Bioshock: Eve and Adam

If I’m going to be throwing around words like “plasmid”, I suppose I should explain them. Fortunately, this is easy to do, because most of the terminology peculiar to this game is just a veneer over a CRPG-style magic system: plasmids are spells, gene tonics are passive buffs, Eve is mana and Eve hypos are mana potions. For those last two, the game even helps you out by coloring the eve hypos blue, and representing your current Eve level by a blue bar right alongside your health bar. (Something to research: where did this color convention come from? The idea that mana is blue is strong enough today that it would seem very strange if a game represented it with, say, a yellow bar.)

The one thing that doesn’t have an obvious counterpart is Adam. Adam is the name for the currency you use to buy plasmids, gene tonics, and other upgrades (such as increases in the number of slots you have available for plasmids and gene tonics) from the “Gatherer’s Garden” vending machines found throughout the game. The in-fiction explanation is that it’s the artificial stem cells that you need to bind genetic modifications to yourself, or some similar malarkey. I suppose you could say it’s equivalent to experience points or skill points or something like that, but that doesn’t take into account the unique matter of where it comes from. Adam has one source: the Little Sisters.

The Little Sisters are young girls living in symbiosis with a kind of sea slug. Or actually “symbiosis” might not be the right word. The word “parasite” gets used a lot in this game, in Ryan’s propaganda broadcasts, to describe his enemies, which is to say, most people. I’m sure that the confusion here is intentional: at some point you’ll find a log or two about the slugs, and then hear something about “The parasite” and, because of where your head is at, take a moment to register the fact that it’s being figurative. But I’m not sure that even this is the right word. The whole system is artificial, created by a third party, apparently to maximize Adam production. It’s symbiosis when two organisms interact in a way that benefits them both, and parasitism when one gains at the other’s expense. What is it when both organisms are the worse for their interaction?

Anyway, the Little Sisters produce Adam, and apparently also go around harvesting it from corpses, of which there are plenty scattered around due to the general collapse of civilization. Each Little Sister is accompanied by a hulking bodyguard in a diving suit: a Big Daddy. This is necessary because everyone wants Adam. If you can defeat a Big Daddy, you get a choice of what to do with the terrified Little Sister — a choice, moreover, with its own UI, with special buttons devoted to it specifically. First, you can harvest the slug, collecting all of its Adam and killing the girl in the process — destroying her, in fact; not even a corpse remains. The mini-cutscene on selecting this option leaves it unclear just what happens to her, fading the scene to black before it gets too gruesome. Perhaps she’s reduced entirely to Adam, clothes and all. The other option is to use a special plasmid (delivered to you in a cutscene) to “rescue” or “exorcize” the girl, which apparently makes her stop being a Little Sister, or at least makes her eyes stop glowing. She then thanks you and scampers away into the ductwork. This option also gives you Adam, but only half as much as you get from murdering her.

Now, the game puts a lot of effort into pitching this as a moral decision. There’s even an advisor on each side, contacting you via radio and making arguments like little cartoon angel and devil figures on your shoulders. On the devil’s side, you have the man who calls himself Atlas: your first contact in Rapture and apparently some kind of rebel leader. He’s given me good advice and gotten me through the earlier perils, which makes him highly suspicious in a game that shares writing credits with System Shock 2, but at least he claims plausible selfish motivations: he says he wants you to help him rescue his wife and daughters. To that end, he wants you to be as powerful as possible, which means getting as much Adam as you can, even though this sort of rampant abuse of genetic modification is what drove the population of Rapture insane. The hypocrisy of his position, of rescuing innocent little girls by killing other innocent little girls, is so obvious that he has to really push the idea that the Little Sisters are monsters, unworthy of consideration — something that would be more convincing if Dr. Tenenbaum hadn’t provided a way to restore them. Tenenbaum is the angel figure here: it was her research that led to the creation of the Little Sisters, so she feels responsibility toward them. (I suppose this makes her a traitor to Andrew Ryan’s philosophy, in which feeling any sense of responsibility to others is interpreted as being enslaved by parasites.) Tenenbaum promises rewards for following “the path of righteousness”, and I’ve already begun to reap them: special gifts left for me, including plasmids that aren’t available for purchase from the Gatherer’s Gardens. Atlas insists that Tenenbaum is playing me for a sap, but unless he tells me just what ulterior motives Tenenbaum has that I’m not aware of, it comes off as just so much hot air.

I’ve seen this approach criticized as working against the moral dimension of the decision — that the whole thing is set up to make it sound at first like sparing the Little Sisters involves self-sacrifice, in the form of giving up potential power, but then it turns around and gives you material benefits to make up for it. Now, I don’t agree that morally correct behavior always has to be the less convenient option. In real life, doing the wrong thing often requires greater sacrifice than doing the right thing — holding a grudge, for example, can be an enormous expense of emotional effort and limit on enjoyment of life. But it’s true that the choice here is basically one of Star Wars morality. You’ve got a light path and a dark path, and it’s obvious which is which. The dark path gives you a quicker route to power, but the light path is probably more powerful in the long run. And really, rather than pose any moral dilemmas, the game seems to be set up to make the player prefer the morally correct choice. Under this interpretation, the real purpose of the repeated decision is not to give the player a choice of values, but to prompt the player to reaffirm, in a meaningful and gameplay-affecting way, the correct values. To repudiate the dehumanization of the Little Sisters and, by extension, the whole system that produced them.

2 Comments so far

  1. Sean on 9 Nov 2010

    I guess this doesn’t matter to your main point, and I’m not entirely sure of the details about this — whether it’s just the Adam-equivalent value of the plasmids Tannenbaum gives you, or if some of the ‘rewards’ actually include bare Adam itself — but there’s a well-known chart that made the rounds showing the effective rate of Adam you accumulate along either of the two “paths”. And it’s… not very different.

  2. malkav11 on 9 Nov 2010

    They include actual Adam as well as the special tonics and plasmids. There is literally no reason to go the evil route except to see that ending.

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