I once showed a non-gamer friend the opening minutes of Bioshock. Ever since it was released, I’ve had the theory that the plane crash intro could sell almost anyone on the narrative power of games. Like I suspected, he was very impressed with what he saw. What I didn’t expect, however, was what I saw that changed how I looked at the game forever.
As most people tuned into the video game world know, BioShock creator Irrational Games is heavily influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand, specifically Atlas Shrugged. But upon revisting the world of Rapture, I noticed parallels to another piece of literature. Fight Club.
Bear with me here. To be fair, the comparison works better with the movie version of Fight Club rather than the book, as they do diverge in places. But I think it’s fair to say that the film had a larger cultural impact than the novel anyway. You’d have a hard time finding someone who has read the book and not seen the movie, but I’m willing to bet that you could easily find someone who has seen the movie and doesn’t even realize that’s it’s based on a book.
So what does any of that have to do with BioShock? It’s simple, really. They are tied together by similar protagonists. At first glance, their similarities are superficial, but the more you explore their relationship, the more and more alike they appear. So let’s start with the big ones.
1. Both characters are named Jack. One of the things I noticed when I restarted BioShock was the card addressed to Jack on the box in the first scene. It’s an easy thing to miss, and the character’s name is used so infrequently that you can play through the whole game without ever learning his name. In all honesty, I didn’t realize what his name was until after I completed the game. But it is indeed Jack – Jack Ryan, to be specific.
Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club, however, is never “officially” named. Yet, it is generally accepted that his name is Jack, a belief that stems from the essays he reads throughout the film, all of which begin with the words “I am Jack’s…” At the end of the film, it is revealed that the house he lives in with his acolytes was rented in his name, and thus all items in the house belong to him, and is logically the author of the writings discovered in the house. Whether or not his true name is Jack, a large aspect of his personality goes by that name.
2. The Plane and the Box. Both characters have a pivotal moment aboard an airplane involving a box. In BioShock we are introduced to Jack on an airplane, on which he opens a box after reading his “trigger phrase” on the card. Those who have completed the game know that the box contains the tools to hijack and bring down the plane. In Fight Club, the two central characters meet for the first time on a plane, where Norton’s Jack observes “We have the exact same briefcase.” It’s not a strangely similar briefcase (the box in this instance) – it’s literally the same briefcase, as the two characters are actually the same person. The protagonists of both stories begin their central character arc at this moment – the discovery of a box that sets the plot in motion.
3. Both men are terrorists. It may sound inflammatory, but it’s simply true. BioShock’s Jack blows up a plane. Fight Club’s Jack bombs financial institutions. In the real world, both men would qualify for one-way tickets to Gitmo.
4. Both are on a path to find their true identities. Herein lies the most important similarity between the two characters. Over the course of both stories, the protagonist discovers a shocking truth about who they really are: the mind-controlled son of Andrew Ryan in BioShock, a cult leader with a dual personality in Fight Club. Both characters have the mental blocks that prevent them from seeing the truth about themselves removed through violent means. In BioShock’s case the mental blocks are literal, removed with the help of supporting character Dr. Tennenbaum. In Fight Club, Jack “removes” Tyler Durden from his head by shooting himself in the face.
The similarities between the two properties are far from limited to the central characters. Both feature characters with dual identities (Atlus/Fontaine in Bioshock, Jack/Tyler Durden in Fight Club). Both touch on concepts on mental illness, cults, and Group Think. And both present stories with multiple layers and multiple possible interpretations. And, of course, both feature copious amounts of beatin’ people in the face.
So at this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Okay, you’ve proven to me that there is a correlation. You’re very observant and a brilliant writer. But what’s your point?”
Well, that’s a fair question. My point is not to claim that BioShock is a derivative product that consciously borrows from Fight Club. No, my points is twofold. BioShock is considered one of the best stories in gaming to date, but even as a pinnacle of the medium, it pales in comparison to the cohesive storytelling power of film. Storytelling techniques that are new and fresh in games are old news in movies. It’s all been done before. But that’s fine. The video game industry is young – only 50 years old by the most generous calculation. We shouldn’t feel to bad if we haven’t produced an unqualified artistic masterpiece just yet – it took the movie industry 39 years to produce a movie with recorded dialog.
The second half of my point is that the very fact one can now compare a game to a movie is, in and of itself, a triumph. Movies are compared to books and other movies all the time, especially if they carry similar thematic elements. But games are still widely considered “lesser” works than movies. The very act of holding a game up side by side with a movie and listing how they share similar themes and concepts places them on equal footing. In short, by comparing a game to a movie, we elevate the game to the same level. An equation must be equal on both sides, after all.
Some games, like BioShock, are worthy of such elevation. Many are not. But, as time goes by, the number of games worthy of such analysis is only going to rise.
And, for the record, this isn’t the weirdest comparison to Fight Club that you’ll ever see.
About the Author:
Jeremy Zoss has written for Game Informer, Wizard Magazine, Village Voice Media and more. He has several published works of fiction, but his dogs are not impressed with any of that.
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