Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Bioshock 2: A Retrospective

It’s been said more than once that sometimes a story should know exactly when it needs to end. Not because there’s no more that needs to be shown of the world, often it’s quite the opposite. Instead often due to either sequels not standing up to what came before them or outright contradicting what made them so great in the first place. This often counts for films and novels more than anything else, but a number people seem to think this applies to the Bioshock franchise.

Arguments are usually that the first game was enough to explore the themes of its storyline and a sequel set in Rapture ultimately undermined the original’s tale. This seems a very odd stance to take because for all intents and purposes Bioshock 2 improved upon a huge number of points within the first game. Not so much going nuts and trying to outdo everything that came beforehand but going in a different direction while building upon what we’d seen. Especially in terms of its morality, storyline and choices.
And yes the following sections will be spoiler heavy for both the first and second titles.

Story Synopsis
The story here takes place some years after the original while maintaining strong links to Rapture’s past. You play as Subject Delta, a genetically engineered drone soldier called a Big Daddy modified to protect the Little Sisters, children programmed to harvest Rapture’s lifeblood, a chemical known as ADAM. Just prior to the Civil War you are taken down and assassinated by a group of splicers led by a woman called Sofia Lamb. Claiming to be the mother of the little sister you guard, Eleanor, she forces you to commit suicide via mind control.
Despite the 9mm bullet firmly lodged in your skull, you awaken in the ruins of Rapture which is now on the verge of collapse. Hunting through the decaying city you begin to hunt for your missing charge and learn of what has befallen the place in your absence.

Protagonist and Role
Delta himself can be seen as the first big improvement for a number of reasons. While unlike Bioshock’s protagonist Jack his story lacks the famous sudden plot-twist close to the game’s end, Delta retains many aspects which made that character great. The first of these being that he is clearly in over his head and still serves as a “rogue pawn” character. Someone previously manipulated, or quite possibly is still being manipulated, by others much more powerful and intelligent than he is. Despite the clear antagonism Lamb has for you, you’re never quite sure who your allies are until the game’s end. In part due to your ally Sinclair repeatedly being detailed as a con-man in audio logs.

What makes his role more effective is that unlike Jack he is an very obvious pawn and a utilises his free will from the beginning. Unlike before you are not being compelled by mental suggestion or coded-words to keep moving but instead a failsafe originating from how you were built. Your body is slowly but surely killing itself as you are away from Eleanor and without her you will soon die, forcing you to pursue her despite any inclination you might have had otherwise. This allows you to take advantage of the game’s more varied moral choices and employ a great deal more roleplaying than before, deliberately following a single mind-set. One which could either be trying to rescue her out of genuine love, purely for his own survival or still being compelled to do so due to remnants of mental conditioning.

Any roleplaying aspects are also helped by the way in which the game handles with Delta’s background. He is far less of a blank slate than Jack with personal connections and a history laid being detailed as the game progresses. Giving you enough in the beginning to know who you are then adding small details as it progressed such as who you were prior to begin converted into a Big Daddy. While it’s never so much it feels like the blank slate aspect is being lost, it’s enough to give more meaningful connections to many of the characters and emotion to your relationships with them. That’s something we’ll get into next but for the moment here’s one example: More than once you encounter those directly involved with your conversion, robbing you of the life you previously had. These serve as key points in the game, not as boss battles, and you feel far more reason for wanting them dead than the vast majority of the enemy characters in the original.

In addition to this, his role as the central character makes the game’s advertising campaign have a point to it. A criticism made of the first game was how the Big Daddies were used on promotional posters, cover art and just about everything to try and make them seem important when they only had a limited role. Ultimately they served as a personification of Rapture’s decay but lacked a truly direct connection to the storyline as characters. The decision to make one the core character gave far more reason for them to be used so heavily in promotional material.

Relationships and Morality
As mentioned above there is a much closer connection between you and characters than previously explored. The original Bioshock mostly revolved around the twist reveal of Jack in his relationships with others but did have a clear trio of central characters: Himself, Ryan and Fontaine. All were directly connected to one another either through genetics, enmity or power mongering and core to the game’s final act. However, due to the revelation surrounding Jack we only truly learn of this past history with one another until very late on in the game by which point it’s too late to truly take advantage of it. This removes each of them from having a clear involvement with the conflict and for the most part we only really learn of the relationship through two characters via audio-logs. This isn’t to say the story was not good, far from it, but the actual interaction and conflict we see between characters left a lot to be desired.

Other characters such as the bosses also had no connection with Jack and most didn’t even know he existed until he walks up to them and they start fighting. They seemed intended to represent the city of Rapture itself rather than have a personal conflict with the protagonist, serving as living examples of the city’s decay and collapse from the introduction of plasmids.  
In Bioshock 2, far more of the characters are noted to have a direct history with Delta and some involvement with him personally. When you face off against them you know exactly who they are, what their relationship is with you and why they are against you. Unlike say Peach Wilkins or Rose, Grace Holloway has a connection to your past and her reasons for hating you are explained as you progress throughout the level she is in. She feels far less like a stranger and more like an old enemy you are rediscovering. The same goes for a number of the other characters and while there are exceptions such as Sinclair or Tenenbaum but as a whole the cast feels much more closely connected.

The familiarity between the characters of this title compared to the last one is best seen in those who were leading Rapture in each game. In the original when you faced Andrew Ryan he seemed to act as if you were little to nothing to him, in part because you were a total stranger to him and in part because of the aforementioned sudden twist. He cared about your presence, but only because of what you represented to his vision of the world. When you constantly speak with him he only refers to you as “parasite” and sees you as that, the worst kind of individual and completely opposed to his personal philosophy. While that might help to reinforce his words it leads to a somewhat hollow feeling in your battles with him.

Sophia Lamb on the other hand has a far more personal and direct conflict. For one thing rather than only encountering Delta in person moments before her death, you meet her in the very first cutscene. Where the aforementioned bullet to the head takes place, but more than just that with her both denouncing you and kidnapping someone who is for all intents and purposes your daughter. Yet for all this she likewise treats you like you’re nothing, but does so in a remarkably different way. Ryan managed to show hatred in the desire to protect his city, not caring for the identity of who is doing it and showing no personal connection with them. Lamb knows the person she opposes, manages to go out of her way to torment him and make his life hell and yet many of her lines give only cold distain, lacking the investment Ryan displayed.

Even purely comparing the enmity between Jack and Ryan in the first game with Delta and Lamb in this one, there seems to be a much more tangible opposition between the characters. Jack might have been an example of what Ryan was trying to oppose, in his mind anyway, but Delta was an enforcer of the regime Lamb detested. He directly assisted Ryan and helped ensure for a time that he remained in charge of things.
Furthermore Delta had no human face. In many respects he had been built by Ryan’s followers, programmed into being purely obedient to him, and was more of a machine than a man. With only a metal mask and armour he was far more of a symbol to what Sophia opposed than Jack had ever been. Even after she realises he has broken his programming, and has greater opposition with you acting out of self-service rather than her “greater good”, hints of this remain within her dialogue to you.

Even when it comes to the Little Sisters there is a definite greater link between Delta and them. Due to his link with them as a result of Eleanor, and conversation to a Big Daddy, they see him differently than they did Jack. Whereas Jack was a human, someone they would either fear or distrust, Delta was someone they had been taught to recognise and trust as their own father. As such the choice between harvesting them or rescuing them is made more difficult. While you’re likely to die far more often in the game than the original due to more dangerous foes, and need more abilities to try and survive, their reactions to you killing them to take ADAM are far more disturbing.

As Delta harvests them they squirm in his hand, crying and begging you not to hurt them before the screen goes black and then fades in again. With Delta holding the slug he has torn out from her stomach. This is only made worse by the fact you know she doesn’t understand why he is turning on her and the fact they accompany Delta for a time prior to potentially harvesting them. Usually with dialogue like this:

"Daddy...? You're never gonna hurt me, right?"
 "Daddy's home! I've been good! Promise!"
"Daddy isn't angry, is he?"
"I'll be extra quiet! I won't make you upset!"
"Where are we going? Daddy?"

Perhaps the greatest potential horror and roleplaying experience comes down to your most basic choices within the game, whether you choose redemption or to destroy those who wronged you. Saving those who require it or sacrificing them in your path to escape the city. Or rather the impact your decisions have upon another person.

In the first game your choices shaped only Jack and his future, deciding upon the outcome of his destiny. While this did admittedly heavily affect those who had spoken with you had become allied with, either killing them in an act of mad greed or offering them new life, they were mostly victims of your actions. Bioshock 2 took this in a new direction by having Eleanor retaining a psychic link with Delta. Seeing through his eyes and understanding his actions, then learning from his example. If you chose a path of good and attempted to rescue everyone you could from the city she would have a benevolent future, whereas mass slaughter would turn her into a monster. The ends might justify the means but if the price is turning the person you’re trying to save into a psychopath, is it truly worth it?

Its inclusion adds far more weight to your actions in the game. It forces you to consider whether you truly want to go through with killing a man for power, or even at his last sane request, if you risk turning someone you love into a murderer. There are some surprisingly deep moral decisions to be made in the later half of the game, escalating from simpler ones and often Eleanor’s inclusion makes you reconsider what you are doing. What helps this especially is that there are far more endings meaning that unlike before where you could follow a one path and get a purely good or purely evil conclusion there are more shades of grey here. Not many but enough for you to feel like you’re having more of an impact.

Antagonists and Philosophy
As was the case in the last game, the foes of Bioshock 2 are used as extremists used to depict the flaws behind a specific philosophical mind-set and society. In the original game Andrew Ryan’s altruist society encouraged a dog eat dog mentality and, in his mind, lacked the constraints of religion, morality and law allowing those who would have otherwise been supressed to rise above their inferiors. The flaws which brought it down came from ignoring those who lost out and Ryan himself not being at the top of his perceived food chain. The game went into detail about the exact flaws behind such an extreme viewpoint, how such a perspective would ultimately collapse in on itself. Also to a lesser extent how living beneath the sea is not the best location for a society.

As a result the society of Bioshock 2 was ultimately the complete opposite of the Great Chain.
The most obviously significant difference was that whereas Ryan’s personal philosophy emphasised upon the rights of the individual, Lamb’s personal cult looked into the community. It focused upon the sacrifices of the individual for the betterment of all, the rights of the many and the need for spirituality and took it to an extreme. Just as the Great Chain had in the previous game, the Family in this one showed the absolute worst aspects of what they represented: Unthinking devotion towards a single sacrosanct object, persona and idea. The fanaticism born out of worship and the desires to appease authorities and figures higher than themselves over self-preservation. The use of sacrifice of an individual, turning them into something horrifying against their will, for the supposed betterment of all.

This is obviously built upon what Bioshock first introduced, as with a lot of things in this, but it goes further than this. The roles of good an evil are ultimately reversed as the assisting character, Sinclair, sides with Ryan’s ideology over Lamb’s in this one. Think about it. In the first game the person helping you the most was Atlas, someone who was supposedly serving the will of the people, working for the downtrodden and seemed to be a more idealised form of what Lamb represented. In this game Sinclair is much the same, he embraces the business-like opportunism and mentality which were core to Ryan’s ideals but tempers it with morality. Keeping both to his word and genuinely caring about Delta’s wellbeing despite his ultimate goal being to salvage Rapture’s advanced technology for profit.

Most interesting however was the fact that even the antagonists leading their respective ideals were opposites even in their relation to their ideals. Right to the very end Andrew Ryan wholeheartedly believed that was he was doing was right. Lamb on the other hand was a manipulator, possibly an even bigger monster than Ryan had ever been. Despite her collectivist dogma and ideology she cared even less for those who followed her and sacrificed them to further her goals. While, as mentioned before, she might have hated Delta for what he represented it had less to do with her ideology and more her direct opposition to him.

Her role is best exemplified by how she behaves in the final act of the game. Frequently she refers to trying to distance herself from Eleanor as much as possible, trying to limit her role in the girl’s development in every way imaginable so she can be shaped into what she wants. It’s made clear that even if there is some connection between the two she’s ultimately using her daughter to further her own ambitions. When you look at her multiple arguments against Delta however, she refers to him stealing her daughter, only using her as a method towards his own ends and even trying to convince Eleanor to come back to her claiming that she loves her.

Lamb will claim one thing when she wants something entirely differently, changing her messages to as and what she needs at that moment. Frequently contradicting herself and performs the very acts that she scolds Delta for doing. This is taken even further in many of the backgrounds such as when she begins stealing children from the surface in order to maintain the city’s supply of Little Sisters. Yet at the same time she calls Delta’s own supposed act of stealing her daughter as something deplorable.

The reason this helps to exemplify how she behaves, and is so important to how the game differs from its predecessor, is that these acts show how paper thin her beliefs, reasoning and decisions are. Hell, in one audiobook you learn that the very reason she came to Rapture in the first place was because she believed that others were corrupting her collectivist ideals by becoming a part of it, removing her control. It makes her a very different villain from Ryan but the way in which she is presented, peeling away the veneer of honesty as you trudge through Rapture’s flooded districts, makes her a more compelling villain. One who has more secrets to reveal and more of a history to analyse than Ryan offered.

As you might expect, Lamb is closer to what Atlas/Fontaine was despite her vastly different goals to him. Both were manipulating others for their own benefit, making use of Ryan’s mistakes and emphasising upon the downtrodden and lost in Rapture. Both claimed to be backing highly idealistic points of view and serving some overall greater good which was of no benefit to themselves, when the exact opposite was true. They were simply taking advantage of a lie to put themselves in positions of power. The difference here is that the idea of this is explored in vastly more depth because of the lack of the previous mentioned plot twist which limited many aspects of the original Bioshock’s plot.

Environments and Decay
If there is one thing which has always defined Bioshock it’s the game’s setting. Perhaps even more so than the plasmids and politically charged story about extremism. The look of Rapture in its dystopian crumbling appearance, slowly flooding as it collapses around you has become extremely identifiable with the games. No sooner than a promotional art piece features decayed futurist 1950s architecture, with all its mixture of chrome, silver, grime and fractures, you automatically know it’s representing Bioshock. The actual architecture itself has been seen to represent the story in many respects. While this might seem obvious, looking at the game you can see reflections of plot twists or overarching themes in even the smallest of details. I’m not just talking about the posters saying things like “Who is Atlas?” either.

Sticking with the original for a moment, think about what the plot was and then the exact details of the setting. The story depicted the endgame of a conflict between two powerful figures fighting over the remains of a powerful empire, having manipulated, fought and politicked their way into the situation they are in. They themselves have degenerated and fallen as the war has worn on and you see that reflected within the splicers themselves, reduced to shambling mockeries of humans. When you first encounter the city, walking in from the Bathysphere and start looking around you see the remnants of what was once a place of grandeur very clearly. The location you start in also being a place of rediscovery and of beginnings, set in the exact place where people were celebrating when the Rapture Civil War began. As you similarly advance through the story and begin discovering the flaws within the society, how it failed due to the philosophical issues and the introduction of plasmids, that grandeur slowly disappears. Fading more and more into the background as you begin to understand what at first looked like a marvel was always a dystopia rotten from within.

Bioshock 2 meanwhile has a very different plot but it sticks with this. The locations you see are decrepit and run down, to the point where barely any power works and rooms are greyer than the average modern military FPS. Any of Rapture’s faded glory is all but gone and the few elements of colour originate from the sea-life and incursions of coral now growing within it, with the occasional new element which has been introduced through Lamb’s reign. As well as feeling like a direct continuation of what came before, this represents the overall endgame of the plot and Lamb’s ambition: To have the remains of Rapture serve as a womb, a spawning ground for something new born of the old mistakes of the past before discarding the city entirely. Namely Eleanor. The few moments where you see the remains of Rapture’s might and beauty are reserved for when you encounter Lamb’s lieutenants and elements of her power structure. Something which helps to emphasise upon the hypocrisy behind her movement, with the Family’s leaders living in comparative luxury to those they lead.

One interesting detail is that Rapture is far more visibly presented as being all but dead. Along with the greater level of decay present within the environments, you frequently see Rapture’s exterior as Delta and travel through the city’s flooded areas where every occupant within the district has drowned. It helps to further emphasise upon how far the city has fallen and the fact the metropolis is literally on the brink of death, only being kept alive so long as Lamb desires it. Something especially enforced when one of the aforementioned flooded areas is intentionally destroyed by Lamb to prove a point to you.

The state of the environment also later on ties into the game’s secondary plot involving the abducted children when you see things from the perspective of a Little Sister. Viewing Rapture as some glorious palace as they have been conditioned to do so and serves as a stark contrast to the dilapidated ruin you have seen until now. Something which serves to both reflect upon your moral choices as well as some of the true horror behind the conditioning the children are put through prior to being turned into ADAM gatherers.

It’s clear that the game relies heavily upon the ground broken by its predecessor for the basis of many of its points, Bioshock 2 is far from unnecessary to the series. While, as mentioned, many themes were present in the original through the involvement of Atlas they were not utilised so clearly or heavily as here. They were never able to compare with the much more dominant examination of Ryan’s viewpoint of the world. It ultimately served to fill in the gaps of what had been left in the original title’s storyline and to bring about an example of how extremism simply doesn’t work from either political perspective.

What it didn’t simply build upon, the game visibly improved. The aforementioned morality system is a core example of this offering a far more varied and dynamic experience than what had been seen in the first game. In many respects it helped to combat a major criticism of the original in that you were either purely good or purely evil, you couldn’t have any other outcome due to your only choices being to save or sacrifice the Little Sisters. Of course the multiple endings also helped.

With the release of Bioshock Infinite it seems like the series creators will be taking these concepts further. The same moral issues and examination of extremism being present within the title’s plot, along with the idea of an isolated dystopia left to its own devices and permitted to crumble from within. Hopefully, if you were one of those who considered Bioshock 2 to be an inferior remake of the first game, this retrospective will have convinced you to give it another chance.


Bioshock and all related characters and media are owned by 2k Games.

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