There are very few people interested in games who have never heard about Bioshock, the original one. It has been met with great acclaim and praised for telling a real story and sending a message — about the nature of our world, economics and capitalism. Are we to discuss the implications of this game, we musn’t omit the representation of half of the population — women.
In this article, I want to discuss three elements of the original Bioshock game that show best the way the game treats females.Firstly, the female representation in Rapture and in narrative of the game is discussed. Then, the character of Tenebaum is discussed as a main female character in the game as well as her backstory, visual representation and agency. Lastly, we will proceed to the analysis of the Little sisters as a field for moral decisions for the player and their relationship to Big Daddies.
Women’s visibility in the game
The representation of women in the gameworld is fairly important factor in cultural analysis of a game. Beginning with the basic inhabitants of the city presented in Bioshock, Rapture, we have to admit that there is fairly equal amount of splicers of both genders — but there is little plot story about them. Used mostly as common enemy unit and cannon fodder, they are just an object to convey the mutilation done by addiction to ADAM. The player usually does not pay particular attention to the gender or visuals of the spliers — they are just a mean to get ahead and accumulate experience, therefore are not very meaningful in creating gender in game. Tyler Opal Wallowa in her article notices that despite seemingly “egalitarian” structure of society in Rapture, the occupations and clothing are still traditionally gendered. While generally true for the gamespace, we cannot omit the fact that two great scientists — Brigid Tenenbaum and Julie Langford — are female, which is quite unusual.
The remaining characters are predominantly male. With the exception of Tenenbaum who also has limited agency which will be discussed further on, and little sisters that have been created to be used as ADAM-harvesting tools, there are no females of relevance. The main player, Jack, cannot be switched for a female version at the beginning of the game. Two opposing leaders of fractions trying to control Rapture — Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine — are also male. The plot is constructed upon the conflict between 3 men (two above mentioned and the main player) and there are almost no mentions of female presence in the city of Rapture. This asserts the stereotypical masculinized video game plot — with men fighting with men, forgetting altogether about the other part of the population.
What is also worth noting is the focus on the individual ideologies, thoughts and motives of these men — with little emphasis on disastrous effects of the events on the inhabitants of the city who have been diminished to the plot device of cannon fodder to be killed. This shows even further that the narrative is deeply focused almost entirely on the male characters.
Tenenbaum’s underrated genius
Not all the characters important for the narrative are male, though. Tenenbaum is indisputably the main female character in game. Her story is quite interesting as she is definitely not a feeble, objectified female character. A survivor of Holocaust and a scientific genius, she has a doctor’s degree and is a lead researcher in Rapture — a strong and acclaimed woman in a traditionally male occupations. She is also creator and later, carer of the Little Sisters, which make her responsible for creatures that gather most important substance in the gameverse. Her visual representation is relevant to the style of the whole game — she is seen with a long dress, with no cleavage, very often having guns, cigarettes or plasmids — artefacts suggesting independence and agency, possibility of self-defence and self-expression.
There are a few problems coming along with her in Bioshock, though. Most of her story we get to know through the recording — very little is spoken to the player directly. Moreover, she gives player the instructions and what she wants him to do in order to achieve her goals — but she does not do it directly, leaving her fate and agency to the Jack, main player. This is particularly visible at the scene of the player’s first encounter with her. One of her goals at the time when Jack comes to rapture is to protect Little Sisters — she does that only by asking him to save them instead of harvesting and stating that “it will be worth his time”. By doing that, she moves the agency to the male player — the moral decision what to do with the life of another female (although still child) is in his hands.
Even though she is definitely not a ‘damsel in distress’ in the game, when she creates a very similar trope when she waves the decision whether to save or kill the Little Sisters to player. The visual analysis that Weimin Toh carried out in his paper states that “A majority of the visual tokens is the “transactional action process :goal”where the Little Sisters are the goal of the player who requires salvation, ” which makes it almost a definition of a damsel in distress trope. Moreover, never once does she directly join a battle, even the final one where she asks the player to kill her arch-enemy, although she does facilitate carrying out missions for him.
Overall, she is an intelligent and independent character with an interesting backstory. She has goals and objectives, but leaves the agency for the most important decisions to the male player and her fight with Fontaine is carried out through him. All of that make her a quite good example of meaningful representation of females in games, but there is too little agency left to her and too little importance to the narrative as her story is just backstory to fill in the narrative for the big fight of the male characters of the game.
Little Sisters, Big Daddies
The other significant and more human-looking female characters in the game are Little Sisters. Their main function in the game mechanics and narrative is to gather ADAM from dead bodies. They roam freely with the big tool containing a needle to suck substance out, which shows how brutalized and harmed they had been. They also become a playground for moral decisions for the player — whether to kill and take double resources or save them but with less power to advance in the game. The decision to kill/save Little Sisters is not only presented as economic one, but the girls are presented as human beings who should be considered as such. They do cry and plead saving, just as a normal child would do, which emphasizes their humanity. The innocence of young girls is used to shock the player — these are the gatherers of corpses’ magic substance, which is much more symbolic and surpringing than as if they were male. And as Alex Raymond on GameCritics.com points out — the agency of Little Sisters are not completely taken from player as he is just ignoring their resistence.
Nevertheless, the economic transaction is being done on the Little Sisters and it is hard to deny the harm done to these characters during the gameplay. You can play to maximize the resources, although it is very difficult without playing before or searching for answers online. One can consider should he or she take double resources and get all the ADAM they can or should they get half and some additional resources as reward promised by Tenenbaum and while game, through its narrative and procedural rhetoric, does not encourage player to do that, it is possible. In such case, Little Sisters are little more than marketplace for resources.
Little Sisters are always followed by the big, protective figures of Big Daddies — one of the most difficult challenges during the game. Player has to kill them before he or she can harvest ADAM from the little ones. The dichotomy of weak, defenseless females accompanies by patriarchal strong male figure is rather stereotypical here, especially taking into consideration their naming. The word ‘daddy’ definitely invokes the figure of father whose obligation is to protect the females that belong to his family (and the ones from Bioshock are perfectly equipped with weapons to do that). The word ‘sister’ along with emphasis on being young and in need of protection ‘little’ alludes to the position of a female figure that should be protected.
The young females are more of an object or a plot device in the narrative than human beings, further deepening negative representation of brutalized women in video games. Their relationship to Big Daddies is problematic with the power relations that comes with it. Nevertheless, their humanity is frequently emphasized and they can express their own unwillingness to be used as ADAM source and killed.
Taking all that into consideration, female representation in Bioshock is very interesting — the game offers highly intelligent and influential female character of a scientist trying to make up for her own sins and wrongdoings, genetically altered girls whose purpose is to suck the most important resource in the game out of dead bodies, accompanied by repulsive monsters who protect them and a background presence of females in the form of splicers.
Unfortunately, these characters seem just a playground for the main story to happen — the real agency is assigned to strong male characters — non-interchangeable main player, Jack, and two fraction leaders all fighting for power with little female presence. There is big emphasis placed on male characters and their characters and motives and the questions of their impact on Rapture with all the suffering they brought omitted. There is only relevant one adult female character in the narrative and she is still presented mostly through recording and as waving her agency to males and the remaining ones — used as plot devices and background for the male theater to act on.