Warning: This piece contains massive spoilers for the Bioshock series and System Shock 2.
"Would you kindly?"
These three words, more than any other, define the world of Rapture. When their meaning was explained two-thirds of the way through Bioshock by who the player assumed to be the main antagonist, these words - and the scene they were placed in - resonated in a way rarely seen in videogames. It almost defines Bioshock.
Conversely, Bioshock 2 has no such watercooler moment. There are no especially quotable phrases, and very few stand-out scenes. It came and went with little fanfare, relegated to the background as a cash-in sequel by players that loved the first game. For many, it's the worst game in the Bioshock series, and barely notable as a shooter.
It's a shame, because Bioshock 2 is deceptively excellent, and far superior to its kin.
Bioshock was the pet project of Ken Levine, a legendary designer whose credits include Thief, Freedom Force, and System Shock 2. The last of this list is important, as it is the game that Bioshock is modeled after; in the lead-up to Bioshock's release, everyone was told that it would be the spiritual sequel.
System Shock 2 follows an security officer as they move their way through a ship full of hostile mutants and robots. Along the way they scavenge for items - from mundane candy bars to experimental energy weapons - and learn more about the predicament facing the Von Braun. Pretty standard videogame fare.
However, much like Bioshock, System Shock 2 has a pretty major twist partway through the game. Upon reaching the quarters where your radio partner has been staying the entire time, you find her dead. Her viewscreens flicker on, and the face of the game's main antagonist, SHODAN, dominate the player's view. She then gives one of the most memorable, disturbing, and erotic speeches in the history of games.
Look at you, hacker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect immortal machine?
If this looks familiar, it's because it's almost exactly the same as Bioshock's big reveal. You have been betrayed by the person on the radio. You were tricked, maybe even brainwashed. And you have no other choice but to keep going. It is the most distinctive event of System Shock 2.
Can you name any other major characters besides SHODAN, though? Or major events? Can you name any of the locations of the Von Braun? Probably not. This isn't because System Shock 2 is bad, but because it suffers from a problem of life. The people are not fully realized. They are archetypes designed to ferry you forward rather than provide you with anything interesting to chew on.
This is a pretty common problem in Ken Levine games. Levine has a tendency to focus on high-concept work, like big set pieces, grandiose plots, and larger-than-life people. It's both a blessing and a curse; his games are extremely memorable, but very few of his characters could ever be considered relatable or nuanced.
High Concepts and Real People
Case in point: the two leaders of Rapture.
Andrew Ryan is a fiery orator and commanding leader, whose devotion to objectivism inspires him to build an underwater city and populate it with geniuses from around the world. It is precisely this devotion that ends up becoming his downfall, as he is too focused on the black and white - government versus private citizens - that he loses track of the grey - criminals, con men, and other people of ill repute.
Conversely, Sophia Lamb is quiet and dignified, even as she raises her voice and commands hordes of Splicers to murder you. Her city, the reformed Rapture, is collectivist and focused on the greater good. However, much like Andrew Ryan, she overlooks the obvious - that she should be a decent mother to her child - in pursuit of an ultimately futile and self-destructive plan. The reformer is shown to be at least as destructive and egomaniacal as that which she reforms, and Rapture is left in ruins afterward.
Where Bioshock lacks character nuance for Ryan - he's just some puffed up industrialist - Sophia Lamb is a much more relatable figure. She clearly cares about people and wants to do right by them. She cares about her child, in a fashion. She strives to make Rapture orderly and connected. Where Ryan's goal was fundamentally one of unchecked greed and egomania, Sophia's goal is much more conflicted, and that makes her more interesting. Here is the mother that gave up her daughter for the sake of the world.
Free Will and Utopianism
We are told throughout Bioshock 2 that in becoming mother to utopia, Sophia must sacrifice her only daughter, Eleanor, to the cause. She is the herald of utopia because she can hold within her all the genius of Rapture, and in doing so become so intelligent and compassionate that she can strip humans of the quality that causes them the most suffering: free will.
The irony of Sophia Lamb's goal is that Rapture is already a utopia. The Splicers, Big Daddies, and Little Sisters form a functional ecosystem that operates invisibly and effectively, with little thought beyond the animalistic on both sides. There is no capacity for cruelty because cruelty requires conscious thought, and there are no truly conscious people in Rapture, except for the few remaining unspliced humans.
This animalism is directed and focused at the player by each game's primary antagonists, but its irony is only truly shown in BioShock 2. By attempting to build her ideal utopia and direct its forces outward, Sophia Lamb damns her great experiment to failure. The only true utopianism, Bioshock 2 tells us both explicitly and implicitly, is that which strips people of their capacity to be people. Only then will they set aside their ego and lose the ability to be cruel.
The Death of Ego
This death of the ego is both personified and subverted in Subject Delta. Much like the protagonist of Bioshock, Jack, Delta is little more than a tool of the player, his actions confined. Indeed, Sophia echoes Ryan when she mocks Delta for pursuing Eleanor, asking him if he is really in control or if he is simply operating on the instinct planted into him by others.
Delta's complicated relationship with ego is one of the driving forces behind his character, but we are not privy to those struggles. Instead, they are expressed externally, primarily through Sophia's mocking. While she derides Delta for having no purpose in the wake of his conversion and death, she also comments on how ego is destructive and painful, and how only those without ego can be truly free. Delta, as a character that sits somewhere in the middle between free will and fate, shows just how Sophia's jealousy and anger has corrupted her idealism, as she insults him for living in the very state she wishes to subject everyone to.
While berating Delta, Sophia often favorably talks about Jack, the first game's protagonist. However, where Jack's actions were dictated by the antagonists, Delta is relatively free to enact his own vision of Rapture. The conflict between Ryan and Fontaine defines Jack's entire being, to the point that the major events of Bioshock (the Ryan confrontation, the Fontaine fight) always play out in the exact same way. Delta, however, is a free agent; while he has no ego, he also has no handler, except perhaps the friendly Sinclair. He is a blank slate, a way for Rapture to stand in judgement of itself.
Life and Judgement
The three people you encounter in your quest for Eleanor - Holloway, Poole, and Alexander - represent three distinct moral challenges for Delta to stand in judgement over. In doing so, he shows his capability to makes choices based on events that happen in the past, present, and future, providing a guiding compass for Eleanor to follow.
Holloway, Eleanor's nanny, represents the present. Her previous encounter with Delta was one-sided - he broke her bones when she attempted to take Eleanor away - but now she has the power to exact vengeance, and does. Delta has no reason to hate Holloway until she starts her attempts to kill him, and as such must base judgement on what Holloway is doing, not what she did. Do you see the kind nanny, or the vengeful general?
Poole, Eleanor's betrayer, represents the past. His actions negatively affected both Eleanor and Delta; he is responsible for their pairing and conversion. Despite this, he does nothing but help them when given the opportunity, primarily so he can bury the evidence of his misdeeds. Once Delta finds out, the dilemma is again which person to see. Do you see the weasel-faced liar of the past, or the terrified man of the present?
Alexander, Eleanor's prototype and the final moral choice, represents the future. He is what Eleanor could potentially become. He knows his fate, though, and leaves messages to the future to aid in his death, saying that it would be better to die than live as a monster. Once again, we are asked to judge Alexander, and by extension Eleanor's future. Do we see a tortured and broken man whose last wishes should be carried out, or a new organism that wants desperately to be left alone to live? Do we see a future for Eleanor, or nothing but suffering?
This past-present-future triad, as we are told at the end of the game, provides Eleanor with the moral rubric she needs to re-enter the world. By showing forgiveness despite the aggression of others, Delta shows Eleanor that people can be redeemed, no matter how dangerous or troubled they were before. Conversely, by showing vengeance and violence, Delta shows Eleanor that people must be held accountable for the suffering they cause, no matter when it happened or will happen.
These moral choices, combined with the normal harvest-rescue dichotomy and the overarching Sophia Lamb plot, provide Bioshock 2 with a sense of emotional reality that Bioshock doesn't have. Bioshock is about the futility of choice; Bioshock 2 is about its importance.
Nuance Over Melodrama
In a world where the grandiose is celebrated over the quiet, where melodrama is appreciated more than subtlety, it's no wonder that Bioshock 2 is held in less regard than its predecessor. It's a story that has a lot to say on the topics of family, ego, ideology, and even history, but it doesn't talk about those things in as dramatic a way as Bioshock does.
2K Marin took a broken city, a naive city, and crafted a game that explored that world's effect on the people who live there. They took the aesthetically-pleasing but ultimately empty world of Bioshock and turned it into a place that has real, understandable people, not cartoon supervillains. They made Rapture believable. Real.
So let's celebrate the triumph of Bioshock 2. Let's celebrate how it brought a high concept series down to reality, even if only for a single installment.
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