social competition is the discovery and rampant addiction to a sea-slug secretion called ADAM….

The full 2,800 word version of this article is published in Toxic Cultures: A Companion, edited by Simon Bacon, published by Peter Lang, 2022.

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