August 23, 2007 8:04 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media. NOTE: No BioShock spoilers whatsoever beyond discussion of exposition; Leigh's twisted, but humane.]
This week, legions of souls were pulled down into Rapture. The ruined utopia built on – and decimated by – vanity, greed and madness is compelling for many reasons; hauntingly vivid environments, unprecedented physics, and an unsettlingly lifelike quality in the smallest of aspects, in each little discarded artifact of a society torn open by excess and obsession, hiding in the fringes of their broken world.
One of the things that makes BioShock so compelling, ironically, is its humanity, a funny thing to think of when it’s so immediately evident just how far from humanity Rapture’s citizens have strayed. But it’s the objectivity of that distance that really gives one pause; though they’ve long since made fatal strides from the path of sanity, we can see behind each blood-smudged mask and spliced body, can hear in each broken moan and tortured whisper, the ghosts of who they used to be – ghosts that look quite a lot like us.
It makes sense; it’s very clear in the environmental storytelling how a tweak became an overhaul, how a paradise became Hell – rooted, as such extremes always are, in a very moderate wish. What if we could repair those traits which cause us suffering? Scientists, doctors and therapists, dieticians, cosmetologists and engineers endeavor to that end even in our real-world lives today. What if there wasn’t necessarily something wrong with us, but we just wished to be a little more beautiful, a little stronger, a little more resilient?
Hey, Little Sister, Who's Your Superman?
The Tibetan Buddhists believe that this constant material quest for “self-improvement”, such as it is in this context, is the root of all human misery, and perhaps they’re on to something. It’s a juvenile, self-centered way of thinking – and yet we all do it, and we have since we were children. What child has not played superhero at some time, what child has not dreamed of escaping the confines of their physical lives in some way – to fly, to fight evil, to read minds?
Indeed, even as babies this craving for “more” is a biological instinct. The urge to crawl becomes a desire to stand, as little hands put everything into the mouth to see if it can be eaten. As they grow into toddlers, they begin to test the limits of their environment in other ways, sometimes inexplicably knocking objects down, throwing them, or intentionally displeasing their parents in order to learn consequences, to learn where the limits may be defied – and raging, inconsolable, when their small age makes the rules unbreakable. We as humans carry that anger towards a rule-bound world with us all the rest of our lives; the fury we felt when sleep stole our playtime, when we could only jump so high, when Mother and Father said “no.”
It can be said, then, that the eventual creation and subsequent destruction of Rapture is an inevitability for mankind, that BioShock’s world is neither fantasy nor hypothesis, but portent. The sense of deep dread one experiences playing the game, the revulsion, the strange blend of pity and disgust arises from the humiliation and the fear we feel at seeing our own selves advanced to this eventuality.
The clarity of issues like these (along with really, really good-looking water) are part of what generated such a healthy helping of advance buzz for BioShock. Gamers will be discussing what makes for truly compelling story in games until the end of Rapture, but one certain factor is that we’re transfixed by stories in which we can see ourselves. In the din of anticipation for the game, however, a single element rose to the forefront again and again, in screenshots, interviews and discussions.
It wasn’t, “Wow, those splicers remind me of myself.” It was, “My god – look at that creepy little girl.”
Hey, Little Sister -- Shotgun
There are many delicious “firsts” in BioShock, as with any game; the first taste of Andrew Ryan’s determinist manifesto, the first glimpse of the aquatic city, the first thrust of an EVE hypo. But one would be hard-pressed to name any of these more arresting than the first glimpse of a Little Sister, the first haunting strains of her playground voice. The first sight of her using that giant, gruesome needle to do her grim gathering.
It’s not unusual to see small, saucer-eyed children as conventions in the horror genre; in fact, it’s common. Young girls in particular make very good devices in survival-horror video games, either as archetypes of feminine vulnerability (for who needs you more than a damsel-in-distress except a little damsel?) or as strange aggressors, all the more fearsome for their innocuous appearance. The genre of BioShock is already the subject of much debate, but for the topics discussed here, it cleaves rather closely alongside survival-horror story elements.
The Little Sisters are preceded by a long list of girl-children in that genre. The desperate circumstances of Resident Evil 2 were accentuated with the pivotal appearance of Sherry Birkin, whose helplessness served to heighten the fear – and emotionalize the stakes. Of note was her child-like physicality when under the player’s control, the juvenile, vulnerable unease with which she climbed over too-tall obstacles and scrabbled through the dark.
The Silent Hill series, too, couldn’t do without its children – Cheryl Mason and Alessa Gillespie were the catalysts of the entire series’ events, and even in the canonically divergent Silent Hill 2, the mysteriously antagonistic Laura taunts the protagonist, unaffected neither by his guilt, his shame, nor the ghosts of the world. In another survival-horror title, Fatal Frame 2, a pair of twins are drawn into a nightmarish plot as they investigate the brutal religious sacrifice of orphan twin children before them.
Rule of Rose drew fire (and was prohibited from a UK release) for its use of children as aggressors – juvenile perpetrators of near-sociopathic crimes on one another, as well as some faint strains of sexualizing them. In all of the above examples, though, it was the appearance of the children that made the game truly frightening. Sherry, Laura, Alessa, Diana – all of them are both powerful -- because they motivate all of the game’s action, and appear to know things the protagonists do not -- and ambiguous, because their presence is as dangerous as it is useful. The same can be said for the Little Sisters.
Another factor the Little Sisters share with their fellow survival-horror girls is the evocation of pity. Sherry loses her father in more ways than one; Laura seems an orphan, alone. The children of Rule of Rose are all unfortunate; the inhabitants of a degenerate orphanage, they’ve nothing to wear but dirty clothing and nothing to play with but sharp things and dead animals. Often, the children are physically distressed – note the pale flesh and dirty feet and knees of the Little Sisters – as if to highlight this vulnerability of theirs, to bring it into sharper contrast with their ambiguous (or outright dangerous) nature.
As might be expected, video games have historically been slightly awkward, slightly uncomfortable handling little girls in short skirts. Though Sherry, Laura, the children of Rule of Rose and all the others may come to harm – in some of the examples, perhaps fatal harm – it is never the fault of the player, nor is it through any direct action of his. In Rule of Rose, for example, the lovely bully Diana and her young cronies are primary antagonists – but the player does not physically confront them, combating instead the dangerous and neglectful adults who have led all of the children to their present circumstances. As for Laura, it’s unclear whether she’s a real child or a hallucinated avatar, a symbol of innocence rather than a fact.
It's a Nice Day to Start Again
Similarly, the Little Sisters are symbols of what was once Rapture’s innocence. “Someone took a precious baby girl and turned her into a monster,” Atlas explains in the game’s exposition, as the Little Sister obliviously goes about her squishy business, singing to herself and to her hulking, silent protector. The splicers do retain eerie reminders on their person of the humans they used to be – a certain fashion of dress they must have once preferred, a party mask for a festivity – but as deformed as they’ve become, and with their faces obscured, there’s a measure of separation. The Little Sisters still look, for the most part, like human children, and they move and speak like them, too.
Never before BioShock, though, has the player had such control over the child’s fate. Though some are arguing whether the choice to harvest the Little Sisters for ADAM or not is truly a “choice”, no one can say that the nature and manner of her life versus her death is not within the player’s jurisdiction.
How does it feel to destroy her? What does it make you?
The Little Sisters’ innocence is the last bastion of humanity for Rapture; the last anchor the twisted populace has to a time when they were still all right. The time when they made a child’s wish – what if I could be a little bigger, a little more than what I am? And now, the player might become a victim of that same little wish. It starts out innocently enough; can you resist the temptation for stronger, better, more that helps us grow from infants to adults – and that helped the blood-mad splicers go from human to something horribly other, that might now help you look at a little girl as something to be 'harvested'? It may be too late for the splicers, whom you’re about to electrocute, burn, freeze and smash. Perhaps not so for the Little Sisters, and thus for yourself – that’s up to you.
[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Destructoid, Paste, Gamasutra and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com, and begs your forgiveness for the Billy Idol lyrics; she just couldn't help it.]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer