The Sublime Bioshock 2

Bioshock 2 is the best Bioshock. It has the best gameplay and story, yes, but it also is the best at being Bioshock. Bioshock games share a fundamental DNA. A lighthouse, a man, a city — okay, sure, but it’s more than such a banal recitation of symbols. Bioshock is about extreme philosophy, parenthood, and the subversion of flesh, mind, and environment. Bioshock 2 is the purest instance of this formula.

I’ll be discussing Bioshock, Bioshock 2, and Bioshock: Infinite. I won’t be discussing DLC/expansion packs, although Minerva’s Den is excellent and Burial at Sea is impressive if eventually disappointing.

There will be spoilers.

Origins and Motifs

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The Bioshock series is, in essence, a continuation of the System Shock series. System Shock presents a space station ruled by a powerful and amoral artificial intelligence, SHODAN, obsessed with cybernetic divinity; you, a cyborg hacker and her accidental creator, must unmake her and save the world. System Shock 2 flips this: SHODAN implants the protagonist with cybernetics in order for him to help her destroy her own creation, the Many, a fleshwarping collective organism that seeks togetherness above all else.

This is the core of Bioshock. No longer cyberpunk, but biopunk, exploring class and social disruption through the reshaping of flesh. The struggle between creator and created, parent and child: the conflicting desires to nurture and control. And philosophy taken to extremes, hurtling through reductio ad absurdum and on beyond strawman.

Bioshock presents Andrew Ryan, a preposterous Objectivist capable of worse hypocrisy than even Rand herself. He has created Rapture, an underwater city of intellectual ideals and independence burdened with the unfortunate necessity of a working class. As the citizens of Rapture transform their bodies with mutagenic Plasmids, they fracture politically and Ryan’s baby collapses. Rapture is now populated by the mutated Splicers, the mutagen-harvesting Little Sisters, and the Sisters’ Big Daddy protectors. The protagonist, secretly Ryan’s son, is brought to Rapture by the dissidents where he kills Ryan and his political opponent.

Bioshock 2 takes place eight years later, when Rapture is ruled by collectivist Sophia Lamb and her Rapture Family of splicers along with the newly-created Big Sisters, adolescent Little Sisters with the power of Big Daddies. The protagonist is Delta, a surface interloper turned prototype Big Daddy, in search of his assigned Little Sister Eleanor who is actually Lamb’s daughter. If he is away from Eleanor for too long he will fall into a coma, and Lamb is trying to transform Eleanor into an all-powerful gestalt being. When Lamb brings Eleanor to the brink of death, Delta weakens and has to walk in the shoes of a Little Sister to let Eleanor become a Big Sister and eventually foil Lamb’s plans. Delta eventually dies, but Eleanor’s perspective is shaped by her telepathic visions of Delta’s quest and she may even absorb his mind into herself as he dies so that he guides her always.

Bioshock: Infinite occurs in a different world where Zachary Hale Comstock, leader of the hyper-nationalist racist Christian group the Founders, created the flying city of Columbia with the help of radical physicist Rosalind Lutece. The protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is an alternate-universe counterpart to Comstock who had the daughter Comstock couldn’t. Comstock purchases the daughter by paying off DeWitt’s gambling debts, renames her Elizabeth, and eventually discovers she has the power to open Tears to other universes. Meanwhile, Lutece and her alternate-universe counterpart become unstuck from reality and recruit the amnesiac DeWitt to rescue Elizabeth. In the midst of a bloody racial and classist rebellion by the Vox Populi (led by the rebellious and child-killing slave Daisy Fitzroy), DeWitt rescues Elizabeth and kills Comstock before Elizabeth reveals the truth about their shared history and kills him, or a past version of him, to prevent the events of the game from ever happening. It’s all very cryptic and mysterious near the end.

Extreme Philosophy

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All Bioshock games present ridiculous strawmen for the philosophies they purport to criticize. In part, this makes the game’s dilemmas feel more compelling. If the games were to hew too closely to their source material, they would fall frighteningly close to the commercial wasteland that is political commentary. But in order to make the arguments even slightly credible, the “villainous” philosophy’s opponents must be equivalently overblown and there must be some grain of sympathy in the villain’s perspective.

Thus, the response to the Bioshock portrayal of Philosophy X is “yes, but Philosophy X isn’t as bad as that.” Andrew Ryan’s totalitarian acts aren’t consistent with Objectivism. Sofia Lamb’s degenerate family-cult isn’t something a transhumanist collectivist would seek. Racists… well, the racist society of Columbia is credible if overblown, but the eventual villainy of the Vox Populi is anachronistic and ahistorical. In this sense, they serve as ironic arguments for their purported villainous philosophies, providing opportunities to explain those philosophies’ merits. In order to present an interesting moral dilemma, both Scylla and Charybdis must be portrayed as monstrous… but also as tempting.

Except that only Bioshock 2 makes this argument with genuinely sympathetic perspectives. In the world of Rapture, giving structure and control to the splicers is a genuinely noble goal, and Lamb’s drastic methods are at least in proportion with the situation. Ryan was already controlling the splicers through pheremones in the air supply; Lamb is just giving them agency in their own subjugation. Additionally, egalitarian collectivism is a generally well-meaning philosophy, in contrast with Bioshock‘s isolationist totalitarian Objectivism and Infinite‘s irrational racism and child-killing. Ryan is a rich dude trying to make rich folks richer, Comstock is a racist trying to rule the world, and Fitzroy is a fanatic murderer masquerading as a revolutionary. Lamb, on the other hand, is a doctor trying to heal a broken world with suspect methods.

Sophia Lamb cares. Ryan is a man with power fond of a philosophy which justifies and excuses his own privilege. Comstock is driven by monstrous guilt and Fitzroy by justified but unbridled rage. Lamb genuinely believes in her selfless quest. She is the best psychologist Rapture could find, so dedicated to eradicating the ego that she indulges her own desires for power by manipulating poker games so that the poorest player wins.

The other Bioshock games present philosophies of abuse and ask you to lend them credibility. Bioshock 2 hands you apparently-nurturing altruism and asks you to see the darkness in it. Not only is that more interesting but it’s also more ethical.

Parenthood

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Most covers of Bioshock depict a Big Daddy, often with a Little Sister. This is true of all Bioshock 2 covers. Infinite depicts the focal white dude, but its plot revolves around his secret fatherhood and his counterpart’s purchase of his daughter. The Big Daddy (and its caretaking counterpart the Songbird) is the most prominent icon of the series. Parenthood, whether artificial or biological, is at the core of the games.

Only one of them lets you act as a parent throughout the game.

Bioshock casts you as the prodigal and oedipal son, killing Big Daddies, your own father, and his rival, rescuing the girls under their questionable care (you briefly pose as a Big Daddy, but it’s in the service of a larger goal). Infinite keeps your fatherhood a secret, and Elizabeth acts more as a partner than as a charge. In Bioshock 2, though, you are a Big Daddy, nicer than other daddies, in search of your surrogate daughter. You steal Little Sisters from other Daddies as in the first game, but in this one you give them piggyback rides and protect them from enemies as they gather the mutagen ADAM.

This thematic prominence pervades the game. Lamb is motivated by parenthood, and you recover recordings that tell the story of Eleanor’s childhood. Over the course of the game you find a series of recordings chronicling another father searching for his daughter. The secondary characters in the game are the creator of the Little Sisters, the creator of Delta, Eleanor’s surrogate mother, Eleanor’s kidnapper, and a religious “Father.” There is only one notable character without a parental or anti-parental role.

Most compelling is the fact that the ethical choices you make in Bioshock 2 serve a parental purpose. In Bioshock you can choose to “harvest” or “rescue” Little Sisters; killing them gets you a bit more resources but makes people cross with you. In Infinite you’re presented with occasional decision points, but they mostly exist to refute the existence of choice. In Bioshock 2, however, your choices shape the kind of person Eleanor becomes.

If you kill Little Sisters, Eleanor is a bitter and cruel young woman. If you save them, she is caring and kind. If you kill major helpless enemies, she lets her mother die. If you spare them, she saves Lamb’s life. Eleanor has agency throughout the game, but as her father you guide her ethical self. And, in the end, when you die, you can choose if she escapes your influence or keeps your wisdom with her beyond your death.

In both the mechanics and the story, Bioshock 2 explores the themes of parenthood and parental responsibility up close. The other games toy with them, but Bioshock 2 explores them in depth.

Subversion of Being

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While cyberpunk is about subversion of an interconnected society, biopunk is about subversion of society in which flesh and thought are fluid. How do you maintain social stratification when ESP is a gene splice away? How do you screen terrorists for weapons when their very blood can kill? How do you know what is real when lies can be told in chemicals that sabotage your own senses?

Bioshock dives into biopunk, showing a world populated by crazed splicers, addicts driven to madness and depravity by their own urges and Ryan’s disorienting pheromones pumped into the air supply. Power is derived from blood, filtered through slugs implanted in the stomach of little girls who are protected by modern-promethean golems of flesh. By the end of the game, the protagonist Jack will have been mind-controlled with a hypnotic trigger phrase, temporarily lost control of his own strange abilities, and killed a silly glowing dude.

Bioshock does biopunk well. But Bioshock 2 goes all in. Its act of mind-control isn’t a second-act twist; it’s in the opening cutscene, accomplished not through elaborate machinations but through a simple plasmid. You begin as a fleshwarped thing, a prototype golem, seeking a little girl turned into a mutagen factory. While Jack’s plasmids just emerged from his skin, Delta is gifted with new orifices, pouring forth bees and fire and strange polyps from his palm sphincters. You even see the end result of rampant splicing: the titanic and exhuman Gil Alexander.

Transformation of Habitat

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The most subversive element of the second game’s biopunk, however, is by mutating the city of Rapture itself. In Bioshock Rapture was always leaking but never really breaking: a funhouse version of an undersea ruin. Infinite‘s Columbia is a whirring automaton city, never real and never convincing. Bioshock 2 recognizes what Rapture really is: a cancerous being with veins and lungs and a space outside its skin. Over the course of the game, you flood some areas and drain others, walk on the sea floor and see it from the outside, and in the end witness the death or amputation of the neighborhood of Persephone. In the game’s most disorienting sequence you see a hallucination of an ascended, heavenly Rapture through the brainwashed eyes of a Little Sister.

This subversion of environment isn’t limited to plot points. The other Bioshock games let you take advantage of environmental elements: you can shock enemies standing in pools of water or light oil slicks on fire. However, they encourage you to explore and progress past these sites, using them once, or maybe twice if backtracking. Likewise, you can plant traps but only in the service of a bit of preparation for a big fight. Bioshock 2, however, makes you gather. And gathering means taking a space and turning it to your own ends.

Scattered through the game are special “angel” corpses, several in each area. To get optimal ADAM to upgrade your abilities, you have to take a Little Sister there and protect her in that one spot while waves of enemies attack. Beyond the parenthood metaphor, this serves as a way for you to use your reshaped biology to reshape your ecology. Gathering is dangerous, so it’s best to wait until you’ve cleared the area. You explore, make the place a safe home, and then weaponize it. Booby traps, pet turrets, and tripwires let you sculpt the environment. You’ve had time to explore and understand the pools of water and oil and how to use them to draw tears and blood. Instead of using them opportunistically, you make them part of your defense plans. And then you trigger the onslaught.

Your home becomes a hunter’s blind, which quickly turns into a slaughterhouse. You arranged the party decorations and then turned the guests into crops. You gain ADAM, but you also get ammo, money, and other resources from the bodies of those who try to steal your Little Sister. This interaction of resources blurs the line between person and purse and the border between world and womb. Lamb’s family, already fuzzy on the concept of identity, is transformed into your personal power.

Termination

Bioshock 2 succeeds at its creative goals far better than its counterparts. It expresses its themes better, through mechanics, narrative, and setting. Its philosophical dilemma is more compelling and more ethical, its parental motifs and musings are more direct and extensive, and its exploration of biopunk delves both deeper and more broadly than in the other games.

Why, then, does it get less attention than the others? Maybe it’s simply the fate of the middle child: neither groundbreaker nor remake, it’s an evolution of the first without bringing in obvious new conceptual blood. It also lacks That Moment. Bioshock‘s “Would You Kindly/A Man Chooses” speech and Infinite‘s “A lighthouse, a man, a city” lecture, coupled with their respective reveals of mind control and parenthood, pack memorable twists that recontextualize their stories even if they don’t particularly advance them. Bioshock 2‘s only real comparable moments are Lamb’s betrayal and smothering of Eleanor and your journey as a Little Sister. Neither are twists. They may provide character-focused plot advancement, but they don’t have the visceral (and, I’d say, more immature) whiplash impact of the other games’ Moments.

Bioshock 2 is, however, sublime. There is little about it which could be improved. It is the pinnacle of the series. If you want to get the full impact of Bioshock as an entity, you must inhabit the Big Daddy.

Or maybe you disagree. I won’t hold it against you. As Eleanor Lamb says in the best game of the series, “Love is just a chemical, no matter the origin. We give it meaning by choice.”

What would you choose?

Images courtesy Mobygames.com

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3 thoughts on “The Sublime Bioshock 2

  1. You have a good point here. I love the first two games, and Infinite wasn’t too bad, but there’s something special about the second one. The big daddys and little sisters are really interesting and I love them, so stepping into the giant boots of Delta is perfect for me as a fan but also as a way to tell the story. Your character is actually a part of Rapture. Great stuff.

  2. I’d disagree here because I didn’t find the most compelling aspect of any of the games to be the extreme philosophies of the villains. To me, they simply served the purpose of making a villain that’s at least more complex than “just evil” in a way that also serves as world-building. Bioshock 1 is the Objectivist one, Bioshock 2 is the collectivist one, and Bioshock Infinite is the nationalistic one. For me those are just the almost superficial descriptors since they criticism thereof is so superficial; they serve as an interesting backdrop, not much more.

    What I found compelling in 1 and Infinite was the manipulation of player agency and player character as player avatar (the A Man Chooses/A Slave Obeys and the Cage and the Bird, and all that jazz). That element—I felt— was missing in 2.

    I definitely agree that 2 is a far more “solid” game than 1 or Infinite. It better succeeds in the basic narrative structure with a sympathetic villain, a more interesting landscape, and better pacing, but I don’t find that particularly memorable. It just felt flatter, going through the motions of aping Bioshock 1 with greater technical aptitude. (Admittedly, the guns were cooler too)

  3. I think a major problem with Bioshock 1, Bioshock Infinite, and System Shock 2 is Ken Levine’s evident addiction to shocking twists, and his preference for them over substantially exploring the ideas he presents: instead of creating an interesting story and working out the implications of the central technology of the story (FTL travel in SS2, plasmids/tonics in BS1 and BSI, underwater living in BS1, antigravity and time/dimension travel in BSI), what he does is come up with a twist-laden thriller plot and use a potentially compelling setting as set dressing for it to play out on.

    All three of these games have big twists that are sort-of tied into the setting (AI and space travel in SS2, genetic engineering in BS1, dimensional tears in BSI), but all of them ALSO have major plot holes introduced by their central “gadgets”: in SS2, SHODAN wants to somehow “turn the universe into cyberspace” using a FTL drive (???), and also SHODAN would’ve had to have travelled at a significant fraction of the speed of light to reach the planet she was discovered on (at the end of SS1 she’s ejected aimlessly, and it’s also a miracle that she reached a star system at all, let alone landed on a planet). In BS1, you’re a toddler-aged, growth-accelerated baby-man with conspicuous chain links tattooed on your wrists, who miraculously manages to crash a plane RIGHT NEXT to a tiny island with a lighthouse on it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean- an island that is miraculously unknown to the world at large, even though it has an active lighthouse on it. In BSI, in the ending you kill off all the Booker/Comstocks across all the dimensions- but this is a profoundly awful misuse of the multiple universes idea, as it’d just cause an infinite number of other branch universes to sprout up, each with its own Comstock.

    In contrast, BS2 is the only BioShock game not to be written/designed/produced by Ken Levine, and free from his grip, the writers and designers actually got to explore the world and the ideas in it- so you get to know a Little Sister as an actual character instead of a cute experience boost, you get to see in more detail the implications of splicing, beyond just “splicing makes you a crazy melty-faced jerk!!!”, you get more detail as to Lamb’s ideology than the caricatured talking-point version of Objectivism Ryan espouses, you get to actually go outside Rapture and move around underwater, and see the slugs and stuff.

    (Also, as a side note, SS2 was originally going to be a non-SS game with a plot based on Heart of Darkness, but on a cargo spaceship; it was turned into a SS game later, for branding reasons, and SHODAN is very obviously shoehorned in- it doesn’t make any sense for her to be there, her role could’ve been filled just as well by the shipboard AI, and the final twist where she’s trying to turn the universe into cyberspace is simply a nonsensical excuse to have a boss battle with her.)

    So anyway, I think that BS2 is a great game for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is that it doesn’t have Ken Levine’s ham-handed twist-heavy plots stealing the spotlight from the actual ideas and philosophies and characters in the game.

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