Exploring Bioshock 2

As a rule, I have tried to avoid doing reviews.  This has partly been a matter of my personal and professional obligations preventing me from devoting the time necessary to play a game through to the end in any kind of timely fashion.  Another part of it has been that if there is one thing the Internet has an overabundance of besides pornography and cats with poor spelling, it is game reviews.  However, I have been playing games for a long time and sometimes the spirit moves me to share my opinions, so in the interest of considering games academically and intellectually I thought I’d try to explore this review in the hopes of encouraging greater thought about both a video game as a game and as an intellectual idea.  For that purpose, I submit to you a review of Bioshock 2, a game that raises interesting moral and ethical issues with its narrative while also raises some questions about the construction of games (particularly moral choices).  I also hope this will get more people thinking about video games beyond your ability to teabag and call players sexuality into question.  (For more  analysis of the original Bioshock, would you kindly check out this compilation put together by the folks at Critical Distance)

Some quick words of warning.  The following contains spoilers, both for Bioshock 2 and the original Bioshock, so as you read on be aware that you will be exposed to the endings of both games.  However, I’ll try to frame it in a way that would not compromise your experience of either game if you choose to go back and play them.  It is also important for a scholar to be aware of his own biases.  For me Bioshock is one of the best games in recent memory, both as a game and for the issues it raises in its story and mechanics.  As such be aware that like many of you, I will be comparing Bioshock 2 in light of what Bioshock accomplishes. However, I will also make note of how Bioshock 2 stands on its own merits.

I will also be addressing Bioshock 2 as a single-player experience, because I will be paying attention to how Bioshock 2 works as a storytelling game.  As such, I will not be delving into its multiplayer.  There are plenty of critics who have gone over its multiplayer; moreover, as time goes by the multiplayer servers will inevitably decline either through technical shutdown (as EA recently did with Army of Two) or from the natural order of multiplayer gaming as players move on to newer and fresher games (this Escapist article offers an interesting perspective on how players experience mulitplayer maps for games that have little or no remaining followers).  As such, I feel Bioshock 2 must ultimately be judged on the strength of its single-player campaign.

In Bioshock 2, you assume the role of Subject Delta, a prototype of the Big Daddies. Left for dead sometime before Rapture falls, the big galut is revived about ten years after the fall of Rapture by way of a Vita Chamber, (those magical, mystical devices that allow you to be cursed with immortality while others fall by your hand).  Ten years after the events of the first Bioshock you wake up to find that Rapture has been taken over by another faction of Andrew Ryan’s merry men of disaffected industrialists; however rather than the Randian individualists, captains of industry scientists and scholars looking to operate outside of administrative controls, this group of them are Bellamy-esque advocates of a collectivist society.   They are led by Sofia Lamb, a clinical psychologist who came to Rapture to, get ready for this, treat the crippling depression and utter loneliness of living at the bottom of the ocean.  With the death of the major actors from the first game, Lamb steps into the power void to establish something along the lines of a communist collective.

Before he even has time to stretch his legs, Delta finds himself telepathically contacted by Eleanor Lamb, Sofia Lamb’s daughter and his former Little Sister.  Rescuing and reuniting with her becomes his driving call to action and over the course of the rest of the game you’ll make your way through roughly eight hours of shooting, plasmiding, grunting loudly, and harvesting Adam in pursuit of her.  Somehow, Rapture is still inhabitable despite ten years of Adam-fueled neglect (my first guess was that Delta would wake up to a city under the control of the Snorks), and you’ll find plenty of splicers, gun turrets and the mysterious Big Sisters to keep you busy.

The juxtaposition of the two ideals at complete odds with each other–the rugged individualism of Ryan versus the utilitarianism of Lamb–is striking and at first glance represents an attempt by the developers to peel back the veneer of another form of idealism to expose the dark underside.  Their higher ambitions aside, we learn that Lamb and her followers turn out to be as batshit insane as their predecessors. Over the course of Bioshock 2’s story we learn that Lamb’s commitment to her ideals are just as sinister as Ryan’s and her means of achieving it–by attempting to use Adam to manipulate people into practicing virtuous behavior–may be even more Draconian than the absolutism that ultimately destroyed Ryan’s utopia. It seems in both cases, the cure is ultimately worse than the disease and both sacrifice their lofty ideals to achieve them.  For Ryan the class-based conflict that arises from his power struggle with Fontaine drives him to exert a level of administrative control–through mass jailings, nationalizing businesses, and public executions–that runs counter to the laissez faire philosophy on which Rapture was founded.  It can be argued that Rapture falls long before the uprising and Jack’s (the protagonist of Bioshock) arrival as Rapture as an ideal cannot survive Ryan’s increased control.  In the case of Lamb, she proves willing to achieve her goal of a society driven by virtue and moral obligation seemingly at all costs, even to the point of sacrificing free will and her own daughter in the process. Inspired both by the discovery of Adam and the psychological conditioning used on Jack in the first Bioshock she attempts to create an individual who is compelled to act virtuously.  She first experiments on scientist Gil Alexander; unfortunately the process of infusing him with Adam and the minds of Rapture’s inhabitants (it’s not really made clear what this process of moral correction entails) drives him insane.  Undeterred she turns to her daughter as her latest test subject.   We ultimately get that despite her lofty ambitious of an inherently “moral” person (whatever that actually entails) her own moral compass seems to be pointing north by northwest.

If you’re looking for Bioshock 2 to have the same commitment to great storytelling as its predecessor, you’re going to come away disappointed.   The story is not nearly as deep as the original.  Instead we get a fairly straightforward story of go here, kill these guys, go there, choose whether or not to kill these other guys, kill some more guys, and then cut to black (more on Bioshock 2’s ending below).  As for twist endings, maybe this is like in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs where the twist is that there really isn’t any twist at all.  Every character ultimately turns out to be exactly what they were after you first meet them.  Lamb remains smugly committed to her lofty goals while unconcerned with the means she chooses to achieve them.  Meanwhile, Eleanor remains as doggedly obsessed with her “Daddy” while projecting her own ambitions and ideals through the silent protagonist.  The lesser characters you meet along the way also exhibit a similar static nature.  I will admit I was genuinely surprised when it turned out that  your support character, the self-absorbed Southern gentleman Augustus Sinclair, does not ultimately turn out to be manipulating you from the start so he can take over Rapture or steal Christmas from the good boys and girls or anything like that.  Part of what made the original Bioshock so powerful was it showed how the city declined through the work of its characters.  Each came in with their own dreams and aspirations–Ryan for the objectivist utopia of a world where industrialists, artists and scientists can go about their business without interference, Dr. Steinman of becoming a great surgeon and exploring issues of beauty and ugliness, Sander Cohen capturing the spotlight again–however those dreams became nightmares as they each found themselves corrupted by their very aspirations.  Rapture’s decline is tragic in the classical sense: a larger than life project bound by the collective hubris of its inhabitants making its collapse all the more powerful.  In the story of Bioshock 2, on the other hand, all that exploration and development from the first one is still pretty much settled, and the new characters do not offer much that is new or different.

It also misses a chance to explore the protagonist.  Through a few audio diaries we get hints about Delta’s origins.  Apparently he was a man from the surface who came across Rapture by accident and became something of a curiosity among the locals, who gave him the name “Johnny Topside.”  However, soon after his arrival he is whisked away and transformed into the prototype for the Big Daddies, although for some reason they let him walk faster and use plasmids better than the eventual finished product.  And that’s pretty much the extent we get to hear about Delta’s background or what it was like to be transformed from a man into essentially a living, single-function machine.  That the developers didn’t explore him further and what his role is in Rapture seems to me to be a missed opportunity.

Where Bioshock 2 distinguishes itself from its predecessor is in its mechanics.   The combat is vastly improved with the ability to use both weapons and plasmids simultaneously (where in Bioshock you needed to switch between the two).  Hacking has become a more frantic exercise.  The way hacking works in combat in the original was reminiscent of yelling “time out” and everyone stops to wait while you orchestrate their demise through the medium of pipes full of blue liquid running through turrets.  In Bioshock 2, hacking is all done in real time, forcing the player to make difficult choices to deal with that wandering finger-snapping band of Splicers looking for a rumble or stop for a discount from the Circus of Values.

Bioshock 2 at the same time borrows some of the weaknesses left behind by its predecessor.  Conceptually I think it takes way too much from the part of the game after you deal with Ryan and prepare to square off against Fontaine.  I’m not the only one who thought the part near the end of the first game where you need to accompany a Little Sister as she gathers Adam was one of the weaker parts.  Ever since the days of Rogue Squadron on the N64 I have had an absolute disdain for escort missions; nevertheless I was committed during this part to make sure I got through it without sacrificing a single Little Sister, resulting in a lot of quick saving and frustrated reloading. Unfortunately the developers at 2K do not share my displeasure for them and decided to make escorting a key part of your job as Delta in Bioshock 2. If you liked that part of the original than this is your lucky day, because you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to stave off the hordes as your Little Sister–who makes it clear that she is in absolutely no hurry–goes about her grim business.  The combat is great fun so opportunities to do more of it is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, when you’re still in that murky middle ground between lightweight and ruler of the roost it can be frustrating to have to frantically keep refilling your health packs (by the way, your cap on health packs starts out lower in this game than in the first; have fun upgrading), eve hypos and ammo.  This goes double when you’re preparing to face the Big Sisters.

As in the first Bioshock you find that by the end with the right Tonics, Plasmids, and weapon upgrades that you clearly become the highest rung on the food chain.  And actually upon further reflection you may just want to skip on the Plasmids as you get further in the game because after a few upgrades your drill and fully upgraded rivet gun will make short work of just about anything in a handful of shots or drills.  Seriously, once I got the ability to shoot flaming rivets my fire plasmid collected dust.  Moreover, Telekinesis, which had been the heart of my combat along with my trusty wrench in the first game has been vastly underpowered in Bioshock 2 (probably rightfully so given that it cost very little Eve to use and could wreck anyone’s shit up by lobbething a body or an explosive canister rigged with proximity mines at thy foe).  This ultimately boils down to the game being tougher early on due to your initial weakness only to become Godzilla to the streets of Japan by around the midway point.  I played on the hardest difficulty and by the end I was feeling bad for the Big Sisters for coming all this way and making such flashy entrances only to make a rapid exit.

Which brings us to Bioshock’s moral choice system.  As in the first one the moral choice system of the game is undermined by the achievement system, as the game only dispenses gamer-point-related rewards for rescuing all the Little Sisters.  In addition to the choice of rescuing or harvesting the Little Sisters, this time around we are given several story-based choices which ultimately determine whether you’re the Superman or Charlie Manson.  However, the choices seemed to me more complicated and ambiguous than the extremes of “Good” or “Evil” allowed.  Take for example the final one where you face down Alexander the Great (nee Gil Alexander) in his giant fish bowl full of Adam.  The recording of him when he wasn’t quite so crazy and merely stupidly naive begs you to shuffle him off this mortal coil with 10,000 volts of electric death.  Trying to get the good ending and all the achievements that go with it (again the game by design forces you to take the “good” path because there are no achievements for taking the “Evil” one), I complied in his request and put the poor Adam-stuffed bastard out of his misery.  However after beating the game I found out this was technically the evil choice and I was supposed to leave him floating in his Adam tank like some kind of deranged yellow tang. This isn’t the place for a philosophical debate over assisted suicide, but how can one or the other be viewed in black and white terms?  Either choice is rife with ambiguities and depending on what opinions the player brings to the experience either choice can be viewed in a positive or negative light.  Boiling either down to a simple “good” or “evil” further undermines what 2k was hoping to achieve through the moral choice system. So what was the moral choice?  That killing is wrong in all of its forms?  As far as morals go it seems rather insincere since to get through this game involves stepping over piles of dead Splicers and Big Daddies (some even your former comrades as prototypes) regardless of your choices.  If you take the moral to its extreme, the only “good” outcome is to not play at all.

Moreover, I feel the end is a lot less satisfying this time around than with the original Bioshock.  True the first one has all that extra stuff after you kill Ryan that probably could have been pared down (i.e. when Jack disguises himself as a Big Daddy why does he need to have his vocal cords scraped out like he’s Mr. Burns on a Friday night) but at least you eventually get to a sufficiently epic boss fight between you and Fontaine channeling the cover of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  A big time final boss fight brings a good game to a fitting end, showing that all of your grinding, all of your upgrading has been leading up to this one final showdown between you and this massive force.  It is a saving grace of the last part of the first Bioshock (even though a fully-upgraded crossbow can seriously ruin Fontaine’s weekend).  Bioshock 2, unfortunately, does not have this kind of finale.  In Bioshock 2, you essentially reenact the Control level in Goldeneye 007.  As a substitute for a boss fight you just fight off waves of Splicers while your support characters prepare to drop the part of Rapture you’re in further into the sea. And what about Lamb, you ask?  If you were hoping for a confrontation with an Adam fueled psychologist (who will possibly battle you by making you realize that your father or your feelings of inadequacy are the ones you really want to shoot with a giant spear gun), I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.  After you get through the waves of baddies the sector falls into the ocean.  As you hold onto a bit of railing for dear life (all at this point in cut scene form) you watch as Eleanor deals with her mother.

And here’s what your moral choices were leading up to.  How you dealt with the Little Sisters and with the story-based choices determines whether Eleanor embraces her mother in a tear-jerking Full House moment or strangles the life out of her.  Regardless of how their relationship pans out you make it to the surface where we get the second audit of your moral character during the game.

First let me be blunt: you, as subject Delta, die in the end.  Regardless of your choices your entire journey and being led around by the nose by a fifteen-year-old psychic girl has been leading up to your ultimate demise.  I suppose what else is there for Delta to do?  Outside of Rapture he serves no purpose.  He can’t be restored to the way he was before he was a Big Daddy (they establish in the first game that becoming one is a “one way street” with you essentially grafted to a diving suit).  In protecting and rescuing Eleanor he serves his one and only function.  Now that they are out Rapture there is really nothing left for him to do.

Again, as with Eleanor’s resolution with her mother, how she deals with your death is ultimately based on your decisions in the game.  If you rescued the Little Sisters and didn’t kill anyone you had a choice to (even poor Alexander who is still floating in his personal hell) then Eleanor and the rescued Little Sisters watch mournfully as you shed this mortal coil.  However, if you instead chose to be Johnny Kill-Everyone, then Eleanor becomes the instrument of your demise as she stabs you in the heart and watches gleefully as you expire.

So then this gets to the big question: is Bioshock 2 worth playing?  Let me just go out and say that despite what some critics have said, Bioshock 2 is by no means a bad game.  The combat as I mentioned earlier is solid and seamlessly combines the two prongs of plasmids and weapons in a way that surpasses the original.  The game like its predecessor has great atmosphere and the vintage music playing on loading screens is a nice touch that gets you in the proper mood to explore the depths of Rapture (if you’re like me and going for all the single player achievements the music may get a little repetitive from repeated reloads).  And while the story is weaker than the original, there are still some satisfying moments.  One of my favorite was this short section where Delta is tied down and you have to project your consciousness into a Little Sister (don’t ask how because the game seems to hope you won’t ask).  Here we get to see the results of Dr. Suchong’s conditioning and see how innocent little girls can be transformed into adorable little gatherers of the axis on which Rapture tilts.  How did they get children to gather Adam from corpses?  By conditioning them to see the world as beautiful and innocent.  Looking through the eyes of the Little Sister, the declining ruins surrounding them are transformed into beautiful elegant ballrooms and corridors, and pink drapery and frilly lace line every square inch of space (although I wonder how it goes about masking the smell of Rapture, which I suspect smells like a combination of rotten fish and death).  The quirky ads for tonics and Plasmids canvassed across the city appear to them as encouraging and informative messages to watch for angels and to stay close to “daddy.”  The corpses littering Rapture’s landscape appear to the Little Sisters as glowing “angels.”  Occasionally the angelic scenes of the Little Sister’s conditioning are interrupted by brief glimpses of the harsh realities of the real world and they are used sparingly enough to make a powerful impact on the player.

Weighed alongside its lofty predecessor, chances are you’re going to find Bioshock 2 lacking, and if forced to choose between the two, I’d recommend the original Bioshock.  However, this does not mean Bioshock 2 is a bad game, just not up to the task of following in Bioshock’s footsteps.  Play it for its innovative combat and its great atmosphere, and hope for greater depth in the upcoming Bioshock: Infinite.

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About kevinimpellizeri

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Delaware where I am studying the social and cultural impact of video games in America. When I'm not studying history or playing video games I offer my voice on 91.3 WVUD Newark and review bad horror movies at www.horrorsofhorror.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @KDImpellizeri
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